Constance's World | Fantasy History Series One

This Vitabu series will feature excerpts from a book on Sierra Leonean women councilors, mayors, cabinet ministers, and political candidates. Vitabu's Fantasy History starts with one of the most well known pioneering political figures, Constance Horton Cummings-John. 

Constance's World | Fantasy History

Imagine nursing a six-month-old baby while a deadly virus rips through town. You have neighbors hovering between life and death and your husband’s assistant has lost 21 family members to the virus.

The Spanish influenza of 1918 had unique features.

First, victims experienced headaches, pain, and fever. Next, their faces turned blue-black. Then they coughed up blood and bled from the nose after. Finally, as bacteria invaded the lungs, vital organs transformed into fluid, drowning the patient.

For most sufferers, the attack lasted 2-4 days. But death often came suddenly with no symptoms or people succumbed to the infection within a few hours.

The First World War, which began in July 1914, was winding down when Constance Horton was born in Freetown on January 7, 1918.

By August 1918, when a navy ship out of London docked in Freetown's Destruction bay, the city was still a base for the British Navy's West Africa Squadron, which had enforced the Atlantic slave trade ban.

The once peaceful-looking little bay had received its dreary "Destruction" name from the broken-up and condemned Spanish slave vessels that lay in the deserted recess off Freetown's range of hills.

Aboard the doomed British ship, which anchored that August, were more than 100 British sailors with "Spanish flu."

Within weeks, there were hundreds of flu cases among dockworkers in Freetown.

By the end of September, some 3 percent of Freetown's population had been killed. Some estimated two-thirds of people in the city contracted the deadly flu. Many were buried in mass graves.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Freetown's King Tom cemetery—enclosed by the old Dockyard, now a police mechanical repair workshop, on the northeastern shore of King Tom Peninsula—contains 129 First World War burials, many of them due to the epidemic during September and October of 1918.

Figures for the interior of Sierra Leone, where many could have traveled and further spread the disease, are unknown, reports say.

Pro British African troops embarking at Freetown, Sierra Leone for German Cameroon. 1914
Though Europe's First World War was a war of colonials and an imperial theater of war, two million Africans were dragged into it as soldiers, workers, and porters before it was all over.

It is estimated the pandemic carried off some 2 million Africans (about 1.8 percent of the continent's population). Of these, more than a million were in sub-Saharan Africa.

British navy ships that had been in Freetown's harbor but later sailed to other parts of Africa took the disease to those countries.

The flu was most deadly for people aged between 20 and 40, unusual for influenza, usually a killer of the elderly and young children.

One old man in Malawi remembers 1918 as the year when “God was angry.”

'A World of Fierce Upheaval'

Less than a year after the pandemic, black workers in the railway and public works department rioted in Freetown because they weren't paid War Bonus gratuities, though these had been given to European personnel.

Although skilled railroad men formed a mutual aid union in 1920, labor-related riots would rage for days in Moyamba, the district that produced Milton Margai, Sierra Leone's first prime minister, and Siaka Stevens, the country's first president.

In 1926, Railway Workers' Union strikes ran from January 13 to February 26 and social and political tensions erupted in Freetown. Colonial administrators were so rattled they sent out military troops on the streets to help the police.

Although slavery had been abolished in the Sierra Leone Crown Colony, it continued with new names. Domestic slavery made the headlines in 1923.  Stories in the newspapers were all about the proceedings in the Sierra Leone Council. By October 1924, when general elections were held for the first time it was evident that domestic slavery in the Protectorate would not be acceptable.

The 1924 constitution introduced a 22-member Legislative Council, of which twelve members were government officials.

The other ten members included two appointed Europeans representing business interests, three elected Africans from the Colony, three appointed paramount chiefs from the Protectorate (two Mende and one Temne), one representing each province, and two selected Africans from the Colony.

The three elected seats were elected from single-member constituencies, two urban and one rural.

Voting was restricted to literate Africans over the age of 21 who owned at least £10 of property in the urban constituencies or £6 in the rural constituency. From the population of approximately 25,000, only 1,866 people registered to vote; 1,016 in Freetown, 511 in the other urban constituency and 339 in the rural constituency.

Most important to note Sierra Leone then had a population of about 1,768,840 people.

Sometime in June 1926, slaves in Biriwa Chiefdom moved to adjacent Sanda Loko Chiefdom in revolt against their Mandingo masters.

In an April 26, 2012 presentation, Alfred Arkley of the University of Illinois at Springfield, told the story of the slave revolt. Below are excerpts from the paper.

 In 1923, it was estimated that 15% of the Protectorate population were in servitude --219,000 people in a population of 1.4 million. The percentage of slaves varied according to tribe, with the Mandingo, Susu, and Vai in the 30% range and the Lokko, Kissi, and Limba in the 5% range.
How each tribe treated domestic slaves ranged from mild where there was little power imbalance between master and slave to a harsh situation where the power imbalance was significant.  The Mandingo slave owners were considered the most stringent.

To the British, domestic slavery was seen as mild. The 1906 statement of Mr. Antrobus of the Colonial Office could sum up the British attitude.
"The system of slavery is not on the whole harsh towards the so-called slave, but secure for him and his family work and maintenance during his active life, and support and care during old age and sickness."  However, by 1924, Governor Slater indicated a change of the British position due to pressure from the League of Nations.
"The fact remains that a domestic slave is a slave, and that an evil master has powers over him or her which are repugnant to the principles of British justice."  John Grace's study of shifting British policy on domestic slavery is comprehensive.

 For the Krios in the Colony, domestic slavery was also seen as mild.  The Krio attitude in the Colony was summed up in the Sierra Leone Weekly News, 1922, "(the slaves have) for years have enjoyed the good will of their masters…and if abolition occurred Freetown would be flooded with idlers and do-nothings…loafers and people of doubtful honesty."

 During the Legislative Council discussion of gradual abolition ordinance…T.H. Thompson wrote a newspaper editorial that summed up the Krio attitudes.  He pointed out the Freetown people did not see the question of slavery as important as the question of more African participation on the governing process.  No one in Great Britain seemed too concerned about the 1926 Railroad Strike and no one worried about ending of the elected Freetown City Council.  Yet the entire world was concerned about slavery.

 However, in the Sierra Leone Weekly News, Modibo wrote, "I am afraid Krio people in general have treated this matter of slavery too lightly, much too lightly if not with complete indifference, in the past.  While strangers, who cannot in any way suffer by its retention or benefit by its removal, have for years ‘pressed parliament' to remove the dread curse from our country, we who are most intimately concerned in the matter have scarcely lifted a finger to bring about the happy result…Talk of Compensation!  Well, yes, there ought to be some compensation – not to the masters but to the poor slaves in an act of reparation for all the untold miseries they and their ancestors have endured for generations."  

 On January 1, 1928, the legal status of slavery was abolished in the Protectorate.  In Karina where the slave revolt began, Kodogbo Sabu told the slaves that they were now free.

Social Collisions, African Identity, and Politics

While Constance grew up sheltered from deadly viruses and exploitation, change swilled all about the colony.

Organized mining began in the 1920s with bauxite first being recorded. Diamonds were found in the early 1930s.

Soon after diamonds were discovered, a riot broke out in the northern district of Kambia followed by the Haidara Kontorfilli rebellion, an uprising against "heavy-handedness of chief rule and the deteriorating social and economic conditions, as well as the erosive nature of colonial domination."

Historians say that it was inevitable that Constance should be interested in politics since her family was so much involved in the community and business. Her father, John Warner M. Horton, was the city treasurer of Freetown, while her mother was a concert pianist who played Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin.

By the 1920s, West African music was more and more expressions of colonial disparagement and subversion. The Lagos-born palm-wine style had related genres in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana. This urban style was frequently played in bars to accompany drinking (hence the name, which is derived from the alcoholic palm wine beverage). The first stars of palm-wine had emerged by the 1920s, the most famous of whom was Babatunde King. By the early 1930s, British record labels such as His Master's Voice had started to record palm-wine, and more celebrities emerged, including Ojoge Daniel, Tunde Nightingale, and Speedy Araba.

Constance's older brother, Austin Dafora Horton (August 1890 –March 1965), who went on to become a songwriter, producer, and activist in Harlem, New York, always maintained a keen interest in the study of culture. He was interested in the collision between tradition, languages, movement and magic.  His artistic endeavors spanned multiple disciplines, but he is best remembered for his work in dance and music.

As a young boy (he was twenty-something when Constance was born) Austin had met Madam Yoko, the legendary queen of Senehun.  Yoko changed her name, Soma, at her Sande initiation, during which time she became known for her dancing.

Horton returned to that muse throughout his career.

“Dafora, the name he preferred to be known by, reminisced how he used to run away from home for days at a time, in order to observe festivals far from urban Freetown. Before leaving Sierra Leone, he toured through West Africa.”

Austin was one of the first Africans to introduce African drumming to the United States, beginning in the early 1930s.

"The 1930's Working Woman"

Constance went to London to train as a schoolteacher in 1935. She was 17-years old and 7,000 miles from home.

The soundtrack of London life featured hits of the day like "Good Night, Sweetheart" by Wayne King and His Orchestra, "Dream a Little Dream of Me" also by Wayne King and His Orchestra, a couple dozen songs from by Bing Crosby, and Cab Calloway, one of the most famous black American jazz bands of the 1930s.

The London look for1935 is best described in a fashion book that documents styles of the 20th century.

In the 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook by Emmanuelle Dirix and Charlotte Fiell "the 1930s working woman” is described as “a ‘grown-up' version of the 1920s flapper."

Beaded dresses, cloche hats, and T-bar shoes were the rage with the "bright young things" of the time.

While millions were plunged into economic depression and huge numbers of people in Britain were unable to find work, London in the 1930s was increasingly a city of electric lighting and motor vehicles.

Hoover manufacturing company, EMI—a British multinational music recording and publishing company, and electronics device and systems manufacturing company, headquartered in London—and, Coty, an American beauty products firm, all built smart new factories along the western arterial roads.

On the east side of London, the American car manufacturer Ford had opened a huge factory at Dagenham in 1931. This facility was designed to make cars for the British market and for export, through London, to European and world markets.

1935 was also the "Jubilee" year in the United Kingdom.

Writing in The King's Service, a 1935 book about the king's bodyguards and ceremony guards, M. C. Carey and Dorothy Margaret Stuart said that while the word "Jubilee"   was always heard throughout the British Commonwealth of Nations in connection with the rejoicings that marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of King George V's accession to the throne, after tracing the history of the term, the authors asked, "Why should a country regard it as a cause for rejoicing that the same sovereign has reigned for twenty-five years?"

They replied that an uninterrupted reign usually indicates a period of stability unmarked by fierce upheavals.

‘Fierce Upheavals'

African students such as Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah were also influential in 1930s London. They were central figures in the African liberation struggles.

Constance Cummings-John
Ladipo Solanke and Herbert Bankole-Bright, a member of the National Congress of British West Africa, founded the West African Students' Union (WASU) in 1925.

WASU became the political, social and cultural organization for West Africans in Britain and the central African organization in the country for over thirty years.

WASU developed out of the activities of earlier student organizations such as the Union of Students of African Descent and the Nigeria Progress Union, established by Solanke and Amy Ashwood Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, in London in July 1924.

The WASU campaigned against racism in Britain and against colonialism and for independence in West Africa. Its activities included producing a journal, Wasu, and founding four hostels in London to provide lodgings and a ‘home from home' for West African students and other African visitors at a time when as a result of racism and the ‘color bar' it was difficult or impossible for them to secure accommodation.

In 1931, Dr. Harold Moody founded the League of Colored Peoples, the first Black pressure group.

Constance was one of a small band of African women in London for education and qualifications in education, midwifery, law, and medicine.

Like their male colleagues, they were interested in politics, colonial affairs, and the welfare of black people.

Constance participated in the activities of the West African Students' Union and the League of Colored Peoples.

At London's Hyde Park, speakers like Marcus Garvey railed against the status quo as he organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

In an article titled "The Negro's Greatest Enemy" published in Current History (September 1923), Garvey said he had chosen the name of the organization from a conversation he had with West Indian Negro passengers who was returning home to the East Indies from Basutoland with his Basuto wife.

"He related to me in conversation such horrible and pitiable tales that my heart bled within me. Retiring from the conversation to my cabin, all day and the following night I pondered over the subject matter of that conversation, and at midnight, lying flat on my back, the vision and thought came to me that I should name the organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League. Such a name I thought would embrace the purpose of all black humanity."

Within the UNIA, Garvey touched on many topics such as education, the economy, and independence for war-torn Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) and in the West Indies.

Constance also met the labor organizer and journalist I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. Wallace-Johnson introduced her to pan-Africanists and anticolonial activists such as George Padmore, C. L. R. James, and T. R. Makonnen.

'An African in New York'

Having gained a teaching certificate, Constance took up further studies in vocational education. Constance went to the United States to do a six-month course at Cornell University in 1936.

Her brother Austin aka Asadata Dafora had journeyed to New York City in 1929 to pursue his career as a musician.

By 1936, his drumming appeared in a 1936 stage success, Orson Welles's all-black Macbeth performed in Harlem, on Broadway, and on tour.

Welles, an American actor, director, writer, and producer who worked in theater, radio, and film, was famous for his innovative work in all three.

Despite Austin's talent, at the start of the Great Depression performing careers were difficult to maintain, particularly for African performers. However, his interactions with a group of African men at the National African Union soon led him back to his interests in African dance.

The company he formed was called Shogolo Oloba (later renamed the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe) and it strove to portray African culture in a complex and sophisticated light, not just an exotic array of mysterious spectacles. Because he strove for authenticity in his work, Dafora preferred to use native African dancers and trained them in African dialects as well as performance techniques. Dafora is credited with the development of the dance-drama, a type of production that fully integrates narrative and song into dance performance. Furthermore, Dafora was the first to successfully stage African folklore in a Western-style stage production. His first work, "Kykunkor" opened in 1934 and was such an overwhelming success that it had to move to a larger theater to accommodate the audiences. 

During her fellowship at Cornell, Constance traveled to historically black schools in America's South, such as Hampton in Virginia and the Tuskegee Institute.

When she returned to London she joined the International African Service Bureau, under the leadership of George Padmore, and married Ethnan Cummings-John, a lawyer.

War Drums and Refugees

More ominously, war with Germany began to look inevitable.

Bitter clashes between English supporters of fascism and their opponents took place in central London and the East End.

German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution began to arrive and Constance and Ethnan returned to Sierra Leone in 1937.

In 1937, the Lloyd Triestino fleet had just added five large passenger vessels. These ships had a high reputation not only for their splendid onboard service but also for their long cruises. On the eve of the Second World War, the fleet of Lloyd Triestino consisted of 85 ships, totaling 700,000 gross tons; by the end of the hostilities, only five survived, amounting to 45,000 tons.

Once in Freetown, Constance took up an appointment as principal of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Girls' Vocational School. She found the school in a dilapidated state and embarked on a campaign to make improvements. Through this venture, she pioneered the construction of a new domestic science building with modern equipment.

When I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson returned to Sierra Leone in April 1938, she joined forces with him in the establishment of a "chapter" of the West African Youth League.

By the beginning of the Second World War, the West African Youth League had organized a series of strikes and civil disobedience.

I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson led the first mass movement of Sierra Leoneans from all walks of life, working untiringly for unity and the I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson statue rights of the common man.
He was born into a poor Krio family in Wilberforce Village and attended mission schools. At the age of eighteen, he entered government service as a customs clerk, but was soon dismissed for helping to organize the first trade union in Sierra Leone. After serving as a clerk in the Carrier Corps, he joined the merchant marine as a common sailor, later editing a newspaper in London dedicated to promoting the welfare of seamen. In 1931, Wallace-Johnson founded the first labor union in Nigeria, and in 1936 he was jailed in the Gold Coast (Ghana) for publishing a scathing attack on colonialism.
He returned to Sierra Leone in 1938 and, within a year, had organized eight labor unions, a newspaper, and a mass political movement that swept aside all opposition in the city council elections. His West African Youth League was dedicated to greater popular representation in government, an expanded civic role for women, improved salaries and conditions for workers, and national unity among all Sierra Leoneans. Wallace-Johnson taunted the colonial authorities by making public certain secret documents showing the governor's agreement to painfully lower salaries for working people. British officials tried to prosecute Wallace-Johnson, but no local jury would convict him, and at one point, eighteen of Freetown's twenty-one lawyers were members of his Youth League. Moreover, Wallace-Johnson was personally popular—a likeable man with an excellent sense of humor, who once told a group of workers, "I am not anything above you; I am at par with you."
But the colonial authorities finally jailed Wallace-Johnson in 1939 under an Emergency Act adopted at the outset of World War II. He was ultimately exiled to Sherbro Island, where he spent most of his time teaching the local people how to read and write. Wallace-Johnson lived to become one of Sierra Leone's delegates to the London Independence Talks in 1960. He will long be remembered as an ardent patriot and a true man of the people. [Heroes, Sierra Leone Web]

‘Seeking Political Office'

Several Sierra Leonean women were elected to the executive council of the League of Colored People (LCP), including Viola Thompson (1934-38), Stella Thomas (later Mark) 1934-38 and Constance (1937).

Participation in the LCP exposed them to the broad debate on colonial problems, especially labor, anti-colonial lobbying, and discrimination

A new law in 1930 empowered women by giving them a voice when decisions about their futures were being made and making sure they are advised of their legal rights, provided they met property or income qualifications (West African Nationhood, 14 November 1930).

One scholar said that the editor of the West African Nationhood, J.C. Zizer, a Sierra Leonean lawyer then resident in Lagos, viewed this as the beginning of changing attitudes, which he attributed to the increasing number of women employed as shop assistants or in the civil service.

In Freetown’s municipal council elections held November 1938, West African Youth League candidates swept the polls.

Constance received the highest number of votes of any candidate. Still only 20, she was elected to the Freetown municipal council, becoming the first woman in Africa to join a city council.

As a councilor, she was concerned with the improvement of city services, particularly sanitation, library facilities and conditions in city markets.

But with world war breaking out in 1939, political life died down in the colony.

Constance continued with her school duties as principal.

During the Second World War, she established a mining company, which later became an important source of funds for her educational projects.

After the war, she returned to the United States. Between 1946 and 1951 she lived in New York City, where her brother was now a successful musician and dancer.

While residing in the U.S., she worked in hospitals and served on the executives of the American Council for African Education and the Council on African Affairs, the second of which was chaired by Paul Robeson, an American bass singer, and actor who became involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

In Freetown in 1951, she joined the Sierra Leone People's Party and founded a new school for girls, the Eleanor Roosevelt School, which by 1953 had more than 600 students.

During these years Cummings-John gained a licentiate from the London College of Preceptors, and in 1952 the Governor of Sierra Leone, Sir George Beresford-Stooke, appointed her to the Freetown Council.

In recognition of the importance of women in community affairs, she established a network of leading market women. With their support, she founded the Sierra Leone Women's Movement (SLWM) in 1952.

The SLWM had branches across the country, a women's cooperative, educational and welfare projects, and even its own newspaper.

Her actions also led to the formation of the Sierra Leone Market Women's Union and a Washerwoman's Union.

An early member of the Sierra Leone People's Party, Constance contested the 1957 general election held three years before the Sierra Leone Constitutional Conference.

At the general election of 1957, she was one of two women elected to the new House of Representatives. Although elected, she resigned following an appeal by her opponent John Nelson-Williams.

Politics in Sierra Leone was as polarizing as ever, with the elite in the minority population (descendants of freed slaves) increasingly isolated from the rest of the country, which was ruled as a protectorate.

Tensions over African identity and ethnicity remained along with old power struggles.

When decolonization began, the 1951 constitution gave power to the majority while Krio politicians founded their own party. But younger Krios who had grown up in a different social and political era, including Cummings-John, joined the protectorate politicians' Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).

Her fellow Krios condemned her as a traitor.  Constance abandoned national politics but she was one of only two women in the landmark all-party delegation at the 1960 Constitutional Conference held in London, where it was agreed that Sierra Leone would become independent on April 27, 1961.

In 1961, with the independence of Sierra Leone, Cummings-John's husband became the country's ambassador to Liberia. Milton Margai died on April 28, 1964 and his half-brother, Albert,  was elected after some negotiation with rival SLPP factions.  Once in office,  Albert wasted no time in showing it was his party now. He appointed his friends and supporters to key cabinet posts and dismissed ministers and aides who had served his brother, Milton.

Constance was rewarded in 1966 with Freetown's mayoralty— the first woman to serve as mayor of Freetown.

In 1967 the military staged a coup and the city council was dissolved. Attending a conference out of the country at the time, she settled in Tooting, south London, where she became active in politics and the disarmament movement. In 1976 she returned home and worked for the SLPP. But as conditions deteriorated, she went back to London.

In her autobiography, Memoirs Of A Krio Leader (1996), written with Ibadan University's LaRay Denzer, she was justly proud of her work with women and Education.

Of her political career, she wrote that her major fault was naivety in ascribing her loyalty, generosity and civil courage to her male associates - to the politicians whose rapacity has during the past 40 years brought her beloved country to ruin.

Writing in The Guardian in 2000 when Constance died, Christopher Fyfe said as a politician in both pre- and post-colonial Sierra Leone she campaigned for women's rights.

Despite attempts to return to Sierra Leone in 1974 and 1996, Cummings-John lived the rest of her life in London.

She died in London on February 21, 2000 at the age of 82.

Real Sources for Fantasy History

  Molly Billings, The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, (Stanford University, June 1997 modified RDS February, 2005)
  Howard Phillips, Influenza Pandemic (Africa), University of Cape Town
  Elizabeth Melville, Elizabeth Colville of Culross, A Residence at Sierra Leone: Described from a Journal Kept On the Spot, And From Letters Written to Friends At Home Volume 1 (London, 1849), pp 30-31
  Commonwealth War Graves Commission (
  Freetown (King Tom) Cemetery Details, (
  Kathleen Bomani, WW1’s untold story: The forgotten African battlefields (World War 1 in Africa, Special to CNN August 8, 2014)
  Howard Phillips, Influenza Pandemic (Africa), University of Cape Town
  Cited by Howard Phillips, Influenza Pandemic (Africa), International Encyclopedia of the First World War

Akintola Wyse (2003) H. C. Bankole-Bright and Politics in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1919-1958, Cambridge University Press
  Akintola Wyse, H. C. Bankole-Bright and Politics in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1919-1958
  Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, Richard Trillo, World Music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East
 Thomas F. Defrantz, Dancing Many Drums: Excavations In African American Dance
(University of Wisconsin Press) pp. 233-234
  Robin D. G. Kelley, Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times pp. 14  
  Claudia Willets, “Silver Jubilee of the Reign of King George V, 1935” (
  History of WASU (
  Exploring 20th Century London, 1930-1939, (
 John Perpener (2001). African-American Concert Dance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Isaac Theophilus Akuna Wallace-Johnson (1894-1965) Trade Unionist and Nationalist Leader, Sierra Leonean Heroes, Sierra Leone Web (

Sierra Leone and Its People By Bankole Kamara Taylor, Bankole Kamara, Bankole Taylor, Editor


  1. This is legendary work at its best. It doesn't in any way close the argument for the development of Sierra Leonean's women history by the intervention of writers and governments. Keep up the good work!


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