Practicing Excellence, Authentically and Soulfully

Edward Blyden’s Contribution to the Struggle for African Liberation

By Ralph L. Crowder, Ph.D.


During the late nineteenth century, Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912) was the best known and highly respected African intellectual in the Western world.  Blyden was born on August 3, 1832 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.  His free and literate parents were of Ibo descent.  In 1851, he emigrated to Liberia, which had become an independent republic only four years earlier, after the settlement of freed African American slaves.


In an illustrious sixty-one year career, Blyden established himself as one of Africa’s leading diplomats, journalists, scholars, and educators.  In addition to rigorous lecture tours at home and abroad, Blyden held the following important offices in Liberia: professor of classics (1862-1871); president of Liberia College (1880-1884); secretary of state (1864-1866) and minister of the interior (1880-1882), minister to Britain (1877-1878 and 1892), and minister plenipotentiary to London and Paris (1905).


Unlike his peers in the West, Blyden articulated a vision of African development that profoundly disagreed with conventional views.  His often controversial positions were discussed in the numerous books and pamphlets that he published, including A Voice from Bleeding Africa (1856), Liberia’s Offering (1862), the Negro in Ancient History (1869), The West African University (1872), From West Africa to Palestine (1873), Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887), the Jewish Question (1898), West Africa before Europe (1905), and Africa Life and Customs (1908).


Blyden, who was a nominal Christian, argued that a legion of Christianized and Western educated “Negroes” would not lead Africa to the promise land of modernity and continental development.  He argued that Christianity has had a demoralizing effect on blacks whereas Islam, on the other hand, has had a unifying and elevating impact.  He also believed that education was being used as one of the critical instruments to support and continue the colonization and exploitation of Africa.  According to him, “All educated Negroes suffer from a kind of slavery in many ways far more subversive of the real welfare of the race than the ancient physical fetters. The slavery of the mind is far more destructive than that of the body.”


As an educator and college president, Blyden waged a battle for what he called the “decolonization of the African mind.”  In his 1881 Inaugural Address as the newly installed president of Liberia College, he talked about his vision of independent African colleges producing a new generation of African youth.  He declared, “It is our hope and expectation that there will rise up men, aided by institution and culture, …imbued with public spirit, who will know how to live and work and prosper… how to triumph by intelligence, by tact, by industry, by perseverance, over the indifference of their own people, and how to overcome the scorn and opposition of the enemies of the race…”


Blyden argued that education “should aim…not simply [for the provision of] information, but [for] the formation of the mind. The formation of the mind being secured, the information will take care of itself.  Mere information of itself is not power – but the ability to know how to use that information – and this ability belongs to the mind that is disciplined, trained, [and] formed.  It may be a pleasant pastime to store the mind with facts…but if the mind is not trained to apply them, they will lie there like so much useless lumber.”


Through the proper educational curriculum and sensitivity to the value of native African culture, Blyden believed that a generation of African leaders and scholars could be groomed to defeat colonialism and embrace modernity that could be blended with native cultural resources.  He maintained that the core of Africa’s educational curriculum should be based upon traditional concepts of education.  At its core, this curriculum must acknowledge that, “the African view of the universe is based upon the truth that man, nature, the universe, and God are in harmony.  There is no alienation.  The basic mode[s] of human action [are] cooperation, peace, and building great projects. Th[ese are] diametrically opposed by the European worldview which sees man as alienated from God, at war with nature, and surrounded by an indifferent universe.”


Blyden was a pioneer in the struggle to liberate and decolonize the African mind, and to establish an independent African educational institution.  At the turn of the century, he stood alone with his articulate defense of traditional African cultural institutions and their compatibility with modernity.  In 1893 Blyden issued this challenge to the African world:


“It is sad to think that there are some Africans, especially among those who have enjoyed the advantages of foreign training, who are blind enough to the radical facts of humanity as to say, ‘Let us do away with our African personality and be lost, if possible, in another race’.  Preach this doctrine as much as you like, no one will do it, for no one can do it, for when you have done away with your personality, you have done away with yourselves.  Your place has been assigned you in the universe as Africans, and there is no room for you as anything else.”


Ralph L. Crowder is a Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside.  His latest book, John Edward Bruce: Politician, Journalist, and Self-Trained Historian of the African Diaspora was published in 2004 by New York University Press.