When this topic was first proposed to me for a date in December, it was in the form of a question: Fourah Bay College-Athens of West Africa? But when the talk was re-scheduled and the subject was re-proposed, the question mark had disappeared. I do not know whether this was a mere typographical error or whether there had intervened some confirmation of the status of the college which encouraged the certainty of an assertion rather the doubt suggested by a question mark. The question mark could certainly be justified for more than one reason. The phrase is now variously used to refer to the college, to Freetown and sometimes to the whole country-Sierra Leone I have had some difficulty indeed to locate the first use of this phase in order to establish to what it was first applied. I have elicited the help of historians who are so far unable to locate a defining context, and we are still searching.
Ancient Athens, the capital of Attica, was well known as an intellectual centre where great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle taught, and where the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes were performed. Young men from all over Greece flocked to his centre of learning, of intellectual ferment and civilized debate.
It is indisputable that by the end of the Nineteenth Century Freetown, with its famous Secondary Schools, the Grammar School, the Annie Walsh Memorial School and the Methodist Boys’ High School with Fourah Bay College as its pinnacle, had attracted young men and women from all over West Africa to this country for their education. Fourah Bay College was the star attraction and it is interesting that its foundation in 1827 pre-dated that of the oldest surviving secondary school in West Africa, the CMS Grammar School now the Sierra Leone Grammar School which was founded in 1845 when some of the staff and probably some of the students were transferred from the College to the School.
Fourah Bay College had itself been preceded by an earlier institution, The Christian Institution founded at Leicester Village in 1816, then transferred to Regent, before settling down at Cline Town in Turner’s Peninsular in 1827. The population of that earlier school had a large number of recaptives from slave ships among whom was Adjai Crowther who became the first student on the role of Fourah Bay College. Crowther’s life remains symbolic of the achievement and influence of early Fourah Bay College which both drew to itself seekers of learning from outside the country and sent many back as learned men, as pioneers in education, evangelization, officials in the Civil Service, and functionaries in commercial and industrial organizations, as well as doctors, lawyers and politicians who paved the way to statehood for the West African Colonies. These facts are well known and well established.
What perhaps needs more emphasis is the context in which all of this was taking place. What was the state of the world when Fourah Bay was founded and during its early years of struggle and triumph? (The Slave Trade, even though it had been formally abolished in some countries, was still thriving and the Court of Mixed Commissions was active well into the Nineteenth Century, processing men, women and children who had been recaptured on the high seas and brought to Freetown. The very timbers out of which the roof of Fourah Bay College had been crafted were masts from abandoned slaving vessels.) Those timbers still hold up the roof of the old building at Cline Town which I hope may yet be rescued and preserved for the historic monument that it is.
The Slave Trade had been defended not only with references to Holy Writ but also with bogus psychological and philosophical assertions to the effect that black men were incapable of learning sometimes of learning altogether and sometimes of learning particular disciplines. Let me quote from The Church Missionary Intelligentsia and Record published in 1876.
“In the early years of the Society’s efforts for the good of Africa, it was necessary to muster all possible arguments to prove that the Negro was capable of being educated. Few believed that he had any real intellectual capacity, and they were not wanting some to doubt whether he could even be taught to read. At the present day happily, there is no dispute upon the subject. A succession of African clergymen, merchants and professional men – not a few of them the direct result of the Society’s educational work at Sierra Leone – have arisen to bear living testimony in their own persons to the mental power of the civilized and educated Negro. We trust that Fourah Bay College with its now wider aims, may play a yet nobler part to the development of Africa, and that not only by sending forth Christian men with cultivated and well-balanced minds in the various fields of secular occupation, but, as in years past, by providing an unfailing supply of godly and zealous ministers of the Gospel” (The Jubilee and Centenary Volume of Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone, ed. T. J. Thompson, Freetown, The Elsiemay Printing Works, 1930; 34)
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 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 later, it took in many students from those two countries. Among Kwame Nkrumah’s ministers and the cabinets of the first leaders of independent Nigeria, were some of my own contemporaries. Many senior functionaries in Zimbabwe and Namibia today are also among our alumni.
There was a flowering of scholarship in the college in the late 1950s, ‘60s, and 70s with such published works as John Hargreaves’ The Life of Sir Samuel Lewis (1958), Peer Kup’s History of Sierra Leone (1961), A. T. Porter’s Creoledom (1963), Paul Hair’s edition of The Polyglota AFRICANA, (1975) Othello’s Countrymen (1965), H. van der Laan’s Sierra Leone Diamonds (1965) and The Lebanese Traders in Sierra Leone (1975), John Clarke’s Sierra Leone in Maps (1966), Jones & Fyfe, eds. The Freetown Symposium 1968) Harry Sawyerr’s The Springs of Mende Belief and Custom (1968), and God: Ancestor or Creator? (1970), Leo Spitzer’s The Creole of Sierra Leone (1974), Cyril Foray’s Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone (1977), Fyle & Jones, eds. The Krio-English Dictionary (1980), C. Magbaily Fyle’s The History of Sierra Leone (1981); and Journals flourished such as The Sierra Leone Bulletin of Religion, The Aureol Pamphlets, Africa Literature Today, The Africana Research Bulletin, The Sierra Leone Language Journal, The West African Language Journal and Sierra Leone Studies, The flood may have thinned to a trickle for various reasons but the tradition is kept up by such scholars as Akintola Wyse on Bankole Bright and the Krios and others.
Where does the College’s influence lie today? It is well to remember that within the country the College has been joined by other tertiary institutions. Which now share the educational banner once carried exclusively by Fourah Bay, Noteably, Njala University College, Milton Margai College of Education & Technology, The Institute of Marine Biology and Oceanography, The Institute of Public Administration and Management, The college of Medicine and Allied Sciences and several training and vocational institutions have broadened the educational panorama of Sierra Leone.
The acropolis is no longer the exclusive property of Fourah Bay College the soubriquet ‘Athens’, if it is applicable at all today, now belongs to the country as a whole. Do we still deserve the title? Can we still perform the role of Athens – the nursery and disperser of enlightenment? Certainly, in some areas we do. We export educated men and women with such generosity that our institutions are themselves showing distinct signs of malnutrition. Our teaching and research departments have been as heavily depleted as the ranks of our professionals – teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers etc. our College of Medicine and Allied Sciences seems to be in the forefront of this export trade in trained personnel. Can we afford this particular segment of trade liberalization? I suggest that we cannot. We must retain our position as much as we can in the front ranks of teaching and research, specializing in particular, in the study of our environment, and opening this environment to the world: but we must attract to our country and its institutions, first, our own best talent as well as people from other parts of the world. We have always benefited from teachers and researchers from abroad.
The 1960s and 70s saw Fourah Bay College, Njala University of College and Milton Margai Teachers College as international centers, attracting scholars from many parts of the world. This inflow has almost dried up, almost at the same time as our outflow of native talent has increased. We must reverse this trend. In earlier times, much of the educational influence, both of the outside world on us and us on the outside, would have been through books and significantly on exchange of persons. Students came here from abroad and returned home as ours went abroad to study and return. Teachers and scholars were similarly exchanged. It was all physical movement. Modern technology has now made it far easier for this international exchange to be made in other ways. We can exchange and transmit information, ideas and techniques much more easily through the Internet. Our interest in this new technology should become more and more focused. There is no suggestion here that there should be a stop to the movement of people any more than the invention of the computer has put an end to the use of paper. Perhaps the greater use of the new technology would help to stem the permanent outflow of talent to so-called greener pastures.
Our intellectual influence could be spread in other ways and international reputations can be made without the absolute necessity of leaving one’s country. Even the material rewards, such as they are, resulting from intellectual endeavour may be made accessible through the new technology. There are welcome signs within the country that we may be moving in the direction.
We have just been through an extraordinary period in our national history. We are just emerging from a terrible war which has forced us to consider how we got into such a plight. Our examination of such subjects as Good Governance and the dreadful consequences of its violation may be at least one more warning to our fellow Africans and the rest of the world. The process by which we obtain peace and our efforts to sustain it by theory and practice may similarly enlighten others. Our old institutions led the way to the emancipation of the Black race from the myths which justified enslavement and oppression. We may yet lead in the establishment of peace, democracy and freedom in our war – ravaged continent.
*This article was delivered on Wednesday January 22nd 2002 as guest Speaker at the 175th Anniversary Celebration Seminar of Fourah Bay College