The remarkable life story of the Barbadian lawyer who coined the term ‘Pan-African’
BY WIKI & MILDRED EUROPA TAYLOR
Henry Sylvester-Williams(24 March 1867 or 15 February 1869 – 26 March 1911) was a Trinidadian lawyer, councillor and writer, most noted for his involvement in the Pan-African Movement. As a young man he went to North America to further his education, and subsequently to Britain, where in 1897 he formed the African Association to challenge paternalism, racism and imperialism; the association aimed to
“promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British colonies and other place, 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.”
In 1900 Williams organised the First Pan-African Conference, held at Westminster Town Hall in London. In 1903 he went to practise as a barrister in South Africa, becoming the first black man to be called to the bar in the Cape Colony.
The date and place of birth for Williams is contested. Some sources indicated that he was born in 1869 in Arouca, Trinidad, others that he was born in Barbados in 1867 and travelled to Trinidad with his parents as a young child. He was the eldest son of Elizabeth and Henry Bishop Williams, a wheelwright from Barbados. Williams grew up in Arouca, a village where the majority of residents were of African descent. He attended the Arouca School, which at the time was run by a Chinese Trinidadian known as Stoney Smith.
Williams started his working life at the age of 17, becoming a teacher with a Class III Certification, and in 1887 he was posted to the government school in San Fernando. According to the records, he was one of only three teachers with certificates in that year. A year later he was the only certified teacher at the school in Canaan, just south of San Fernando; and the following year he was transferred to San Juan, where he remained until he left Trinidad in 1891. A cultured man, he was also qualified to teach singing and played the piano regularly.
In January 1890 Williams became a founding member of the Trinidad Elementary Teachers Union. The feature address was given by Chief Justice Sir John Gorrie, was in favour of reform in government and was constantly at odds with the white ruling class. He frequently gave judgments against the establishment and was so beloved by the man in the street that he was known as “Papa Gorrie”. Williams exhorted the teachers to act as professionals. This is a free country, he reminded them, even if it is a Crown Colony. Gorrie undoubtedly would have influenced his thinking.
Around that time, one of Williams’ acquaintances, a coloured lawyer named Edgar Maresse Smith, petitioned the Governor to declare 1 August a holiday for the celebration of Emancipation. Robinson did not support it but 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, the Reverend Phillip Henry Douglin. Thomas particularly was famous for his book Froudacity (1889), in which he refuted and questioned the view espoused by Oxford historian James Anthony Froude that black people could not be entrusted with self-government. Thomas’s ideas certainly inspired Williams.
In 1891 Williams went to New York City, but could only get work shining shoes. He moved in 1893 to Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to study for a law degree. While living in Canada, Henry became a co-founder of the pioneering and innovative Coloured Hockey League (1895-1936), featuring teams from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
In 1895, he went to London and entered King’s College London, but although it is known he studied there, there is no record of his enrolment at that time.
In his book on the life of Williams, Owen Mathurin notes: “Williams was not as fortunate as some of his fellow Trinidadians who had come to study for professions at the expense of wealthy parents or as young winners of a government scholarship who received singular remittances.” It was therefore not until 1897 he enrolled as a student of Gray’s Inn to read for the bar. He satisfied the entrance requirements by passing a preliminary examination in Latin, English and History.
Williams wrote to newspapers and journals on matters touching on Pan-African interests and during this time earned some money through lecturing for the Church of England Temperance Society. This took him to all parts of the British Isles speaking under the auspices of parish churches. He also lectured on thrift for the National Thrift Society whose chairman, Dr Greville Walpole, wrote that Williams’s “heroic struggle to make ends meet won his admiration because the little he was able to earn by his lectures simply defrayed the cost of living.”
The then 29-year-old Williams became friendly with 32-year-old Agnes Powell, who worked as a secretary with the Temperance Society. She was the eldest of a family of three sons and four daughters of Captain Francis Powell of Kent, who was prominent in local Masonic and Conservative political circles. Williams and Agnes Powell married in 1898 in the face of the strongest opposition of her father, who refused to give his consent and thereafter refused to receive Williams. They had five children; the first, Henry Francis Sylvestre, was born the following year.
Some time after June 1897, Williams formed the African Association (later called the Pan-African Association). His good friend, Trinidad attorney Emmanuel Mzumbo Lazare, who at the time was in London taking part in Queen Victoria‘s 60th anniversary celebrations as an officer of the Trinidad Light Infantry Volunteers, mentioned to Williams a South African woman, Mrs A. V. Kinloch, whom Lazare had heard discuss “under what oppressions the black races of Africa lived” at a meeting of the Writers’ Club in London. Williams himself subsequently met Kinloch, who was touring Britain on behalf of the Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), speaking in particular about South Africa.
The meeting of these minds resulted in the formation of the African Association. Stating that “the time has come when the voice of Black men should be heard independently in their own affairs”, Williams gave his first address as honorary general secretary in the common-room at Gray’s Inn, and Kinloch was the association’s first treasurer.
Some English people felt the Association would not last three months but by 1900 Williams was ready to hold the first Pan-African Conference (subsequent gatherings were known as Congresses). The three-day gathering took place at Westminster Town Hall on 23, 24, and 25 July with delegates comprising “men and women of African blood and descent” from West and South Africa, the West Indies, the United States and Liberia. W. E. B. Du Bois, who was to become the movement’s torchbearer at subsequent Pan-African Congresses, was a participant and his Address to the Nations with its prophetic statement “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line” came to be regarded as the defining statement of the conference.
After this Williams set about spreading the word and he embarked on lecture tours to set up branches in Jamaica, Trinidad and the United States. On 28 June 1901 the Trinidad branch of the Pan African Association was formed, with branches in Naparima, Sangre Grande, Arima, Manzanilla, Tunapuna, Arouca and Chaguanas. He spent two months here and after his departure for the US even more local branches were formed.
But after this the profile of the Association suffered because he was not able to give it his full attention. On his return to London he finished his bar exams and, like Mahatma Gandhi around the same time, went on to practise in South Africa, where he stayed from 1903 to 1905. Williams was the first black man to be admitted to the bar in the Cape Colony, on 29 October 1903, having presented to the court in Cape Town a certificate issued on 20 September confirming his credentials:
Mr. Sylvester Williams was admitted as a barrister in the Supreme Court of Cape Colony last month. He is a West Indian. He 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. He has practised for several years in London, mainly at the Old Bailey. – Indian Opinion, 12 November 1903.
He knew that non-whites were badly treated, but still he took this step. 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 for it was felt he was “preaching seditious doctrines to the natives against the white man”.
On his return to London, Williams decided to run for public office as he felt 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 colour of our skins,” he said.
Williams joined the Fabian Society and the National Liberal Club, but did not make it to Parliament. He became involved in municipal politics and won a seat as a Progressive on Marylebone Borough Council in November 1906. He and John Archer were among the first people of African descent to be elected to public office in Britain.
However, service as a councillor 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 Arthur Barclay.
In 1908 he returned to Trinidad, where he rejoined the bar and practised until his death four years later.
Williams died on 26 March 1911, at the age of 42. He was buried at Lapeyrouse Cemetery, Port of Spain.
The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, held a conference on “Henry Sylvester Williams and Pan-Africanism: A Retrospection and Projection” on 7–12 January 2001.
A memorial plaque on the site of his former London home at 38 Church Street, Marylebone, was unveiled on 12 October 2007.
Williams was named 16th on a recent list of the “100 Great Black Britons“.
A long-overdue book, 100 Great Black Britons honours the remarkable achievements of key Black British individuals over history, in collaboration with the 100 Great Black Britons campaign founded and run by Patrick Vernon OBE and Dr Angelina Osborne. With a foreword written by David Olusoga, this book includes a list of Black British names and accompanying portraits – including new role models and previously little-known historical figures. Each entry explores in depth the individual’s contribution to British history – a contribution that too often has been either overlooked or dismissed.
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History was made on Monday, July 23, 1900, when the first Pan African Conference was held in London’s Westminster Hall. The three-day event brought together about thirty leaders and activists across Africa, England, America and the West Indies, serving as a common ground for the start of a conversation on Africa and its future. From this conference began the widespread use of the word Pan-African, its course and objectives, especially in Africa.
London-based Barbadian lawyer and writer Henry Sylvester Williams, who organized the historic Pan African Conference, is to date credited with having coined the term Pan-African. He had become aware of the oppression of African Americans and had three years before the Pan African Conference founded the African Association, comprising continental and diaspora Africans.
One of the aims of the association was “to encourage a feeling of unity and to facilitate friendly intercourse among Africans in general.” Serving as a ground for educating African Diasporan activists about the issues affecting Africa and the need to free the continent, the association also hoped “to promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent”.
By 1900, the African Association was successful in bringing together a large community of Pan Africanists in the Diaspora, compelling Williams to organize the Pan African Congress. The conference made international headlines and caused tension among western colonizers. At that moment, it became clear that the birth of a generation interested in the freedom and development of Africa had been born. And it was all thanks to Williams, who was long forgotten after his death until recently.
Born in Barbados in 1867 — not Trinidad in 1869, as previously thought — Williams moved with his working-class parents to Trinidad, where he grew up in Arouca with five younger siblings. By 1887, Williams was appointed headmaster of a primary school while serving as the Registrar of Births and Deaths in South Trinidad. He moved to New York City in 1891, where he became aware of how African Americans were being oppressed, particularly those in the South.
After two years in the U.S., Williams left and settled in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, where he enrolled for a law degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, but he never finished the course. By 1896, Williams was in England. There, he worked as a lecturer for the Church of England Temperance Society, got married, and went back to school studying at Kings College London and Grays Inn for the bar.
Having become a lawyer, Williams started lecturing about Trinidad and questioning the tenets of the Crown Colony system, calling it heartless and racist. He became the first person of African descent to speak in the House of Commons when he led a delegation of Trinidadian lawyers to meet MPS. He also wrote to newspapers sharing the interest of the African continent and people of African descent.
On September 24, 1897, when he founded the African Association, many White people thought that the organization would only last for a few months, but it became stronger over the years, leading to the Pan African Conference. The conference, which had in attendance prominent people like W. E. B. Du Bois; Bishop Alexander Walters, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the United States and president of National Afro-American Council; and the Haitian Benito Sylvain, aide-de-camp to the Ethiopian emperor, would help spur the civil rights movement and anti-colonial activites.
Indeed, participants at the conference discussed the need for colonial governments to recognize the rights of the natives and the importance of preserving the Black identity. And it was from this meeting that the Pan-African Association was formed, with Williams becoming the first secretary of the association.
After the historic Pan African Conference in London, Williams did not stop at highlighting the conditions of people of African descent. That same year the conference was held, he attended the Anti-Slavery Congress in Paris and was also present at the annual meeting of the National Afro-American Council held in Philadelphia. As secretary of the Pan-African Association, he traveled to Jamaica, Trinidad and the U.S. to create branches of the association.
When he came back to London, he established a monthly journal called The Pan-African, but it only lasted for a few months. In 1903, he traveled to South Africa and became the first Black lawyer to practice in Cape Town. As he defended the interest of Africans under minority white rule, Europeans in the country tagged him as a dangerous person and that forced him to leave.
By 1905, Williams was back in London. He was voted on the St. Marylebone Borough Council in 1906, becoming one of the first Black people to hold public office in England. Two years later, Williams returned to Trinidad where he spent his last years as a lawyer while spreading the word about Africa. Before his death on March 26, 1911, he visited a few African countries, including Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where he came face to face with the living conditions of Africans.
It is quite interesting how a Black man from a working-class background was able to achieve so much amid racial discrimination and oppression, historians say. From Trinidad through to his sojourn in North America, London, South Africa, and then back to London before visiting West Africa and finally returning to Trinidad, Williams’ works did inspire other Black greats as Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James, who fought for Black people’s rights.