Horton, James Africanus B.

Anglican Communion
Gambia , Sierra Leone , Ghana

Africanus B. Horton was a physician, an army officer and a writer.[1] Like so many of West Africa’s intellectuals of the 19th century, he was educated at the Church Missionary Society Grammar School and Fourah Bay College in Freetown before proceeding to Kings’s College, London, on a medical scholarship from the War Office in 1855. Having acquitted himself with distinction at King’s College and later at Edinburgh University where he earned a doctorate in medicine, Horton joined the British Army Medical Services with the rank of staff assistant surgeon. He was to give twenty years of service to the army from which he later retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

His first post was at Anomabu near Cape Coast in 1860. By the mid-1860s, during the governorship of Colonel G. A. K. D’Arcy (1859-1866) and Admiral C. G. E. Patey (1866-1871) of the colony of the Gambia, he was serving in MacCarthy Island, which had a population of 1,100, of which 250 were liberated Africans [2]. The tropical climate of the Gambia had taken a toll on the lives of three European assistant surgeons, causing the governor to recommend a “remedy (…) by appointing the coloured assistant surgeons to this station, who are at present at the Gold Coast.” [3] Upon arrival at MacCarthy Island, however, Horton found the climate of public opinion regarding the withdrawal from the island of the troops of the 4th West India Regiment with their British officers a more urgent and taxing problem.

Muslim reformists had already launched a jihad in the River Gambia. The British government had accepted the recommendations, based on Colonel Ord’s report, of the Select Committee of the House of Commons of 1865 “to encourage in the natives the exercise of those qualities which may render it possible for us more and more to transfer to them the administration of all governments, with a view to our ultimate withdrawal from all except probably Sierra Leone.” [4] It was in this complex political situation that Horton assumed office as provisional civil and military commander as well as medical officer, of MacCarthy Island in June 1866.

An intellectual, but very much a man of action and a pragmatist, Horton took immediate measures to organize a militia that would provide some security for the community there until better arrangements could be made. Recognizing the commercial and strategic importance of the island, and the determination of the mercantile community there to continue operating its business from that entrepôt, he summoned a group of merchants and traders to a meeting at noon in the court hall, the day after the departure of the troops on June 8, 1866 [5]. Acting as “president,” he explained the reason for the meeting to “the merchants and principal inhabitants,” James Gray Savage, J. P., Edward Dusseault (a French/ French mulatto), John Melbury, John D. Attred (a mulatto), James Dodgin, Joseph L. Owens, George Randell, James Bell, and George Roberts.

He explained that, given the current circumstances, they needed to decide on the best means to adopt against possible attack from “warlike neighbors,” until such time as the newly appointed manager should take over the command. By the end of the meeting, a volunteer force had been enlisted. Special constables were enrolled from among the respectable citizens, and resolutions were passed to provide them with arms and pay. Canoes were to be moored on the island after 6.00 pm, and drumming and the firing of guns after 8.00 p. m. were forbidden, except by special permission. This positive response of the Islanders, especially their acceptance of responsibility for their newly created volunteer force, was to Horton “an excellent manifestation of a spirit of self-government, esprit de corps, and of mutual support.”

Horton believed that this spirit of self-help among a modest group of entrepreneurs on an abandoned British island could make self-government a reality in “less than a quarter of a century” if properly developed.[6] The situation filled him with hope for the future of MacCarthy Island and indeed for West Africa, while also providing food for thought. Here then was a challenge to expand his pamphlet published a year before on the “Political Economy of British West Africa” by drawing upon the new experience he had gained. In that pamphlet, Horton already pointed to what he called “the ground-plan of the future political government” of West Africa in which he discussed “the requirements of its several colonies and settlements” [7].

Within three years (1866-1869), Horton had produced a definitive work that not only examined further “these requirements” for self-government but categorically repudiated the idea that the African was an inferior being. West African Countries and Peoples: A Vindication of the African Race is an important study for all those interested in the growth of self-government and Pan-Africanism in West Africa in the latter part of the 19th century. Horton’s understanding of Gambian affairs was remarkable for someone whose job required him to live on an island one hundred and seventy-six miles upriver. In the few years spent in the country, he had acquainted himself with its peoples and their problems to such an extent that West African Countries and Peoples provided valuable working solutions for the colonial office as well as for the governors-in-chief of the West African settlements. His idealism was never divorced from political issues.

As a medical man, Horton was concerned with community health, and what today is known as primary health care. For that reason he drew the attention of the authorities to the importance of low-cost housing for the poorer inhabitants: “A standard of building, inexpensive in its construction, should be insisted upon in Kombo by the executive authority; and the poorer inhabitants should be compelled within a certain time to imitate it in the construction of all their buildings.” [8]

Horton saw no advantage in allowing Africans to enter the main stream of “civilization” at their own conservative pace. Whether the traditional African huts in Baccow (Bakau) looked quaintly picturesque or not was not his main concern. The fact that they were poorly ventilated and cramped inside made them unacceptable on health grounds. He therefore concluded that it was “the duty of a civilized government to endeavor as much as in it lies to civilize the natives under its rule; and the local authorities in the Gambia will be remiss in their duty should they allow this state of squalor to continue in the Mandingo towns in British Gambia.”[9] Liberated African Christians like Africanus Horton who had been educated in Europe left no doubts about their ideals or reference group.

Notwithstanding what might be regarded today as misguided enthusiasm for Western civilization by the West African intellectuals of the 19th century, their vision of a viable West Africa capable of holding its own in the world was never blurred. Indeed, many of their concrete proposals for development were to be tested to the great advantage of future generations of West Africa. For instance, Horton’s scheme for “The Formation of a Municipal Council at St. Mary’s” would, in his opinion, “have a most satisfactory effect on the general population, and (…) tend to improve the general health of the colony.” [10] Beyond that, he strongly recommended the appointment of a mayor for Bathurst: the demand for a “mayor” was to become a recurrent cry of the liberated African community for another half century!

Indeed, many of his proposals, though realistic and enlightened, were not immediately realized. His vision for West Africa often disturbed the thinking of those who saw its inhabitants as inferior and incapable of any serious advancement. Regardless of the prejudices and theories of members of the Anthropological Society like Dr. Hunt and Captain Richard Burton [11], Horton continued to seek solutions to the needs of his people in the area of education for West African women, the establishment of “government schools with a uniform system of instructions,” and a Savings Bank for “the spendthrift (…) young generation of the Gambian population, (…) not only the mechanics, sailors, and laborers, but also the small traders whose small savings were squandered in trifles before the commencement of another [trade] season.” [12]

Horton’s concern for the diversification of the Gambian economy is still a concern of the Gambian government. Cotton is becoming a major industry in the economy today. A bridge has been erected over Oyster Creek. Arabic has been introduced into the school curriculum by Pakistani and Gambian teachers, rather than Senegalese teachers, as was proposed a century earlier by this visionary. In short, in the words of Dr. George Shepperson: the “documentary value of his book for modern students of Africa (…) [is found in the] detailed local history, (…) [and] the appreciation of the beginnings of modern political thoughts in Africa.” [13]

Though the liberated African community in the Gambia regretted the departure of Africanus Horton, within a few years another distinguished son of Africa and nationalist came to fill the gap.

Asi Florence Mahoney


  1. His biographer, Dr. Davidson Nicol, was himself a Sierra Leonean physician and writer. His influence on the government and people of the Gambia, especially on the liberated African community on MacCarthy Island, still deserves further study. Davidson Nicol, Africanus Horton: The Dawn of Nationalism in Modern Africa (London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1969).
  2. CO 87/84, 1866 Vol. 1, 3 May, d’Arcy to Cardwell.
  3. CO 87/71, 24 July 1861, d’Arcy to Newcastle.
  4. CO 257/286, March 1865, “Report on the West Coast of Africa”, by Colonel H. St. George Ord, R. E., Governor of Bermuda; Select Committee of the H. Of C.
  5. James Africanus Horton, African Times, 23 July 1866, 77-8.
  6. J. Africanus B. Horton, West African Countries and Peoples (London 1868: Edinburgh, reprinted 1969), 80.
  7. Nicol, 5, 60.
  8. Horton, 210- 211.
  9. Horton, 210-211
  10. Horton, 216.
  11. Horton, 21 and 37; Captain Richard Burton, “Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po,” Vol. 1, (London, 1863), p. 155ff,
  12. Horton, 214.
  13. Horton, “Introduction” by George Shepperson, (xiv).


African Times. 23 July 1866. “James Africanus Horton.”

CO 87/71. 24 July 1861. d’Arcy to Newcastle.

CO 87/84. 1866 Vol. 1, 3 May. d’Arcy to Cardwell.

CO 257/286. March 1865. “Report on the West Coast of Africa.” By Colonel H. St. George Ord, R. E., Governor of Bermuda; Select Committee of the H. Of C.

Horton, J. Africanus B. West African Countries and Peoples. London 1868: Edinburgh, reprinted 1969.

Nicol, Davidson. Africanus Horton: The Dawn of Nationalism in Modern Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd., 1969.

This biography, received in 2017, written by Dr. Asi Florence Mahoney, is an excerpt of chapter 5 (p.136-140) of her book “Creole Saga”: The Gambia’s Liberated African Community in The Nineteenth Century (Banjul: Book Production and Materials Resources Unit. 2006). Dr. Mahoney taught history at the Gambia High School (1966-1972) and little later at the Gambia College (1982-1985). In April 2016, she was invited to the Ebunjan Theatre of Banjul to deliver a special lecture on the 200th Anniversary of the Founding of Bathurst, now Banjul (1816-2016). Although formally retired from active service, Dr. Mahoney remains a devoted Anglican, ecumenist, and a life-long teacher and researcher.