When talking about Pan-Africanism, names of many great men and women come to mind. It is then difficult to give adequate credit when needed. This, however, does not seem to pose any problem as the only credit these people will truly appreciate is the success of Pan-Africanism itself – a truly united Africa.
But who truly birthed the concept of Pan-Africanism and sowed the seed that has so grown into a mighty tree on which the liberation of the entire African continent is anchored?
In a 1955 book written by George Padmore - a major Pan-African historian, which he titled ‘Pan-Africanism or Communism’; a certain West Indian barrister, Mr. Henry Sylvester-Williams was credited with first conceiving the idea of Pan-Africanism and organizing a conference to inculcate the ideology in African leaders as early as 1900.
Now, it is important to mention that right from the 15th Century when slaves were first taken out of the continent, there have been Africans who resisted. There were a few dared to stand and often tried to rally the others against oppression with the dream of uniting and returning home someday.
That is not the context in which we are referring to Henry Sylvester-Williams. Rather, it is in the movement geared towards uniting Africans from different parts to appreciate their similarity and oppose the artificial division masterminded by the colonial masters we have chosen to focus on.
The idea of Pan-Africanism first arose as a manifestation of fraternal solidarity among Africans and peoples of African descent and Padmore believes this was first conceived by none other but Barrister Henry Sylvester-Williams.
Henry Sylvester-Williams practiced law at an English bar in the 19th Century. He established strong relationships with the few West Africans in Britain during his undergraduate days and later acted (on recommendation) as legal adviser to the several African chiefs who visited the United Kingdom on political missions to the British Colonial Office.
To combat the aggressive policies of British imperialists, Padmore says Mr. Sylvester-Williams took the initiative to convene a Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. This conference attracted huge attention from both Africans living in the United Kingdom at that time and otherwise. It is believed that it is the attention that the meeting received that contributed greatly to putting the word Pan-Africanism in the English dictionary for the first time ever.
Although not much is known about Henry Sylvester-Williams, the least we can do is credit him for the move to organize the conference.
Many of such conference was held in the United Kingdom and Europe during the colonial era. Although many of them were for selfish interests where the individuals and organization in question were not genuinely interested in Pan-Africanism but rather, wanted to win the trust of early Africans abroad and the visiting African chiefs in order to act as their advisers and middlemen in transactions with the colonial leaders.
Since the records do not discredit the motives of Henry Sylvester-Williams, it is only fair to give him the benefit of doubt.
It is a good thing that today, Pan-African ideologies is fast becoming an integral part of emergent African nationalism. I cannot agree less with the pan-African scholar who said, after reviewing Padmore’s works that:
“Pan-Africanism is serving as a beacon light in the struggle for self-determination, the pre-requisite to regional federations of self-governing African communities which may one day evolve into a Pan-African Federation of United States.
“It is thus quite clear that Pan-Africanism emerged from the African peoples’ struggle against imperialism. Explicitly or not, it was, in practice and right from the start, a set of ideas geared to ‘combat the aggressive policies of imperialists’ in Africa.”
Is Henry Sylvester-Williams the true father of Pan-Africanism?
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