So all Africa, indeed all black peoples of the world, are indebted to the pioneers of Fourah Bay College, who persisted in their faith in the intelligence of the Blackman as well as to those early students who by their performance, vindicated this faith. Fourah Bay College was one of the institutions which, through the performance of its students put an end to this myth which was sometimes deliberately cultivated to justify the oppression and enslavement of Black people. As late as 1876, when it was proposed that at its first Jubilee, the college was to be affiliated to England’s third oldest University, Durham, the London Times always opposed to the work of the Church Missionary Society in this part of the world, scoffed that it would not be much longer before the University was affiliated to the Zoo.
The relevance of the College to its environment was indisputable. Its early aims envisaged an evangelization of the peoples of this part of the world. An essential ingredient in which was the study of the indigenous languages. This became a central part of the curriculum and Fourah Bay College soon became an international centre for the study of African languages. Under the guidance of linguists like Koelle, Schon and Reichaert and with the assistance of many Africans who contributed information on their particular languages, and African scholars like Adjai Crowther who produced the first Grammar and Lexicon of this own language. Yoruba, Grammars and Dictionaries of Foulah, Temme, Yoruba and several other languages flowed from the Institution. The work of Koelle was remarkable. His Polyglota Africana published in 1857 still remains a linguistic classic in which using informants among the hundreds of speakers of African languages, settled in Freetown as a result of the liberation movement, a comparative vocabulary of over a hundred languages was put together. This work was re-issued by the modern Fourah Bay College in 1963 under the editorship of a modern Fourah Bay linguistic historian, Paul Hair. Adjai Crowther, first student, then teacher and for a time Acting Principal of Fourah Bay, later became the first black Bishop of the Anglican Communion and the first Bishop of the Niger, thus illustrating the College’s capacity, not only to receive, but also to give back.
The curriculum in the year 1876 illustrates its remarkable breadth for the time as well as its relevance. I quote again from the Intelligencer for that year:
“The curriculum embraces a wider range of subjects – Latin, Greek, Hebrew Arabic. History and Geography. Comparative Philology, Moral Philosophy. Political Economy, Logic, Mathematics, Music, some branches of Natural Science, and, as extras, French and German.”(Jubilee, 33)
Arabic was important because the other dominant religion was Islam and if Christianity was to confront Islam, it was also obliged to understand it. Indeed, it is reported that one of the Principals of the College, regularly engaged in long discussions with his Muslim counterparts, the lmams of Fourah Bay, in which the College itself was situated.
The staff was international, coming from Britain, continental Europe and America and its student population was equally diverse in origin. Throughout its history, the College’s Register resounds with the names of students, who after their College days returned home to contribute to the development of their own countries. The Jubilee Volume which celebrated the Centenary of the College’s foundation, as well as the fiftieth Anniversary of its affiliation to Durham by T. J. Thompson, a distinguished Sierra Leone alumnus and founder of the influential Sierra Leone Daily Mail gives a list of alumni who became eminent in the various professions and callings in their own countries. Just to illustrate, among the Bishops it lists. Samuel Adjai Crowther First Negro Bishop, Western Equatorial Africa
James Johnson Bishop – Delta Nativ Pastorate
Isaac Oluwole Bishop – Lagos, Nigeria
Adolphus Williamson Howells Bishop – Delta Pastorate
There are similar lists of Archdeacons, Colonial Chaplains, Canons, Principals and Vice Principals, Lawyers, Doctors and Government officials from Nigeria, The Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia.
I had mentioned earlier older Secondary Schools of Freetown which also attracted pupils from other parts of West Africa. These institutions with Fourah Bay at the head made Freetown a ferment of intellectual activity in the late years of the Nineteenth Century and the early years of the Twentieth. The columns of the newspapers which flourished at the time -The Negro, The Weekly News and The Daily Mail among others, contained articles and editorials on political, educational, social and philosophical topics. Speakers and practitioners of journalism today would do well to examine the pages of some of these early newspapers to derive inspiration and high standards.
One of the subjects that was hotly canvassed in, for instance, The Negro was that of a West African University, an idea which was debated by such stalwarts as Africanus Beale Horton, E. W. Blyden. T. J. Sawyerr and curiously one of the more progressive and controversial Governors, James Pope Hennessey. The proposal for a West African University caused great disappointment to the founders and backers of Fourah Bay College who felt that some of their distinguished products were advocating the very opposite of the kind of university that they had sought to establish namely, a Christian institution opposed not only to indigenous religions but also Islam. A secular university, such as Horton and others advocated was anathema to the CMS. What articles in The Negro argued for was a university which while giving a sound education to its students, was to emancipate them from the prejudices of both Christianity and Islam.
Some idea of the intellectual climate of Freetown is given in this quotation from The Rev. Henry Seddall’s Missionary History of Sierra Leone published in 1874:
“That education has made wonderful progress in Sierra Leone no one can doubt who has read the newspapers published there, the letters and pamphlets of some of the leading native gentlemen of the Colony, and the sermons of some of the native pastors. Even the most cursory reader of these papers, pamphlets and sermons will perceive that there is springing up a most natural and very proper feeling of independence and nationality. Whilst acknowledging the immense debt of gratitude due to Europeans, educated Africans are beginning to long to slip away from their European leading strings, and they are proving themselves perfectly capable of discharging all their duties as citizens and as Christians without foreign aid.” (Jubilee, 53)
Freetown and by extension, Sierra Leone, as a leader of thought on the West African Region was thus very well established, even before the end of the Nineteenth Century. Its emissaries to the other parts of the region as clergymen, teachers, civil servants, commercial factors as well as the influence of their accompanying wives as leaders of fashion, had made Sierra Leone legendary, a status which has not altogether disappeared even in our time. It is both instructive and amusing to come across such a reverberation in Wole Soyinka’s popular play, The Lion and the Jewel. Lakunle, the rather comic romantic school master in that play, is trying to impress the village ‘bush girl’ (as he calls her) Sidi, by referring to other places where his advanced ideas on civilized living are better understood that in this ‘bush village’: “What I boast is known in Lagos, that city of magic in Badagry where Saro women bathe in gold.” This is no doubt a reference to Sierra Leonean wives who had gone to Nigeria in support of their husband’s work and who made such a dramatic impact on the environment by their fashionable appearance. Sierra Leone women in their own country dressed for a wedding or a service on New Year’s Sunday in our fashionable churches even today can be described with a little poetic exaggeration as bathing in gold. Such were the ingredients which contributed to the reputation of the country as the Athens of West Africa.
As schools and colleges were founded in the rest of Africa, the direct role and influence of Sierra Leone declined but only gradually. The number of school pupils from abroad went down, but for many years, the flow of university students not only continued but increased so that even during my teaching years in the College from the 1950s, there were times when Sierra Leone students in the College were in the minority as they certainly were in my student days.
It is worth remarking that in its years of greatest influence, Fourah Bay College’s reputation was far out of proportion to its numbers. Until recently, its student numbers were small and there is a standing joke that when the Elliot Commission visited Fourah Bay College in 1943, the Commissioners numbered more than the students. In my first year, 1944-three classroom block45, the College admitted a total of twelve students of which four were Sierra Leoneans, six Nigerians and two Ghanaians.
Did the Athenian status continue in the modern period? The College certainly increased its enrolment of non – Sierra Leoneans consistently, well into the 1960s and its catchments area was further widened when in response to the needs of Namibia and Zimbabwe even