Emma Dabiri’s hidden histories: Augustus Merriman-Labor

“Merriman-Labor’s searing satire of the British was not well received”, writes Emma Dabiri

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In 1904, an accomplished young Krio man from a middle-class family in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, set sail from the west African coast to London. Aged just 26, his aim was to make his mark on the literary world. Augustus Merriman-Labor had every reason to be optimistic. He was hard-working, gifted and successful, with a rising profile in his home country, and moving to London to take advantage of the opportunities the city afforded was a logical but brave next step. As scholar Danell Jones writes: “The Sierra Leone Weekly News had assured him that his colour would be no obstacle there,” and he could “go anywhere, wherever his merits… will take him”.

The Krios have a fascinating history. In 1787, the Sierra Leone Resettlement saw 411 people “repatriated” to an area of land on the west African coast. Most were members of the black poor community in London; many were formerly enslaved people freed after fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War, but who had ended up destitute. Attitudes towards black people shut down almost all opportunity and employment.

Abolitionist Carl Bernhard Wadström felt that “it was necessary they should be sent somewhere, and be no longer suffered to infest the streets of London”. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor devised a novel solution: to persuade them to return to the continent of their ancestors, where many were accompanied by their white English wives and their children.

After a first settlement was burned down in 1789 due to rising tensions between the new settlers and native people, its successor became known as Freetown. From 1792 to 1800 it was settled by Nova Scotian Settlers – freed slaves, black pioneers and Jamaican Maroons. The population was further expanded by “liberated Africans”: people who continued to be captured and sold after slavery was prohibited in 1807 but who were intercepted by the British navy and “repatriated” to Sierra Leone. These diverse groups would create what would become the Krios. In 1808, when British interests had shifted from slavery to colonialism, Sierra Leone became a crown colony. It wouldn’t achieve independence from Britain until 1961.

Freetown in Augustus’s day had a bustling literary community which helped shape his dreams. With a play, lectures and a novella to his name, it was an 1898 essay portraying the colonial administration as arrogant and ignorant that made his reputation in his home nation.

Nonetheless, as was the case with many instructed under the dictates of a colonial education, Merriman-Labor believed in the myth of the “mother country”: a maternal vision of Britain carefully crafted to convince colonial subjects that this little island was the seat of civilisation, a benevolent authority figure charged with their upkeep and protection. To travel there thus represented something of a symbolic and literal homecoming.

The distance between the image of England sold in the colonies and the reality of life there, not least for an African colonial subject, would become the inspiration for much of Merriman-Labor’s later writing. While most is out of print and much of it lost, his 1909 Britons Through Negro Spectacleswas republished in 2018. It was decades, if not centuries ahead of its time: as Danell Jones puts it, it is “a blend of travelogue, reverse-ethnology and spoof of books by ill-informed ‘Africa experts’” that sees the narrator spend a day escorting a newly arrived African around Edwardian London.

Merriman-Labor’s searing satire was not well received. The audacity of a young African man subverting the colonial order of African inferiority by taking on the role of ethnographic observer of white Europeans, and poking fun of the British while he did so, could not be tolerated. The book was met with condemnation, and its commercial failure resulted in his bankruptcy. Following overwork at a munitions factory, he died in the Lambeth workhouse infirmary in 1919. He was 42.

Augustus was a remarkable man. He was punished dearly for challenging Edwardian attitudes to race, but as Jones writes: “In a world dominated by European empires, at a time when black people were considered inferior to white, an African man claimed his right to describe the world as he found it… Merriman-Labor looked at the greatest city in the greatest empire the world had even known and laughed.”

This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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