Image – reproduced courtesy of Hakim Adi & the British Library
By Henry Dee
In 1908, a footnote in a book about a missionary skeptically quipped: “His Highness Prince Bandele Ominiyi (A West African educated at Edinburgh University)…claims social and political equality for all adult British subjects in Africa, irrespective of race, creed or colour. He also advocates the fusion of the black and white races by intermarriage…The essential difficulties of the [‘Native’] problem are entirely ignored.” (Wells, 1909).
Reforms, rebellions and remappings throughout the decade 1900-1910 shook Nigerian-born intellectual Bandele Omoniyi’s imperial world. In 1902 the newly-formed West African Medical Staff excluded African doctors from employment in their home colonies – and black Edinburgh-educated doctors, who had been integral to the colonial medical service from the 1820s, were now left stranded with rapidly reduced employment opportunities (Johnson, 2010).
In 1906, the Bambata Rebellion – the last armed revolt against British rule in South Africa – sparked a crescendo of white scaremongering about an international conspiracy of independent ‘Ethiopianist’, African American-led churches that wanted to overthrow white rule and claim ‘Africa for the Africans’ (Marks, 1970). And over the second half of the decade the bureaucratic amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria created a “new colonial order” that displaced and rejected established rulers, customs and tradition, and alienated land, raised unemployment and water rates in his home town of Lagos (Adi, 1979).
In response Omoniyi, living in Edinburgh, consistently put forward a coherent reformist agenda for progressive imperialism, integrating black nationalism and Fabian socialism, to demand continuity as well as change.
Writing numerous critical letters, and publishing as many as four books (including A Defence of the Ethiopian Movement, Socialism Examined and Is the Negro a Beast?), Omoniyi produced a body of work that envisaged a British empire where black Edinburgh doctors continued to play a prominent role, at the same time as he demanded freedom of speech, absolute equality before the law, and an end to job discrimination, economic exploitation and military intervention; the abolition of hut and poll taxes, the widening of the franchise in the colonies, and an increase in the number of African members of the legislative councils, and defended the black nationalist Ethiopian Movement, so that a “renovated Africa will take her place amongst the nations of the world.” (Adi, 1979, p582).
Far from ‘ignoring essential difficulties’, Ethiopianism was the articulate response of numerous black Edinburgh students to being banned from medical practice in the British Empire – a response from a cohort of junior doctors who wanted to be successful black Britons, ‘men of the empire’, but who instead became ‘radicals’. Drawing parallels with white political activists in Britain, Omoniyi did “not think that any movement by the natives to support their natural rights can be regarded as seditious…there are hundreds of movements today in the different parts of the United Kingdom to make right what is wrong, and why the natives would not all as a man unite to make right the present wrong is what I fail to see.” (Lagos Standard, 1906).
Fearing future marginalisation he warned, prophetically, that “if the present state of things were to continue in which [the black man] simply lives in dread of the white man’s maxim guns, the least chance that he may have will be used in plotting against those he lives in constant dread of, and who can say what tomorrow may bring…” (Omoniyi, 1908, p80)
Bandele Omoniyi was born in Lagos in November 1884. He often referred to himself as ‘Prince’ and claimed to be the nephew of the ‘present King Lupono of Modakeke’ – though government reports claimed his father was only a ‘headman of a gang of day labourers at the Lagos customs’. His father, Aina Omoniyi, did nevertheless own land in Lagos and received funds from the government for its compulsory purchase. This money funded Bandele Omoniyi’s travel to Europe and medical education.
Bandele Omoniyi lived in Liverpool throughout 1905 and early 1906, and it is possible that he first came to study at the newly-opened School of Tropical Medicine there rather than Edinburgh. In Liverpool, Omoniyi connected with members of Ethiopian Progressive Association and first came to public prominence. In February 1906 he wrote to the editor of the Lagos Standard complaining about the lack of West African support for this newly-formed association, an organisation that looked to teach “our governments that taxation without representation is tyrannical”.
Devotion to literary works
Omoniyi enrolled as a student at Edinburgh Faculty of Medicine in the academic year 1906-1907, but gave up his studies in the middle of the year “to devote himself to literary work in support of the claims of his countrymen.”(Adi, 1979, p583). Omoniyi’s literary engagement with socialism whilst he was still a student was “something of a new departure for West Africans”, but started a rich tradition of ‘African Socialism’ among Edinburgh alumni stretching from South African Yusuf Dadoo in 1920s to East African Julius Nyerere in the 1950s and ‘60s (Adi, 1979, p592). African American and Caribbean influences on ‘Ethiopianism’ have been well established, but early British (and in particular Edinburgh) connections have not been thoroughly explored (Shepperson, 1958).
Both Omoniyi and Peter Nyambo from Malawi spent time in Edinburgh between 1904 and 1906 and were secretaries of missionary Joseph Booth’s British Christian Union for West and Central Africa respectively (Adi, 1979). Whilst Nyambo went on to become the founding assistant general secretary of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), the first major black trade union in Southern Africa, and president of the Cape Town Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Omoniyi wrote pioneering tracts integrating Ethiopianism and socialism – linking the latter to “the equality of freedom and opportunity of all races.” (Adi, 1979). Addressing the ‘Labour Question in Africa’, Omoniyi compelled readers of the Lagos Standard in February 1906 to “compare the conditions and treatments of the working classes in all the departments all over the coasts of Africa with those in other places and thereby try with all possible efforts to insure a change of condition of things for the better…” (Lagos Standard, 1906).
The improvement of the working class masses he claimed, “rests principally upon themselves and is mainly dependent on their realising that ‘Unity is Strength’” calling for “one great community for the general good of Africa”, pre-empting Marcus Garvey’s slogan ‘’One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” and the ICU’s aim of organising all African workers into ‘One Big Union’ (Barlett, 2012).
Unlike the more militant interwar ‘agitation’ of Garvey and Nyambo, however, Omoniyi maintained belief in the ‘supremacy of parliament’ and reformist, Fabian socialism. Incorporating key passages of Labour MP Kier Hardie’s ‘Zulu letter’ to fellow African Edinburgh student Bankole Bright, Omoyini declared “the Empire is greatly absorbed in African questions, which is due to the war going on presently in South Africa.” (Lagos Standard, 1906). The Zulu cause “was that of the oppressed resolved to be free”, but was criticised by British officials who used talk of “sedition and mutiny to excuse their own acts of oppression.”
For Omoniyi, the Bambata Rebellion was due to internal government policies of the land-grabbing Glen Grey Act, the coercive labour-creating hut and poll taxes and the segregatory pass laws – not Ethiopian Christianity (a view borne out by later historiography) – but nevertheless the “Natives should be incited to renewed efforts for a better national life in no revolutionary or theoretical way but in a thoroughly conservative and practical spirit.” (Shepperson, 1968). For him, self-rule did “not in any way imply secession from the mother Country” – and, trying to maintain position within the British empire at a time when opportunities were being taken away, he argued that “a true British course will certainly benefit both countries.”
Omoniyi was however bitterly set against the racist “servants of the system” or “the man on the spot”, who was “[d]estructive and despotic of Africa, but also un-British and suicidal to Britain” – in particular the white doctors in Africa who were by-and-large the dregs of the imperial medical school system. As noted by Adi, Omoniyi’s ‘Ethiopianism’ was a common trait of early African nationalists and even British liberals – but it also arguably reflects the specifics of imperial medical labour market, with Edinburgh and Liverpool’s early Ethiopian Associations dominated by African doctors, who pointed out 1902 that “as citizens of the British Empire, West Africans have for over a hundred years enjoyed full rights and privileges of British citizenship” and that “under the enlightened rule of Great Britain almost every civil post of West Africa has, in the past, been accessible to competent West Africans.” (Johnson, 2010, p246). After being petitioned Alexander Simpson, the dean of Edinburgh’s medical faculty, pointed out that the “European parentage” requirement would “leave the door open to French, German, Italian and other Europeans…whilst it would exclude qualified candidates hailing from the various Colonies of the British Empire…such Colonials have done well in their various classes, and have proved themselves fully qualified in their professional examinations, it would seem a hardship that they should be excluded from official services in any part of His Majesty’s Empire because of their parentage.” (Johnson, 2010, p246). Setting himself within the British world, a meticulous Omoniyi critiqued colonial officials, setting out in 1908: “I have never attempted, nor will I ever attempt to prove that the British rule is either unjust or impartial. But I have said and will say that the British representatives have been unfaithful to the charge committed to them.” (Adi, 1979, p593).
Omoniyi died in 1912 of acute beriberi in Brazil. (Adi, 1979). But against the dog-whistle scaremongering of the white imperial Britain, he had critically defended Ethiopianism as “a struggle between those who recognise their claims to an equal participation in social and political rights with others, and those who for themselves and their order assert a certain fictitious superiority of race, and claim for it as a consequence of causes, however accidental, exclusive consideration and special privileges and immunities, who are being impelled to this injustice and impolicy by the aggrandisement of power, the tendency of the greater to swallow up the less.” (Omoniyi, 1908). He wanted to avoid “a Blackman’s Republic” – a thesis that swept throughout a disgruntled black British world in the interwar years (promoted by Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and James La Guma of the ICU and Communist Party of South Africa) seriously threatening to overthrow white rule.
For Omoniyi, British “talk of ‘the blessings of civilisation’” was “nothing short of the demoralisation of the natives by gin, oppression and disease”, and Britain’s so-called “tender mercy for the Black Man” had “taxed him without representation, made him a beast of burden, and kept him in ignorance lest he rebel[s]” – but he did want the British empire in Africa to endure in a ‘renovated’ manner (Edinburgh Magazine, 1907). Omoniyi’s reformist demands were “only such as must be conceded if constitutional freedom and progress are to develop among the native African people and serious trouble and woe to be averted.” (Labour Leader).
The white-dominated British world, however, chose another path. The failure of his moderate, reformist proposals to gain traction, together with the closing down of employment opportunities, meant Omoniyi’s post-World War I intellectual successors – including Peter Nyambo, and Edinburgh medical graduates Dr Monty Naicker and Dr Yusuf Dadoo – had to make much more radical allegiances and militant demands; connections that reached out across the Atlantic to the international labour movement, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and to communist Russia.
Adi, H, 1979, Bandele Omoniyi – A Neglected Nigerian Nationalist, African Affairs, 90:361, pp. 581-605.
Barlett, C, 2012, Unity is Strength: Labor, Race, Garveyism, and the 1920 Panama Canal Strike’, The Global South, 6:2, p39-64
Edinburgh Magazine 2 February 1907
Wells, J, 1909. Stewart of Lovedale: The Life of James Stewart, London.
Johnson, R., 2010, An All-White Institution”: Defending Private Practice and the Formation of the West African Medical Staff, Medical History, 54.
Lagos Standard, 8 August 1906.
Marks, S, 1970. Reluctant Rebellion: The 1906 Disturbances in Natal
Omoniyi, B, 1908. A defence of the Ethiopian movement
Shepperson, G, 1958, Independent African: John Chilembwe and the Origins, Setting and Significance of the Nyasaland Native Rising of 1915.
Shepperson, G, 1968, ‘Ethiopianism: Past and Present’ in CG Baeta (ed.) Christianity in Tropical Africa, Oxford.