Maxwell, Joseph Renner

1857-1901
Anglican Communion
Gambia , Sierra Leone

Joseph Renner Maxwell was the Queen’s Advocate, the chief magistrate to the colony of the Gambia (1883-1897), and a member of the legislative and the executive councils of the Gambia colony. In his life, he was essentially a lonely man. [1] He was born in 1857, the eldest son of the Reverend Thomas Maxwell. After secondary education at the C. M. S. (Church Missionary Society) Grammar School in Freetown, his father sent him to Merton College Oxford to read law in 1876. There he gained Second Class honors in jurisprudence in 1879, and the following year he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. Upon his return to West Africa, Maxwell joined his parents at Cape Coast where his father was still colonial chaplain, and set up a legal practice that soon flourished [2].

Indeed, Maxwell was so successful in the Gold Coast that the governor, Captain Barrow, could think of no better qualified person to fill the newly created post of Queen’s Advocate in the Gambia colony [3]. His only fear was that Maxwell might not think it worth his while to go. But there were other considerations. Maxwell was one of the liberated African elite of West Africa and, as such, he was equipped to take a leadership role. Like others in this elite, he was available for appointment to the senior civil service during the period of colonial office liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century, before the European “Scramble for Africa.” Not only did this group favor inter-marriage within its privileged ranks, but its members readily made homes in all the major cities of British West Africa. This was the beginning of a West African nationality that was expressed so forcefully through the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) in the 1920s.

Although not a Gambian, as a member of the liberated African community of West Africa in the 1880s, Maxwell shared the aspirations of his people, and considered it a duty to accept the kind of challenge that was now presented [4]. In any case, his was a truly West African family. His eldest sister, Lucy, was already in the Gambia as wife of Z. T. Gibson, clerk of courts and crown prosecutor [5]. Another sister, Mabel, was married to Dr. Obadiah Johnson [6] of Freetown and Lagos, the brother of Archdeacon Henry Johnson. His brother, Wilfred, was to become leader of the Bar in Calabar [7]. His youngest brother, Thomas Clarkson, who received his medical training at St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, was to establish a medical practice in the Gambia, many years later [8].

Maxwell had greater problems of adjustment to Gambian society than any of his contemporaries in Bathurst. For the first time in the colony, a liberated African had penetrated the privileged circle of the white establishment. It is true that one or two mulattos had enjoyed this privilege before him; for example, his predecessor on the Bench, Francis Smith [9], was a mulatto from Freetown. Dr. James Africanus Horton, a black man like himself, had held the important post of staff surgeon in the British Army in the sixties and seventies, and been assigned to the troops in MacCarthy Island. He could not, however, have had a direct voice in the establishment, except in times of war.

Maxwell, on the other hand, was number three from the top of the hierarchy of the colonial administration. He became head of the judiciary after Smith retired and was a member of both the legislative and executive councils [10]. He lived in European quarters, first at No. 4 Buckle Street, then at No. 10 Wellington Street, but only after he had communicated to the governor that he was the only head of department without quarters or a house allowance [11]. In 1889, he received the highest honor when Governor Carter appointed him and Mr. H. H. Lee, Head of the Treasury and Customs, “to act as deputies” during his absence upriver, because he feared he might be delayed. [12] Maxwell thus became the first and last black man to act as governor of the Gambia colony, albeit for only a very brief period.

As Maxwell climbed up the social and administrative ladders, however, he became aware of the hostility from certain quarters, which culminated in a dispatch from the secretary of state in June 1887 drawing attention to the colonial regulations that family connections in a colony would render a candidate ineligible for the chief judicial and fiscal offices in the colony. Information—whether official or unofficial—had reached the secretary of state to the effect that the chief magistrate was brother-in-law of one of the few barristers in the settlement! The implications of dishonesty naturally disturbed Maxwell. While he knew better than to question the decision of the secretary of state that he should “be transferred if opportunity occurs,” [13] he did not hesitate to express concern in a forthright letter to Governor Sir Samuel Rowe:

The post of chief magistrate of the Gambia was one never in the slightest degree desired by me, and my tenure of it is productive of pecuniary loss to me…[but I] deemed it both my duty and policy to accept the same…I must confess that when I accepted [I did not feel] that the interests of suitors would suffer or even be suspected by the public to suffer in my hands because [Mr. Gibson] may perchance act for either parties to a suit, even though he married one of my sisters. [14]

Maxwell rightly concluded that the secretary of state’s decision to withdraw him from the Gambia service “involves some professional stigma, and would seem to imply some idea of unworthiness on the one hand and a want of confidence on the other.”[15]

Once the secretary of state’s decision became public knowledge, Maxwell’s close friend J. D. Richards decided to fight it using the old weapon of the open petition. By August 1887 he had collected the signatures of jurors, mechanics, traders, clerks and even market women, for a “Petition for the retention of Mr. Maxwell’s services.” Knowing how much the liberated African community had suffered in the past by the appointment of magistrates who had “sacrificed our right and liberty simply to please certain cliques in the settlement,” it was not likely that they would now tolerate such practices from a black magistrate. [16] And evidently, the newly appointed chief justice amply justified their hopes, as their petition indicated:

We have not the slightest doubt [that he] cannot be influenced by family ties; (…) he is the only public officer who keeps aloof from all clique and party in the settlement. (…)

The appointment of Mr. Maxwell as chief magistrate has given great satisfaction to the whole native community, excepting perhaps to a very limited few, who are either servants or friends of the official clique and their supporters among the agents of two or three mercantile firms here. [17]

[Mr. Maxwell] has restored confidence to the public in our courts of justice (…), he has made it known openly at his first sitting at the session (…) that while he sits on the bench of chief magistrate the old regime of the court must be changed: that no application should be made to him (as was usual) for any matter whatever of a judicial character, excepting in open court. No private letter should be directed to him at his residence on any matter having reference to the court. No complaint of any kind whatever should be brought to him at his house.[18]

Their conclusion was that Maxwell was “upright and straight forward (…) a gentleman of principle.” It was not surprising, therefore, that the secretary of state responded favorably and immediately to this pressure of public opinion. In a dispatch to the governor, he requested that Maxwell be informed that no complaints had been made against him and that he had “every confidence in his integrity and his impartial performance of his duty.” [19]

The chief justice ought to have felt vindicated even though he might have suspected that the secretary of state would request a confidential report on his performance from the governor. Even the official comment did him credit: “I was very favorably impressed by Mr. Maxwell’s diligence in the discharge of his duties and the readiness he showed to assist me at all times.”[20]

This was Sir Samuel Rowe’s report on his visit to the Gambia in 1888. Indeed, Maxwell continued to discharge his official duties with grave responsibility, but with little humor, because he knew the pitfalls which beset the paths of educated Africans in the colonial service at that time. His ability to control the judicial department or to participate effectively in the affairs of the legislative and executive councils was never called into question. But success and status could not bring him happiness. Not only was he deprived of companionship at home—his English wife only visited the Gambia once for a few months—but he could not afford to make friends in a small community where he was chief magistrate.[21] It seemed that he only had one close friend – J. D. Richards (who was much older than himself). In short, Maxwell held himself aloof from the liberated African community.

On the other hand, as a senior civil servant, his colleagues were expatriates from Britain. His attitude to them was one of restrained politeness, because he believed that they resented a black man in high office. In a complaint to the governor against a white official in 1887, for example, Maxwell disclosed the view “that when a black man is in any official position, any scoundrel, whatever his antecedents, character or reputation, can indulge in any liberties and make any charges against him, however reckless or false, with perfect impunity.”[22] Maxwell, however, did find one friend in the white community, and that was Père Amman, one of the Roman Catholic Fathers.[23]

At the age of forty, Maxwell was already a sick man, and it became necessary for him to retire from the service on grounds of ill health in November of 1897. He returned to England to join his wife, having appointed W. C. Cates, the clerk of courts, J. D. Richards, “a personal friend,” and Père Amman to wind up his private affairs [24]. After three years of medical treatment in England, Maxwell was returning to West Africa when he died at sea on November 9, 1901. Thus passed away one of the greatest Africans the Gambia has ever known.

What contribution did an exceptional liberated African official like Maxwell make to the colony? In his official capacity, there is no doubt that he introduced lasting reforms in the legal department. He himself believed that one of the most important items of legislation drawn up by him was “The Married Women’s Property Bill” of 1885 [25]. In introducing the bill, he had explained:

As there is in the community (…) a very large element of trading women belonging principally to a class to whom “marriage settlement” is an unknown word, it is necessary that the law should afford some protection to the property which by dint of their own industry, and in the majority of cases, unaided by their husbands, they have succeeded in acquiring [26].

He described the bill as “revolutionary” and likely to result in “social disorganization and domestic discord, as well as subversive of household unity and marital control.” [27] Nonetheless, he believed the law was necessary in the interest of justice and fair play for the liberated African woman. Liberated African opinion was divided on this issue. In a personal letter to the administrator, J. D. Richards supported the necessity of the bill, since the Aku woman trader was “the backbone of her husband” by her thrift and industry. [28] The Gambia Native Association expressed its enthusiastic support for the bill, and urged Richards to move the third reading of the bill to “the earliest meeting of the Legislative Council.” [29] But there were other voices too. A letter in the Bathurst Observer refused to allow any comparison between conditions in England that had led to the passing of a similar bill and those that prevailed in West Africa. The writer’s main reason for objection was fear: that the law would give liberated African women too much economic independence, and encourage women to live apart from their husbands. [30] Governor-in-Chief Sir Samuel Rowe was convinced by the representations made in support of Maxwell’s bill and instructed the administrator, Captain Moloney, to allow the third reading and give his assent [31].

While fulfilling his legal studies, and participating effectively in the deliberations of council, Maxwell was equally engrossed in the problems that occupied the minds of educated black people everywhere, in the late nineteenth century. In fact, he had for a long time been interested in the conflict between white rulers and their black subjects. A year after he was called to the Bar, at the age of 24, he had addressed a learned society in London on the “Advantages and Disadvantages of European Intercourse with the West Coast of Africa.” [32]

While Maxwell was in the Gambia, he put in writing, for the purpose of publication, his thinking on “The Negro Question.” [33] At the time, Edward Blyden was writing periodically for the Sierra Leone Weekly News that he had helped to found “to serve the interest (…) of West Africa and the race generally.” [34] The Sierra Leone Weekly News prompted many liberated Africans in West Africa to make a reappraisal of themselves. Across the Atlantic, too, Afro-Americans under the leadership of W. E. B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and others analyzed the problems of “the Negro” in the United States.

Maxwell’s “The Negro Question” has never yet been given serious consideration, probably because of the solution he proposed—a solution that Black people regarded as disloyal and unpatriotic. The work, however, is of importance as a psychological study of the liberated African elite. It covers their hopes and fears, and discusses the problems of achievement. In the final analysis, their attainment of professional skills and the status of senior civil servants did not bring them fulfillment, but instead conflict and disillusionment. Maxwell did not share Blyden’s optimism in the future of “the Negro” of West Africa [35].

Maxwell’s book opens with these gloomy lines:

And in these days full of uncertainties and doubts for the Negro Race, when minds of many are full of forebodings as to the future of their countrymen, when their enemies are proclaiming throughout the world the defects, real and imaginary, of the Negro Race; when the course of events has brought the Negro Question within the range of practical politics, and the struggle for existence (…), the rage to live which makes all living strife (…), it is time that the whole question should be laid fairly before the Negroes themselves and their well-wishers [36].

Maxwell’s study of “the Negro” led him to the conclusion that he was despised not because he was “lacking in intellect, in morality, or humanity (…) [but] because he is ugly.” Physical appearance was the root of the problem. In 1903, W. E. B. Dubois, too, was to write from Atlanta, Georgia, that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” [37] Maxwell knew Blyden’s views on “the Negro” who was conscious of the unattractiveness of his race: it was an example of the inferiority complex that was a by-product of the Christian influence among them! Christian missionaries, Blyden explained, imposed preconceived ideas on African converts, and insisted on their approximation to the Aryan race and culture. [38]

Judged by the reality of experience, Blyden’s thesis was simplistic. In spite of superior qualifications, difficulties continued to beset the educated “Negro,” because of his skin color! Maxwell had personal experience of this:

if by some favorable circumstances he comes a little to the front … if there happens to be a white population, however small, all sorts of influences, overt and covert are brought to bear against him (…) that he is in many cases more or less the victim of annoyance and suspicion; that his authority is reduced to a minimum, and that whereas his path would have been cleared of all obstructions had he belonged to the White races, he was to be thankful if additional difficulties and stumbling blocks are not thrown on his way (…) [And] the educated Negro in his relations with his savage or uncivilized brethren finds that his influence, as compared with that of the European, is nil [39].

Maxwell had been a little shaken by an incident in council: the chief of Jarra, Colley Damfah, whose territory had been devastated by the jihadist Foday Kabba Dumbuya, had been invited to a meeting of the executive council on July 15, 1889 for an interview. Upon arriving at the council chamber, Chief Colley Damfah approached every white member of the council and paid obeisance, but ignored the acting clerk of council, Maxwell, the black chief magistrate.[40]

The late nineteenth century witnessed the apogee of liberated African civilization but it was also a most trying period when the African suffered all kinds of indignities from blacks and whites alike, because of skin-color. Some of the most brilliant minds of this community saw no hope in the future for black people. In addition, the conquest of large tracts of land in Africa resulted in the humiliation of traditional rulers like the Asantehene Prempeh and Almami Samori Touray by European powers during the “Scramble” for the continent and this added to their gloom.[41]

Blyden’s optimism for the peculiar contribution that the black race could yet make to the world was a breath of fresh air in that depressing atmosphere. It was Blyden who first used the phrase “African Personality” and suggested ways of enhancing the prestige of the African race. His lecture on “Race and Study” delivered on May 19, 1893 in Freetown was partly to refute Maxwell’s solution to the “Negro Question.” [42] The solution was “Man-Culture” or “Afro-European miscegenation” so as to combine the “beauty of the Caucasian with the fine physique and physical strength of the Negro.” [43] But for Blyden, such a proposition was as good as saying: “Let us do away with the sentiment of race. Let us do away with our African personality, and be lost, if possible, in another race.” [44]

Maxwell made no apologies for the solution he proposed—a solution that he thought “may be worth consideration (even though) it may seem an unpatriotic view.” For he argued that since persons of mixed (notwithstanding illegitimate) birth were given precedence over “pure negroes of legitimate birth” in West African society, then the problem was not a question of ability or achievement, but of skin-color. Yet Maxwell did not respect the African who aped the European, nor did he have time for the educated African who forced himself “on the society of a white man, perhaps of inferior education and culture, simply because he is white.” [45]

It was not a simplistic solution either, for he advocated inter-marriage only between educated blacks and educated whites “whenever (…) practicable and desired.” Maxwell himself had married an English woman, Ada Maud Beale. He discouraged inter-marriage between blacks and the mulatto community of West Africa, since “it is not likely such unions will lead to the moral improvement of that race.” Notwithstanding this negative attitude towards mulattos of the West Coast, Maxwell affirmed that “the mulatto holds the key to the solution of the negro problem.”[46]

If, from our grandstand view of independent Africa under black governments, we are tempted to dismiss Maxwell’s preoccupation with the color of his skin, and the texture of his hair as paranoid, it may be worth remembering that black America, in its struggle for recognition in the 1960s and ‘70s, found it necessary to use the slogan “Black is Beautiful!” The critic may indeed accuse Maxwell of exaggeration, of having miscalculated the dimensions of the racial problem, and of lacking in imagination and insight. He certainly never believed that the blacks of Africa would, in half a century, begin to control their destiny. Political independence has indeed happened.

Asi Florence Mahoney


Notes:

  1. Appendix V - J. R. Maxwell, “Advantages and Disadvantages of European Intercourse with the West Coast of Africa” (London: A Lecture at St. Jude’s Institute, 1881); Appendix VI - Extracts from J. R. Maxwell, The Negro Question (London: T. F. Unwin Paternoster Square, 1892); and Appendix VII: The Married Women’s Property Bill – 1885 –Queen’s Advocate Chambers for J. R. Maxwell’s writings; Colonial Office List 1898; Records of the Society of Lincoln’s Inn. Maxwell’s degrees include an M. A. (Oxon.) and a B. C. L. (Lincoln).
  2. CO 87/120, 1883 Vol 1, 25 June, R. L. A. to Meade – CO Minute.
  3. CO 87/120, 1883 Vol 1, 25 June, R. L. A. to Meade – CO Minute.
  4. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 31 July, Maxwell to Rowe
  5. Blue Book 1880.
  6. Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 423; & E. A. Ayandele, Holy Johnson (London: Frank Cass, 1970), 154, 178, 188.; Rev. Samuel Johnson, Editor, History of the Yorubas (Lagos: CMS Bookshops, 1921, reprinted 1966).
  7. See “Red Book of West Africa”, 134-5.
  8. Information given by my Mother, Mrs. Kezia (Broderick) Peters, whose mother was the youngest of Rev. Thomas Maxwell’s children.
  9. Fyfe, 389.
  10. CO 90/64, Gambia 1890 Original Blue Book (Executive Council & Legislative Council Members)
  11. CO 87/41, 1892 Vol 1, 28 January, Maxwell’s application; CO Minute, 18 March, R. Meade; 21 March, Knutsford to Governor R. B. Llewelyn.
  12. CO 87/137, 1890 Vol 1, 15 February, Carter to Knutsford.
  13. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 31 July, Maxwell to Rowe.
  14. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 31 July, Maxwell to Rowe.
  15. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 31 July, Maxwell to Rowe.
  16. CO 87/131, 1887 Vol 2, 11 August, Petition of J. D. Richards and others to Rowe.
  17. CO 87/131, 1887 Vol 2, 11 August, Petition of J. D. Richards and others to Rowe.
  18. CO 87/131, 1887 Vol 2, 11 August, Petition of J. D. Richards and others to Rowe.
  19. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 26 September, Knutsford to Rowe.
  20. CO 87/133, 1888 Vol 2, 25 June, Rowe to Knutsford.
  21. See Indenture and Last Will and Testament of Joseph Renner Maxwell, Somerset House. The Strand, London; Maxwell married Ada Maud Beale of 38, Batoum Gardens, Hammersmith, Middlesex, on 13 March 1891. They had one child Maud, Beatrice.
  22. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, January, Maxwell to Rowe.
  23. CO 87/155, 1898 Vol 1, 11 May, Llewelyn to Joseph Chamberlain.
  24. CO 87/155, 1898 Vol 1, 11 May, Llewelyn to Joseph Chamberlain.
  25. See Appendix VII, “The Married Women’s Property Bill – 1885, J. Renner Maxwell, Queen’s Advocate.
  26. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 21 July, Maxwell’s (explanation) of the Bill.
  27. See Appendix VII, “The Married Women’s Property Bill – 1885, J. Renner Maxwell, Queen’s Advocate
  28. Ibid., 16 July, J. D. R(ichards) to Rowe.
  29. Ibid., 16 July, J. D. R(ichards) to Rowe.
  30. Bathurst Observer, 17 February, 1885.
  31. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 15 August, Rowe to Moloney.
  32. Lecture delivered at St. Jude’s Institute, Mildmay Park, London, 1881, (see Appendix V for text)
  33. J. R. Maxwell, The Negro Question (London: T. F. Unwin Paternoster Square, 1892); see Appendix VI.
  34. Hollis Lynch, Edward William Blyden, 1832-1912 (Oxford: O. U. P., 1967), 214.
  35. Lynch, “Vindicator of the Negro Race” , 216, and Chapter V.
  36. See Appendix VI.
  37. W. E. (B). Dubois, The Souls of Blackfolk (Chicago, 1903).
  38. Edward Blyden, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (London, 1887, Edinburgh, reprinted 1967), 37.
  39. Maxwell, The Negro Question, p?
  40. CO 87/136, 1889 Vol 2, 15 July, Gambia Executive Council Minutes.
  41. J. D. Hargreaves, West Africa: The Former French States (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 102-106; & John Flint, Nigeria and Ghana, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1966), 138-140.
  42. Lynch, 54 and 55, note 3.
  43. Maxwell, The Negro Question, p?
  44. Lynch, 216.
  45. Maxwell, The Negro Question, p?
  46. Maxwell, The Negro Question, p?

Bibliography:

Ayandele, E. A. Holy Johnson. London: Frank Cass, 1970.
Bathurst Observer. 17 February, 1885.

Blue Book 1880.

Blyden, Edward. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (London, 1887, Edinburgh, reprinted 1967), 37.

Colonial Office. “Red Book of West Africa.”

CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 21 July, Maxwell’s (explanation) of the Bill.

CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 15 August, Rowe to Moloney.

CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, January, Maxwell to Rowe.

CO 87/120, 1883 Vol 1, 25 June, R. L. A. to Meade – CO Minute.

CO 87/ ?. 16 July, J. D. R(ichards) to Rowe.

CO 87/131, 1887 Vol 2, 11 August, Petition of J. D. Richards and others to Rowe.

CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 26 September, Knutsford to Rowe.

CO 87/136, 1889 Vol 2, 15 July, Gambia Executive Council Minutes.

CO 87/155, 1898 Vol 1, 11 May, Llewelyn to Joseph Chamberlain.

CO 87/133, 1888 Vol 2, 25 June, Rowe to Knutsford.

CO 87/137, 1890 Vol 1, 15 February, Carter to Knutsford.

CO 87/41, 1892 Vol 1, 28 January, Maxwell’s application; CO Minute, 18 March, R. Meade; 21 March, Knutsford to Governor R. B. Llewelyn.

CO 90/64, Gambia 1890 Original Blue Book. Executive Council & Legislative Council Members.

Colonial Office List 1898; Records of the Society of Lincoln’s Inn.

Dubois, W. E. (B). The Souls of Blackfolk. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903.

Flint, John. Nigeria and Ghana. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1966.

Fyfe, Christopher. A History of Sierra Leone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Indenture and Last Will and Testament of Joseph Renner Maxwell, Somerset House. The Strand, London.

Johnson, Rev. Samuel Ed. History of the Yorubas. Lagos: CMS Bookshops, 1921, reprinted 1966.

Hargreaves, J, D. West Africa: The Former French States. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Lynch, Hollis. Edward William Blyden, 1832-1912. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Maxwell, J. R. “Advantages and Disadvantages of European Intercourse with the West Coast of Africa” London: A Lecture at St. Jude’s Institute, 1881.

Maxwell, J. Renner Queen’s Advocate. “The Married Women’s Property Bill – 1885.

Maxwell, J. R. The Negro Question. London: T. F. Unwin Paternoster Square, 1892.

Peters, Mrs. Kezia (Broderick). Interview with the author’s mother, who was the youngest of Rev. Thomas Maxwell’s children.

Queen’s Advocate Chambers for J. R. Maxwell’s writings. The Married Women’s Property Bill – 1885.


This biography, received in 2017, written by Dr. Asi Florence Mahoney, is an excerpt of chapter 5 (p. 78-85) of her book “Creole Saga”: The Gambia’s Liberated African Community in The Nineteenth Century (Baobab Printers, copyright 2006, 2nd ed. 2017). 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.