The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers

Akinbami Agbebi to John E. Bruce

Dear Father

I trust you have received my last letter and the contents are receiving your attention. I hasten to write you again. I have noticed in the local press that a letter has been addressed by Mr. Garvey to Hon. Mr. S. H. Pearce [Pearse] of this place inviting him to take part as a representative for Lagos in the Convention which is taking place next August in New York. Before the letter appeared in the Press, it came to my hearing that Mr. Pearce was invited and I was at a loss to understand why this was done without my knowing it. But the letter showed that the invitation was done at your suggestion. I did not dream that you are in touch so much with Lagos and its people as to know who's who in this place. But, really, father, it is time your copy of that who's who is revised by inserting my name right at the top. I am becoming rather important to warrant your doing that and you are making me so. I hope your Yoruba is greatly improved since I left. The Hon. S. H. Pearce is a prominent personage in the business world of Lagos and a member of the legislature. I do not know whether he would respond to the call of the U.N.I.A., and if he does, it will certainly not be as the representative of the people of Lagos. I enclose herewith a copy of the Lagos Weekly Record of December 27, 1919 and have marked some passages to show you my meaning in saying so.[1] As I pointed out in my letter to Mr. Garvey (among the copies enclosed herewith)[,][2] Lagos is divided into petty factions; and these factions are headed by prominent men who really should be the leader rather than scatterers of the people. Mr. Pearce happened to be one of the 13 men (all Africans) who were called upon in November last to advise the new Governor of this place as to the fitness of the Eleko [Eshugbayi],[3] Prince of Lagos (the King and head of the indigenous inhabitants of the country)[,][4] to co[n]tinue to hold his exalted position, because he was not in favour with the Government owing to some semi-political and semi-religious matter. With the exception of only 2 all these men spoke adversely of the Prince and stoutly recommended his deposition. The Governor followed their advice and formally suspended the Prince pending the election of a successor by the chiefs and people of the country. You cannot imagine the great trouble and unrest this Governmental action created in the country. The people rose as one man to petition the Governor and to point out that it was an unheard of thing in the history of the Yorubas that a King was deposed and another installed in his place. If such thing were to be allowed to take place in Lagos[,] the leading town of Nigeria, it will destroy the whole fabric upon which native customs and usages were founded and no King of any of the native States will be safe. The agitation which was peaceful and constitutional was led by many intelligent and patriotic men of Lagos and heads of all but one religious bodies. The Governor was moved to reconsider his decision and the matter was settled by the Prince being reinstated in his high office. This matter started on the eve of my departure for New York but the above is the true version of the incident as recorded and even published. The group called the "famous 13" still bears rightly or wrongly the brand of treachery with which it was labelled for its attempt to overthrow the native Kingship.[5] I say all these not from a prejudicial motive but to show what place Mr. Pearce occupies in the confidence of his people since the occurrence of the important /unfortunate/ affair. Of course this and all other things one hears about Mr. Pearce, such as obsequious disposition where the interest of the whitemen are concerned and undue hankering after Governmental honours, do not prove he is not one interested in the redemption of Africa which was after all the object of the U.N.I.A. for inviting him. If he attends the convention[,] his presence and knowledge should be of value to the leaders of the U.N.I.A. movement but it is doubtful if they will bring lasting benefit to this country. And this mention of the coming convention brings me right down to a point on which I wish to know your opinion. I have been thinking since I returned to Africa, and situated at a distance from the cradle of the movement and thereby able to view the programme of the movement from an angle not discernible in New York, whether it is not too premature for us to meet for the purpose of "discussing and legislating for the future Government of Africa"? The great object the U.N.I.A. has in view strikes me as being rather too important and far reaching to be handled with any degree of haste. The race is divided into so many groups naturally and artificially by God himself and then by the powers of Europe and any attempt to weld these groups together must necessitate taking many things into consideration and going about the work with caution and due regards to the helpless position of millions who are subjects to these foreign powers. To my mind, the whole of the attention of the U.N.I.A. should be concentrated upon one thing—the economic stability of the race. Take for an instance, if the whole of our energy were to be devoted to Nigeria alone which is only a part of West Africa; for many years more, it will succeed to win only a fraction of the wealth of the country but that fraction will make us rich beyond our expectation. I have tried to impress Mr. Garvey upon this point. I have realised that to be able to tackle Nigerian trade we shall require about 6 ships to begin with, and a financially strong trade Corporation which will constantly provide produce for these ships. Three of the ships to run between here and England and three between here /and/ New York. With this little fleet, believe me, we shall make so much money and create for ourselves so great prestige that the way will be clearer and more easily trodden than it is now. Now, father, what do you think of my little reasonings? I have not only been thinking but have been studying very closely the possibilities that lie before us in West Africa. There is one thing I desire to tell you, father, and that is the considerable inconvenience I have suffered personally and the handicap which has been placed in the way of my work by want of money; since my return to Lagos I have repeatedly telegraphed to Mr. Garvey for credit and he has more than once cabled to me that money has been cabled. All enquiries at the local banks have proved up till now futile and I do not know how to carry on the work or carry about myself when I am left alone without a penny. I am expecting every moment the papers that are required before registration can be done and which I have been informed from New York have been sent. When these papers reach me I expect to start business right in earnest and the whole of my time now is occupied in laying preliminary plans. Even these plans require money and I have been getting it by hook or crook. I have given the bond required of me. I have cabled again to New York for credit of £500. No less will be required for a start if it is our wish to enter our ship in Lagos harbour, pay dues and fees, advertise our business and equip our office properly and feed our local staff. I hope you will take note of this[,] father. I enclose a newspaper cutting which has come my way.[6] The piece of news given therein is no doubt calculated by some detractors to undermine the influence of the organization. I trust steps have been taken to contradict it and to stem the current of doubts and fears which it will surely create in the minds of the friends of the organization.
I revert to the subject of our making some business efforts between ourselves, father, without apology. In my last letter I wrote about [the] baking industry. There are many things we can attempt here which will make us happy but baking appears to me to be the right one to undertake now, now. I have my reason. There are some 61 (sixty one) petty bakeries, mostly conducted by women, in this town of over 73,000 inhabitants. These bakeries place something like 60,000 loaves of bread on the average regularly on the market every day. That means something like nine-tenths of the population is bread eater. Now my idea is this. We should float a company to erect, right here in Lagos, an important up-to-date plant capable of providing /producing/ at least 20,000 loaves of bread a day. The company should be called "african baking company ltd." with a capital of not less than $50,000. It should be incorporated in U.S.A. and registered in Nigeria. Its stocks should be open for subscription to negroes in U.S.A. and in Nigeria. Its head office should be in New York with you as president and some other men of your nomination as directors. It will operate in West Africa, beginning in Lagos, Nigeria. All materials such as flour etc. required for the work will be brought bought at wholesale price by the New York headquarters and shipped regularly to this port in the B.S.L. ships. The local management will be placed in proper hands and will be conducted in the most up-to-date business manner. The headquarters will be kept in touch of the progress of the work and profits may be used in buying and shipping African produce which will be sold in U.S.A. to the advantage of the Company. Transfers of money which will necessarily be taking place between the local factory and the headquarters will be effected in this reciprocal way and thereby add to the turnovers of the Company. The company will also engage in flour trade. Getting flour in large quantity—the best brand—direct from millers in U.S.A. and selling same to advantage in Nigeria. In this connection it may be interesting to state that in 1919 £57,321 worth of flour was imported into Lagos and of this £44,718 worth was direct from U.S.A. and even the £12,603 worth which came from Britain was in transit from U.S.A. The Company will also set up confectionary stores etc. In short this is the outline, father, and on hearing from you that you are willing to float the concern, I shall furnish data for an attractive prospectus.
Since writing the above, relative to the item of news in the "New York News," I have noticed in the Negro World that Mr. Garvey and the Corporation have taken action against the editor of the paper, Mr. Powell and the editor of another paper called "Chicago Defender."[7] Good to Mr. Garvey and the U.N.I.A. I wish them a grand victory over the enemies of the race. I and some of my friends are watching the proceedings with keen interest and will be very very glad to hear the cases end with success to the U.N.I.A.
Now, father, I think I should stop. Mention me to mother and tell her I think of her always. My mother [Adeline Agbebi][8] sends best compliments. Write quick to your Dear Son[.]
P.S. Please send me some Catalogues of bread baking machines and the best literature of baking industry.
NN-Sc, JEB, MS 267. ALS, recipient's copy.
[1] The enclosed clipping has not been found, though it was most likely the following article:
“Yesterday afternoon, Boxing day, Mr. Kitoyi Ajasa, the irrepressible Editor of the Nigerian Pioneer, attended by the Honourable Sammie Pearse, of Elephant Castle, paid a visit of contrition to His Royal Highness Prince Eleko at the Palace, "Iga Idunganran," without previous notice being given. The Prince, however, courteously received these two backsliding members of "The famous 13" group, who expressed their suddenly discovered loyalty to the House of Dosumu now and asked the Prince to let "by-gones be by-gones."”“After mentioning that he had copies of the recent issues of the Pioneer in the Palace, the Prince assured the two contrite gentlemen that he was willing to extend to them both, that Spirit of Forgiveness which they with a few others like themselves not very long ago withheld from him. At the end of the interview, it is stated that the two penitent politicians prostrated in the usual native orthodox fashion before Prince Eleko who acknowledged, in a princely style, their true contrition, Jolly Old Prince! (LWR, 27 December 1919)”
[2] The letter has not been found.
[3] Eshugbayi (d. 1932), the eleko, or prince, of Lagos from 1900 until his death, actively supported traditional rights. Trouble between Nigeria's colonial government and Eshugbayi arose first over the water-rate controversy. When, in September 1916, Governor-General Frederick Lugard asked him to tell the people to pay the water rate, he refused, explaining that such an action would have no effect and would merely undermine his authority. When a riot then erupted against the water rate, the government blamed Eshugbayi. His stipend, along with those of most of his white-cap chiefs, was suspended for one year. Eshugbayi was brought before the government in November 1919 because he appointed a Lemomu Imam from the Jamat faction of the Muslim community in Lagos. The Lagos Muslims were divided into two factions. The Lemomu Braimah had supported the water rate and the Jamat faction opposed it.
Eshugbayi was generally viewed as a weak, incompetent ruler. The Nigerian Pioneer objected to his inability to stick to any sound and reasoned course for any length of time; instead he was always shifting according to political influences. His supporters, led by Herbert Macaulay, were traditionalists who believed Eshugbayi could only be removed from office by constitutional methods; they never defended his character, which "was by all accounts difficult to defend" (Patrick Cole, Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975], p. 155). The water-rate controversy was not the end of Eshugbayi's problems with the government. In December 1920 he was suspended again for five years, and in 1925 he was deposed and deported. After an unrelenting campaign on his behalf, Herbert Macaulay succeeded in having him reinstated in 1931 (Nigerian Pioneer [Lagos], 21 November 1919; Cole, Modern and Traditional Elites).
[4] The eleko was traditionally known as the oba, the head of the indigenous society. He was advised by a council of chiefs. The term eleko, which literally means "owner of Lagos," usually refers to Oba Eshugbayi exclusively. No oba before Eshugbayi had the title (Cole, Modern and Traditional Elites, p. 123).
[5] Sir Hugh Clifford, who succeeded Sir Frederick Lugard as governor of Nigeria in September 1919, met thirteen members of the educated elite of Lagos on 12 November 1919 to seek advice on the issue of the eleko. His philosophy was that "every sector of opinion should be reflected in government; its actions should be exposed to the closest scrutiny and criticism" (Cole, Modern and Traditional Elites, p. 124). The thirteen citizens who were present included John Randle (1855–1928), a wealthy medical doctor and chairman of the People's Union and the Reform Club; Orisadipe Obasa (1863–1940), a wealthy medical doctor and secretary of the People's Union and Reform Club; Kitoyi (later Sir) Ajasa (1866–1937), a successful lawyer, member of the Legislative Council, and owner/editor of the Nigerian Pioneer; Samuel Herbert Pearse; Richard Akinwande Savage (1874–1935), a medical doctor, journalist, and founder and secretary of the Lagos branch of the NCBWA; Eric Olawolu Moore (1878–1944), a lawyer and member of the Legislative Council; David Augustus Taylor (1865–1932), a wealthy produce dealer, merchant, and member of the People's Union and Reform Club; James George (1849–1938), a lawyer, Bishop Isaac Alalia (1852–1932), a bishop of the Anglican Church; M. Abayomi, a lawyer; Mobolaji Adeyemi Akinsemoyin (1885–1938), a lawyer; Jacob Kehinde Coker (1866–1945), an independent African churchman, farmer, and merchant; and Henry Carr (1863–1945), resident (administrator) of the Colony of Lagos.
With the exception of Akinwande Savage and J. K. Coker, the group recommended deposing the eleko, so Clifford suspended him. The arguments used by the advisers were that the "Eleko was not a fit and proper person to hold the high position. The Eleko had been given frequent warning" (Nigerian Pioneer, 21 November 1919). They believed that the eleko was the tool of Herbert Macaulay, and that Macaulay was using the eleko for his own political ends. The recommendation that the eleko be deposed aroused strong opposition. A mass meeting held at Enu Owa, the traditional quarter of Lagos, on 17 November 1919, passed resolutions stating that Christian, pagan, and Muslim sections of the population opposed the decision of the delegates, and that the thirteen men did not represent all sections of opinion. Brazilians (manumitted former slaves from the New World), Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, and Baptists, for example, were not properly represented, and there was no member of the reigning family present except for one or two descendants. The meeting nominated a delegation of fifty traditional religious practitioners, fifty Christians, and fifty Muslims to present a petition to the governor.
The Lagos Weekly Record spoke out against the thirteen: "A great advantage has been taken of the community. . . . No few men in any community have a right to claim a monopoly of high culture and high morality" (29 November 1919). Clifford may have recognized the overwhelming unpopularity of the deposition; he reinstated the eleko in December, less than a month after the eleko had been suspended (LWR, 22 November 1919; Cole, Modern and Traditional Elites, p. 131; Kristin Mann, Marrying Well: Marriage, Status , and Social Change among the Educated Elite in Colonial Lagos [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985], pp. 128–132).
Kitoyi Ajasa, editor and publisher of the Pioneer, Lagos
[6] The clipping has not been found.
[7] On 6 September 1919 the Chicago Defender published an editorial stating that Garvey's 25 August 1919 meeting at Carnegie Hall was "more harmful than helpful to the Race" and suggesting that Garvey might better direct his organizational efforts to his own homeland, Jamaica, than to the U.S., where he was not a citizen. The editorial also characterized the UNIA as an organization "composed mainly of foreigners" who were ignorant of the needs and causes of American blacks (MGP 2:14). On 13 September the Chicago paper called for more active prosecution of the New York district attorney's office's investigation of Garvey. It continued to offer sarcastic coverage of Garvey's legal difficulties and of the BSL. Garvey visited Chicago in late September and early October 1919. He answered the editorials in a series of mass meetings, saying that the Defender, along with the New York World and the New York Tribune, had "made up lying publications to further prejudice the minds of the people against the corporation, when they knew them to be false" (MGP 2:50). The Chicago Defender Corporation brought a lawsuit for one hundred thousand dollars against Garvey for malicious libel. Garvey then filed a countersuit for two hundred thousand dollars against Defender editor and publisher Robert S. Abbott for defamation of character. The suit was ultimately dismissed in January 1922. The BSL also brought eleven libel suits against the Chicago Defender Corporation. The suit filed in relation to a 20 September 1919 front-page article about alleged charges made against Garvey by District Attorney Edwin P. Kilroe was tried in June 1920. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the BSL and awarded six cents in damages.
The New York News also published several articles critical of the BSL during this period. One focused on the status of the SS Yarmouth, which, because the BSL had not succeeded in raising sufficient funds to purchase the ship outright, was technically still owned by a white-directed company while BSL directors made installment payments toward its final purchase. In another article, former BSL director Frederick D. Powell explained his reasons for resigning from the company's board of directors and charged that Garvey's management was characterized by inflexible authoritarianism, chaos, and corruption. Garvey subsequently announced in the Negro World that Powell should be considered an enemy of the UNIA (MGP 2).
[8] Adeline Adeotan Agbebi (1861–1936), African missionary, was born at Abeokuta, north of Lagos, Nigeria. Her father, Daddy Peters, was one of the earliest converts to Christianity in Abeokuta, an early missionary center. Agbebi was a student at the Female Institution, a Church Missionary Society school for girls that was founded in Abeokuta and relocated to Lagos in 1867. She trained as a teacher and studied music, singing in concerts in Lagos in the 1880s.
Agbebi married the famous independent church leader and nationalist Mojola Agbebi in 1880. She accompanied her husband on his missionary tours in the Niger Delta, and continued his work after his death. Like him, she was active in the Nigerian Baptist Church (which she and her husband rejoined in 1914). They had eleven children, many of whom died young; only three would outlive her. In 1919 she sent her son Akinbami to New York to learn a trade; her letter to Bruce, with whom Akinbami would stay, asked Bruce to "take Akinbami as your son" and to "make him come home as soon as it is practicable, as there is much to be done amongst us in Africa" (Adeline Adeotan Agbebi to John E. Bruce, 15 November 1919, NN-Sc, JEB). She was described as a "quiet and courageous helpmate" (Nigerian Daily Times [Lagos], 4 August 1936) (Rina L. Okonkwo, "Mojola Agbebi: Apostle of the African Personality," Présence Africaine 114, no. 2 [1980]: 144–160).