The imperial African

By Daniel Whittall

Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa, and the African Diaspora, by Marika Sherwood
(Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-87959-0, 354 pp)

Henry Sylvester Williams

Henry Sylvester Williams

In January 1976, at an address to the First Congress of All African Writers in Senegal, C.L.R. James discussed the past, present, and future of pan-African conferences and congresses. Looking back to the inaugural conference of 1900, James insisted on the importance of understanding this event as emerging out of a particular historical conjuncture. In James’s own words, “It was not that someone sat down one day and said, ‘Let me form a Pan-African Movement’”:

There was something going on. There were various changes in the world and many people were taking part . . . These Pan-African congresses all have their particular place in a particular history.

James’s insistence on the importance of placing the emergence of the 1900 Pan-African Conference within a wider historical context is essential for any attempt to grapple with the historical legacy of Henry Sylvester Williams, one of the leading figures behind this event. Williams has been the subject of two previous biographies, by Owen Mathurin and James Hooker, both now long out of print. In Origins of Pan-Africanism, Marika Sherwood has provided the most complete inventory to date of Williams’s life. Her meticulously researched book enables us to look again at Williams’s career, and to situate it within the wider contexts of imperial politics and pan-Africanism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sherwood has been hampered by the disappearance of some of Williams’s personal papers in the years since the earlier biographies were produced, though she puts to good use references contained within Mathurin and Hooker’s biographies. She has also uncovered much original material not used by the earlier biographers. For example, using Williams’s newly found birth registration documents, Sherwood reports that Williams was born not in Trinidad, as both Hooker and Mathurin had suggested, but in Barbados. His parents — Henry Bishop Williams, a wheelwright, and Elizabeth Williams, about whom little is known — moved the family to Trinidad at an unknown date, though early in Henry’s life. Here Williams, one of six children, trained as a teacher and came into contact with the local Temperance Movement. By 1887, Williams was teaching in Port of Spain, and in the following years he taught at several schools around Trinidad.

At some point in the early 1890s, Williams moved to North America. Documentary evidence for this period of his life is patchy, but Sherwood does a good job of reconstructing what little we can know, particularly of Williams’s time studying law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By 1896 (possibly earlier), Williams had moved to London, again studying law, this time in evening classes at King’s College. By 1897 he was enrolled at Gray’s Inn to qualify for the legal profession, joining a small group of five or six African and fellow Caribbean students at this institution.

During his early years in England, Williams lectured to the Church of England Temperance Society, as well as to other groups including the National Thrift Society, in part to help earn his keep. Through the Temperance Society, Williams met Agnes Powell, daughter of Major Francis Powell, a retired Royal Marine who had risen through the ranks to officer status. By 1898, Williams and Powell were married, and in 1899 they had their first child, Henry Francis Sylvester. Drawing on the earlier work of Mathurin, Sherwood suggests that while Powell’s mother and brother supported the marriage, her father Major Powell refused to give his consent. Despite this opposition, the Williamses seem to have lived a happy life together, raising a total of four children.

While the late 1890s were an important time in Williams’s personal life, viewed from today’s perspective they are undoubtedly most important for the developments which occurred in his political life. During the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Williams met with Emmanuel Lazare, a Trinidadian military officer and childhood friend. Among other things, Lazare mentioned to Williams the name of a South African woman, Mrs A.V. Kinloch, whom Lazare had heard discuss the “oppression of the natives” in Africa at a meeting of the Writers’ Club in London. Williams himself made the acquaintance of Kinloch shortly thereafter, while lecturing for the Temperance Society in Birmingham. She had by now become a feature of the British lecturing circuit, touring Britain on behalf of the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), speaking in particular about South Africa.

As well as Kinloch, Williams met a number of other important figures in these years. Through his legal career, he met Thomas J. Thompson of Sierra Leone, a fellow student at Gray’s Inn, as well as Andrew Charles Durham, a Trinidadian solicitor practising in London. He also met the Reverend Henry Mason Joseph, an Antiguan who had moved to London and joined the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man, becoming, in the words of historian Jonathon Schneer, “an important [figure] amongst anti-imperialist African-Caribbeans in the imperial metropolis.”

Together, this grouping established the African Association (AA), probably in September 1897. The AA limited its membership to people of African descent, though others were able to join as honorary members and sympathisers. Williams became secretary of the new organisation, with Joseph as president, Thompson vice president, and Kinloch treasurer. They carried on a vigorous propaganda campaign, holding meetings in London and around Britain. Its leading members also worked hard to strengthen their ties to other organisations in Britain which took an interest in Africa and the West Indies. In particular, Williams corresponded with the APS and the Anti-Slavery Society, keeping them up to date on AA activities and also attending events hosted by these other bodies. Williams seems to have travelled around Britain on public speaking tours, and also corresponded with prominent figures overseas, including Booker T. Washington in the United States. Indeed, when Washington visited London in 1899, Sherwood tells us, he attended an AA meeting, reporting back to the American press that he was impressed by “the strong intellectual mould which many of these Africans and West Indians [in the AA] possess.” Prominent figures, such as the editor of the New Age, A.E. Fletcher, addressed AA meetings, and their events were publicised by newspapers in the British colonies.

Undoubtedly, the high point of the AA’s activities was their organising of the Pan-African Conference, held in London’s Westminster Town Hall in July 1900, timed to fit in with the World Christian Endeavour Conference in London and the Paris Universal Exposition, both of which were expected to bring Africans and West Indians to Europe’s metropolitan centres. During the conference it was announced that the AA had renamed itself the Pan-African Association. Most famous now for W.E.B. Du Bois’s assertion, in his talk entitled “To the Nations of the World”, that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line,” the conference in fact enlisted a diverse array of speakers, covering topics ranging from race relations in Southern Africa and the US to more general discussions of the role of race in the modern world. At least two speakers, C.W. French from St Kitts and R.E. Phipps of Trinidad, spoke directly about the West Indies, and a representative of Edinburgh’s Afro-West Indian Literary Society also gave an address. Among the attendees was the remarkable British woman Catherine Impey, founder in the late nineteenth century of one of the earliest known anti-racist periodicals in Britain, Anti-Caste, and associate of another important late-nineteenth-century West Indian in Britain, Celestine Edwards.

The conference was reported in many British newspapers, including the Times, the Manchester Guardian, Pall Mall Gazette, Glasgow Herald, and Leeds Mercury, as well as in humanitarian periodicals like the Anti-Slavery Reporter. Periodicals circulating in the colonies, such as the African Review, the Lagos Observer, the Demerara Chronicle, and the Port of Spain Gazette, also reported it. Following the conference, resolutions were dispatched around the Empire, and, in a significant gesture towards the inclusive sense of Britishness promoted by many of the conference attendees, a memorial was sent to Queen Victoria. The association also published a short-lived periodical, entitled The Pan-African. In her excellent chapter “Spreading the Word”, Sherwood traces some of the ways the Pan-African Conference was received in the West Indies, and discusses Williams’s tour of the region in 1901. Though perhaps she could have made more of Williams’s links to Robert Love in Jamaica, whose pan-African sensibility would later influence the young Marcus Garvey (as Rupert Lewis reports in his 1987 book Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion), Sherwood’s discussion here throws new light on the relationship between Williams and the West Indies, illustrating that interest in Williams and the Pan-African Association was evident “around the Caribbean,” and tracking the fortunes of some of the nascent Pan-African Associations established in the region in the aftermath of Williams’s visit.

He returned to London between 1901 and 1903, but while Williams was on his tour of the Caribbean the executive committee of the Pan-African Association had closed the organisation down. Sherwood reports that “it has proved impossible to fathom the reasons” for this, though she is able to offer some speculations. Whatever the reasons, it appears that efforts were made to resuscitate the group, though to little avail. Despite this, Williams continued his pan-African activities, publishing in 1902 a pamphlet based on lectures he had given to groups around Britain, The British Negro: A Factor in the Empire. As betrayed by its title, the pamphlet argued for the importance of improving racial relations within the empire, but did so primarily in order to strengthen rather than weaken the empire. Certainly Williams, while critical of aspects of imperial policy, was no anti-imperialist.

Between 1903 and 1904, Williams moved to South Africa, an area which Sherwood describes as having been “central to Williams’s concerns” ever since his discussions about “native races” in the region with Kinloch in Britain. Here, it seems, Williams may have met, among others, the South African nationalist Sol Plaatje. Williams struggled to earn a living as a lawyer in Cape Town in the face of what W.T. Stead, the famous journalist and editor of the Review of Reviews, described as “the bitterest prejudice of the whites, to whom the spectacle of a coloured man practising the law as a barrister appeared something unnatural and abominable.” Stead, with typically British reserve, described Williams as “a man of extraordinary pluck” for his persistence in challenging racial attitudes, and in particular for demonstrating “how hollow a hypocrisy is the so-called equality of rights under the British flag.”

Returning to London in 1905, Williams joined the Liberal Party and the Fabian Society, and also associated himself with a diverse array of other organisations in Britain. In 1906, he was elected a local councillor in the London Borough of Marylebone — one of the earliest black local councillors elected in Britain. Between 1907 and 1908, Williams returned to Africa, this time for a visit to Liberia. Sherwood concurs with previous biographers that Williams may have seriously entertained the thought of emigrating to Liberia, but suggests that he probably discounted the idea because of the difficulties entailed in gaining citizenship of that country for his white wife, Agnes. In the end, the Williams family did move out of London in 1908, but travelled to Trinidad instead. Williams opened two legal offices, one in Port of Spain and the other in San Fernando. He also continued his efforts to remain a public figure, lecturing to a number of groups and societies on the island, including the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association. Little more is known of Williams’s time in Trinidad until his death in 1911, though several obituaries reported that his legal business had become a success. Deprived of an income after her husband’s death, Agnes took to renting out parts of their property and, in an appropriate twist of fate, took in as a boarder H.A. Nurse, father of Malcolm Nurse, better known as the inveterate pan-African agitator George Padmore.

The remarkable list of activities pursued by Williams throughout his life is enough to mark him out as a figure of some historical importance. It is surely something of a historiographical scandal that he continues to be widely neglected. For example, in an otherwise thoroughly detailed recent book on critics of empire in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain, Imperial Sceptics (2010) by Gregory Claeys, there is not a single mention of Williams, nor many of those he was associated with. Disappointing though it is, Claeys’s omission is hardly surprising, with Jonathon Schneer’s London 1900 (1999) being the exception rather than the rule in giving attention to Williams and the African Association in connection with the wider politics of race and empire in Britain at the turn of the century. Sherwood’s book should therefore be celebrated for the detailed historical reconstruction it provides of Williams’s life and times.

That said, although the book details a remarkable amount of empirical material, it is weaker in its attempts at historical analysis. As Sherwood confesses early on, “There is no attempt in this book to ‘interpret’ Henry Sylvester Williams.” So what broader analytic points might we derive from this account? Certainly, Sherwood’s title, Origins of Pan-Africanism, is misleading, making Williams out to be a foundational figure and erasing earlier histories of the expression and performance of pan-African sentiments and identities. In private communication, Sherwood indicates that the title was chosen not by herself but by her publishers, but whoever’s decision it was, it remains unfortunate.

Beyond this, Williams’s life suggests important points about the historical conjuncture out of which his own articulation of pan-Africanism emerged. First, it is clear that the conditions of colonialism, and in particular of the colonial projects specific to the late-nineteenth-century Caribbean, played a significant shaping role in the political frameworks through which Williams articulated his pan-Africanism. An early education in Christianity was undoubtedly important, and it is unsurprising that when Williams moved to Britain some of his most significant contacts would be made through Christian and humanitarian organisations. More broadly, Williams understood himself to be a British citizen, and sought through his model of pan-Africanism both to unite the African diaspora, and to ensure that African diasporic peoples under the British flag were given the same rights as other Britons.

In this sense, Williams fits into a longer tradition — one which would include figures as diverse as the Trinidadian John Jacob Thomas and the Jamaican Harold Moody — of what the historian Anne Spry Rush has termed “imperial Britishness,” a tradition within which colonial subjects themselves laid claim to certain underlying principles of British subjecthood and identity in order to frame their own attempts to improve their circumstances under colonialism. Wilson Harris, writing of J. J. Thomas, once argued that his sense of imperial Britishness meant that Thomas’s critique of empire “could not supply a figurative meaning beyond the condition he deplored.” Sherwood’s biography shows that Williams’s historical articulation of pan-Africanism was underscored by a similar dilemma, struggling against the racial codes which structured British imperialism while simultaneously being unable (or unwilling) to imagine an alternative.

It is a shame that, in a review of such a thought-provoking and insightful book, the final word must go to matters of production quality, but in this instance it is unavoidable. Sherwood’s distinctive prose style, involving the asking of many often unanswered questions, may or may not be to the taste of individual readers. More problematic, though, are the numerous errors of spelling and punctuation, and the fact that pages literally fall out of the book during reading. For a book published by a major international publishing house, and retailing at a very expensive price, such failings are deeply disappointing, and suggest that far less care was taken by those responsible for producing the book than has been displayed in Sherwood’s illuminating research into the life of Henry Sylvester Williams.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

Daniel Whittall is completing a PhD dissertation titled “Creolising London: Black West Indian Activists in Britain, c. 1931–1948” in the department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He also teaches geography at Charters School, Sunningdale, England.