Biography, Source, Women's History

Hannah Kilham (1774-1832)

Hannah Kilham (1774-1832), a Quaker convert, was born in Sheffield and died at sea between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Her husband died after eight months of marriage and her daughter died before she was three. She joined the Society of Friends the year after this, and subscribed at the same time to the abolitionist boycott of sugar. She was a teacher, whose earnings supported herself and her step-daughter; she adopted the new child-centred methods of Joseph Lancaster (the same methods that the Hart sisters took up in Antigua); and she worked for and published pamphlets on various philanthropic and religious causes. On 20 December 1817, nineteen years to the day after her husband’s death, HK told some of her friends that she had decided to go to Sierra Leone as a missionary teacher: by telling them of her resolve she committed herself to going. She had already conceived the ambition of producing alphabets and spelling systems for several African languages which had never been written down. This was an age of missionaries, but the idea that preserving and using indigenous languages (as opposed to teaching English to potential converts) was far more unusual. Two months after announcing her decision, HK visited London, and on a ship docked in the Thames she found two West African sailors who willing to teach her their languages. She aimed not only to speak these languages but to be able to understand and write down their grammatical rules. She planned to use the grammars for teaching the children in the schools in Africa which did not yet exist but which she planned to found. Christianity could be brought to Africa, she believed, only by African teachers educated to a high level in their own languages. She learned Mande from a sailor named Mahmadee and Wolof from another named Sandanee. Later on she pursued an interest in the Tahitian and the Maori languages, which she thought must be related; in late 1822 she was in possession of a Maori grammar. She was instrumental in the founding of a Quaker Committee for African Instruction.
        HK was not, however, a woman content with organising other people. Before ever going to Africa she worked among the poor in near-famine conditions in Ireland, where she formulated two important principles: that it was as important to educate the children of poor people to feed them (and that even in the worst conditions parents longed for teaching for their children), and that no society could be satisfactory unless its poorest members could be consumers as well as workers.
        On 26 October 1823 she set sail for the first time to Africa, heading for Gambia (a relatively settled society made up of a very small colonial community and an African population that was largely Islamic). She travelled with several white, British fellow Quakers, and with her two African teachers Sandanee and Mahmadee. She was desperately seasick on the voyage, and the delightful house allocated to them at Bathurst (now Banjul) in Gambia had no water supply. Their first month was made difficult both by a riotous celebration of Christmas in the colony and by a number of settler deaths. Yet it was still early January when HK opened her first two African schools. The boys’ school drew thirty-five pupils from twenty-two different tribal groups; only five spoke Wolof. The girls’ school had sixteen pupils on its first day (along with eight women, many of whom arrived carrying toddlers). The problem (apart from the presence of the babies)  was that many female students “had been sent by employers who clearly regarded them as slaves. . . . Nevertheless, HK soon had both schools showing good progress.” On this trip she also investigated conditions in Sierra Leone (in Freetown and up-country), and found an unstable, dangerous situation with various forces jockeying for power. Kilham met many people (some of them black immigrants from Nova Scotia) whom she liked and respected, but was concerned about the general situation.
         Orlando says: “HK was a trenchant critic of the ethos of colonialism. She was a believer in progress: she longed for the people of Sierra Leone to ‘have some efficient instruction in agriculture’ and examples of buildings they could copy. She was strongly opposed to teachers and missionaries constructing houses ‘too high from the ground,’ which ‘convey not the idea of being so among the people as . . . it seems desirable they should be.’ The missionaries, she said, must learn to exert influence over merchants, not to be influenced by them; they must cease using ‘high tones and repelling manner’ to blacks. She hated the way that Europeans encouraged Africans to speak broken English, which they then mocked. She never doubted the intellectual capacity of Africans, and judged black ex-slave settlers who originally hailed from the USA to be ‘solid, steady people.’ Her opposition to slavery reached beyond the legal state of enslavement to take in other labour practices in which the worker was only technically rather than actually a free agent. As ever, she was particularly attentive to the treatment of women.”
        She made two more visits to Sierra Leone, unconcerned at the fact that British rule seemed to be disintegrating there. She set up more schools, diligently gathered information about local languages, and pronounced: “It is the Africans themselves who must be the travellers, and Instructors, and Improvers of Africa.” Some of children she taught had been rescued from slave ships, and were so emaciated as to be practically walking skeletons. Yet these too set themselves to learning. She later wrote that without receiving children direct from a ship she would never have understood the full vileness of slavery. Her time spent in England between voyages was spent in publicising her educational work, both in person and in writing. Her writings on education in Africa, especially her Report on a Recent Visit to the Colony of Sierra Leone, 1828, are highly unusual among reports written at the time for their optimistic tone. She never sees the teaching of African children as a unique problem, but constantly compares it to teaching English children (who, she points out, would have difficulties if they found themselves being taught exclusively in some foreign language).
        Mora Dickson published a biography of HK in 1980, and in summer 2010 Cambridge University Press issued, online and in print-on-demand format, a composite volume of her works entitled Writings on Education in West Africa. Nevertheless, like Elizabeth Heyrick, she is very generally forgotten.

This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription: see

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