The phenomenon of ‘Black Classicism’, as Emily Greenwood and Judith Hallett have severally suggested, involves transformation of the classical inheritance as well as a commitment to its transmission in circumstances that rendered such activity nearly impossible. This paper examines two West African nationalists who worked at redefining the classical repertoire as part of their resistance to British colonialism.
Nineteenth century missionary education in West Africa, geared to producing African converts and indigenous pastors, taught English to many pupils but also offered Latin and Greek to selected African boys. Edward Wilmot Blyden of Liberia, and James Beale Africanus Horton of Sierra Leone, were among the West African leaders of the late nineteenth century who turned their classical learning to highly politicised account. Hegel had authoritatively stated that Africa had no history, and British colonial sources assumed that West Africa would be occupied by Europeans for centuries, but West African intellectuals resisted these tenets by constructing a discourse in which Africans claimed a history for their continent, and proposed a future for Africa without European incursion. While much of their rhetoric is cast in terms drawn from the Bible, references to classical antiquity are also very important in their various writings.
In this paper I shall briefly introduce the figures of Horton and Blyden, before rereading some of the references to classical antiquity in their works. I shall show how such references helped to construct the writer’s authority, but also to undercut European pretensions, to rewrite European history, to reassess the relations between Africa and Europe, and to imagine a non-colonial future for West Africa.