Gambian History/Edward Francis Small

02/19/2011 10:13

Thursday, February 10, 2011 

Who Was Edward Francis Small?

By Pa Samba Johm


Before Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara demanded and gained Gambian Independence from British colonial rule, it was Edward Francis Small who began it all. He was there among his fellow British West Africans who petitioned the colonialists and pressed the case for Independence. Small was The Gambia’s pre-eminent nationalist. Yet not many Gambians do know about him. Not even his photo is readily available. The author, during his high school days, went about researching the national icon. His findings:

 He served God, country and people, as we would see in the ensuing paragraphs.

Between Freetown and Bathurst

The son of John Small, Edward Francis Small was born in Bathurst (Banjul) on January 29, 1890. He received his early education in Bathurst and won a two-year government scholarship to attend the Wesleyan High School in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Upon completion of high school, Small secured a job as a probationer with the General Post Office in Freetown on March 31, 1910 and was later appointed Assistant Stamp Seller. Two years later, On January 25, 1912, Small was transferred to The Gambia, his native country. As his residency changed, so did his job. As a civil servant in The Gambia, Small was transferred to the Public Works Department (PWD) and was gazetted Cost Clerk on July 1, 1912 on daily wage, but he resigned on October 1 of the same year because he was refused promotion.

His resignation from PWD concluded his services with the central government and marked the beginning of his entry into the private sector. First, he picked up a job with Maurel and Prom where he also resigned after a short while. Next, Small would work in the education sector, first as a teacher and later on as a Wesleyan Missionary Agent in Ballanghar in the-then McCarthy Island Division (now Central River Division). However, at the request of the colonial government, and owing to “the impropriety of his conduct” while stationed in Ballanghar, Small would be pulled from his rural missionary work in early 1918 by Rev. J.C. Lane, head of the Wesleyan Mission in Bathurst.

Pre-independence: Attending the London Constitutional Conference, 1961. L-R: Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, Rev. J.C. Faye, Sheriff Ceesay, IM Garba Jahumpa

Small’s removal from Ballanghar was as a result of a dispute he had with Mr. J. Walker, the agent of the Bathurst Trading Company. In a letter Small addressed to the Traveling Commissioner of the division outlining the nature of the dispute, he wrote: “He, (Mr. J. Walker) entered the premises rashly and disrespectfully” and caused “interruption and disturbance to the service.” The Commissioner’s decision over the issue favored Mr. Walker and he further recommended the Mission remove Small from Ballanghar so that there could be “peace and quietness.” His removal from Ballanghar by the Mission was far from pleasing, and as a result, he severed ties with them. And for the second time, he entered the services of Maurel and Prom as a clerk where he would later resigned from once again.

Probably, the compliance of the Mission to the demands of the colonial government by removing Small, as requested, seemed a relief at first especially to Mr. Macallum, the Traveling Commissioner and the colonial government as well. But as time unfolded the mysteries of the unknown, it could be said his removal marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the colonial government. If anything, his activities became more vigorous and demanding on a much larger scale. In essence, it marked the genesis of Mr. Small’s political career.

Nationalism As Advocacy

In 1920, Small, the secretary of the local branch of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), was sent by the local committee to attend the meeting of the NCBWA in Accra, Ghana and in that same year, he became one of the delegates of the nationalist movement to London. Among the resolutions of the Congress were a regional university and an elective principle. As secretary of the local committee of the Congress, and during a meeting held in Bathurst prior to his departure for Accra, Small declared, among other demands, the following: “That this meeting heartily reiterates and accentuates the policy of the Congress to maintain strictly and inviolate the connection of the British West African Dependencies with the British Empire and to maintain unreservedly all and every right of free citizenship of the empire and the fundamental principle that taxation goes with effective representation.”

Post-independence: At 1977 Independence Celebrations in Banjul. (L-R) Mrs. Fatou Nyang Cham,  Alh. Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, Alh. M.C. Cham and Lady Njaimeh Jawara

Beside the NCBWA, Small is also known to have associated with the Labour Research Department, the League Against Imperialism, the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, and the Committee of Citizens, a local political association he founded in 1931. In July 1930, Small attended the International Conference of Negro Workers organized by George Padmore, and James Ford, a prominent American Communist in Hamburg, Germany, and during the conference, he denounced capitalism and imperialistic exploitation. He was elected to the executive of the International Trade Union Committee and in 1945 he was nominated to a seat on the general executive council of the International Conference of Free Trade Unions – a post he held until his death in January 1957.

Endowed with intellectual prowess, E. F. Small is referred to by some writers as the father of modern Gambian journalism, among others. As a journalist, he founded one of the earliest influential Gambian newspapers called the Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter in 1922, which was printed in and circulated from Dakar. When he returned from London as one of the members of the National Congress of British West Africa delegation, he remarked: “After reposing peacefully for two or three years I sally out of winter quarters being prompted once more by duties to call into the turmoil of journalistic activities.” Expectedly, the colonial government didn’t take the above remarks lightly because they believed that Small had a hidden agenda, having spoken thus. The government left no stone unturned to halt Small’s newspaper from circulating, and in 1933, the government put a final ban on the newspaper.

The newspaper served as his mouthpiece both in addressing the government and the general public at large. The last copies of the Gambia Outlook and Senegambia Reporter were issued on February 18, 1933. Coincidently, 32 years later, The Gambia would become independent on the same date. Unfortunately, he never lived to see the independence of The Gambia, a country he helped shape more than any other Gambian. Yet he is hardly remembered for that.

Firebrand Trade Unionist

Arguably, he is best remembered for the 1929 General Strike regarded as the first of its kind in the country. Chiding Gambian historians for neglecting the magnitude of the strike, Dr. D. M. R. Perfect in his doctorate thesis entitled “Organized Labour and Politics in the Gambia: 1920-1984” wrote: “The 1929 General Strike was also one of the most important examples of labor unrest in West Africa before the second World War. It had profound impact on the development of Gambian labor movement and also significantly affected the history of trade unionism in the British Empire. Its importance was recognized by contemporary writers, some of who drew their own political morals from it. Subsequently, however, Gambian historians have tended to neglect the incident.”

I am in total agreement with Dr. Perfect in his assertions. I would say both Small and his duties have been neglected by Gambians at large. With the exception of a handful, his name seldom touches the national platform in its entirety. It is pertinent at this point to examine the causes and the results of the internationally acclaimed but nationally neglected strike in The Gambia.

The causes of the strike could be traced back to 1921 when a major reduction of wages started. Secondly, employees of firms were forced to buy goods from those firms, whose prices were more expensive than those in the local markets. The constant reduction of wages since 1921 was just unbearable and in 1929, it reached a climax and the resultant effect was the 1929 General Strike organized by the Gambia Labor Union founded by Small in the same year; it lasted for over two decades.


Sir Henry Lionel Galway, The Gambia's Colonial Governor (1911-1914); A Cover Page of a Colonial Report on The Gambia

Earlier on, it was said that the impact of the strike was felt throughout the British Empire but for now, we would look at its impact in The Gambia. Initially, the colonial government didn’t do much but as events grew and intensified, the authorities intervened and offered to arbiter between the strikers and the employers. Due to the government’s intervention, the strike was temporarily called off and both the union representatives and those of the firms converged with the authorities to reach a compromise. After a series of meetings and consultations with the parties involved, the union representatives headed by Small himself agreed to accept the “terms offered with one or two exceptions.”

By the end of the day, the unionists had secured some of those terms for their members namely, increase in wages, pay for firemen and sailors on steam boats – five pounds for firemen and three pounds for sailors, a chamber to fix minimum standard rates for all trades represented by the union, rations to sailors to include half-bag of salt, to guarantee no victimization of union members. In order to call off the strike completely, the union representatives demanded the general acceptance of scales of wages for all workers represented viz: shipwrights, carpenters, masons, engineers, chauffeurs, firemen, blacksmiths, seamen, greasers, fitters, painters and the guarantee that there would be no victimization of the union members. The acceptance of the above-mentioned terms brought the strike to an end.

Additionally, Small’s activities were mainly responsible for the important Gambia Trade Union Ordinance in 1932, and in that same year, he helped found the Rate Payers Association which served as The Gambia’s first training ground for future politicians. The association also always returned candidates to the Urban District Council. In 1942, Small was nominated to the Legislative Council and in 1947 he became the first Gambian to be elected to the Legislative Council, following the government’s conceding of the franchise to the colony due to the Order-in-Council that was promulgated in November 1946.

A Gambian Mail in Colonial Days, Circa 1936

The franchise was limited to the colony as indicated in the following: “The electorate, which consisted of British Subjects and British Protected Persons ordinarily resident in Bathurst or Kombo St. Mary, voted in a single poll in November 1947.” The contestants included Edward Francis Small, I. M. Garba Jahumpa and Sheikh Omar Faye. Small won the election and served a one three-year term that ended in 1951 when he lost the election to I. M. Garba Jahumpa and the Rev. J. C. Faye.

The Communist Charge

Beside the above-mentioned organizations he was a part of, Small was chosen by the Liberian Government in 1930 to be the Liberian Honorary Consul in Bathurst but due to the ill-advice given by The Gambia Government, he was turned down for the appointment. According to government officials, Small was “worse than an agitator,” in fact, a “self-appointed champion of non-existing grievances felt by an imaginary body of citizens.” This is another indication of how fragile and inimical the relationship between Small and the government was.

Even though the government couldn’t for sure prove that he was a communist, the acting Governor, Mr. Workman, nonetheless wrote to Lord Passfield, then Colonial Secretary in London, that while “ I am not aware whether Small has definitely joined the communist Party (presumably in Britain, for there was none in West Africa), his attendance at meetings of the European Congress of Working Peasants in Berlin, and his correspondence with the League Against Imperialism, sufficiently indicate his attitude.” According to Professor Basil Davidson, the statement “was quite enough, and Small was turned down, even though the evidence suggests that he was almost as far from being a communist as from being a Working Peasant.”

The Politics of Groundnuts

Small regenerated his ties with the protectorate not as a missionary but as a trader. In January 1929, he and Sheikh Omar Faye founded the Gambia Planters’ Syndicate that had as its prime objective the bringing of some uncultivated land in the protectorate under cultivation. Beside the Planters’ Syndicate, Small founded the Gambia Farmers Cooperative Marketing Association in which he served as chairman.


Groundnuts As Political Tool

The objective of this association was to organize groundnut deliveries in Bathurst by members in various districts and provinces. Unfortunately, the association didn’t take off as envisaged by Small due to the nature of events in Kerewan, North Bank Division. While in Kerewan, Small had collected a total of 3.5 tons of groundnuts on credit from some of the farmers and had promised to pay them later. Prior to his departure for Kerewan, he had already lobbied for a loan of about nine thousand and eight hundred pounds from the Bathurst branch of the bank of British West Africa. According to the bank officials, he could only secure the loan upon fulfilling certain conditions, the principle of which being “the production of certain quantity of groundnuts” and thus, the reason for the collection of the 3.5 tons of groundnuts from the farmers on credit.

His work as a trader in the North Bank Division was hindered both by the colonial government and the Seyfo, Janko Kinteh even though the authorities, in an interview, gave him a rather contrary view of their intention. Records revealed that Small went to Kerewan on May 20, 1930 and collected the 3.5 tons of groundnuts, and returned to Bathurst in order to collect the loan from the bank. But before completing his transaction, word was sent to him that the Seyfo and the Commissioner of the division, L.A.W. Brookes, had returned the groundnuts to their respective owners after the owners went to the Commissioner and the Seyfo to get back their groundnuts. However, it was confirmed that it was in fact the Commissioner with the help of the Seyfo who convinced the farmers to get back their groundnuts since Small had bought them on credit. So by June his Kerewan adventure had become a fiasco. 

True Public Servant

In spite of the above setbacks, Small was still active in the affairs of the protectorate. In disagreement with the courts allowing a judge to sit on a murder trial without a jury, Small, in a letter to the governor, remarked: “That a judge sitting without a jury at a murder trial is a grave danger to a fair trial being had.”  The above trial was about the assassination of Mr. C.G. Goddard, a rich native trader. His son, Alfred Goddard and his son-in-law, Mr. McCarthy, were the alleged killers of Mr. Goddard. According to records, the son and son-in-law hired the assassins who killed the elder Mr. Goddard while he was in Kaur to recover squandered merchandise by his son under the influence of a local woman.

Edward Francis Small did not confine his activities in the protectorate alone. In fact it is hard to say where his services were rendered most, the colony or the protectorate. His nationalistic fervor transcended ethnic and geographical boundaries in what is today The Gambia. None before him had embarked on such a national tour of duty to people and country like him and not until the birth of the Protectorate People’s Party (PPP), had any individual or an organization come close to filling his shoes in the protectorate. Still none could suffice. According to the late Pierre Sarr Njie, no Gambian, including himself, could be compared to Small in terms of  service to the country.

For his heroic duties deserving of national recognition, the Honorable Edward Francis Small’s name ought to be embalmed in reverence. For his dedication to people and country, the Freetown Barrister-at-Law, Solicitor, Notary Public Officer  Mr. G. W. S Ladepon Thomas, in a letter addressed to Small in 1936, wrote the following: “I hope you have by this time heard from your people in London and have been able to settle with the people downstairs. There is nothing more to say, my regards to Mr. Richards: wishing you both health and wealth and you (Small) in particular further service to your country and race.” While this letter has confirmed Small’s services to people and country, both Small and his activities are not widely remembered.

Hard as it is to believe that such a national icon is so neglected, it is even more difficult to uncover significant information about Small. In fact, the last ten years of his life seem to be print-elusive. Much to my disappointment, there were three different years listed as his year of death. I selected (January 1957) which is the most widely archived date.

Mr. Edward Francis Small embarked upon huge tasks to bring about representative governance to his people. He deserves every accolade conferred on him by his people: a people he laid his life for and uplifted to higher heights.

Research Sources

1. Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (London: James Currey, 1992).

2. Dawda Faal, A History of The Gambia from AD 1000 to 1965.

3. DMR Perfect, Organized Labor and Politics in The Gambia: 1920-1984 (1987 PhD Thesis).

4. The Gambia National Archives.


Search site

© 2009-2020 Friends of Basse, Inc. All rights reserved.