2019 High Plains Book Award for Nonfiction
Until now, the story of this forgotten pioneer of African literature has been a mystery. For the first time, An African in Imperial London describes the tragic spiral that pulled this remarkable man down the social ladder from barrister to munitions worker, from witty observer of the social order to patient in a state-run hospital for the poor.
The book provides an intimate view of London through African eyes as Merriman-Labor navigates streets bustling with millionaires made rich by South African gold mines, suffragettes demanding the vote, and destitute women selling matches to feed their starving children.
An African in Imperial London reveals London as a world of diversity, ingenuity, and struggle–a great read for anyone interested in how life really was in early 20th-century Britain.
An African in Imperial London
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Elegantly written and meticulously researched. This is an important addition to the history of Africans in Britain.
Historical rigour, literary skill and a deep sense of humanity pervades this splendid biography.
The moving and surprising story of A.B.C. Merriman-Labor.
Written with great verve… an enlightening account of what it meant to be black in the most powerful country in the world.
A brilliant biography.
An Excerpt From the Book
Chapter 1: The Voyage Out
Augustus Merriman-Labor stood on the threshold of his grandfather’s shabby house on Bombay Street. It was the dry season, and the parched breeze had already made the morning hot. In just a few hours, he would steam away from Freetown, a municipality of fewer than thirty-five thousand people, toward London, a city of six million souls—the biggest, richest metropolis in the world.
He had lived in this house nearly all his life. He knew the feel of each floor mat, the familiar scent of fufu and jollof rice rising from the outdoor kitchen through glassless windows, the exact weight of the family Bible. His grandfather had been dead four years, but he could still hear the man’s stick tapping up the red dirt road. Blind for as long as Merriman-Labor could remember, Father Merriman had never bowed to the darkness. He met it straight on and taught his grandson to do the same. He educated him in the works of William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer and affirmed for him each day that black skin was noble in the eyes of God. Despite his lack of material goods, Father Merriman educated his grandson as a man of intelligence and wisdom, giving him the intellectual and spiritual skills to hold his own in the world. At twenty, Merriman-Labor confidently quoted from Lucretius, Patere honoris scirent ut cuncti viam: “the way to honor is open to all.” And when he wrote soaringly of the potential of the black race, he knitted his own high ambitions into his vision of the future. “Before long,” he declared, black people will “be deservingly and universally crowned with such superabundance of honours as will make [them] for ever ‘a name, a landmark on the cliff of fame.’”
Wearing a fashionable suit from Curzon Brothers of London and carrying a blue billet de seconde classe in his jacket pocket, Merriman-Labor watched the white pennant flag flutter up the pole on Tower Hill. It signaled the arrival of the Belgian steamer S.S. Anversville, the ship that would take him three thousand miles north on the longest journey of his life. In twelve or fourteen days, depending on the weather, he would be in London.
London. The sacred source of every book Merriman-Labor had ever read, the maps he studied, the hymns he sang in church, the white baby dolls his nieces rocked, the Christmas tins filled with biscuits and gingerbread, and the humble enameled cups emblazoned with portraits of the King and Queen found in Freetown kitchens. It was the home of romance, culture, and justice. It was the sacred homeland of his Anglican God, and the destination of affluent Africans in search of culture and learning.