Whereas Marcus Mosiah Garvey is generally regarded to be the face of Pan-Africanism, Edward Wilmot Blyden is one of the forgotten figures whose shoulders he stood on.
“Blyden wanted to build an African empire that would be a shining star for Africans everywhere, not just on the Continent,” explained Dr. James Conyers, director of Afrikana Studies at Kean University. “He saw all Africans as one.”
Although Garvey often made reference to Blyden as being one of his integral inspirations to globally organize Africans, his name is hardly mentioned when homage is paid to pioneering Pan-Africans. Garvey himself suggested, “You who do not know anything of your ancestry will do well to read the works of Blyden, one of our historians and chroniclers, who has done so much to retrieve the lost prestige of the race!”
Blyden was born Aug. 3, 1832, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, spending his formative years there. He migrated to the U.S. in May 1850 and was denied enrollment in Rutgers University’s theological program because of his dark complexion. The following year he relocated to Alkebulan (Africa), settling in Liberia.
“His views encompassed the entirety of African history and culture, in terms of his redemption,” Conyers said.
Blyden edited the Liberia Herald and wrote one of his first major works while there in 1856, “A Voice From Bleeding Africa.” Eventually Blyden became ambassador to Britain and France for Liberia, and then continued his journalistic journey in Nigeria and Sierra Leone for newspaper publications in both colonized countries.
The erudite liberator became a professor at Liberia College, remaining there until 1871, returning in 1880 to serve as president for four more years. Between his teaching duties, from 1864 to 1866, Blyden was also Liberia’s secretary of state and returned as minister of the Interior from 1880 to 1882.
“Blyden said that the type of education Africans should receive is the type that brings the African mind closer to itself rather than take the African mind away from itself, and what he was referring to was the type of European, Christian education Africans had been receiving that distorted their minds,” Conyers said. “He also believed that education was not solely the province of men, that the African women should be as equally educated as the man.”
After leaving Liberia College, he relocated to Freetown, Sierra Leone and edited West Africa’s first Pan-African journal, Negro. Blyden wrote regularly, notably for The Lagos Weekly Record, The Sierra Leone News, which he helped establish in 1884 “to serve the interest of West Africa … and the race generally,” and The Freetown West African Reporter, which he also founded with the declared aim to “forge a bond of unity among English-speaking West Africans.”
Blyden was known more as an intellectual than as the typical grassroots freedom-fighter, and he wore many different hats. Along with being an educator, statesman and writer he also held positions of leadership in politics and diplomacy. Recognized as one of the greatest African minds of the 19th century, he was an ardent advocate of African primacy.
“If you look at the philosophies of W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, you will see elements of all three in the philosophy and world view of Blyden, before any of them were even born,” Conyers noted.
Blyden is credited with more than two dozen writings, including “The Negro in Ancient History” (1869), “West Africa Before Europe” (1905) and his signature piece, “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.” (1887).
In his writings he attempted to prove the significant contributions Africans have made to civilization.
“Dr. John Henrick Clarke used to say that Blyden was so far ahead of his time, that he was ahead of our time, and we haven’t caught up with him yet,” said Conyers.
Blyden continued his efforts to restore Africa to its rightful place until he transitioned Feb. 7, 1912, in Sierra Leone, where he was interred.
“It is now recognized on all hands that the usefulness, true progress and happiness of the African, and the success of the European in Africa, depends largely, if not entirely, upon the accurate knowledge on the part of the latter of the people and country which he is attempting to exploit,” Blyden wrote in “African Life and Customs.”