Nicol, George

Anglican Communion
Gambia , Sierra Leone

In 1869, George Croley Nicol formerly pastor of St. Charles Church, Regent, in Sierra Leone, was appointed to the vacant post of colonial chaplain of the Gambia.[1] He had been educated in the C.M.S. (Church Missionary Society) Grammar School in Freetown before gaining a scholarship for further studies at the C.M.S. College Islington, London. A further period of theological training culminated in his ordination—alongside another ordinand from Freetown, Thomas Maxwell—by Bishop Jackson, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London on September 29, 1849.

Twenty years later, their devoted service to the Anglican Church was amply rewarded with appointments in 1869 to the two vacant chaplaincies on the West Coast: Nicol to the Gambia and Maxwell to Cape Coast. Indeed, African Pastors in Sierra Leone were much moved by “the honor conferred on one of their body (…) (to) a civil and ecclesiastical appointment (…), a post not hitherto known in the history of these settlements to have been filled by any in a full capacity except by Europeans.” [2]

From1869 to 1887, Nicol labored to cultivate an informed public opinion in Bathurst. His first concern was, of course, the spiritual welfare of the colonial troops still stationed on St. Mary’s Island. However, once the troops were withdrawn in 1870, he devoted his energies to building up the colonial school, which came to be known as King’s School or St. Mary’s Anglican Elementary School, and to improving standards generally among school-leavers. [3] His experience in England had convinced him of the benefits of western education for the liberated African community of West Africa. For this reason, his ambition was to send his own children abroad—both sons and daughters—for their education, salary permitting. Indeed his son, George Guerney Nicol, became the first West African to graduate from Cambridge University, in 1879. [4]

It was inevitable that the cost would cause financial embarrassment to Nicol. The problem was soon brought to the notice of the bishop of Sierra Leone, the Right Rev. Graham Ingham. The commendable efforts of a father trying to give the best education to his children were disregarded by the bishop, who criticized him for being “very vain.” To add insult to injury, Nicol’s retirement from the colonial service was now confirmed. The bishop explained that, in the future, it would be “better if Europeans filled these posts, always, at any rate as long as you have European officials …” [5] Furthermore, the bishop was convinced that the salaries earned by African colonial chaplains were “too large for an African.” Nicol pleaded, without success, for an extension of his services “owing to a large family and to arrangements I have made (…) for the education of my last two daughters in England (…)”[6]

This was how the first African colonial chaplain of the Gambia was retired because the public could not exert pressure on the establishment over appointments and retirements. It was not only Nicol, but also his colleague Thomas Maxwell at Cape Coast who was retired in 1887. Maxwell had also labored to educate most of his sons and daughters in England; and though he did not appear to have incurred debts in the process, in the estimation of the bishop of Sierra Leone, his performance was equally unfavorable. [7] These cases were only two of the many examples that marked a period during which the presence of educated West Africans only produced sarcasm or hostility from British colonial officials.

However, both Nicol and Maxwell had enjoyed a long period of distinction before the change in the attitudes of European philanthropists. Nicol, for example, could state confidently in a letter to the secretary of state in 1887: “I have given education my best attention.” [8] In the 1880s, he had widened his objectives, and devoted much of his energy to the task of promoting a local newspaper, through which he hoped to reach the public:

To create a love of reading generally in the community and to assist in its social, moral and intellectual advancement is the raison d’etre of this paper. Our work, we are well aware, must in the first instance, be simply creative. Our settlement is the oldest on the Coast. The time has come (…) to give utterance to its own life and aspirations and to assert its claim to a distinctive individuality.

We therefore invite our readers of all classes and of all shades of political thought, and all here and elsewhere who are interested in the material progress, and the social and intellectual advancement of this settlement to cooperate with us (…) [9]

These were the editor’s hopes expressed at the resumption of publication of the newspaper, the Bathurst Observer, owned by a group of liberated African entrepreneurs of Bathurst, and a West Indian barrister, Mr. Chase Walcott, who was manager. The printing press was situated at No. 9 Wellington Street, Bathurst. [10]

For over five years the paper maintained a high standard of production, and provided a useful platform for the discussion of major issues of the day, particularly those of a commercial and political nature. However, when Nicol retired to Freetown in 1887 and Chase Walcott died in London in 1888, the Bathurst Observer came upon difficult days, and soon went out of circulation. Thanks to Nicol, the need for a local newspaper had been created; and it was not long before another liberated African newspaper—The Intelligencer [11]—was founded in the 1890s. This became a reputable paper and, like the Bathurst Observer, was circulated in West Africa and England.

Although Nicol experienced great difficulty in establishing a colonial school, the institution that was largely his responsibility is today one of the important primary schools in the Gambia. It was his aim to expand the school into a government institution that would “embrace all classes and creeds in the community.” [12] For he had a vision of a government boarding school that would attract pupils from Gorée, and the sons of chiefs from the River States, thereby strengthening “the political bond of union between the native states and the local government.” Such an institution, he hoped, would teach not only academic subjects, but technical subjects like “carpentry, masonry, and agriculture, which might contribute to the temporal welfare of the inhabitants.” [13]

Nicol was well ahead of the thinking on education in the Gambia at that time, for although he laid his proposals before the administrator, Captain Moloney, he got no response from that quarter. It was Governor Denton who, in the early twentieth century, encouraged the Riverain chiefs to accept sponsorship for their sons at St. Mary’s School.

The colonial government for its part believed that it had already held out a generous hand to educationalists in the settlement by the Education Act of 1882 (An Ordinance for the Promotion and Assistance of Education in the Settlement of The Gambia). [14] The act provided government grants-in-aid to denominational schools in proportion to the examination results reported by the government inspector of schools. So detrimental were the effects of this act on St. Mary’s School (since the Anglican community lacked funds to employ competent teachers to meet the requirements of the act) that the school virtually closed down in 1883, and the pupils were distributed among some of the other schools. [15] It was a serious situation which depressed the colonial chaplain. However, rather than accept defeat, Nicol himself turned schoolmaster. He opened a private school in his own home “Regent House”—the building accommodates the National Museum today—with the hope that things might take a better turn under a new administrator. [16] Nicol’s great hope was that his “Prep School for boys of respectable parents” might form “the nucleus of a future grammar school.” [17]

A few months later, the Holy Ghost Fathers of the Roman Catholic Mission were also encouraged to assist more effectively in the educational field. They too, opened a private school at the corner of Oxford Street and Pignard Street for “children of both sexes and creed.” The advertisement which appeared in the Bathurst Observer was very attractive, and Nicol used his privilege as editor to exhort parents “to avail themselves of this opportunity” by sending their children for instruction. The Catholic Fathers offered free primary education to all “by a competent staff of European teachers.” [18] Fees, however, would be charged for extra subjects like ancient or modern languages of Europe, natural philosophy, music, drawing, and embroidery.

If Nicol was deeply interested in formal education for young children, he was no less concerned about a general education for young adults. Indeed, the young men of the Gambia and West Africa were always his most urgent concern, for he sincerely believed that the future depended upon them. He, therefore, spared no efforts in bringing them some education even after they had left school. This was one way he hoped to create an informed public opinion; and it was the reason why he found it necessary “in the present state of our political and social progress, for the establishment of a Reading Room and Lending Library.” [19]

With little or no remuneration, he nevertheless persisted with a program of lectures on “scientific subjects and other readings” for the enlightenment of the Bathurst community. [20] Topics like astronomy, agriculture, and sanitation were delivered by distinguished members of the community at the barracks once a week at 7 pm. Whether it was because admission was by ticket (cost 2 shillings) or otherwise cost one shilling (with the proceeds to be devoted to “charitable purposes”) or because “the Gambian youth was so self-satisfied with his mental condition that he considered there was no need for further intellectual advancement,” the attendance at these lectures was very disappointing indeed. [21] Their significance lay in the fact that the idea of a general education for the community was initiated by Nicol because he believed that this was essential for progress. He was certainly ahead of his time.

Asi Florence Mahoney


  1. Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 252, 301, 359.
  2. J. Africanus B. Horton, West African Countries and Peoples (London 1868: Edinburgh, reprinted 1969), 61.
  3. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 16 April, Nicol to Knutsford.
  4. Allister Macmillan, ed., “Red Book of West Africa”, 225, (London, 1929); Fyfe, 406.
  5. CO 87/129, 1886 Vol 3, 18 December, Private letter of the bishop of Sierra Leone (signed E. G.) To John Bramston of the Colonial Office; ibid., 11 November, Confidential Report on Nicol by G. T. Carter to Rowe.
  6. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 16 April, Nicol to Knutsford.
  7. CO 87/129, 1886 Vol 3, 18 December, Private letter of the bishop of Sierra Leone to John Bramston.
  8. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 16 April, Nicol to Knutsford.
  9. Bathurst Observer, 27 January 1885.
  10. Bathurst Observer, Vol 1, No 11, 6 Feb. 1883.
  11. The agent of The Intelligencer was Rev W. S. P. Taylor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
  12. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Captain Moloney.
  13. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Captain Moloney.
  14. CO 88/3, 6 July, 1882: ‘An Ordinance for the Promotion and Assistance of Education in the Settlement of The Gambia.’
  15. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Moloney.
  16. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Moloney.
  17. CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Moloney.
  18. Advertisement in Bathurst Observer, June 1883.
  19. Bathurst Observer, 29 April, 1884.
  20. Bathurst Observer, Public Notice, 17 February 1885.
  21. Bathurst Observer, ‘Nemo,” 10 March 1885.


Bathurst Observer, 27 January 1885.

Bathurst Observer, Vol 1, No 11, 6 Feb. 1883.

Bathurst Observer, Advertisement. June 1883.

Bathurst Observer, 29 April 1884.

CO 87/125, 1885 Vol 2, 27 November, Nicol to Captain Moloney.

CO 87/129, 1886 Vol 3, 18 December, Private letter of the bishop of Sierra Leone (signed E. G.) To John Bramston of the Colonial Office; &, 11 November, Confidential Report on Nicol by G. T. Carter to Rowe.

CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 16 April, Nicol to Knutsford.

CO 88/3, 6 July, 1882: “An Ordinance for the Promotion and Assistance of Education in the Settlement of The Gambia.

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

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

Macmillan, Allister, Editor. “Red Book of West Africa.” London, 1929.

This biography, received in 2017, written by Dr. Asi Florence Mahoney, is an excerpt of chapter 5 (p.75-78) 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.