Wednesday, 22 October 2014


       BLACK            SOCIAL            HISTORY                                                                            

                                                                                            The Smith Sisters of Sierra Leone – West African Nurses Extraordinaire

My intention was to write an article on the contribution of  West African Nurses on a particular anniversary of the International Council of Nurses.
However, wherever I went seeking primary source material on West African Nurses, I found the same names of members of the same family: Elizabeth, Hannah, Emma, Adelaide and Annette (Nettie) Smith.  These five mixed race Victorian Sisters, born in Freetown and living and dying between 1860 and 1960, were the articulate, cultured and genteel daughters of  the half English and half Fante civil servant William Smith Jnr. Their mother was heiress Anne Spilsbury Smith who hailed from a wealthy Freetown family.
On their mother’s side the Smith sisters descended from a famous Mandingo/Bambara re-captive woman, the feisty, flamboyant, wealthy, illiterate merchant Betsy Carew, rescued from a westbound slave ship and set free in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Her husband, Thomas Carew, the Smith’s great grandfather, was a Maroon whose ancestors had been exiled to Nova Scotia from Jamaica and then shipped to Sierra Leone. The marriage caused much controversy in an emerging bourgeoisie settler community made up of African-American Nova Scotians (who fought on the British side during the American War of Independence) and Maroon Nova Scotians who did not take kindly to illiterate re-captives (liberated slaves) marrying into their community. However, four generations along the female line from Betsy Carew to Hannah Carew Spilsbury to Anne Spilsbury Smith and the five Smith sisters. There is a shift from traditional African mercantilism and apparel to European schooling, knowledge and prowess and a firm foot in established elite Creole society. While Betsy Carew was not readily accepted into settler society, three generations of women later her great granddaughters were being entertained by European nobility.
Annette (Nettie) Smith
In a book on her life Adelaide Smith describes her childhood in London and on the Isle of Jersey, brought up by nannies and their widower father, educated at home by governesses before being sent to some of the pioneering ladies colleges of the day, at a time when most black women in the Western hemisphere were workingclass or servants.
As a British born historian of West African descent having been tutored on the English Literature classics in West Africa and the UK and absorbed with relish (no political correctness here), I had to pinch myself when I read the accounts of how, when the Smith Sister’s mother died and they lost the trust fund set up for her, they had to cut back financially and wear each other’s hand me downs. I had to confirm I was not reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, albeit none of the Smith Sisters was forced into domestic service like Josephine March. At any given time the Smith family had at least two domestic servants.  Furthermore their anxious father, retired civil servant and lay Methodist preacher, was anxious they marry well, knowing there was no great inheritance to sustain them. Yet again I had to make the comparison with  Pride and Prejudice. Marry well they did as four of them wed leading professional men from the West Coast of Africa.
Emma Smith, the middle sister, was to become the strict maiden aunt of the family, helping raise her numerous nephews and nieces. My research, however, reveals all the sisters deserve an account of their own lives and the role they played in Adelaide’s life needs to be highlighted.
The Smith sisters, brought up with a high sense of civic and religious duty by their father, at post secondary education had a choice of attending finishing schools, art school and music conservatoires and a tour of Europe where they improved on their languages, especially French and German.
When the Smith sisters returned to their city of birth, Freetown, they caused a sensation with their musical talents and charm, and founded two schools. But that era also witnessed them and others forming a stronger African cultural identity amidst growing racial discrimination in West Africa. The beginning of the century also witnessed some Smith sisters identify themselves with organisations in West Africa and Britain that would preserve the identity and dignity of the black race.
Amongst their  friends were Queen Victoria’s African Goddaughter  Victoria Davies and her family friend Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Together with the Smith Sisters they were frequent visitors to theatres and concerts in Edwardian London, where the Smith sisters returned. The music for some of those concerts was composed by Samuel Coleridge Taylor himself.
I have been approached by members of my own community who have said they want our own period drama on the Smith sisters and, yes, one of them did live in a stately home as she was taken under the wings of a German aristocrat’s wife.
I have lectured On The Smith Sisters Of Sierra Leone During Black History months of 2004 and 2005. This is the 150th Anniversary of the freeing of Slaves in the United States of America and now is the time for people to know the story of these remarkable sisters.
Adenike Ogunkoya (c) March 2013
Adenike Ogunkoya read Modern European and African History at Birkbeck College and the School of Oriental and African Studies  University of London (SOAS). This was followed by a course in British Women’s History at London Metropolitan University. Having to halt her research due to illness and now responding well to treatment, in the future she would like the opportunity to re-submit her dissertation on the same subject. After a break from administration and research in  public service she anticipates a role in an archive or library.