Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

May, Joseph Claudius (B)

Sierra Leone

Joseph Claudius May (August 14, 1845-0ctober 14, 1902), a talented Methodist preacher and educator, was the first principal of the Wesleyan Boys High School, Freetown, which under his direction, developed such high standards as to rival the Church Missionary Society Grammar School. An active participant in public life and keen journalist, he started the influential *Sierra Leone Weekly News *which continued in publication for over 60 years.

He was born at Charles Street in Freetown on August 14, 1845, the son of a Yoruba recaptive schoolmaster and Wesleyan minister named Joseph May. At the age of three he went with his parents to MacCarthy Island on the Gambia River where they spent six years. Returning from the Gambia, his father was appointed to circuit work at Wilberforce, York and Wellington, and also took charge for a period of two years at the Training Institution for Wesleyan ministers and lay agents at King Tom.

May was an industrious scholar. One of his ex-teachers at Wellington village school described him as “intelligent and very shrewd for his age.” At 14 he left school to take up employment in the business firm of his father’s friend, James Macfoy, where he worked with such application that after a year he was practically running the entire business.

Through the request of Quaker friends of his father, who had received part of his own education abroad, May was sent to England for further studies, but his departure was delayed until 1865 by his mother’s reluctance to part with her son.

During the six years he spent in England, May took courses at the Borough Road College in London, at Queen’s College, Taunton, and at Westminster Normal Training School. His work, especially in classics, mathematics and natural sciences, was highly praised by his teachers, and he also took a keen interest in the art of teaching itself. Like his father before him, May learned Pitman shorthand while he was in England under its inventor, Isaac Pitman.

May had shown an early vocation for the ministry, and had become a local preacher and Sunday school secretary before leaving for England where he became a fully accredited preacher. Four years after his return to Sierra Leone in 1870 he became a minister on probation and was eventually ordained in February 1880.

For the first three years after his return May devoted himself to the task of improving standards in the Wesleyan elementary schools in the Colony. In 1874 the Wesleyan Mission’s plans for a boys’ high school, proposed before he left for England but delayed by the intransigence of its autocratic superintendent, the Rev. Benjamin Tregaskis, were finally put into action, and May was appointed its first principal. Starting with only eight pupils on the roll, it soon flourished under his kind and inspiring guidance, and by the time of his death many important Africans had gone through the school. The curriculum was strongly influenced by his ideas, which included the introduction of shorthand, the encouragement of music teaching and the development of games and sports. The school came to rival, and in the eyes of some to excel, the much older Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School established in 1845.

A gifted orator, May organized debates and other public functions at which leading Freetown figures aired their views. The most popular lecture series, organized in 1881, featured papers by, among others, Sir Samuel Lewis, the Rev. Charles Marke (a Nupe convert to Wesleyan Methodism from Nigeria) and May himself. The topics covered such matters as agriculture in Sierra Leone, racial superiority and religious issues and some of the papers were later published in pamphlet form.

May also took a keen interest in journalism, being himself an accomplished writer. At great personal expense he established the Methodist Herald and West African Educational Times in 1882, serving at its editor, together with his brother Cornelius, until 1888 when it ceased publication. He also founded the Sierra Leone Weekly News whose first issue appeared on September 6, 1884. With help once again from Cornelius, and from Dr. Edward Blyden who contributed frequently, the paper became possibly the most influential public mouthpiece along the West Coast. Governor Frederic Cardew even held it responsible for stirring up the dissatisfaction which led to the 1898 Hut Tax War. The paper continued in publication until 1951.

Besides his major commitments, May also held a variety of honorary posts. Governor Arthur Edward Havelock (term of office 1881-84) appointed him a member of the board of education and offered him the post of inspector of schools, but this he turned down. He also served as examiner for the civil service of the colony.

A man of strong views on abstinence, and a teetotaler himself, May did his best to promote temperance literature in the Colony, and served on the church’s temperance committee. He was for a long time secretary of the Wesleyan synod. He also published a short biography of his father.

In 1887 he married Christiana Bull, a union which produced seven children of whom three died in infancy. Two years after Christiana’s death in 1900, May married again; but his second marriage was short lived for he died one month later on October 14, 1902.

E. Amadu Turay


Christopher Fyfe, “The Sierra Leone Press in the Nineteenth Century,” Sierra Leone Studies, June, 1957, A History of Sierra Leone, London, 1962; e. Marke, Origin of Wesleyan Methodism in Sierra Leone, London, 1913; J.e. May, A Brief Sketch of the Life of the Rev. Joseph May, Freetown, n.d.; J.R. Roberts, A Character-sketch of the late Rev. J. Claudius May, (pamphlet), Liverpool, 1912.


This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire. Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.