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Pan African History Makers: Henry Sylvester Williams

By Dr. Josef Ben Levi

Presented by Omni-University



Henry Sylvester Williams, born February 15, 1869- approximately six years after the Emancipation Proclamation, was a Trinidadian lawyer, councilor, writer and thinker. Most notably, he was known for his involvement in the Pan-African [Rights] Movement. When he arrived in Britain, in 1896 at the age of 27, he formed the African Association later called the Pan African Association which aimed at challenging paternalism, racism and imperialism. He declared that"the time [had] come when the voice of Black men should be heard independently in their own affairs".


One of his objectives, when he formed the African Association, was to "promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British colonies and other places- especially Africa-by circulating accurate information on all subjects affecting their rights and privileges as subjects of the British Empire, by direct appeals to the Imperial and local Governments."


Ancestor W. E. B. Du Bois, a participant in the 1900 conference of the African Association who later became known as "The Father of Modern Pan-Africanism", was influenced by Williams. It was in his famous "Address to the Nations" that Du Bois made his prophetic statement "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the Color Line". This came to be regarded as the defining statement of the Conference. However, the idea for the conference and the Pan African Association originated with Williams.


Around that time, one of Williams' acquaintances, a Black lawyer named Edgar Maresse Smith, petitioned the Governor of Trinidad, Chief Justice Sir John Gorrie, to declare August 1, 1834 as a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the British colonies.* Many of the colonial elites did not support this idea, but Chief Justice Gorrie did. Even at that time, there was, in Trinidad, a highly educated, articulate and race-conscious group of Black men, among them: John Jacob Thomas, Maresse Smith, Mzumbo Lazare, C.E. Petioni, and the Reverend Phillip Henry Douglin.


John Jacob Thomas, in particular, was famous for his book "Froudacity" (1889) a scathing rebuttal of James Anthony Froude's book "The English in The West Indies" (1888). An Oxford Historian, Froude argued that Afro- and Indo- Caribbean peoples were incapable of self-government. That work is considered a seminal text in the intellectual history and radical tradition of the Caribbean. Henry Sylvester Williams questioned and refuted the views espoused by Froude that Black people could not be entrusted with self-government.


Thomas's ideas certainly inspired Williams, who had earned a law degree at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at King's College, London. He went on to practice as a barrister in South Africa from 1903 to 1905, the first Black man to do so.


On June 28, 1901, the Trinidad branch of the Pan African Association was formed with branches in other caribbean communities. Williams spent two months there and after his departure for the US even more local branches were formed. After this, however, the profile of the Pan African Association suffered because he was not able to give it his full attention.


Henry Sylvester Williams was later admitted as a barrister in the Supreme Court of Cape Colony. He was a West Indian and was educated for the most part at Dalhousie University Canada, where he spent eight years and took his degree. Afterwards he became a member of Gray's Inn, London where he had practiced for several years, mainly at the Old Bailey.


He was soon agitating for the rights of Blacks. He also presided over the opening of a coloured preparatory school staffed by West Indians. He was eventually boycotted by the Cape Law Society because it was felt that he was "preaching seditious doctrines to the natives against the white man".


On his return to London, Williams decided to run for public office since he felt that there should be an African spokesman in Parliament and his South African experience had given him the knowledge he needed to speak competently on these affairs. The Blacks and Coloureds were "my people" and on his arrival he gave the Colonial Office his views. "We should not be deprived of equal justice because of the color of our skins," he said. Williams did not make it to Parliament but was elected to the Marylebone Borough Council in 1906.


Nonetheless, service as a councilor did not take him away from his interest in and devotion to Africa. He became involved with Liberian affairs and went there in 1908 at the invitation of President Barclay. Edwin James Barclay (January 5, 1882 – November 6, 1955) was a Liberian politician and a member of the True Whig political party, which dominated the political governance of the country for decades. Barclay served as the 18th President of Liberia from 1930 until 1944.


Henry Sylvester Williams died on March 26, 1911, at the age of forty-two.

The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago held a conference on "Henry Sylvester Williams and Pan-Africanism: A Retrospection and Projection" on January 7-12, 2001. He was named 16th on a recent list of the 100 Great Black Britons.


Editor's Note:

It has been reported that at least 30% of the population of African countries had suffered under the heels of British colonization and imperialism. In fact, seven European countries - Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal- had convened the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) for the express purpose of dividing the African Continent among themselves.


Recommended Reading:


Ancestor Henry Sylvester Williams, et al, "Henry Sylvester Williams and the Origins of the Pan African Movement (1869-1911)"

Marika Sherwood, "Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams Africa and the African Diaspora"


Ancestor Walter Rodney, "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa".


Ancestor Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart".


John A.Hobson, "Imperialism: A Study


Thomas Pakenham "The Scramble for Africa"


Ancestor Chancellor Williams, "The Destruction of Black Civilization"

Ancestor Jomo Kenyatta."Facing Mt. Kenya"


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