NPG D43023; Thomas Birch Freeman by T. A. Dean, after  Marshall Claxton

Thomas Birch Freeman by T. A. Dean, after Marshall Claxton, stipple engraving, circa 1840 (image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Usually when we think of the Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century, we think of white men, sometimes with their wives, going out to Africa to save the natives. Thomas Birch Freeman (1809-1890) was different: he was black.

Freeman was born in Hampshire in 1809, his father black, thought to be a freed slave, his mother white. In his younger days Freeman worked as a gardener for Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park in Suffolk, but after joining the Wesleyan Methodists he decided to take up the challenge of becoming a missionary. He first travelled out to the Gold Coast, now part of Ghana, in 1838 and it was in this area that he spent most of his life, only returning to England on occasion.

The great strength of Thomas Birch Freeman was his enthusiasm and will to succeed. He never became fluent in the local language, Fante, and was terrible with accounts. Nevertheless, he managed to build several churches and many schools, which he saw as vital to providing the link between the local people and Christianity. The longer a person spent in a Christian environment, and the less time under the influence of other ideas, the more likely their mission was to succeed. He also travelled constantly (the costs of which resulted in his financial troubles), meeting local rulers and persuading them to allow him to set up churches and schools.

Many other missionaries succumbed to ill health, but Freeman survived an early illness to prosper. His first two wives (both white and from England) did not last long in their new home, both passing away within a year of their arrival. His next two wives were from the Gold Coast and helped to bring him closer to the local community.

Freeman did maintain links back to Britain. He returned on furlough to raise funds and promote the work he was doing. He also published his travel accounts and talked about his experiences in Africa in a bid to promote the anti-slavery cause. He was in contact with Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist, about the problem of slavery that was still ongoing on the West African coast, and also Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby.

Thomas Birch Freeman worked tirelessly into his seventies, working with his son who had also become a Methodist minister. He did eventually retire, living in a small house near Accra until his death in 1890 at the age of eighty.

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