How many Barbadians are aware that 116 years ago, a “son of Barbados” was elected President of one of the only three independent black countries that existed in the entire world at that time?
I refer to none other than the great Arthur Barclay who, between 1904 and 1912, served as President of the Republic of Liberia in Africa, one of a trio of independent black nations: namely, Ethiopia, Haiti and Liberia.
Liberia is a relatively large West African nation that is 43,000 square miles (over 259 times the size of Barbados) and has a population of some five million people. It was established in 1821, five years after the Bussa Rebellion of Barbados, as a homeland for free African-Americans who wished to repatriate to their ancestral continent of Africa.
And in 1865, a mere 27 years after slavery had been totally abolished in the British colony of Barbados, a group of 346 African-Barbadians boarded a ship named The Cora at the Bridgetown wharf and undertook a 34-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Liberia.
Among the passengers on board The Cora was a family that could virtually be considered 19th century African-Barbadian “royalty” – a family that comprised Anthony Barclay (leader of the repatriation group), his wife Sarah Ann Bourne-Barclay (daughter of the legendary London Bourne), and their eleven children, the youngest of whom was 12-year-old Arthur Barclay.
It was this 12-year-old Bajan boy that would grow up to become the most outstanding President in the history of Liberia – President Arthur Barclay.
But what is it, you may ask, that led this intrepid group of black Barbadians to make that historic 1865 journey back to Africa? Well, the story begins with the 1838 abolition of slavery and the post-Emancipation activism undertaken by two of the greatest Barbadians of all times – London Bourne and the Right Excellent Samuel Jackman Prescod.
The African-descended London Bourne had been born into slavery in Barbados, but by the 1830s not only had London’s “free-black” father purchased his son’s freedom, but London had gone on to distinguish himself as one of the colony’s most successful merchants and property owners. And in subsequent years, he would go on to acquire such major Barbadian plantations as Grazettes, Friendship and Dears.
But London Bourne was much, much more than just a remarkably successful businessman! Of fundamental importance is that Bourne consciously envisaged himself and his family playing a critical role in both the upliftment of the newly freed black people of Barbados and in the regeneration of his ancestral African homeland.
Thus, London Bourne ensured that his children, including his daughter Sarah Ann, were all well educated, rooted in a deep Christian faith, and imbued with a sense of Evangelical Pan-African Consciousness that caused them to identify with Africa and to be committed to contributing to the spreading of the Christian message and to the rejuvenation of an Africa that had been debilitated by centuries of a European-imposed Slave Trade.
In pursuit of this mission, London Bourne collaborated with the coloured or mixed race Samuel Jackman Prescod in not only challenging the power of the racist, white, Barbadian elite of the day and in engaging in a wide variety of civic and philanthropic initiatives designed to raise the living standards of the masses of black Barbadians, but by also establishing and/or leading organizations such as the “Barbados African Colonisation Society” and the “Fatherland Progressive Union” that were committed to achieving the repatriation of black Barbadians to Africa.
And after many years of heroic striving, Bourne and Prescod were finally able to realize their dream when, in 1865, with the encouragement of the then President of Liberia (who offered returnees a grant of agricultural land) and his visionary Pan-Africanist Secretary of State, Edward Wilmot Blyden, they were able to collaborate with the USA’s “American Colonization Society” in securing a ship that would take some 50 specially selected Barbadian families back to Africa.
Needless to say, the Barbados that young Arthur Barclay left on the 5th of April 1865 was a British colony that was extremely hostile to black Barbadians. Indeed, after slavery was abolished in 1838, the white planter class did everything in their power to keep the mass of blacks in a condition of landlessness and powerlessness. Even the handful of economically successful blacks like London Bourne were constantly under intense attack and threat!
“The Cora” therefore sailed away from a centuries-old West Indian colony of mass hunger, deprivation and lack of opportunity, to a new independent black African Republic that offered a pioneering experience and a realistic possibility of black social and economic advancement.
But a key word here is “pioneering”, for young Arthur Barclay and his family did not have it easy in Liberia! After landing in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, on May 10, 1865 and being received by no less a personage than the President of the Republic, Anthony Barclay led his “repatriation company” to an area some 20 miles inland from the coast where they were faced with the onerous task of clearing the land and establishing agricultural enterprises and a township.
This was indeed a monumental task for the newly arrived Barbadians! Not only were they undertaking this difficult mission with very limited financial resources, but they were being required to do so in a divided country in which so-called “coloured” and “black” Americans had separated themselves from the indigenous African population (Grebo, Kru, Kpelle, Bassa, Krahn) and had already clannishly ensconced themselves as the two elite sectors of the society. Furthermore, the Barbadians were confronted with an unfamiliar lush rain-forest environment that they were required to tame.
And then tragedy struck! Within a year of the Barbadians’ arrival in Liberia, their leader, Anthony Barclay, suddenly died, thereby leaving his widow, Sarah Ann, not only to take up the mantle of group leadership, but to also single-handedly take on the task of nurturing her brood of eleven children.
Fortunately, the Barbadians were not only relatively well-skilled and educated, but were also of high moral character – particularly the Barclay clan – and were able to rise to the challenge.
These hardy ancestors of ours not only built a new town which they named “Crozierville”, but were also so successful in transforming their environment that within a few years it was an important trading and agricultural area.
In addition, it was not long before the well educated Barclay clan made their way to Monrovia – the centre of governmental, cultural and social life in Liberia – and began to scale the heights of Liberian society.
Sarah Ann Bourne-Barclay, the matriarch of the family, superbly demonstrated that the investment that her father had made in her had been well made! But let me permit her remarkable and inspiring story to be told by one of her contemporaries: namely, Rev. Alexander Crummell, an eminent 19th century black Anglican priest:
“The father of this family died in less than a year, but such was the strength of the motherhood in the bereaved widow that his children, under her guidance and direction, have passed from youth into manhood and womanhood, honourable in character and useful and beneficent in life and conduct. They have risen, without any exceptions, to high positions in church and state, as teachers, merchants, lay readers, vestrymen and statesmen.”
And of course, pride of place went to that little 12-year-old boy who made the journey from Bridgetown to Monrovia!
The young Arthur Barclay was initially schooled by his eldest sister, Antoinette, a school teacher, before winning admission to the University of Liberia, where he received his first degree in 1873. Thereafter, it was a steady rise up the ladder – private secretary to the President of Liberia; Clerk of the Court; qualification as a Lawyer; Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives; appointment as a Judge; Postmaster-General of Liberia; Foreign Minister; President of the University of Liberia; Secretary of the Treasury; Secretary of the State; and finally, President of Liberia in 1904.
But Arthur Barclay was not just any old President of Liberia – he was the most important and illustrious President that the country has ever had!
You see, President Barclay came to office at the height at the so-called “Scramble for Africa” – an era during which all the major European powers of the day were acquiring colonies and “carving up” the continent of Africa among themselves, an era during which the very survival of Liberia as an independent nation was under severe threat.
As President of Liberia, Arthur Barclay distinguished himself by staving off a British engineered coup attempt that was designed to wipe out the nation’s sovereignty by extricating Liberia from the imminent and menacing tentacles of debt owed to European companies intent on colonial-type control of the country, and by terminating a serious military uprising of the indigenous Grebo and Kru people and establishing a new governance structure in which the indigenous population and their traditional leaders were better incorporated. But perhaps most importantly, he succeeded in finally settling Liberia’s boundary disputes with the land-hungry imperialist French and British governments.
President Barclay’s progressive and visionary policies in relation to the indigenous people are extremely significant, for they demonstrated that he was indeed a true representative of the Pan-Africanist, nation-building philosophy that had so motivated London Bourne (his grandfather), Samuel Jackman Prescod, and the many other Barbadian “repatriationists”. Finally, under the Presidential rule of this “son of Barbados”, that Barbadian vision of a genuine African nation state that organically blended continental and diaspora elements was beginning to take shape!
Indeed, President Barclay towered above the political class of Liberia with his deep respect for and understanding of indigenous African culture and society. It surprised no one therefore when, in his latter years, he became a supporter of Marcus Mosiah Garvey and was often found in attendance at meetings of Garvey’s “Universal Negro Improvement Association” (UNIA) in Monrovia.
Arthur Barclay served as President of Liberia for eight years, but even after he demitted office in 1912, he went on to play the role of “elder statesman” of Liberia right up until his death in Monrovia in 1938, a few days short of his 84th birthday.
His mother, the legendary matriarch, Sarah Ann Bourne-Barclay, also had a long life. She died in Liberia in 1895 at the age of 79. Unfortunately, she did not live to see her son elected to the highest office in Liberia.
But it behoves me to say that although we have focused on the Barclay family in this essay, it should be noted that many of the other Barbadian families that migrated to Liberia in 1865 also went on to distinguish themselves in that African “land of the free” – families such as the Padmores, Grimes, Holders, Wiles, Weeks, and the list goes on.
However, it must be conceded that the record of the Barclays family topped them all! This, after all, was a Barbadian family that went on – subsequent to the Presidential administration of Arthur – to produce yet another Liberian head of state in the person of President Edwin Barclay (1930 – 1944).
And so, as we Barbadians (at home and abroad) use this We Gatherin’ 2020 year to rediscover who we “really” are as a people and to recommit to our core values and principles, let us ensure that we take proper account of those truly remarkable sons and daughters who made their mark in our ancestral homeland of Africa.