An article by guest contributor Danell Jones*
Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 28 November 1877. When he was quite young, his mother became a school headmistress in the Gambia and left the boy in the care of her father, John Merriman, a much admired schoolmaster in Freetown. Merriman-Labor attended the Church Missionary Society’s Grammar School in Freetown where he was an exceptionally able student. However, lack of money forced him to abandon his studies at sixteen. He moved to the Gambia, taught school, and published his first literary work: a “novelette” entitled Building Castles in the Air. He was not yet eighteen when it appeared in the Gambia Intelligencer in 1895. Later, he returned to Sierra Leone, passed the civil service exam, and began working as a clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s office.
During the Hut Tax War (1898), he served as a private with the Sierra Leone Volunteer Corps. Later that year he published a pamphlet about that war called The Last Military Expedition in Sierra Leone; or British Soldiers and West African Native Warriors, in which he identified the author as “An Africanised Englishman.” The work caused a sensation on the West Coast. The Lagos Weekly Record marvelled that the story was “not tinged with a particle of prejudice, and for once in the history of the wars waged by the civilized nations of Europe against native tribes, the world is favoured with a truthful account” (Lagos Weekly Record, 21 January 1899, p 5).
Merriman-Labor published A Series of Lectures on the Negro Race, Funeral Oration, and The Story of the African Slave Trade in a Nutshell. He also wrote a biography of his grandfather John Merriman and a play Court Life in Egypt, both of which have been lost. In 1903 he edited the Handbook of Sierra Leone, a guide to the colony. Well-received and profitable, proceeds from this book helped pay for his travel to Great Britain.
Merriman-Labor arrived in London in March 1904. By the end of April he began studying law at Lincoln’s Inn. Convinced the best way to help Africans was by assisting them to increase their wealth, he founded the African General Agency while pursuing his legal studies. The chief aim of the agency was to help Africans do business in Great Britain and Europe. Merriman-Labor travelled widely in the U.K. and abroad visiting manufacturers, making contacts, developing business relationships, and meeting fellow Africans. He published letters about his experiences in the Sierra Leone Weekly News.
In March 1907 he coordinated with a number of Britons and Africans to arrange a centenary celebration of the abolition of the slave trade. Three hundred people gathered in Westminster Abbey on the afternoon of March 25th, including direct descendants of three British abolitionists, two members of parliament, as well as representatives of important African, religious, and social justice organizations.
Merriman-Labor poured his time and energy into the African General Agency. When, in mid-1907, the benchers of Lincoln’s Inn discovered he was engaged in trade — an activity contrary to their policies — his name was struck from the books of the society. They demanded he shut down the agency if he desired to continue his studies. Taking a substantial financial loss, Merriman-Labor closed the agency and embarked on a 10,000 mile lecture tour through West and South Africa. When he returned to London, he used the money he earned on this successful tour to be called to the bar in May 1909.
In the fall of 1909, he published Britons Through Negro Spectacles or A Negro on Britons, with a description of London, a satirical travelogue and portrait of life in Britain. It was reviewed in a handful of British and African publications. British reviews were brief and pedestrian, except for one scathing notice in the Law Journal. The African reviews were longer, but mixed. The Jamaica Times thought it had “shrewd comments on English manners and customs from the point of view of an educated African” (23 October 1909).
The failure of Britons Through Negro Spectacles threw Merriman-Labor deep into debt. Unable to pay his bills, he escaped to Wales and was listed as a student at the African Institute in Colwyn Bay in late 1910. Unfortunately, the African Institute was also failing financially, and soon he was back in London [see page 009]. Unable to earn enough to survive, he began borrowing from moneylenders. For reasons that are unclear, he abandoned his name at this time and became known as Augustus Merriman. In 1913 he was forced into bankruptcy.
He returned to Africa in the summer of 1914 for another lecture tour which he undoubtedly hoped would restore his finances. But weak ticket sales in Freetown and the threat of war in Europe undermined the tour before it had even started. Merriman-Labor came back to London days before the outbreak of World War I. Unable to generate interest in a new book on West African commerce, he became an inspector at the Royal Arsenal armaments factory at Woolwich. After a complaint to the benchers from a legal client, he was disbarred by Lincoln’s Inn in 1915. The following year, his petition to the Lord Chief Justice to overturn the disbarment was dismissed. He continued to work at the Woolwich Arsenal throughout the war, changed his name to Ohlohr Maiji (or Maigi), and kept writing. He died in the Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary on 14 July 1919 of tuberculosis. It is not known where he is buried. Several book manuscripts — Merriman’s West African Annual, Tour Through Negroland, and My Earliest Miscellany — were never published and it is not known whether the manuscripts survive.
* Danell Jones’s poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in various publications. She lives in Billings, Montana, and is co-founder of the Big Sky Writing Workshops. Awarded the Jovanovich Prize for poetry and a finalist for the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Poetry Prize, the New Women’s Voices Competion, and the PEN/Nelson Algren in Fiction, she is the author of The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop. Dr Jones became interested in the life of Merriman-Labor when researching Virginia Woolf’s participation in the Dreadnought Hoax of 1910.
IN JUNE 2018 THE BIOGRAPHY WAS PUBLISHED IN LONDON: An African in Imperial London. The Indomitable Life of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor by Danell Jones, published by C. Hurst and Co., London hb £25 ISBN 978 1 8490 960 3
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