Travel and Adventures of a Victorian Troublemaker: Henry Sylvester Williams

Henry who you say?  His name may have slipped through the annals of history but Henry Sylvestre/Sylvester* Williams was a man whose work back in the day is still echoing over a hundred years after his death.  Hence his life and work merit the number two spot in this series of Five Great, British and Black Moments which is movingblack’s contribution to black history season.

Well, that and it’s in chronological order (number one is here)

The Short Version:


Henry Sylvester Williams

1)  Henry Sylvester Williams  coined the term ‘Pan-African’.

2) When considering the biographies of Sylvestre Williams, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Edward Wilmott Blyden, a group of final-year students at l’Université des Antilles et de la Guyane voted him the Father of Pan-Africanism last year, so it’s official.

3) He organised the First Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, sowing seeds which would yield extraordinary fruit half a century later, long after he’d been forgotten.  Assembled to organise for an end to colonial exploitation and racism, and for self-determination, their warm, formal reception by the British establishment – including a tea with prominent MPs on the terrace of the Houses of Parliament – is basically unthinkable to those agitating for such things today.  The conference was attended by eminent black activists from all over the world, as well as a number of the British political bigwigs of the day – Liberal Party people, Fabian Society folk, the Cobden girls – who believed social justice was for everybody.

The Long Version

Excuse me while I back up a bit.


George Padmore aka Malcolm Nurse

Once upon a time in Barbados (1867 to be exact), a baby boy was born whose family moved to Arouca in Trinidad and Tobago shortly afterwards.  Arouca, is not-coincidentally the same area in which George Padmore, once dubbed ‘the most famous black man in the world’ and a mentor of Kwame Nkrumah would be born three decades later.

In T & T Henry Sylvester Williams grew up, and he would always identify himself as a Trini throughout his life. It’s possible he never actually knew he was born in Barbados.

Young Henry Meets Ghanaian Royalty

As you do, when at boarding school in Port-of-Spain, Sylvester Williams met a political refugee, who was also an African Prince, from Ghana to be precise.  Prince Kofi Intim was the son of overthrown King Kofi Karikari of Asante who had been forced to abdicate, and as fate would have it, was at school with the teenage Henry.  Prince Kofi had seen imperialism at work when he signed on his father’s behalf, with 19 other chiefs, the Treaty of Submission to the British at Cape Coast in Ghana in 1874.  He shared his experiences, memories and thoughts which, as he’d expected to become the 10th King of the Kingdom of Ashanti, may have been plentiful.


The deposed King’s Golden Death Mask

It’s hard to imagine that their conversations had no impact on Sylvester Williams’ later politics, but I’m always up for a surprise.  Arouca in the 1870s and 1880s was after all also home to a large, population of transplanted Africans.  As many had memories of their communities and lives in Africa, and many had lived through the translatlantic slave trade, Sylvester Williams’ environment perhaps enabled him to to construct a full picture of late eighteenth century West Africa, the middle passage, enslavement, emancipation and ‘freedom’.

Growing up in a middle-class family in this colony, his childhood would have been more comfortable than most, but born a descendant of enslaved Africans 30 years after emancipation before meritocracy was idealised, meant opportunities were probably limited.  Literally.

Ambitious Emigration

Early on, however, Henry demonstrated ambition, confidence and a passion for engaging with justice issues, particularly the injustices wrought by agents of colonialism.  After a bout of teaching in Trinidad, and study in the US and Canada (detailed by Barrington Walker here), Henry Sylvestre Williams arrived in London in to pursue studies in Law at Kings College in the 1890s; just before the Law Society closed it’s doors to black members in 1894. He qualified and practised at Gray’s Inn.

Establishing the African Association

Sylvester Williams was nothing if not energetic.  On his third adoptive country since leaving home, he continued undeterred: a rabble-rousing organiser on a mission to ensure that Victoria’s black subjects were conferred with the justice that British notions of fair play promised.  With an aim to

‘encourage a feeling of unity and to facilitate friendly intercourse among Africans in general; to promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent, wholly or in part, in British colonies and other places, especially in 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.’


Alexander Walters

the African Association was formed in September 1897.  Bishop Alexander Walters was the first president, Henry Sylvester Williams was the secretary.

In short, the African Association was concerned with raising awareness among the British public about the truth – i.e. the horrors – Africans in the British Empire suffered so that the government would be moved to fix them.

Not wanting to put their public off from all the serious talk, meetings and social events were held. The society was so successful in its self-set task that in 1898 Liberal party members encouraged the African Association to put forward MPs to forward their cause and advocate in parliament for people in the colonies.  Keir Hardie, the Independent Labour Party’s first MP, would became a longtime friend to the organisation.

Naming Pan-Africanism:  The First Pan-African Conference

After two years of meeting people up and down the UK through a separate lecturing gig he had, it was decided a conference to bring together all the people concerned about the fate of black people should be organised by the African Association. Henry Sylvestre Williams, with his extensive list of contacts in all corners of the Black Atlantic, was the principal organiser and publiciser. He coined the term ‘Pan-African’ and delegates thereafter came to use it.

The First Pan-African Conference had 5 stated aims:

  1. To secure to Africans throughout the world true civil and political rights.
  2. To ameliorate the condition of our brothers on the continent of Africa, America and other parts of the world.

  3. To promote efforts to secure effective legislation and encourage our people in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise

  4. To foster the production of writing and statistics relating to our people everywhere

  5. To raise funds for forwarding these purposes

The First Pan-African Conference took place between Monday 23rd and Wednesday 25th July 1900.  The American WEB Dubois was among them and an important contributor to the debates at the landmark event in Westminster Town Hall but like John Archer, John Alcindor, Anna J Cooper, Henry Francis Downing, many of the 40-odd delegates’ achievements have earned them a wikipedia page a century later. Though they don’t all have one.

Dr. Mandelle Creighton, Bishop of London held a tea party at Fulham Palace, his official residence, for the delegates. Samuel Coleridge Taylor, one of Britain’s most eminent composers provided the musical offering and later joined the committee.  According to DuBois however ‘the visit to the House of Parliament and tea on the Terrace was the crowning honor of the series. Great credit is due our genial secretary, Mr. H. Sylvester Williams, for these social functions.’

Serious Tings

This was not however another, grander African Association social.  Delegates of the First Pan-African Conference presented papers, shared experiences and put forward solutions.  They addressed a number of issues including ‘discrimination, equal rights, self-government, perceived inferiority of black people, progress of the race, inadequate education, exploitation, to identify just a few.’

According to wikipedia, ‘Speakers over the three days addressed a variety of aspects of racial discrimination. Among the papers delivered were: “Conditions Favouring a High Standard of African Humanity” (C. W. French of St. Kitts), “The Preservation of Racial Equality” (Anna H. Jones, from Kansas), “The Necessary Concord to be Established between Native Races and European Colonists” (Benito Sylvain,[12] Haitian aide-de-camp to the Ethiopian emperor), “The Negro Problem in America” (Anna J. Cooper, from Washington), “The Progress of our People” (John E. Quinlan of St. Lucia) and “Africa, the Sphinx of History, in the Light of Unsolved Problems” (D. E. Tobias from the USA).[13] Other topics included Richard Phipps’ complaint of discimination against black people in the Trinidadian civil service and an attack by William Meyer, a medical student at Edinburgh University, on pseudo-scientific racism. Discussions followed the presentation of the papers, and on the last day George James Christian, a law student from Dominica,[14][15] led a discussion on the subject “Organized Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race Their Battlefield”, saying that in the past “Africans had been kidnapped from their land, and in South Africa and Rhodesia slavery was being revived in the form of forced labour.” ‘  In South London-speak, we would describe the delegates as ‘not ramping’ a strong way of saying they pulled no punches.

A Memorable Address

The Conference endorsed an ‘Address to the nations of the world.’ WEB DuBois was chairman of the committee tasked with composing this document which was dispatched to leaders of countries with African subjects.

It was this text which first contained the line ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line’, which would later be re-used by DuBois in the foreword to his magnum opus the Souls of Black Folk.  The address is worth reading in itself (and it’s online here).  I can’t decide whether in 2014 it makes for depressing or encouraging reading.  It is such a simple request for the right to a full humanity that is could easily be made by any anti-racism organisation operating today.

The Address is clearly addressed to a white power structure which it treats with a reverence, which is perhaps more a sign of the etiquette of Victorian England than impropriety.  Of note is that over the next 45 years the hope for a change in attitude from that power structure had diminished in the face of constant evidence that this was Not Going To Happen.

Indeed, one of the reason I chose this conference as Great, Black, British Moment #2 is because it paved the way for the Fifth Pan African Conference, held in 1945 at which representatives of all the soon-to-be independent African and Caribbean nations were present.  There, change was a ‘how’, rather than an ‘if’ question.  And the change proposed in 1945 was far more dramatic.

Anticipating Apartheid

32-131-B4-98-african_activist_archive-a0a8e3-a_14380As well as the address, the First Pan-African Conference also outlined seven items which were then sent to the reigning monarch Queen Victoria on the maltreatment of Black and Coloured people in South Africa for her immediate attention:

  1. The degrading and illegal compound system of native labour in vogue in Kimberley and Rhodesia

  2. The so-called indenture i.e. legalised bondage of native men, women and children to White colonists

  3. The system of compulsory labour on public works

  4. The ‘pass’ or docket system used for people of colour

  5. Local bye laws tending to segregate and degrade the natives – such as the curfew, the denial to the natives the use of the footpaths, and the use of separate public conveyane

  6. Difficulties in acquiring real property

  7. Difficulties in obtaining the franchise

    The First Pan-African Conference thus specifically singled out South Africa as a problem 48 years before the election of the government which would pass the notorious apartheid legislation. The delegates may have foreseen the writing on the wall, but perhaps they had too recent a memory of institutionalised enslavement to not speak out about a situation which appeared so identical.

    Alternatively, the African Association may have simply have been effective in circulating information and fostering friendships across the diaspora.  A certain John Tengo Javabu, an iconic figure in his own right in South African history would become one of Sylvester Williams’ most trusted colleagues in years to come and joined the executive committee member of the Pan-African Association.   Javabu founded and edited the first Xhosa-language newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, and was involved in establishing the University of Fort Hare whose alumni reads like a who’s who of African anticolonial leaders; Mandela, Tambo, Pityana, Nyere and Mugabe to name a few.

At the Conference, the African Association was transformed into the Pan-African Association.  Henry Sylvester Williams began a period of extensive travel after the conference. He travelled to Jamaica, home to Trinidad and the US in 1901 to publicise the conference and establish branches.

This is where it gets really interesting.

On de Road:  Jamaica and Trinidad

joseph robert love

Joseph Robert Love, a Bahamaian in Jamaica

While still in England, Sylvester Williams had been corresponding with a certain Joseph Robert Love who’d arrived in Jamaica after spending 10 years in Haiti, and who Marcus Garvey would later name as a mentor.  In the 1890s Love had set up a radical paper, the Advocate and had organised the People’s Convention (not to be confused with Steve Biko’s Black People’s Convention), an organisation dedicated to changing the plight of Jamaica’s black poor.  Dr. Love welcomed Sylvester Williams and ensured his warm reception by the island’s like-minded folk.  A Jamaican branch of the Pan-African Association was set up, to which the People’s Convention became affiliated.

When he went on to Trinidad, Sylvester Williams established several local branches of the Pan-African Association.  One of his closest colleagues in Trinidad was a chap named James Hubert Alfonso Nurse.  Mr Nurse headed the Arouca branch of the Pan-African Association, and in 1903 would father the boy who would become the renowned young communist and Pan-Africanist known as  George Padmore.

After leaving the Caribbean, Henry Sylvester Williams went on to the US.  There he finally visited Booker T Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, he and Washington had corresponded for several years by this point; although he did not attend the 1900 Conference, Washington had written to several black publications to encourage African-Americans to participate.

Into and Expelled from South Africa

In 1902 Henry Sylvester Williams completed his law studies in England. In 1903 he left London for South Africa to ‘speak truth to power’. Also for work; being a black barrister in London at the turn of the twentieth century was Not Easy and Sylvester Williams found himself defending himself against spurious complaints from legal professionals.

John Tengo Jabavu

John Tengo Jabavu of South Africa, a trusted colleague of HSW

In South Africa, he was admitted to the bar at Cape Colony, but opposed by ‘the legal fraternity.’  Brotherly they were not apparently.  He was nevertheless heralded as a hero for black and coloured South Africans. While working in the Eastern Cape and Cape Town he defended the grandson of the Basuto ruler Moshoeshoe. He later visited Basutoland and stayed with Chief Lerothodi later saying ‘in those parts where no vestige of western civilisation had entered, [he] had enjoyed ‘the best hospitality and kindness from the people’.

Henry Sylvester Williams appeared to leave a mark wherever he went.  The African Political Organisation was established 30th September 1902 in Cape Town.  Despite it’s name it agitated in favour of coloured not black South Africans.  However historians have noted the striking similarity between the APO’s stated aims, and those of the First Pan-African Conference, and the wording of the APO’s Memo to Queen Victoria.  The APO grew rapidly; in Nov 1902 it had 300 members in 5 branches, and two years later 2000 members in 33 branches.  As well as Javabu, Sylvester was in contact with Sol Plaatje, a founding father of the ANC and a number of other South Africans of note.

John Archer's stamp of approval

John Archer’s stamp of approval

Perhaps he was too effective, because Williams was asked to leave South Africa as a result of his political agitating.  Having left his wife and two kids in England, he returned to them in 1905.

Undeterred by his unofficial deportation, he continued his Afro-centric advocacy politics in England. Upon his return, he was elected to serve as a councillor for the St. Marylebone Borough, now the Church Street ward of the City of Westminster, in 1906 – in the same election which saw John Archer first elected in Battersea.  John Archer spent the next twenty years in local politics and was for most of the twentieth century thought to be the first black man to be elected Mayor in 1913.  But historians have recently given that badge to Allan Glaisyer Minns who was elected leader of the council and therefore Mayor of Thetford, Norfolk ten years earlier, in 1904.  For now.

And then

Henry Sylvestre Williams died in 1911 in Port of Spain aged only 44. He left behind a wife, Agnes Powell Williams, and five children.  The family had been in Trinidad for a few years and Sylvester Williams had set up a successful legal practice which had two offices at the time of his death.   Between the relocation to Trinidad and Tobago and departure from England, Henry Sylvester Williams had managed one final trip; he accepted an invitation to visit Liberia extended by the  President.

Was it worth it?


Memorial Plaque unveiled on the Fifth conference’s 60th anniversary. Speedy like.

The Pan-African Association did not flourish, and its journal, The Pan-African was also short-lived.  The resolutions and Address of the conference fell on deliberately deaf ears.  The conference’s success lay in the articulation of its ambitions, in the networking it produced and the ideas it debated and enacted.  At a time when European and American intelligentsia was growing increasingly enamoured by eugenics, when pseudo-scientific racism was making strides, the counter-discourse of the early Pan-Africanists and the First Pan-African Conference would reverberate and influence generations of black thinkers around the world for well over a century.

After Williams’ early death, WEB DuBois tried to revive the ideal of Pan-African assembling and a series of congresses were held between 1918 and 1929.  But none had the prestige of the the First Pan-African Conference, which had also been attended by non-Africans involved in anti-racist work, the suffrage movement and other social justice concerns.

In Their Own Words

The First Conference was covered in the mainstream British press.  Many people were astonished to find that Africans could articulate their own problems and conceive of possible solutions by simply working together.   Only 15 years after another Conference in Berlin had believed itself empowered to carve up Africa with a ruler, an assembly of African people asserted

‘Let the British nation, the first modern champion of Negro Freedom, hasten to crown the work of Wilberforce, and Clarkson, and Buxton, and Sharpe, 2 Bishop Colenso, and Livingstone, and give, as soon as practicable, the rights of responsible government to the black colonies of Africa and the West Indies…Let the nations of the World respect the integrity and independence of the first Negro States of Abyssinia, Liberia, Haiti, and the rest, and let the inhabitants of these States, the independent tribes of Africa, the Negroes of the West Indies and America, and the black subjects of all nations take courage, strive ceaselessly, and fight bravely, that they may prove to the world their incontestible right to be counted among the great brotherhood of mankind.’

and they added


Henry Sylvester Williams – almost written out of history

‘if, by reason of carelessness, prejudice, greed and injustice, the black world is to be exploited and ravished and degraded, the results must be deplorable, if not fatal—not simply to them, but to the high ideals of justice, freedom and culture which a thousand years of Christian civilization have held before Europe.’

Prince Kofi Intim’s homeland Ghana would become the first colonised continental African country to become independent in 1957. Kwame Nkrume, a strident Pan-Africanist, was the former Gold Coast Colony’s first President.  One of Nkrumah’s closest advisers?  A certain George Padmore, whose father was a close associate of Henry Sylvester Williams, principal organiser of the First Pan-African Conference held in Westminster Hall, London 23rd-25th July 1900.

* His descendants use Sylvestre Williams, but dude used Sylvester Williams most of his life.  His name is sometimes hyphenated too.  All the same dude tho.

**This post comes to you primarily thanks to research and books by Ronald Courtney Noel, Marika Sherwood, Owen Mathurin, JR Hooker and Barrington Walker**

2 thoughts on “Travel and Adventures of a Victorian Troublemaker: Henry Sylvester Williams

  1. Pingback: Who in Harlem or Port-of-Spain Remembers Claudia Jones? | movingblack

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