HORTON, James Africanus Beale

Estimated reading time: 2 min

James Africanus Beale Horton (1835-1883) was a Sierra Leonean surgeon, scientist, botanist, political theorist, constitutionalist, African nationalist, soldier, banker, and diplomat.

Writing extensively on the peoples and politics of West Africa, he was a firm supporter of “modernity”, working for a social and political revolution in West Africa that would deliver public and private institutions, such as government, religion and marriage, modelled on Western European variants. In particular, he advocated for the greater intellectualisation of all areas of life, from education to public administration, and the greater participation of western-educated African intellectuals in colonial government and administration. 

As a keen African nationalist, he campaigned for the overall Africanisation of European colonial assets in West Africa, the emergence of new African nation states to challenge both British and indigenous African suzerainty, and the preservation of vernacular languages in domestic affairs. 

He was also an avid defender of his race, launching a multi-pronged defence of African intellectual capacity and ingenuity. In this way he was an early advocate of Black Consciousness.

However, he was highly critical of indigenous African institutions, and generally felt the African social and political condition hampered intellectual and political advancement.

He is a key thinker in:

  • Constitutionalism
  • Political Theory
  • Nationalism
  • Modernity

West African Countries and Peoples

Description of the Original and Uncivilised State of the Native Tribes

Horton states that his aim in this chapter, and by extension in the whole work, is: ‘to prove the capability of the African for possessing a real political Government and national independence; and that a more stable and efficient Government might yet be formed in Western Africa, under the supervision of a civilised nation’. 

Horton acknowledges that powerful and highly organised nations and governments already exist in West Africa: ‘…we affirm that there are amongst them fixed and established Governments, that the obedience to the supreme power in many cases is implicit, the right of property is enforced by adjudicature; …it is as truly a political Government as that of France and England’.

However, he finds these Governments ‘rude and barbarous’ and prone to ‘despotism’. He feels that a lack of intellectualism has led to ‘feeble and unenterprising’ governments, lacking in ‘proper legislative science’, with ‘impotent and inefficient’ militaries such that there has been ‘no improvement in the executive administration’ for many generations. 

Overall, Horton is highly critical of all indigenous African political institutions, both public and private, including religion and marriage. He feels a ‘spiritual despotism’ presides over the people who are ‘entirely dominated by the superstitious ideas of their country’. Thus, he advocates for the spread of ‘Christian teaching and civilising re-agents’ to steer Africans away from animism. Furthermore, he dismisses polygamy as a form of slavery for women, and criticises sexual expression in African societies. 

Horton wants to see a social and political revolution in West Africa. Despite his criticism of the African way of life, he deeply loves his people and rejects any notion that there is a deficiency in their intellectual capacity, alluding instead to an untapped potential. 

He praises the skills and ingenuity of craftspeople and metalworkers who produce items of superior quality and designs to those of Europe. Though he is rather disparaging in his choice of words, he praises their physical fitness and military prowess, their deep pride and love of family, elders and leaders. Despite his criticism of the condition of women in society, he notes that senior women play an important role in public life and that women in general are an integral part of the workforce and the trade economy. He also shows that Africans have a deep spiritual life, care deeply about their progeny and their history which they preserve through ‘oral narration of legendary tales [and] heroic myths’. He is disparaging of the latter however, feeling that, lacking at times in written expression and temporal specificity, these activities do not rise to the level of “real history”. 

Publications

West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native, and a Vindication of the African Race (1868)

Commentary

Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi. “Excluded Moderns and Race/Racism in Euro-American Philosophy: James Africanus Beale Horton.” The CLR James Journal 24, no. 1 (2018): 177-203.