OAn Introduction to A.B.C. Merriman-Labor’s
Britons Through Negro Spectacles
by Danell Jones
A Walk Around London
The artistry and audacity of Sierra Leonean writer A.B.C. Merriman-Labor’s 1909 Britons Through Negro Spectacles was overlooked for more than a hundred years. Until it was republished by Penguin in 2022, it had been largely forgotten. Too shrewd a statement on the colonial mindset and racism of its times, this voice from the margins has finally found its moment. It is one of the most fascinating books you’ve never heard of.
It’s guiding conceit is a walk around London on a summer’s day. Merriman-Labor, who has lived in the great metropolis for five years, serves as guide to his newly arrived friend, tellingly named Africanus. As they pass landmarks, observe the denizens of the streets, and discuss British manners, the city’s famous clocks toll, marking the passing day. Nine years before James Joyce strolled Leopold Bloom around Dublin and sixteen years before Virginia Woolf ambled Clarissa Dalloway through the West End, Merriman-Labor walked arm-and-arm with Africanus from Poultry Street to Hyde Park.
The book evolved from a magic lantern lecture Merriman-Labor gave during a 15,000-mile tour through Africa the previous fall. He presented this “witty, chatty, humorous, instructive, and entertaining” talk in halls, courthouses, church basements, and schoolrooms all over the continent, laughingly calling it, “Five Years with the White Man.” The title instantly announced it as a send-up of popular European books about Africa bearing titles like Five Years with the Congo Cannibals or Three Years in Savage Africa. Given his “favorable reception” from “hundreds of Europeans and thousands of Africans,” he felt certain he’d hit on a winning approach. As soon as he was back in London, he revised the lecture into a book, confident it would propel him into literary fame. He was no stranger to literary success. A pamphlet he had published in 1898 about an African rebellion had created a sensation in British West Africa, securing his reputation there as an important writer. Now he wanted to prove at the heart of empire that a black writer was as talented and capable as a white one.
A Cheeky Portrait
Britons Through Negro Spectacles is a cheeky portrait of London and its people. In 1965, the literary critic Eldred Jones referred to it as “another of those surprises which Africa has always been springing on enquirers and seekers,” noting its essential quality as “hearty irreverent good humour.” One immediately recognizes Merriman-Labor’s ease with his identities as a Sierra Leone Krio, a pan-African, a British subject, and a satirical writer, and this nexus gives him the confidence to remark frankly on the greatest city in the British empire. As Jones puts it, Merriman-Labor is “suitably impressed but never overawed by the magnificent institutions of England,” even as he “pokes fun, cocks the occasional snook, and gives unreserved praise where each is appropriate.” For the reader well versed in the racism and violence of empire, the book seems a miracle of goodwill, insightful critique, and silliness.
This pun-packed book belies the hostile reception it received in some quarters when it was published. The Law Journal called it unpleasant to read, lacking in genuine humor, insulting to the legal profession, and concluded that it was “valueless.” The Daily Express summed it up as “low jests” from a “crude pen.” It was essentially blacklisted in South Africa when a black newspaper editor took its gentle mockery of British culture as inflammatory and prevented it from being circulated. It might “create a feeling in the heart of black men akin to that of contempt toward those by whom he must be ruled,” the editor wrote, and disturb the “equilibrium so indispensable” to both races.
The book’s forty-seven short chapters move quickly from satire and silliness to history and argument and back. “You may… expect to find…much sense and nonsense,” he warns his readers, “facts and fiction,—the old, the new and the ‘ novel’ concerning Britons and Blacks.” Aspiring to reach the largest possible audience, Merriman-Labor infuses Britons With Negro Spectacles with the joyful frivolity of the music hall. The comic word play, satire, innuendo, mildly risqué jokes, even the intimacy with the reader, suggests the Edwardian comedian winking at his audience as he entertains them with his saucy wit.
Yet for all his jokiness, Merriman-Labor understood himself first and foremost a social observer and public moralist. He adopted the role of humorist as the most effective way to make his social commentary heard by those who might resist it. He makes clear in his introduction his ultimate purpose. “One of my aims in writing is not so much to be humorous,” he confesses, as “to reveal such truths as may be best spoken in jests.” As a black man whose views may not be welcome by a white audience, he believes “that the world will be better prepared to hear me if I come in the guise of a jester.”
Social Observer and Public Moralist
At a time when blackface minstrel shows were popular, Merriman-Labor rejects this humiliating form of humor. Looking to elevate the status of Africans in the world, he wants nothing to do with a role that portrays people of African descent as grotesque clowns, whose stupidity, coarseness, and strange dialect littered with malapropisms prove their inferiority to whites. He refuses to be the shuffling, deferential, foolish black man. Instead, he is an eloquent, educated, sophisticated man of the world, a master of facts as well as style. Demonstrating his command of British culture, he effortlessly entwines Britons through Negro Spectacles with allusions to British literature, history, geography, and hymns. His most frequent allusions are Biblical. He is not a spectacle to be laughed at like the blackface minstrel, but a man to be reckoned with.
The comedy of Britons through Negro Spectacles has blinded some readers to its serious aims. In its day, it was taken as a “very acceptable piece of light-reading,” worth an “hour or two of quiet amusement” but nothing more. Taking it as fluff, readers have missed the ways Merriman-Labor ingeniously reversed the usual Euro-centric view of the world. He created a book where the African experience is taken as normal, and Britain is the strange, exotic place that readily reveals its deficiencies. Britons may have considered Africa a place of immorality, irrationality, laziness, and impiety, but as he strolls with Africanus through London Merriman-Labor reveals that these same failings can be readily seen every day in the “first metropolis in the British Empire.”
For his Krio readers in Sierra Leone, Merriman-Labor’s London bears little resemblance to their idealized vision of the great metropolis, venerated as the height of refinement, sophistication, and “civilization.” Examined through observant Negro spectacles, London is not wholly the sacred home of art, culture, and Anglicanism, but also a profane world where prostitutes haunt Piccadilly Circus, the sabbath goes unobserved, the lonely advertise for companionship, drunks meet to “commune with Bacchus,” couples openly “spoon” in Hyde Park and self-proclaimed messiahs father illegitimate children while throngs of horses dump a stinking layer of excrement on busy streets. Here the rich flaunt their wealth, while an emaciated woman stands on a street corner wearing a large card pinned to her chest that reads, “Kind friend, have pity. I am the mother of eighteen, all starving.” This is a carnal, materialistic, indifferent London quite at odds with the Christian teachings so piously exported to colonial Africa.
It turns out this home of Anglicanism—Merriman-Labor’s own faith—is shockingly wicked. On his very first Sunday in London, he visits the venerable St. Paul’s Cathedral only to discover people laughing, strolling, sketching and sightseeing before, during, and after the service. The clergyman’s homily he finds disappointedly tepid compared to the fire and brimstone sermons of Sierra Leonean preachers. This is unfortunate, he laughs, because on a chilly March day the weather is so cold “we could conveniently do with twenty hell-fires together.” When he returns to his lodgings his new landlady and her daughters ridicule him for attending church. “I was regarded as an out-and-out heathen for having suggested a family prayer meeting,” he playfully reports. Here is the kind of topsy-turvying he employs throughout the book: Britons it turns out, not Africans, are the heathens.
At the time, colonial prejudices maintained that western educated Africans like Merriman-Labor amounted to nothing more than pathetic imitations of Europeans. Comically challenging this prevailing attitude, Merriman-Labor asserts that it is not Africa that imitates Britain, but quite the reverse. “Are Britons becoming Africans in customs and manners?” he coyly asks. “I imagine so.” Plucking stories from the headlines, he reports a new fashion trend that emphasizes an extravagantly low neckline. “Are these ladies going to dress as do some black ones in Central Africa?” he asks. Many Britons, he goes on, are eagerly adopting African ways of life: walking barefoot, sleeping outside, going hatless, even eating a vegetarian diet. What, he laughs, will Aunt Grundy—British shorthand for a conventional person—think!
Merriman-Labor invents and then gleefully reads from The Daily Newsmonger, a fictional paper representing the popular journalism of the day. The stories show that transgressions usually dragged out to prove African inferiority are alive and well at the heart of empire. Take, for example, “Jim Crow the lightning bigamist who has married, and now owns as his wives, seventy-two women living in different parts of the country.” And then there’s “Harry Harchaic, a peasant living in the Midlands,” who “this morning savagely assaulted an elderly woman who, he believed, had been in the habit of bewitching his family and cattle.” Merriman-Labor wryly observes that it sounds just like a report about African witchcraft. Or consider this story of spouse-swapping: “Changing husbands is a somewhat common practice in Freelifetown among a certain class of people.” He says if he had not read the quotation in his morning paper he would not have believed it. Then there is the example of “Professor Geologibus” who “made a find in his garden by which he proved that people in Britain were fond of the ‘flesh of a two-leg mamalia.’ Shocking!” If one cares to look, he demonstrates, one need not travel all the way to Africa to find examples of polygamy, miscegenation, sodomy, bestiality, and cannibalism. Such transgressions are right at home in Britain.
Inverting Racial Stereotypes
To startle white readers out of their racist assumptions, Merriman-Labor inverts racial stereotypes. Many whites may be comfortable with descriptions of black people as “human monkeys,” but how do they feel about being called descendants of the “the filthy pig”? Africans parody the Europeans’ flawed evolutionary logic by joking that “because the skin of the pig as seen at the butcher’s resembles that of a white man, therefore the white man is a child of the pig.” In comparison, he quips, Africans are quite happy to be descendants from the monkey, a much more “man-like” creature.
He stages an audacious racial inversion in front of the Houses of Parliament, the epicenter of the British empire’s legislative power. As Merriman-Labor and Africanus walk arm-in-arm, they come face-to-face with “two niggers coming arm in arm from the opposite direction.” They seem, at first, to be approaching their mirror image. The situation, he writes, is “a most laughable sight! This is enough to break one’s sides.” But the “niggers” approaching them are not black men, but rather white men who appear to be black: a chimney sweep and a blackface minstrel. It soon becomes clear that these blackened men may mirror Merriman-Labor and Africanus, but they do not reflect them. Merriman-Labor uses the multiple meanings of the slur to invert the ordinary racial usage and turn it back on itself. The chimney sweep, he jokes, who is “always cleaning, but is never clean himself,” is the “real nigger,” that is, the person doomed to menial labor. And the minstrel, a clownish imitation of a black person, is merely a “white nigger,” he says, a person undeserving of respect. The mirror is broken. Because of their debased occupations, the blackened men are nothing but demeaned shadows of authentic blackness.
Although he dismisses the minstrel’s physical features and doltish costume as a ridiculously unrealistic picture of “a modern negro,” he jokingly applauds his blackened color. “With our colour, he looks so natural,” he writes. Asserting the African perspective as the norm, he reverses the usual stereotype that all black people look alike. “I will be able to make him out again, if ever I meet him once more with a black face,” he laughs. “A white face is so hard to recognise when seen a second time.” Through this inversion, he puts his white readers in the position of having their individuality erased with a remark. Now they are unrecognizable because of their skin color, their humanity obliterated as they morph into an indistinguishable mass.
Taking his objection to blackened men to a comic extreme, he lumps together all the “rascals who are made black as a result of their profession,”—the coalman, dustman, bootblack and chimney sweep—and those “who make themselves black for the purpose of their profession—the “nigger minstrel” and blackface music hall performer’’—and damns them to hell. In the next moment, he walks back his curse. “Have mercy!” he writes, “What have I said? I must be charitable.” Hilariously, his Christian charity turns out to be only skin-deep. He revises his curse, now wishing the “coal on their bodies” and not their bodies themselves, “will help to keep hot and burning the fire in the abode of Lucifer.” His mock-regret establishes the most fitting punishment for the men whose occupation is based on the belittlement of black people. The burnt cork that minstrels and performers used to darken themselves for their shows becomes the source of their eternal punishment.
Merriman-Labor’s 1909 London is an immense and cosmopolitan city where thousands of people of African descent live and work. Some were born in Britain; others have come from distant colonies. In the metropolis they study law and medicine and work in a variety of occupations from manual laborers and domestic service to professional positions as lawyers, pastors, athletes, entertainers, nurses, businessmen, and artisans. Nevertheless, “a good many Britons,” Merriman-Labor writes, “believe that all Africans and even Indians in Britain, are from the same country, that they speak the same language, and are known to one another. Of the black man’s country, at least of West Africa, their knowledge is worse still.” He encounters an old woman who befriends him because she thinks his black skin will bring her luck, a friend’s child asks if his body his black all over, and “credulous people” everywhere “believe that every Negro with a decent overcoat and a clean collar is an African prince.” Simply walking down the wrong street can bring a torrent of racial abuse. It is not unusual for school children, factory women, even beggars to sling racial epithets at him.
Popular newspapers are even worse, he explains, because they delight to report “anything wrong or exaggerated about the Blacks as would throw discredit on the race as a whole.” Merriman-Labor knows that popular newspapers print astonishing stories about Africa to increase sales, but he wants his readers to be more discerning. If British readers take sensational reports of drunken English lords, polygamists, women-living as men, and suffragettes tied up in Cabinet minster’s closets with a grain of salt, they should also remain skeptical of wild stories told about Africa. These newspapers may only be trying to make money, but nevertheless, he explains, they help “disseminate much ill-opinion concerning the Negro.”
Slavery of the Mind
He is keenly aware that black people are not the only ones in Edwardian Britain who are considered inferior to white men. In a long, serious chapter, Merriman-Labor argues that white women and black people have endured a similar historical trajectory of oppression. He formally outlines, then refutes, ten allegations of inferiority used to deny both white women and people of African descent political and social rights. Now, after centuries of being treated as property, members of these groups are agitating for equal rights. Merriman-Labor admires the suffragists skill at organizing themselves to pursue their goals. They use all kinds of strategies to get their message out: pressure groups, petitions, legislation, promotional materials, even large public marches. Africans, he believes, can learn from them about how to achieve political change. But he also understands that their respective successes depend first on winning hearts and minds not only of ministers and general electors, but of the oppressed themselves. White women and blacks, it is true, “have been freed from a slavery of the body,” he acknowledges. But some of them are still in a worse slavery. “To-day,” he explains, “they are subject to a slavery of the mind.”
The World of Empire
The British role in the abolition of slavery laid the foundation for Merriman-Labor’s steadfast faith in British justice, and this faith girded his confidence to speak truthfully about the world as he saw it. Because of the British abolition of the slave trade, his own great grandfather had been liberated from the bowels of a slave ship by the Royal Navy. Britain’s traditions of justice, he believed, ensured his equality before the law. Even though this kind of equality did not exist yet in Sierra Leone, he confidently writes in Britons Through Negro Spectacles that “here, in Britain, we have already justice for the Blacks, and equality for Blacks and Whites. We shall have equality and justice elsewhere some day.” Sadly, this idealism and faith would be brutally shattered in the years to come.
In the world of empire, Europeans present themselves as models of “civilization” to be admired and emulated by “backward” colonial people. But in Britons Through Negro Spectacles, Merriman-Labor serves as the model global citizen who does not make superficial judgements about the strange customs or manners of Britons but tries to understand them. After all his joyous recounting of sensational stories reported in British papers—the crimes, immorality, divorces, bestiality, cross-dressing, polygamy, prostitution, cannibalism, and poverty—he cautions his readers to see these transgressions in perspective. There may be thousands of such examples, but they are but a small percentage of the population. “What are thousands to millions?” he asks. Millions, he argues, “have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Millions commit “daily acts of virtue and charity which the newspapers do not bother to report.” “Do not judge by newspaper reports and statistics alone,” he advises.
Tradition of British Satirists
Places as ancient and vast as London or Africa require deep knowledge, and Merriman-Labor’s mastery of facts and figures about London, his grasp of its geography, architecture, institutions, laws, literature, history, etiquette, rituals, lore and lexicon unequivocally prove him an insider. His understanding ranges from an ease with the transportation system to the lore that those born within the sound of the bells at St. Mary Le Bow church are considered genuine cockneys. He’s quite aware that hansom cabs are for romantic rendezvous on the “q-t,” and he knows just what it means when a person needs “half a mo.” This special knowledge gives him not just the authority to speak about London, but it confirms his right to be there. He is not a tourist, a sojourner, or a foreigner, but a British subject, a local, a Londoner. Even his playful pun on his name asserts his Britishness: “If you will walk about the first City in the British Empire arm in arm with Merriman-Labor, you are sure to see Britons in merriment and at labour.” Rooted in English, his names announce Britain as his home not by accident, but destiny. Ultimately, the audacity of Britons Through Negro Spectacles is as much British as it is African. Merriman-Labor’s book is part of a long tradition of British satirists who aspired to use humor to illuminate injustices, enlighten the people, and change the world.
Who Was Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor?
A.B.C. Merriman-Labor was born the British colony of Sierra Leone on November 28, 1877. He went to school at the Church Missionary Society’s Grammar School in Freetown until a lack of money forced him to abandon his studies at sixteen. He published his first literary work—a “novelette” entitled Building Castles in the Air–in a Gambian newspaper in 1895. After earning the highest score that year on the civil service exam, he began working as a clerk in the Colonial Secretary’s office the following year. He gave several public talks in 1897 and, British publisher John Heywood published them as A Series of Lectures on the Negro Race.
In 1898, he served as a private with the Sierra Leone Volunteer Corps during the Hut Tax War and later published a pamphlet called The Last Military Expedition in Sierra Leone; or British Soldiers and West African Native Warriors. The piece caused a sensation in West Africa and established his literary reputation there. Merriman-Labor went on to write a Funeral Oration (1900), The Story of the African Slave Trade in a Nutshell (1900) and the Handbook of Sierra Leone (1902 and 1904). Two unpublished pieces, a biography of his grandfather John Merriman and a play Court Life in Egypt, have both been lost.
Merriman-Labor arrived in London in March 1904 and began studying law at Lincoln’s Inn. Unable to find work as a clerk, he founded the African General Agency, an Afrocentric import-export business, to provide him with income while he pursued his law studies and writing career. He travelled widely and published articles about his experiences in the Sierra Leone Weekly News. Lincoln’s Inn demanded he close the African General Agency in 1907 because it forbade students from engaging in trade. After losing his only source of income, Merriman-Labor embarked on a 15,000-mile lecture tour through Africa in 1908. He made enough money from the tour to be called to the bar when he returned to London.
In the late summer of 1909, he published Britons Through Negro Spectacles or A Negro on Britons, with a description of London. Its commercial failure threw him deep into debt and by 1913, he was forced into bankruptcy.
He returned to Africa in the summer of 1914 for another lecture tour, but lack of interest and the threat of war cut his trip short. He returned to London just as World War I broke out. Unable to publish his books, he took a position as an inspector at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich. A tribunal of lawyers at Lincoln’s in determined that he had used a client’s money inappropriately and disbarred him in 1915. This unusually extreme punishment shattered his belief in British justice shattered, and he flung off his British identity, changing his name to Ohlohr Maigi. On July 14, 1919, he died in the Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary of tuberculosis. It is not known where he is buried.
 Africanus: Latin for “African.”
 Sierra Leone Weekly News, November 13, 1909. “Second Notice” by our London Correspondent.
 I think “Harchaic” could be a reference to an archaic express “out of harre,” meaning out of order, out of joint.