“Mute astonishment was excited a few days ago in the London Bankruptcy Court, by the appearance there, briefs in hand, with work to do, of a gentleman of colour – of the darkest tint. He was received by all the other members of the bar with the courtesy which might be expected from English gentlemen. His address to the learned recorder, Sir Thomas Chambers, for mercy towards a young offender against the law, showed an unusual command of ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spoke’, a felicity of expression, good taste and intellectual force.” Thus ran a document from 1883 introducing England’s first black barrister, Christian Frederick Cole.
Cole was born in the village of Waterloo, in the British colony of Sierra Leone, in 1852. His parents – Jacob, a reverend, and May Cole – were described as “a negro and negress of the purest type”. They obtained their son a scholarship to attend the oldest western-style college in sub-Saharan Africa, Fourah Bay College in Freetown, which was known as the ‘Athens of west Africa’ for its high standards in Latin and Greek.
At Fourah Bay, Cole had a role model in the school’s principal, Reverend Edward Jones, who had been the first African-American to graduate from the US’s Amherst College. He encouraged Cole to apply for one of the world’s most prestigious universities: Oxford. Cole’s bid wasn’t unprecedented – another Fourah alumnus, Africanus Horton, had become one of the first black graduates from a British university when he’d earned a medical degree from Edinburgh in 1859 – but it was audacious. Nevertheless Cole applied, and was accepted after passing ‘Responsions’ – exams in Greek, Latin, arithmetic and algebra.
In 1872, Cole’s father died, and his uncle assumed his guardianship. Cole arrived in England in 1873 at the height of British colonialism, amid a prevailing iconology that depicted black people as an educationally inferior sub-species. In enrolling at University College – one of Oxford’s most venerable colleges – to read for an honours degree in ‘classical moderations’ (classics), he became the first black African to study at the university.
Cole’s degree was deemed one of the most difficult to obtain. The future imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who came up to Oxford in the same year, was rejected by University College when he applied for a pass degree in classics – an easier qualification. He enrolled at Oriel College instead.
Cole was a non-collegiate student – an arrangement that helped poorer students who might struggle to afford college fees. He lodged in rooms in the city, with his uncle providing support for his fees and living expenses.
His presence inevitably attracted comment. One diary entry by Florence Ward, sister of William Ward – best friend of the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde – is telling. Describing a promenade event at Christ Church in June 1876, Florence wrote: “I spied the Nigger Coal [sic], hair as curly and skin as black as Coal.” The Oxford Chronicle, reporting on the 1878 Encaenia ceremony (an annual celebration of Oxford’s founders), noted: “Some amusement was caused by ‘Three Cheers for Christian Cole’, a gentleman of colour, of University College, who had entered the Theatre a few moments previously and was standing in the area.” Fellow student Colonel Thomas Higginbottom reportedly gave him the nickname ‘Old King Cole’.
Cole was also an object of curiosity outside the university. An Oxford Journal article of 1877, under the heading ‘A negro in the parish church’, read: “On Saturday last, the lessons in the morning and evening services in the parish Church were read by a negro, Mr Christian F Cole… In the afternoon, Mr Cole delivered an address on mission work in Sierra Leone, west Africa. Afterwards, he spoke to the inmates at the union workhouse on the same topic.”
A precarious existence
As a member of the Oxford Union debating society, Cole contested numerous subjects, once arguing in favour of the death penalty. Academically, he was no idler; his essays were commended by no less a figure than Benjamin Jowett of Balliol, a renowned translator of Plato who would later become the university’s vice-chancellor. After four years of hard study, Cole achieved his honours degree, thereby becoming a full member of the college in 1877.
By his last year, though, Cole had incurred a significant debt of £200. His uncle, with a family of his own to support, had been forced to cease his remittance. Determined not to lean on his friends for money, Cole looked around for other sources of income. He was a talented musician, and for a while he taught music to undergraduates, among them the Dean of Winchester’s children. He also taught Responsions, as well as preparing students for the divinity exam, which they had to pass to graduate.
However, his attempts to secure sufficient income proved too precarious, and Cole was forced to seek the assistance of the master of University College, George Granville Bradley. Bradley produced a circular requesting aid to relieve Cole, stating “the absence of extravagance in his expenditure” and noting that “the exceptional nature of Mr Cole deserves and calls for the sympathy of and assistance of those in Oxford in which he lived with so much credit to himself”. University College alumnus Herbert Gladstone, son of former prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, also backed the circular, but despite their efforts Cole was forced to return home.
Cole wouldn’t be exiled from Britain for long. By 1879, his friends in Sierra Leone had raised enough funds for him to return to London, where he pursued his dream of a career in the law. It was a dream he realised. In September 1879, Cole became the first black African member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, one of London’s four prestigious Inns of Court. Then, after four more years of study, he achieved another significant landmark: he was called to the bar as the first African barrister to practise in the English courts.
It had been a long journey from the village of Waterloo to the imperial capital, but Cole remained keenly aware of his African roots. While in Sierra Leone, he had been drawn to pan-Africanism, which advocated the political union of all the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. Now, back in Britain, his developing political consciousness manifested itself in a poem, Reflections on the Zulu War, and a pamphlet, What Do Men Say About Negros?, in which he responded to the author and lawyer Frederic Edward Weatherly’s criticism of Africans.
Despite being called to the bar, Cole was unable to secure any chambers in Britain and so secured a role as a barrister at the consular court of Sayyid Barghash bin Said Al-Busaid in Zanzibar. His success was short-lived. Just a year later, Cole contracted smallpox and died on 7 December 1885, aged 33. In his brief life, he had navigated the racial and cultural barriers of Victorian Britain to carve out two historic firsts. His untimely death curtailed any further achievements this remarkable man may have attained.
Pamela Roberts is a historian and the author of Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars (Signal, 2013)
This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine