Sir Samuel John Forster (1873-1940): First Gambian Lawyer

When Sir Samuel Forster died in July 1940, Governor Southern stated in his eulogy that he believed that it would be difficult to fill his seat in the Legislative Council and his other multifarious roles in the society with a suitable person . While this statement angered some sections of the Bathurst intelligentsia, others tended to agree with it; for upon his death there was a strong feeling that Gambia’s aspirations for political and social advancement would be jeopardized by the ‘dearth of credible leaders’. This frustration was explained by Sir Samuel’s wide ranging roles and activities in Bathurst society as a legislator, lawyer, journalist, nationalist politician, churchman and socialite. His rich career was however, firmly anchored in a sound education and strong family pedigree.

He was born in 1873  to the Honourable Samuel Forster, a rich merchant and Gambian Legislative Council Member from 1886-1906. His mother Lucy Forster was a respected Aku woman who died in 1927 at the ripe old age of eighty four. Sir Samuel was one of twelve children born of the Forsters. Before we dissect his rich educational background, it is imperative that we examine the political and social context of the 1870s in Bathurst colony under which Sir Samuel was born. Externally, the 1870s was a period of great uncertainty for the Colony of Bathurst as in 1873 the British started new negotiations with the French to exchange Gambia Colony with Gabon in Central Africa. The previous attempts to exchange Gambia for Senegal had failed due to stiff opposition from local chiefs, merchants and a tiny educated elite of Liberated Africans later called Aku. Thus when the British revived the exchange scheme, the population were astounded and highly alarmed by it. The same forces which successfully prevented the first exchange plan were up again to oppose the new move. Sir Samuel Forster’s father was among concerned patriots who wrote petitions to the Colonial office in London denouncing the move; they argued that an exchange would hamper trade and also dilute the identity of the population. Again, their voices were heard and the move was abandoned.

Internally, this was a period of intense rivalry and hostility between the African population of Bathurst, mainly Liberated Africans and Wollof artisans and the European merchants. The Europeans who dominated trade and the Government wanted to retain complete monopoly of the running of the Colony; the Africans however, wanted a say in commerce and the administration and were clamouring for constitutional change which would give them some influence. The demand for political representation however,  was not met until 1896, when Samuel Forster was nominated into the Legislative Council. Sir Samuel therefore grew up in a Bathurst society in flux; with his father among the rising generation of Africans slowly but steadily gaining political consciousness and aspiring for more rights including better educational facilities.

Indeed, it was for want of a high school in Bathurst that in 1885, Sir Samuel was moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone to attend the Freetown Grammar School where he remained until 1888 when returned home to prepare to go to England for his studies. He entered Oxford University in 1893 to study Law, and in 1897 graduated with distinction. In 1898, he was called to the Bar at the prestigious Inner Temple and returned home the following year to become Gambia’s first indigenous lawyer .

His practice attracted numerous clients from Africans in Bathurst and upriver. Many chiefs who fell foul of the colonial government and risked banishment or imprisonment turned to him for legal advice and support. Thus he saved many Gambian notables from the strong arms of the colonial regime. In 1901, Government asked him to accede to the post of Colonial Registrar, and in 1905 he added Commissioner of Census to his increasing portfolio. He later served as Coroner, Justice of the Peace, and Police Magistrate. Despite numerous attempts to lure him to Nigeria where he stood to earn more money from his practice, Sir Samuel stood his ground and always said ‘Under whatever circumstances, my country first’. Such was his patriotic zeal.

In early 1902, he dabbled in journalism; he accompanied the Aglo-French joint force which attacked jihadist and resistance leader Foday Kabba in Kiang, as a correspondent for the reputable Reuters news agency. His dispatches from the trenches kept the British newspapers well supplied with the progress of this war in colonial Gambia.

In 1904, he entered the Legislative Council as a Temporary Member, temporary due to his father’s illness ; and when his father died in 1906, Sir Samuel was nominated permanently to the post which he held till his death in 1940. He  had a brilliant  whilst controversial political career which requires close study.

Sir Samuel used his long stint in the Legislative Council to defend the interest of ordinary Gambians; for example, in the 1930s when motor cars were being introduced in the country, he lamented in legislative sessions, the bad state of the roads in the Protectorate that caused numerous accidents and delay in transporting trade goods. He worked, together with other Gambian legislators such as Sheik Omar Faye and Davidson Carrol, in opposing the disbandment in 1935 the Local Volunteer Force which engaged dozens of young Gambians who were rendered jobless following its dissolution. In 1920, he joined other nationalists, like EF Small, to form the Gambia Chapter of the National Council for British West Africa (NCBWA) the first nationalist movement in English speaking West Africa. He led the movement for a few years before he resigned – apparently alarmed by its increasing radical stance against colonial rule. It is here that critics point out that Sir Samuel was too close to the Colonial rulers and maybe was even antagonistic towards the calls for the franchise and self-determination. His critics also point out that he worked against the progressive social and political agenda of Small. For example, he strongly supported the 1933 Licensing Ordinance and Trade Union Registration Ordinance. It was this ordinance which greatly affected Small. Small was forced to close his newspaper company for 18 months before he was able to fulfill the registration conditions of the ordinance and in 1934 lost his leadership of the Bathurst Trade Union due to technicalities in the new Ordinances.

While it is true that Sir Samuel became more accommodating of the colonial government as the years dragged on, he remained a stout defender of his people’s rights. When he thought that by negotiating over issues he would win concessions for Gambians, he did so and the outcome was always beneficial to the Gambia. His experience and exposure to the workings of the colonial machinery had made him a pragmatic realist than an irrational political hothead. To the colonial government, he was a stabilizing phenomenon who could win them goodwill from among his people, who in turn respected him greatly for his sagacity and selflessness. In recognition of this, Samuel became Sir Samuel when he was knighted in 1933, becoming the first Gambian to be so honoured  by the Colonial administration. 

Sir  Samuel was a sociable man. He founded the Scout movement in The Gambia and was its treasurer for four decades; in 1911, he founded the Bathurst Reform Club which still exists today as a gathering for Gambians professionals most of whom were excluded from the predominantly European Clubs in Bathurst such as the European Sports Club. As a deeply religious man, he belonged to numerous Committees of the Wesleyan Church and in 1913, he represented his church at the Centenary Celebrations in London of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society. His marriage in 1909 produced six children all of whom outlived him.

His death on July 1940 was an occasion of great mourning in the Gambia. His colleagues in the Legislative Council such as Sheikh Omar Faye and Davidson Carrol, Governor Southern and Chief Justice Gray among others, paid tribute to him as a selfless patriot who put country before self and a stout defender of the defenceless and of the political rights of his people.

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