‘Men make their own history’, a leading materialist reminded us in the nineteenth century… Historical agent Jones has consciously played his part, ‘under two flags’, colonial and post-colonial, to remake that past and by implication, the present, and future. His foundational intellectual mission — to construct the edifice on which a new discipline could blossom — was completed in the last century.

Eldred Durosimi Jones was a literary giant; a legend in his life time; and a leading light amongst Sierra Leone’s first generation of world class scholars — the Durham Brahmins. But Jones arguably stands alone, not unlike a colossus, amongst those who took part in the battle to ‘decolonise’ and ‘indigenise’ scholarship in the 1950s/60s. And, like W.E.B. Dubois and John Hope Franklin before him, two other outstanding world class scholars of African decent in the Diaspora, who successfully shaped and defined their respective fields of study, Jones was to embark on a similar journey even before he finished his doctoral dissertation, which he turned in to Durham in 1962 — “African figures in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama.” He would move on to examine race and representation in Shakesperan drama but his historic mission as a foundational scholar/academic in a post-colony would be the creation of an epistemological space for the production of an African-centred literature in English.

I first met Professor Jones fifteen years ago through the late pan-Africanist, Joy Samake, then proprietor of Balmaya. Professor Jones would later claim me as a his friend (I gladly accepted his claim), three years after he conceded to grant me an interview concerning a questionable/controversial entry in their Krio-English Dictionary centered on the historicity of Krio/Akiriyo. The quoted phrase in that entry is absent in the source/reference sited. Our unending conversation after this meeting was driven and sustained in part by our mutual interest in the history of nineteenth century Freetown and the as yet to be written history of Fourah Bay College. He took a keen interest in my battle with the decadent order at the University of Sierra Leone — he had been fed a counter-script — and was thrilled to learn about my reinstatement three and half years after my illegal dismissal.

Not having studied at FBC — I was turned down for admission in 1977 — Professor Jones became my primary source of information about the College/University. Having lived with the institution for the better part of seven decades, and with a memory second to none — he fielded all my questions regarding the good, the bad, but never the ugly, of our so-called/colonially minted ‘Athens of West Africa’. I would ask him questions about appointments/ promotions that were seemingly questionable; about the politics behind certain actions that should have been above crass ethnic politics; and about autonomy/academic freedom in the post-colony. He would always respond in his characteristic empiricist manner by prodding me to dig deeper. Whenever I return with any ‘new’ source from the library/archive, he would provide a context to the narrative and invite me to proffer an alternative. He was a good listener with a keen ear, who would gladly consider whatever proposition was on offer to discuss. It was this openness in Jones, his willingness to revisit the past to better understand the present that made our conversation always something to look forward to.

Whereas Dike had a team he could turn to, especially when he got appointed as the first vice chancellor of University of Ibadan, Jones laboured alone, even when he was saddled with administrative responsibilities as principal of his beloved alma mater. His colleague, Professor Eustace Palmer would later join him as co-editor…

The elastic phrase, the ‘Durham Breed’, which Jones attributes to Harry Sawyer, defines Jones in all complexities. If truth were told it was the elite amongst this ‘Durham Breed’, the Durham Brahmins, if you will, who would blaze a new trajectory that came to define/redefine academic disciplines, especially in the humanities, build institutions of higher learning in the post-colony (Ibadan and Fourah Bay College), and provided leadership in the political sphere in the era of decolonisation. If Jones single-handedly started a journal that became the flagship of the emergent discipline of African literature in English, Kenneth Dike, another Durham Brahmin from Nigeria, set the stage for the evolution of an Africa-centred history at Ibadan University in the late 50s. Both Jones and Dike belonged to the foundational professoriate that would inherit the colonial academy.

If Dike challenged the very basis of writing African history by shifting the problematic to oral sources in his foundational text Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, Jones would meticulously assemble the wherewithal with which to construct the edifice for the imagined discipline of African literature in English. Where Dike and his collaborators, J.F. Ade Ajayi, E.A. Ayandele and T. Tamuno, would inaugurate a journal and a graduate programme to train historians, Jones would float a cyclostyle two-page bulletin on African literature in 1963 — the aftermath of a conference convened at FBC —  that would blossom into a full fledge world-class journal — African literature Toady (ALT) five years down the road. Such herculean task as defining a field of study sans graduate programme was a monumental challenge only an Eldred Jones could have surmounted. Whereas Dike had a team he could turn to, especially when he got appointed as the first vice chancellor of University of Ibadan, Jones laboured alone, even when he was saddled with administrative responsibilities as principal of his beloved alma mater. His colleague, Professor Eustace Palmer would later join him as co-editor, as well as his wife and co-worker, Marjorie Jones.

As a pioneer and foundational professor of the new discipline of African literature in English, Jones traversed the length and breath of the English-speaking world promoting the study of African literature. He was external examiner in every English-speaking university in Africa where African literature was taught; a tireless critic and promoter of the new discipline who got involved in all the key debates that shaped the emergent discipline: from Kampala to Dakar to Halifax and beyond. He would engage the primer works of the first generation of African writers in English, particularly Achebe and Soyinka, to be followed by a book on Soyinka, and a new series dealing with the second generation of writers under Hans Zell’s New Perspectives on African Literature. Jones was not the gatekeeper some imagined him to be, but he was unarguably the patriarch of the new discipline — and this he himself accepted in his dense memoirs.

Displayed on the website of the African Literature Association in the USA on the day he passed was the following: Titan of Anglophone literary criticism in Africa. The heavens gained a great citizen today.

In his unusually long life, Jones witnessed the establishment of another journal in the discipline he nursed to life — Research in African Literatures (RAL) by a key contributor to ALT, Bernth Lindfors, in 1970. This journal started life at University of Texas at Austin; it would be edited by the late Professor John Conteh-Morgan, a student of Jones, when it moved to Ohio State University two decades later. In 1974, a professional organisation — African Literature Association — was launched in the USA within the larger family of African Studies. It is now an autonomous body independent of the ASA. In 2006 the new organisation would launched its own Journal of the African Literature Association (JALA). Inscribed in all these institutional developments is undoubtedly the towering figure of Jones and his pioneering efforts. He is unarguably the last of the Durham Brahmins, the upper caste within the Durham breed.

‘Men make their own history’, a leading materialist reminded us in the nineteenth century, ‘but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly found, and given and transmitted from the past’. Historical agent Jones has consciously played his part, ‘under two flags’, colonial and post-colonial, to remake that past and by implication, the present, and future. His foundational intellectual mission — to construct the edifice on which a new discipline could blossom — was completed in the last century.

Displayed on the website of the African Literature Association in the USA on the day he passed was the following: Titan of Anglophone literary criticism in Africa. The heavens gained a great citizen today.

Ibrahim Abdallah is professor of History at the University in Freetown Siera Leone.