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As empires waxed and waned  

22 January 2016

Nicholas Cranfield on West African artefacts at the British Library

Courtesy of the British Library

Writer: a portrait of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97), also known as Gustavus Vassa, the most famous 18th-century British writer of African heritage, from his autobiography (1789), on display in the current exhibition

Writer: a portrait of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97), also known as Gustavus Vassa, the most famous 18th-century British writer of African heritage, from...

AN EXHIBITION at the British Library offers an overview of the cultures and peoples of the 17 nations of West Africa. This is an enormous undertaking, and that it does not quite work is in the nature of the task, and not a criticism.

The region has seen empires come and go such as the Ghana empire in Mauretania and Mali (c.350-1240), Kanem-Bornu in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Libya (850-1893), and the Ife (1000-1500) and Benin (1400-1897). The exhibition opens by recording an ancient capital at Djenné-Djenno (Mali), which is more than 2000 years old, the oral tradition of the battle of Kirina in 1235, and the establishment of a kingdom for Sundiata, which is still popularised in books.

Nowadays, the region has a population of about 340 million inhabitants, some 179 million living in Nigeria, which is the seventh most populous country in the world, and has more than 1000 languages.

Necessarily, the exhibition can provide only a glimpse of some of these cultures and peoples, but, throughout, the use of video footage and recorded music brings something of their variety to life. Even the Notting Hill Carnival comes to town with a dramatic costume dress created specifically for the exhibition by Ray Mahabir.

Sigismund Koelle (1820-1902), who worked for the Church Missionary Society, made an early attempt to come to terms with some of the languages of the region in his 1854 publication Polyglotta Africanum. But not all are written; a beautifully preserved wooden drum derives from a people who used drum language.

It rapidly became a challenge for Christianity to make itself understood and to translate the Bible into indigenous language. Missionaries brought their own printing presses with them, and so, for instance, the Basel Mission in Ghana translated it into Ga in 1901-09.

The Bible had long been available in Arabic before the Qur’an was written. As Sydney H. Griffith has shown in his recent comprehensive survey of Jewish and Christian translation, considerable interest arose later in the period of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1050), when biblical translation became a mode of religious survival in a new cultural situation. The emphasis in later translations was rather different, as it was a focus on proselytising.

J. D. Carlyle, Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge, proposed a new translation of the Bible to meet the growing literacy of Arabic communities, and work began under the patronage of Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham.

At Carlyle’s death, it was completed by the Oxford Reader Henry Ford, but difficulties came with the printing fount. The British and Foreign Bible Society contributed the significant sum of £250 towards its eventual publication by Sarah Hodgson in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1811; Carlyle had been Vicar of Newcastle from 1801 until his death in 1804.

There are several Qur’ans on display, including an illuminated volume, from Bornu (late 18th century), with the leather pouch in which it could be carried. This was written out on loose leaves, allowing individual pages to be consulted at one time, or to be loaned. Others learned the Qur’an from written boards.

The exhibition confronts the vexed issues of slavery with commendable honesty. We get to meet Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who came from a prominent family of Muslim clerics in West Africa, was sent by his father at the age of 21 to try to obtain the release of some slaves, and was then himself captured and transported to Maryland. In a heart-breaking letter to his father, he warned: “There is no good in the country of the Christians for a Muslim” (BL, Add MS 20783a).

A clergyman in America, Thomas Bluett, arranged his freedom, and brought him to London in 1733, where he was painted by William Hoare. That celebrated portrait was snapped up by the Qataris at Christie’s in 2009, but an engraving of it appears in the frontispiece of Bluett’s Some Memoirs (London, 1734). This is on display here next to one of the three Qur’ans that Diallo himself wrote out from memory while he was in London. He left England for Gambia in 1734, and continued to correspond with British friends, including Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, till at least 1744, when he disappears.

Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-80) was born on a transport ship, and was owned by three sisters in Greenwich, before he was patronised by the Duke of Montagu, who furthered his career as a writer. Sancho challenged Lawrence Sterne, a known abolitionist, to include African Americans in his serialised novel Tristram Shandy. In his reply, Sterne (27 July 1766) explained that “by coincidence” he had already started on just such a narrative.

The historical account comes right up to the end of the last century with post-colonial displays of a dress worn at the Ghanaian Methodist Inaugural Conference (1961) after it split from British Methodism, of the war in Biafra, and the silencing of Fela Kuti’s 1989 concert by Nigerian police.


“West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, until 16 February. Phone 0330 333 1144.


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