Monday, June 03, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 22 - K for Hannah Kilham

Silhouette of Hannah Kilham
Hannah Spurr Kilham was born in Sheffield in 1774 where her father Peter was in trade. Her mother died when she was twelve, leaving her to look after her father and five brothers. Two years later her father also died and she was sent to a boarding school in Chesterfield where 'she made more rapid progress than her master approved.'

Alexander Kilham
At the age of twenty she left the Church of England for the Methodists and in 1798 became the second wife of Alexander Kilham who had split from Wesley and founded the Methodist New Connexion. However he died only eight months later at the age of thirty-six. In order to keep herself and her step-daughter Sarah, Hannah opened a day-school for girls in Nottingham. She also became acquainted with Quakers and joined the Society of Friends in 1802. At the same time she espoused the anti-slavery cause and subscribed to the abolitionist boycott of sugar. She returned to Sheffield and as well as teaching engaged in philanthropic work and originated a 'Society for the Bettering of the Condition of the Poor' that was to provide a model for many others.

Tottenham Friends Meeting House
Hannah developed a concern for African education and from 1817 studied the means of putting the unwritten languages of Africa into print so that the natives might be taught Christianity. She produced an elementary grammar for children in missionary schools in Sierra Leone. In 1819 Hannah persuaded Friends to set up an unofficial African Instruction Fund Committee with William Allen and Luke Howard among its members. She moved to Tottenham and enlisted the aid of Friends there in her cause. They visited a ship which had just arrived from the Gambian coast and asked whether any of its sailors would be willing to stay in England, be taught English and help Hannah to transcribe their languages. Two of them, Sandanee and Mahmadee, agreed to stay and Tottenham Friends raised money for their board and lodging.  From these two men Hannah acquired a good knowledge of Jaloof (Wolof) and Mandingo (Mandinka) and in 1820 published anonymously First lessons in Jaloof.

In 1823, with the backing of the Friends' committee, she sailed with the two Africans and three missionaries to St Mary's in the Gambia and taught there and in Sierra Leone. Hannah's first impression of Africa was that 'idleness was a great sin of this country which will have to be guarded against'. Later, however, after one missionary, Richard Smith, had died and her own health had suffered she revised this opinion. 'We were ourselves too closely occupied, and health in some of us consequently suffered...Now I regret that we did not more frequently urge their leaving anything undone, rather than endanger their health by so much exertion.'

Hannah returned to England in 1824 to report on progress to her committee. She criticised the colonial attitudes which even missionaries could be infected by. She said that they must learn to exert influence over merchants, not be influenced by them; they must cease using 'high tones and repelling manner' to black people. Her educational philosophy, of preserving and using indigenous languages rather than teaching English to potential converts, was most unusual for the time. She declared 'It is the Africans themselves who must be the travellers, and Instructors and Improvers of Africa.' As well as working on tracts relating to African languages and the teaching of them Hannah also spent her time at home doing what she could to help the poor of Spitalfields with education, employment and health issues. In 1826 she went to Ireland and spent some months working with the British and Irish Ladies' Society for famine relief.
Map of Africa showing Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia

In 1827 she sailed again for Sierra Leone, taking with her African School Tracts which she had published in the interval. She visited Free Town and in little more than two months put into writing the numbers and principle words of twenty five languages. However poor health forced her to return home. In 1830 she set out for Sierra Leone once more. Having obtained permission from the governor to take charge of all children rescued from slave-ships she founded a large school near Charlotte, a mountain village, with the aid of a matron. Some of  the children were so emaciated as to be practically walking skeletons and Hannah later wrote that without receiving children direct from a ship she would never have understood the full vileness of slavery. Having set up the school Hannah travelled to Liberia and visited schools in Monrovia. In February she sailed for Sierra Leone but her ship was struck by lightning and put back to Liberia. Hannah did not recover from the shock and died three days afterwards at sea on 31 March 1832, aged forty eight.

Hannah Kilham's concern for Africa and her achievements in education and liguistics would be enough to make her memorable but there is another aspect to her life which should not be forgotten. The long journeys by sea which she had to make to further her concern were a particular trial to her as she suffered from a life-long dread of water. Only her conviction that it was her religious duty to go on gave her the strength to overcome her fear.

As she said, 'Why, if duty appear plain, should I recoil or draw back? I will try to be still, and hope clearly to know what is best, and not give way to any apprehension of my own creating.'

2 comments:

Elizabeth Saunders said...

Linguistics and writing and abolition... How wonderful! So much in such a short life.

My great-aunt was a missionary to China, but she was seasick and dreaded the travel. Upon being rescued from a concentration camp and returned to the USA, she completed a trip around the globe - by ship.

Gail Single said...


Totally inspiring. Thanks for sharing. We can do so much more than we currently believe. Desire>faith>action. A short road really considering the benefits initially and exponentially, to the world; and indeed the universe.