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31-03-2015, 05:41

Horton, James Africanus Beale (1835-1883)

Sierra Leonean Scientist and Patriot

Medical doctor and researcher, army officer, administrator, geologist, mining entrepreneur, banker, and political scientist, Horton grew up in a society in which skin color was no barrier to advancement. Senior official posts, including that of governor, were held at this period by men of African descent. In London, the War Office, alarmed by the high mortality rate among army medical officers in West Africa, decided to recruit Africans. Horton was chosen with two others (one died in England) to study medicine at King’s College, London. From there he went on to Edinburgh University where in 1859 he graduated with a doctorate. He at once published his doctoral thesis, The Medical Topography of the West Coast of Africa, adding on the title page the name “Africanus” (Beale, his former headmaster’s name, he had already adopted), to identify himself as an African.

Horton and his fellow student William Davies were then given commissions in the army. He was posted to the Gold Coast (Ghana) where he spent most of his army career. In the early years he was ill treated by his fellow officers, who resented his presence and persuaded the War Office not to appoint any more African medical officers. But it could not be denied that he carried out his military duties efficiently, including service in the Anglo-As ante wars of 1863-64 and 1873-74. He also acted regularly as an administrative officer in the districts where he was stationed. Wherever he went he conducted medical, botanical, and geological research.

During this time, the British government was considering a political reorganization of the West African colonies, and possibly a withdrawal from them. Horton began formulating his political ideas in a brief pamphlet published in 1865. In 1866 he went on leave to England, and there published three books; two were medical: Physical and Medical Climate and Meteorology of the West Coast of Africa (1867) and Guinea Worm, or Dracunculus (1868). The third was his best-known work, West African Countries and Peoples (1867). He subtitled it A Vindication of the African Race and began by contesting the theories of white racial supremacy that were then becoming prevalent. These he refuted empirically and showed to be groundless. There next followed a blueprint for the political reorganization of West Africa. He envisioned its peoples developing as self-governing nations and outlined appropriate constitutions for each, based on his own estimates of their political and economic potential. They included those under not only British rule but the Yoruba country, already under Christian missionary influence, and even his own ancestral Igbo country, still virtually unknown to Europeans. They would at first be under British protection but ultimately form a united West Africa, with its own government and legislature, a proposal for which he has been hailed as a pioneer of Pan-Africanism. For his plans to succeed, the rich, neglected, economic resources of West Africa would have to be developed, and the proceeds spent on sanitary and health measures as well as providing universal education.

On return, he was able to make a start toward putting his plans into practice. The Fante peoples were becoming dissatisfied with the British authorities, and in 1868 the leading chiefs and businessmen formed a “Fanti Confederation” to protect their interests. Horton saw in their initiative the nucleus of his self-governing West Africa and sent the Colonial Office a series of letters, published as Letters on the Political Condition of the Gold Coast (1870), urging that the confederation be officially recognized and drafting for it a constitution, which was adopted in modified form. However, the British authorities refused to recognize the confederation, and its members fell to quarreling; within a couple of years it had dissolved.

Horton gave up political writing. In 1874 he published a comprehensive medical reference work, The Diseases of Tropical Climates and their Treatment, with a revised edition appearing in l879. His activities had now become increasingly entrepreneurial. Using his knowledge of geology, he located potential goldfields, obtained mining concessions from chiefs, surveyed a potential railway line to link them and, with an associate in London, floated companies to exploit them. In 1880 he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and returned to Freetown, where he had bought a large mansion, to devote himself to his business interests. He also opened a bank. His years of service had been regularly punctuated with illness. His health worsened, and on October 15,1883, he died of the infectious disease erysipelas.

Horton married twice: in 1862 to Fannie Pratt, daughter of a wealthy recaptive, who died in 1865, and again in 1875 to Selina Elliott, a member of one of the old Freetown settler families. He left an elaborate will, endowing with his substantial fortune an institution to provide scientific and technological education in Freetown. But for the next thirty years his relatives contested it, the value of his mining investments collapsed, and his institution was never founded. Meanwhile his dreams of West African self-government were swept away by the racially stratified colonial rule of the early twentieth century. Only in the era of decolonization was his work again recognized. His emphasis on the need for governments to invest in economic development, public health, and education, and his pioneer Pan-Africanism fitted the policies and aspirations of the new African states; he was recognized belatedly for his achievements and vision.

Christopher Fyfe

See also: Du Bois, W. E. B., and Pan-Africanism; Organization of African Unity (OAU) and PanAfricanism.


James Africanus Beale Horton was born on June 1, 1835, in Sierra Leone, at Gloucester village, in the mountains above Freetown. His parents, James and Nancy Horton, were Igbo recaptives, among the thousands captured by the British navy from slave ships in transit across the Atlantic and liberated in Sierra Leone. His father was a carpenter who, like most recaptives, took a European name and became a Christian. He attended the village school and in 1847 was given a scholarship to the Church Missionary Society Grammar School in Freetown. In 1853 he left for Fourah Bay Institution (later College) to study for the Anglican ministry. He published several books and is generally considered a pioneer of Pan-Africanist thought. He died of the infectious disease erysipelas on October 15,1883.

Further Reading

Fyfe, C. Africanus Horton: West African Scientist and Patriot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

-. “Africanus Horton as a Constitution-Maker.” The

Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. 26, no. 2 (1988): 173-184.

. A History of Sierra Leone. London: Oxford University

Press, 1962.

Geiss, I. The Pan-African Movement. London: Methuen, 1974. Horton, A. B. Letters on the Political Condition of the Gold Coast. London: Frank Cass, 1970.

-. West African Countries and Peoples. Edinburgh:

Edinburgh University Press, 1969.

Nicol, D. Africanus Horton: The Dawn of Natzonalism in Modern Africa. London: Longman, 1969.