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Sunday, October 1, 2023

EF Small through the eyes of literature


The polemical, rhythmic and politically-charged statement: ‘No taxation without representation’ was a slogan that gained notoriety in the United States between the 1750s  and 1760s. Because, history reminds us about the bond that binds nations, peoples and events, history also teaches us to explore the past and examine how and why certain issues are interconnected. Several centuries ago, great men and women who wanted to institute drastic changes in the US coined and popularised the now famous statement: ‘No taxation without representation’ in mainstream nationalistic journals. For the case of The Gambia, a certain gentleman, Edward Francis Small tried to import the idea into the country in a bid to rebuke British colonial policies and at the same time imbibe nationalistic sentiments into a growing class of awakened Gambians.  Inspired by the history of the struggle against British domination in the US and the moniker; ‘No taxation without representation, Edward Francis Small protested against injustices meted out to Gambians.  The slogan is said to be one of the major causes of the American Revolution. In the US, there was growing resentment, and many people felt that they were not directly represented in the distant British parliament. Fast forward this epoch-making events in the US, The Gambia, colonised by Great Britain also had its own fair share of the colonial pie. 

Small felt that, indeed, the situation in The Gambia should change for good, and his campaign paid dividends in 1922 when Africans were appointed for the first time to sit in the Colonial Budget Appropriation Committee. As a passionate and keen follower of international events, EF Small was partly inspired by the wave of consciousness that swept across the Diaspora. In this piece, I try to retrace the life and times of Edward Francis Small through the eyes of literature. 

In his book entitled: Edward Francis Small: Watchdog of The Gambia (2013), the journalist-turned-academician, Nana Grey Johnson, reminded us about the old tale of historical fallacies that have been written and rewritten and distributed in several parts of the continent. Like others before him, NGJ can only weep and yell at the way innocent children are being introduced to African history, which is why the author is making this stark revelation: ‘In my very early school days, I had realised something really awkward, perhaps unfair, about us African children learning accounts of our history written by the very people who had had a great deal to do with distortions and malformation of that history’.  There is generally a dearth of literature materials on Edward Francis Small in The Gambia, yet his widely quoted slogan; ‘No taxation without representation’ is rife in town. Let me make reference to the largely unknown case of a certain poet whose parents thought it was a waste of time and energy to indulge in writing – and even if you are gone, that’s the end of the story. At the end of the day, the poet said to the mother: ‘Let it be forgotten, I know that I will not be, let me write what is right, I know, I will write, and one day, someone, somewhere will read, in bookstores or at the garbage.’

His political triumph and sophistication may be slighted by contemporary Gambian historians; however, through the lens of literature, Edward Francis Small has been a recurrent theme in Baaba Sillah’s writings. Any attempt to decode the country’s struggle for independence from Great Britain will undoubtedly revolve around Edward Francis Small and his popular ideology and personal sacrifices as expounded in Nana’s Gambian classic. Why then is history so unkind to Small? Nana Grey Johnson decided to put the issue under the microscope, circumnavigating around missing links in global history, asking rhetorically-infused questions: ‘How many of us would pass today if we answered in our examinations that Columbus did not discover America? That (Sherpa) Tensing Norgay was the first human being to stand on the top of the world on Mount Everest, the highest peak on earth? Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander passed as a Briton, received instant acclaim as the conqueror of Everest.’ The old song of famous Africans not captured and celebrated in global history resonate everywhere, and NGJ is not going to let it go, just like that: ‘The reputation of many Africans has been blighted by European ethnocentrism that has left great names uncelebrated and glory given to those who least deserved it. Books, paintings, and films abound that serve to inscribe deep stereotypes that condemn blackness to inferiority’.

Whatever happens today or tomorrow, EF Small may not dissipate in our minds, through the lens of literature, the Jammeh administration shattered the country’s history books after renaming the country’s major hospital after Edward Francis Small. And history records his transition to the next world at that hospital, waw! What a historical precedence! And what’s even amazing is the choice of names; from a colonial name to a nationalistic figure. 

And tributes flooded Banjul when news of his passing was announced; he was man of many seasons – a trade unionist, a teacher, a classical musician, a politician, and a journalist. Nana quoted MB Jones in an article entitled: ‘He helped Others Himself He Cannot’ published one year after his death in 1958 and argues that: ‘like many great men, Edward was a self-made man. In turn and sometimes together he was a tutor, preacher, mercantile clerk, politician, trade unionist and journalist. To Gambians Edward Francis Small was more than a hero; in reality he was martyr.’

And another colleague, Cyril JD Koto-Richards paid this glowing tribute to EF Small and said ‘Vesper would have closed Olympus and lulled the day into tranquility’ –          

Through the eyes of literature, Nana in his search for words and symbolic meaning tries to capture the life and times of Edward Francis Small taking inspiration from William George Tarrant ( 1853-1928): ‘Now praise we great and famous men, the fathers named in story, and praise the Lord who now as then reveals in man his glory. Praise we the wise and great and strong, who graced their generation; who helped the right, and fought the wrong, and made our folk a nation’.

Perhaps, no other poem can surpassed the imaginative foresight of the writer, who never met the man, but dreamt about him, but how comes, how can a man dream about someone, he has never met! Here are the lines:

It was just a dream, may be, it was not.

The man was seated on prominent stage 

Loved by his people,

Not by his critics, but those who know what he was up to

There was this man, and that man, EF Small was different!

I saw him, he showed us the way,

He left and we went on,

That way, the other way, their ideas,

Our ideas, the nation, today and tomorrow.


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