Review of Akintola Wyse's H.C. Bankole Bright and Politics in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1919 - 1958


Paul Conton

This book perhaps would have been more appropriately titled, “How the Krio Lost Power in Sierra Leone”. Not that Wyse is uninterested in Herbert Bankole-Bright, the putative Krio nationalist of the 1950s; he does devote a chapter to his early life and highlights his activities frequently throughout the rest of the book. But one suspects that Wyse’s underlying interest here is analyzing how and why power slipped from the Krio’s grasp during the first half of the twentieth century. The ‘1958’ of the title is the year of Bright’s death, just three years before Sierra Leone gained Independence from Britain. The ‘1919’ of the title appears not to be a particularly significant date in Bright’s life. Rather, it was the date when the National Council of British West Africa, NCBWA, the first organized political movement in Sierra Leone, began formation.

In the opening lines of the preface, Wyse refers to his subject affectionately as “Bankie”, and declares that, “…something ought to be done…to repair the neglect with which history has treated this ‘ardent nationalist’”. Given this, given Wyse’s impassioned defense of Krios in another of his major works, “The Krio of Sierra Leone, an Interpretive History” and given Bright’s reputation as a staunch defender of Krio interests, one suspects at the outset that Wyse’s perspective on his subject might be less than neutral and evenhanded. The preface candidly proclaims a “radical revision” and “new interpretations” of Bright’s work and legacy. Wyse’s history then comes from a very definite perspective; this is fair, as long as the facts of the history are outlined in a more or less objective manner.

 Chapter one starts by tracing “Bankie’s” early roots way back to his grandfather, John Bright, a recaptive freed like so many others in Freetown in the 1820s. Wyse treats us to excellent little vignettes of Krio life and customs in the nineteenth century, demonstrating a solid knowledge of the background to his subject and giving numerous examples of the family trading that so transformed the colony in its early years. Thus we learn about “Cutlass” Metzger and “Iron Pot” Coker to add to the already well known Coffee (Wyse says Cocoa! Were they one and the same?) Nicol and Singer Betts. Bankie’s father became Galba Bright. Moving into the early twentieth century (Bankie was born in 1883) Wyse continues to provide a wealth of detail on Krio society as he traces in quick step Bright;s childhood, schooling, wedding and marital life, professional training, medical career and journalistic adventures. All this accomplished in the first twelve or so pages, Wyse turns his attention to the real meat of his book.

Chapter 2 delves into the relationship of the ruled to the rulers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wyse is firm on the subject of British attempts to stifle the Krio. He tells the well-known story of the rise of British racism and the suppression of the Krio within the professions and government service, and makes the point that the British preferred to have the Krio search (and obtain) greener pastures abroad, in other West African possessions, rather than risk having them gain influence and make trouble at home. In particular, the British kept the Krio well away from the administration of the then Protectorate. “…the colonial administration was afraid of Krio influence in the Protectorate…British policy deliberately fostered antagonism between the two peoples.” (p28 – 29). One wishes that Wyse had explored this in more detail, with more examples. The chapter ends with British West Africa’s first generation of educated elites, all educated at the same Sierra Leonean missionary schools (the CMS Grammar School and the Methodist Boys High School), cosmopolitan by virtue of their West African travels and familial links, and eager to achieve a greater share of self determination for their countries.

These first West African intelligentsia then are the founders of the National Congress of British West Africa, the N.C.B.W.A., with branches in each of the four British colonies, and Bankole-Bright becomes one of its young rising stars. He is made secretary of the delegation that goes to London in 1920 to press the British government for political change in the colonies. Although they come away with not much to show for their efforts (having been undermined by the criticisms of the governors back in the colonies), Bright continues to gain in stature within the organization, particularly in its Sierra Leone branch.

In Sierra Leone the Krio have been pressing for a greater share of political power, whilst the British, after the declaration of the Protectorate in 1896 have shown ever greater reluctance to hand power to them. After the turn of the century they are banished from the Executive Council, where previously luminaries like Lewis and Lawson had been influential. In 1924, a new Constitution is introduced in Sierra Leone, which for the first time provides for elected representatives from the Western Area in the Legislative Council; for sixty years before this, from 1863, selected Krio had been appointed by the Governor as minority unofficial members. So, this is a victory of sorts, but the provincial side now a part of Sierra Leone is for the first time given representation, three nominated seats, an ominous signal for those who dream of self-determination for the Colony. Worse is soon to come for the Krio, for the colonial government takes away their mayor and councillors in 1926, possibly in retaliation against the Railway Workers Strike, and places the city council under direct central government control.

Bright is successful as a candidate in these first elections and together with his friend and contemporary, Ernest Beoku-Betts, emerges as a formidable counterpoint to the white colonial administration in the Legislative Council. Contrary perhaps to the popular image, Bright is revealed as a staunch adversary of the British establishment, fighting to wrest control of the fledgling nation’s institutions from recalcitrant white officialdom. From 1924 to 1939 he engages in battle after battle with the British officials who dominate the Legislative Council and sit exclusively in the Executive Council. Naturally he loses most of these battles, but Wyse finds considerable merit in positions he takes. In particular the Krio challenge the dual systems of the Colony and Protectorate - dual systems of political administration, of jurisprudence and of land tenure. Their protests generally fall on deaf ears. Eventually Bright comes to be challenged by his protégé, I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson and falls from power. Wallace-Johnson comes to be seen as an integrationist, ready to reach out to the provincial politician, whereas Bright is seen as fighting to preserve the power of the Krio. Wyse does challenge this view in places, highlighting instances where individual Krio and Krio organizations championed provincial causes, to the displeasure of the British. Bright himself is revealed to have taken up the cause of Sierra Leone’s first provincial doctor when he sought, initially unsuccessfully, to be employed in the government medical service. That doctor of course was Milton Margai, destined to become the country’s first Prime Minister.

Bright comes in again for a second innings in the fifties, fighting a desperate rear-guard action to secure a share of power for the Krio with his National Council of Sierra Leone, NCSL, as Independence approaches. All the while, according to Wyse, there are clear signals that the British are not evenhanded, in fact have long made up their mind against the Krio, whatever the merits of the arguments put to them.

 Wyse can be noticeably indecisive in his point of view, the point of view he himself staked out in the preface. At one point, late in the book, he writes, “Indeed one finds it difficult to explain away the naiveté of Bankie, the utter loss of balance in tilting at the windmill.” And then later in the same paragraph, “…the only excuse we can offer for Bright’s postures is that perhaps his ego refused to accept reality. On the other hand, a reasonable explanation may be that Bright and his party were still suffering from shock – for the Colony people could not get over the stark fact that the British had sold them out.”

Towards the end of the book (pp166 - 168), Wyse can not resist a couple of pages discussing possible debates and doubts among senior British officials in London between 1960 and 1964 (after Bankie had died) about the strength of the British government defense, after the Settlers Descendants Union and others had sued on behalf of the Krio in British courts. It is outside the remit of his title, and his references seem somewhat shaky, but it does make for fascinating reading, strengthening Wyse’s claim that the Krio had been “sold out”.

Does all this matter now in 2017, after so many years? The deeds are done, the die long cast. Does this book offer anything of importance to today’s reader? Well, if Sierra Leone had gone on to become a shining example of prosperity and democracy, maybe not. Maybe one could have then argued convincingly that Bright was a defeatist, separatist ultra-nationalist blowing vainly against the tide of history. The fact is, Sierra Leone has not been the beacon of success for which its supporters at the time had hoped. Bright and his party argued vociferously against the constitutional arrangements then being put in place. The dichotomous arrangements between the former Colony and the former Protectorate are still very much in place, and the disparities between the two regions are, arguably, as great as they ever were.  Might Bright and his supporters have had a solid point then, and even now? A single, independent state implies freedom of movement within the borders of that state. In situations of vast disparity between regions of a single state, where one region is seen by nationals for whatever reasons, rightly or wrongly, de facto or de jure, to be somehow preferable, whether because of differences in economic opportunity or for some other reason, the likely result is large population movements towards the favoured region, with attendant instability. Where there are powerful constituencies that support and/or benefit from these large disparities between regions, conservative, traditional African societies are unable, or at the very least, find it very difficult, to self-correct. This book deserves a reading today if only because the substantive arguments of Bright’s day are still very much with us.