Richards, Joseph Davidson

1843 to 1917
Anglican Communion

Joseph Davidson Richards, popularly known as “JD,” was an Aku entrepreneur of Bathurst. In January 1883, he was nominated to be the first African unofficial member of the Gambia Legislative Council. [1]

Joseph Davidson Richards was born in Bathurst in 1843 of liberated African parents from Abeokuta in Yorubaland, Nigeria. His father was a tailor by trade, but his mother was a trader in cola nuts. Thanks to her success in this lucrative business, their family was able to purchase a large house from the merchant, Richard Lloyd. The house was situated at the junction of Wellington Street and Blucher (later Cameron) Street and was appropriately named “Kola Buildings.”

Richards grew up in this house and attended the Wesleyan Primary Day School in Bathurst. When he was ready for secondary education, his autocratic mother refused to imitate other prosperous liberated African families. She would not allow her son to o to the C. M. S. (Church Missionary Society) Grammar School in Freetown, because she did not want him to be like the other young men in a white-collar jobs in the Gambia civil service who were disliked for their arrogance. Therefore, he was trained in business under her watchful eye.

Soon Richards was ready to find a job in the groundnut trade. William Goddard, agent for the firm of Forster and Smith, made him his trader at Banney in Jarra Kingdom in the 1860s. Banney, now spelled Bani, is in present day Fulladu West District on the south bank of Central River Region. [2] Richards’ next station was in Niumi, in the king of Barra’s domain. There he bought nuts during the 1870s and gained valuable experience for the dangers of his future life as an entrepreneur.[3] Richards became so successful by the 1880s that he dealt directly with manufacturers in Manchester who supplied him with printed cottons, cotton yarn, and hardware for the river trade. Not only did he own cutters for transporting groundnuts to Bathurst, he also employed his own liberated African and Wolof traders. [4]

At this stage of his career, Richards stayed in touch with the activities in the Riverain States by maintaining contact with the rulers or with his own traders. The dealings with shrewd rulers over alleged disregard of traditional law and custom made Richards very much aware of the complexities of trade and politics in the Riverain States.[5] His first-hand knowledge of the river, sound common sense, and business acumen put Richards in a position of leadership during the crises of the “Transfer.” [5a]

The colonial government often consulted Richards on local issues. His indomitable will, sense of purpose, eloquence, and advocacy in fluent English on behalf of the liberated African community made him an outstanding leader of the Bathurst Native Association (BNA). On a visit to the Gambia in 1882, Sir Arthur Havelock, the governor-in-chief of British West Africa, learned about the Bathurst Native Association, and its demands for greater participation in the affairs of the settlement. Impressed by the leadership of the association, and convinced of the justification of its demands, Havelock wrote to the secretary of state:

Dr. Q. S. Gouldsbury, administrator of the Gambia colony (1877-1884), had recommended Richards to the governor-in-chief, after surveying the liberated African community and discovering that Richards was a man who enjoyed “the confidence and esteem of the community.”[7] In his letter of appointment to the Legislative Council, dated January 1, 1883, Richards was instructed to “represent in the Legislative Council of this settlement native opinion and interests.”[8]

Throughout his five years’ membership on the Legislative Council, Richards never failed in his role as constructive critic of the colonial government. Indeed, he pursued this role so vigorously that successive administrators began to regard him as an embarrassment to the colonial government. Richards always voted in the best interests of his people on issues related to duty increases on rice or other goods, safety issues on the roads, increased foreign shipping traffic on the Gambia River that threatened the local shipbuilding industry, and colonial government expenditures, to name but a few. However, he also made it a point to work in collaboration with the other unofficial member of long-standing in the council, James Topp, a German merchant representing the commercial houses. In spite of their joint efforts on certain issues, the official majority often overruled them.

Inevitably, Richards and Topp ran into disagreements in the council because they represented opposing commercial houses and different interests. In 1888, the financial situation of the colony had declined and, as a result, Richards was appointed to sit on a three-member committee of the Legislative Council to draw up proposals for raising additional revenue. [9]

The visit of Governor-in-Chief Sir Samuel Rowe was seen as an opportunity to revisit the question of protection for British traders in the troubled Riverain States. Their hope was for a punitive expedition against Fodey Kabba Dumbuya, whose activities in the Jarra country had overthrown traditional authority, without replacing it with a stable political system. [10] Liberated African merchants and traders had suffered great hardships on the river for many years. The constant raids of Kabba’s warriors had forced the lucrative trade of the Jarra country and neighboring Kiang to change locations. Their vivid descriptions of his atrocities and of his slave-dealings reopened the discussion regarding a proposed British Protectorate on the river.

Considering the chief’s authority over extensive territory in which British commercial interests were involved, Richards advised subsidizing Musa Molloh by signing a commercial treaty with him [11] that included some provision for the return of criminals and refugees to the chief. Musa Molloh accused the British of interfering with the laws and customs of his jurisdiction and he was angry that British traders gave refuge to his domestic slaves.

The British government was soon forced to take action against French encroachment on the north bank of the River Gambia. For a long time, it had pursued a policy of neutrality towards the jihadists, who were ravaging the Riverain States. However, the diplomatic situation created by French forces pursuing Said Mattee (Maba’s son) on the very banks of the River Gambia goaded the British government into action [12]. On his visit to the colony in 1887, Governor-in-Chief Rowe surveyed public opinion on this issue and gave Richards’ comments considerable weight. These consultations were the prelude to the signing of treaties of protection with Gambian chiefs. [13] As a result, the British flag was raised in all wharf-towns in 1888. Though French encroachment precipitated the declaration of a British Protectorate in the Gambia, Richards and the Bathurst Native Association played important roles in its realization.

In 1886, another distinguished liberated African merchant named Samuel John Forster joined Richards on the Legislative Council. Forster’s career in the council was a long and distinguished one. His temperament was probably better suited to the role of the unofficial member in a nineteenth century West African legislature than was Richards’. Too outspoken on controversial issues, often critical of official conduct, and perhaps lacking in deference to the official majority, Richards became a “marked man.”

No sooner was G. T. Carter appointed administrator in 1888 than he set out to reconstitute the Legislative Council with a view to weeding out “factious opposition” and replacing all who hindered his administration.[14] He really only had Richards in mind. His dispatch of September 1888 to the secretary of state deprecated the arrangement described as “the undesirable increase in the non-official element of the council.”[15] In six years their number had grown from one to four and in 1888 they even outnumbered the officials by one. This was an unsatisfactory state of affairs, which Carter intended to put right, once separation from Sierra Leone was complete.

Thus came to an abrupt end Richards’ career as first African unofficial member of the Gambia Legislative Council. [16] He never returned to the council though he was still regarded by his own people as the leader of the liberated African community. He was immediately replaced by William Goddard’s mulatto son, Henry Charles Goddard, agent for the Bathurst Trading Company, and described to the secretary of state as one “thoroughly acquainted with the settlement (…) well educated, and (…) not likely to be an obstructive member.”[17]

There was no doubt that Richards continued to hold a prominent place in the liberated African community. In 1895, when Governor Llewelyn (1891-1900) issued a confidential circular to jurors, magistrates, and professional gentlemen in the colony inviting them to send in names of any three gentlemen they wanted nominated to the Legislative Council, Richards drew 49 votes and Mr. Forster only 34 votes. [18] Notwithstanding this fact, Richards was still excluded from the council, and the appointments of Forster and Henry Goddard were renewed for another five years.

In 1900, H. M. B. Griffith, the acting governor, followed Llewelyn’s initiative and consulted public opinion for a suitable representative of their interests on the council. In that year, 57 circulars were distributed in the colony, and 50 were returned with the following results: Goddard, 42 votes; Richards, 33 votes; Forster 32 votes, E. Thomas, 16 votes; Z. T. Gibson, 6 votes. Nine other persons received four or fewer votes each. [19] Once again, Richards was immediately excluded for being “undoubtedly faddy and (…) inclined to oppose all measures introduced by the government without being able to suggest any practical alternative (…), he would only prove a stumbling block on the way of the council…[20]. Another reason for his disqualification, according to official explanation, was that Richards represented the Sierra Leone section of the liberated African community. Yet it was common knowledge that Richards was Gambian by birth, that he had never attended school in Freetown, nor lived there for any length of time.

In February 1884, Richards was appointed justice of the peace and, in July of the same year, sanitary commissioner. [21] When the commission was superseded by a board of health in March 1887, Richards naturally found a seat on the board as a representative of the Bathurst Native Association, which had hitherto submitted numerous petitions deploring the unsanitary state of Bathurst, especially during the rainy season. It was partly to meet their demands for a town council that Administrator J. S. Hay (1886) had appointed the leaders of the liberated African community to sit on the newly constituted Board of Health, under the chairmanship of the colonial surgeon. [22] Richards saw the board as the beginning of a municipality that would one day have elected members, and command its own revenue. It was, therefore, a great disappointment to him when the board became defunct after its first few meetings due to uneven attendance and petty jealousies.

Therefore, when the new governor (Llewelyn) arrived in 1891, Richards presented a letter that urged him to put into effect the terms of the Public Health Act, with additional recommendations for improvement. Richards had already drawn Administrator Carter’s (1886-1891) attention to the unsanitary condition of the town, and to the existence of the Public Health Act but Carter had ignored his letters.

The main cause of the failure of the first board was “the absence of popular votes or elections of some sort in the colony” [23] from the ratepayers. Of course, Llewelyn had followed closely the agitation for a municipality in the neighboring colony of Sierra Leone led by Samuel Lewis in the 1880s. Like Lewis, Richards saw the establishment of local self-government through a municipality as useful training for the citizens. [24] The governor, however, did not think that “the state of education here [was] (…) sufficiently advanced for any sort of representative government.”[25]

To the secretary of state, however, the Public Health Ordinance was a vital necessity. He was willing to encourage “the better class of inhabitants in Bathurst” to assist in preserving the health of the town. Therefore a new board was appointed in January 1892 that included a strong representation of the liberated African community: J. D. Richards, Edmund Thomas, T. W. Sawyerr, Jas. C. French, and Francis Goree Njie were all members. [26] Their appointment, however was still by nomination by the governor, and not by election. Yet, the municipality ordinance of Sierra Leone passed in February 1893 provided for twelve of the fifteen councilors to be elected, with the power to levy rates and provide enough revenue to meet expenditure. [27]

The Bathurst Board of Health was empowered to advise the governor on the allocation of rates, market dues, and licenses of various kinds that were sources of revenue from the town, but beyond this, it could not go. In short, the board had no executive power. This limitation caused a great deal of frustration to prosperous merchants who were accustomed to handling large sums of money, and to negotiating agreements with commercial houses abroad. Perhaps even more serious than this complaint of the absence of executive authority was the governor’s apparent indifference to the recommendation of the board.

The basis of the conflict between governor and board was really finance. The governor held the purse strings and kept a watchful eye on expenditure. The board, on the other hand, complained of a meagre revenue, yet would not accept any proposal for the increase of rates from 3% to 5%. Thus the early attempts at creating a municipality in the colony of St. Mary’s were unsuccessful. Neither the Sanitary Commission, nor the Board of Health provided the experience for its members that would have prepared the way for a town council. Indeed, it was not until the twentieth century (1947) that such an institution was established in Bathurst.

Asi Florence Mahoney


  1. CO/87 119, 1882 Vol 2, 21 November, V. S. Gouldsbury to Havelock; 27 November 1882, Havelock to Lord Kimberly; CO 87/120, 1883 Vol 1, Havelock to Kimberly; Gambia Gazette 1883.
  2. CO 87/84, Vol 1, 1866, 22 March, d’Arcy to E. Cardwell; enclosure – letter from J. D. Richards to d’Arcy.
  3. Information from the late Mr. Cecil Richards (the son of J. D.)
  4. Information from the late Mr. Cecil Richards (the son of J. D.).
  5. CO 87/84, Vol 1, 1866, 22 March, d’Arcy to Cardwell – enclosure; Richards’ trading activities in Bani had once brought him before that de facto ruler to redeem his trade goods. The people of Bani had seized his goods until he returned their slave boy who had, in fact, escaped on one of his vessels bound for Bathurst. Similar exchanges took place with Fodey Cabba (Foday Kaba Dumbuya), headquartered in Datore-Medina, the longest surviving adventurist and Muslim Reformer jihadist (c. 1850s to 1901) who operated in the present day Jarra, Kiang and Foni districts on the south bank of the River Gambia; ad Musa Molloh (Musa Molloh Eggeh Baldeh founder Emperor of the vast Fulladu (Firdou) Empire (c. 1879-1919) which extended from Fulladu West District to Kantora District in Eastern Gambia, south to the Casamance Valley in southern Senegal, and eastwards to Guinea Bissau).
    5a. In 1866, the Prince de la Tour d’Auvergne, French ambassador to the court of St. James, formally addressed the British Foreign Secretary on the possibility of an exchange of territory (“The Transfer”) for he explained that “it would be for the mutual advantage of the two countries to make an exchange of territory and factories, by which France should acquire additional advantages for trading purposes to the north (including The Gambia) and Great Britain to the south of Sierra Leone.” This excerpt concerning the subject of ‘Transfer’ is from Asi Florence Mahoney, “Gambia Studies”: Supplement to Creole Saga (Banjul: BPMRU, 2008), 77.]
  6. CO 87/110, 1882 Vol 2, 27 November, Havelock to Kimberley.
  7. Memorial of J. D. Jones, F. G. Njie and others to Gouldsbury, published African Times, July 1883.
    • African Times*, July 1883.
  8. CO 87/132, 188 Vol 1, Gambia Legislative Council Committee, 12 March 1888.
  9. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, 1 June, J. D. Richards to Rowe.
  10. Gambia Legislative Council Minutes, 7 April 1886.
  11. CO 87/130, 1887 Vol 1, Reuter’s telegrams; C. O. Minute, A. W. L. H. to Meade, 6 May 1887.
  12. Ibid., 15 July, telegram to Rowe.
  13. CO 87/133 Vol 2, 10 September, G. T. Carter to Knutsford.
  14. CO 87/133 Vol 2, 10 September, G. T. Carter to Knutsford.
  15. CO 87/133, 1888 Vol 2, 15 November, C. O. Minute.
  16. CO 87/134, 1888 Vol 2, 20 November, Carter to Knutsford.
  17. CO 87/161, 1900, Vol 1, 6 December, H. M. B. Griffith to Joseph Chamberlain.
  18. CO 87/161, 1900, Vol 1, 6 December, H. M. B. Griffith to Joseph Chamberlain.
  19. CO 87/161, 1900, Vol 1, 6 December, H. M. B. Griffith to Joseph Chamberlain.
  20. Gambia Gazette 1884-1885.
  21. CO 88/3, 29 March 1887: “An Ordinance for promoting the Public Health of the Settlement of the River Gambia”.
  22. CO 87/140, 1891 Vol 2, 18 July, J. D. Richards to Llewelyn.
  23. Fyfe, “History”, p.447.
  24. CO 87/140, 1891 Vol 2, 16 September, Llewelyn to Knutsford.
  25. CO 87/141, 1892 Vol 1, 17 March, Letter of J. D. R. and others to Llewelyn.
  26. Fyfe, op.cit., p 153.


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 Sa 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 4 (p.61-70) 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.