One of the very few people to ever have had the guts to laugh at the so-called egalitarian centre of the world in Edwardian London, Augustus Boyle Chamberlain Merriman Labor has a history as complex as his name. A.B.C Merriman Labor took it upon himself to criticise Britain and stereotypes held about racial identity. The cost was being kicked out of a social network that has produced many British heads of state, prime ministers, judges and grandees. Although, it is people like him that have improved inter-cultural understanding and compassion by challenging discrimination.
Born as the son of a school headmistress in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the 28th of November, 1877, Merriman Labor was brought up mostly only by John Merriman, his grandfather. His mother had to move to a school in the Gambia when he was pretty young. He was an exceptionally academically talented student in the Church Missionary Society’s Grammar School in Freetown. Owing to economic causes though, Merriman Labor had to drop out of school at sixteen owing to economic causes. But that did not hamper the growth of the gifted writer in him. Merriman Labor got a novelette titled ‘Building Castles in the Air’ published in the acclaimed Gambia Intelligencer. This was in 1895 before he had even entered adulthood. It is possible the phrase ‘building castles in the air’ dates back to St. Augustine of Alexandria, Egypt (354-430 AD) who used the phrase “subtracto fundamento in aere aedificare” in one of his works, which means to build on air with no foundation.
After a brief stint as a teacher in the Gambia, Merriman Labor returned to his home nation (Sierra Leone) and entered the civil services in the Colonial Secretary’s office as a clerk. He served the Sierra Leone Volunteer Corps as a Private during the Hut Tax War of 1898, when the first breakthrough of his life emanated. His observant pamphlet ‘The Last Military Expedition in Sierra Leone; or British Soldiers and West African Native Warriors’ shook the West Coast. Many weeklies and elite publishers lauded Merriman Labor for his brutally truthful and realistic accounts which stood poles apart from contemporary prejudice driven works. This was only first of the many dominos he had put in action. Labor’s style of unapologetic writing attracted both applause and scorn by readers for a variety of reasons. His seminal ‘The Story of the African Slave Trade in a Nutshell’ was critically commended for the fresh take on things and the inherent criticism of colonialism in every page. His unassailable run continued as his pen challenged readers’ convictions further with unflinching resolutions of facts and farces.
After serving the British empire for a considerable time of ten years, Merriman Labor yet again showed his unparalleled skill by passing three of his bar examinations at Lincoln’s Inn within four months of each other. It might not be obvious at this point how much of a big deal his achievement was. The inns of court in the United Kingdom is a social network from which judges, grandees, prime ministers and heads of state emerged. The Inns of Court included Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple. At a time after when Europe was completing the “Scramble for Africa”, this African was gaining acceptance into an elite society, the oldest inn of court dating back to 1422 AD.
Wearing his barrister robes with a distinction in his finals, Merriman Labor then embarked on his polemic advancement in the field of commerce. Maybe influenced by early experience he had with financial distress, Merriman Labor was convinced that the panacea for Africans was something far more inexorable than just being learned and having qualifications (formal education). He believed that to serve his role as a social critic and influencer, he needed to become wealthy from practicing law and create financial wealth to protect himself from adversity. He proclaimed that Africa would remain a destitute people unless wealth was created by and for indigenes of the continent.
For this sole purpose of filling the African coffers, he founded the African General Agency in 1904. The ‘Sierra Weekly News’ published all his travelogues as he braved the lands of Europe, making contacts and visiting manufacturers to add to his cause. He made very close business associations but at a cost. Lincoln’s Inn found out about his trade, which was not in tandem with the norms there. His name was struck down from the rolls, and he was told the only way back in was bringing down the curtains on the AGA. This was a turning point in his life. Merriman Labor then set his mind and body on a 10,000-mile journey encompassing West and South Africa. His tour turned out to be very successful both in experiential and monetary terms. He used this hard-earned money to get back into the bar in May 1909. His lecture tour was nothing short of a crusade, as his content-rich lectures and unabashed will helped him evolve both as a writer and as a man.
But before his ascension into the ranks in the pantheon of gifted African colonialism observers, he got thrown down the social ladder. Autumn, 1909 saw Labor come forward with yet another fortified satirical travelogue on life in London. Titled “Britons through Negro Spectacles or A Negro on Britons, with a description of London” the publication was a very new and unexpected experience for him. Although he had made a name for himself as an educated observer, his outright scathing descriptions of the way of life in London was not well received. The Jamaica Times rated the work as an assortment of very shrewd comments on English manners and customs (23 October 1909).
The disastrous reception of the travelogue left Merriman Labor socially alienated, unable to earn income, and rapidly amassing debts. The fall down the social ladder turned steeper as he escaped to Wales unable to pay his bills. There, he enrolled himself at the African Institute in Colwyn Bay  in 1910. Adding pain to misery, the African Institute itself was crumbling due to financial instability. Thus Labor was forced to trace back his steps to London yet again. By the time he was forced to bankruptcy in late 1913, he had abandoned his name and came to be known as Augustus Merriman. The once much-acclaimed name he had built with the public and publishers had to be abandoned; a name he had added value to over the years.
To turn the tables around, he returned to Africa in summer 1914, for yet another lecture tour. But his bet failed yet again, and his dream of restoring his finances took a further terrible fall. Weak sales of tickets even in his hometown of Freetown and the upcoming threat of an unprecedented war in Europe undermined his tour even before its initial progression. The declining African commerce was the topic of his new work which never materialised due to the inability to generate funds.
Later on, he became a worker at munitions factory as an inspector at the Royal Arsenal Armaments factory at Woolwich. Fate had yet another twist in store for him. A legal client complained against him at the Lincoln’s Inn, and the bar council then disbarred him in 1915. His petition to reverse the disbarment the following year too was rejected.
How one’s fortune can turn and how events can even destroy one’s reputation is exemplified by the turn of events in Merriman Labor’s life. He continued his work at the Arsenal at Woolwich and also never let his pen rest throughout the time. He had accepted a new name by this time, one Ohlohr Maiji and had to lead a dual life adding to the heaps of misery that had already engulfed him.
Most of the works he penned during this time have gone missing, and most events that happened in this kink of the graph of his life remain mysterious. In the Lambeth Workhouse Infirmary on 14 July 1919, the world unknowingly had to bid adieu to a fine gentleman, whose vocal precepts on the shameless agendas of the colonialists and whose signature first-person writing style opened many an eye. Augustus Boyle Chamberlain Merriman Labor, the unflinching observer, the untiring hard worker, the dreamer and African critic of discrimination and exploitation was now lost to the world forever. Where he was buried or even cremated is still unknown. It has been inferred from the records that the cause of his death was a case of Tuberculosis, which had claimed other lives during that period.
Danell Jones has very lucidly recorded the growth and fall of this stoic man in her “An African in Imperial London. The Indomitable Life of A. B. C. Merriman-Labor” . This book traces the trajectory of Merriman-Labor’s life and shows to the contemporary world how a pen and an unending urge to topple autocracy challenged the status quo in the early 1900s. In a time when universities such as the Columbia University and the universities of Sussex and Edinburgh very precariously analyse Gandhi’s, Ambedkar’s and Mandela’s works, A.B.C. Merriman-Labor’s life ought to be studied further, and an attempt to find his long-lost invaluable manuscripts must be initiated. Jeffrey Green’s take on his life too is worth a read to get to know about this gem of a man.
1. Green Jeffrey, 144 : A. B. C. Merriman-Labor 1877-1919, lawyer and author https://www.jeffreygreen.co.uk/144-a-b-c-merriman-labor-1877-1919-lawyer-and-author
2. Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925
3. Jones Danell, The Indomitable Life of A.B.C Merriman-Labor https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/african-imperial-london/