Sigismund Koelle was a German missionary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Sierra Leone and the Middle East. Koelle’s West African period (1847-1853) was one of outstanding linguistic distinction. While teaching various subjects including Hebrew and Arabic at the CMS Institute at Fourah Bay in Sierra Leone, he investigated many African languages, mainly using liberated African slaves as informants. Returning to England, in 1853-1854 he oversaw publication of his studies on the Vai language of Liberia and on the Kanuri language of northern Nigeria, as well as an extensive and renowned collection of vocabularies, the Polyglotta Africana. He transferred to the Middle East in 1859 partly for health reasons and after 1868 was alone at the Constantinople station. Because of official hostility to the mission the CMS withdrew in 1877, but Koelle stayed on as an independent missionary until 1879, when he was forced to leave after a clash with the authorities that caused a minor international crisis. During this later career he studied Turkish and prepared material, but little appeared in print. Though retired in England, in 1889 he published Mohammed and Mohammedanism, a scholarly work but uncompromisingly hostile to its subjects.
One of the dozen native Germans who served the CMS well in the early decades of the society, Koelle became a British citizen, and his son an Anglican clergyman. For his African linguistic work he received honors, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Tübingen: all his African language works have recently been reprinted. His name is irrevocably linked with the progress of African linguistics, as he was one of its most skillful and successful early pioneers. While his devotion to mission was lifelong, the contrast between the intellectual productivity of his few years in Africa and the relative obscurity of the later decades in the Middle East is striking.
P.E. H. Hair
P. E. H. Hair, intro. to repr. of S. W. Koelle, Polyglotta Africana (1963) and The Early Study of Nigerian Languages (1967); Eugene Stock, The History of the Church Missionary Society (1899). The CMS archives on West Africa, Univ. of Birmingham, contain material on Koelle, including some translations into Turkish.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, copyright © 1998, by Gerald H. Anderson, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.