Eldred Jones obituary

Abiodun Williams
·2 min read

My mentor and friend Eldred Jones, who has died aged 95, was principal and pro-vice-chancellor of Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the oldest university institution in sub-Saharan Africa. A literary scholar and critic, he was one of the pioneers of the study of modern African literature and introduced unique perspectives in Shakespearean studies.

Eldred was an outstanding lecturer and his students learned how to think about literature by emulating his example. His 1965 book, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama, won the criticism prize in the first World Festival of Negro Arts (now World Festival of Black Arts) held in Dakar in 1966; however, as Eldred was then Commonwealth fellow at the University of Leeds, he was unaware of the fact until his landlord gave him a copy of the Guardian report.

Other publications include The Writing of Wole Soyinka (1973), which was one of the earliest on the Nobel laureate, and The Elizabethan Image of Africa (1979).

Born in Freetown to Ethline (nee John) and her husband, Eldred Jones, a customs officer, Eldred Jr was educated at the CMS (now Sierra Leone) grammar school and Fourah Bay College. He then went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he gained a degree in English language and literature in 1953.

He returned to Fourah Bay College that year, rising through the ranks of lecturer, senior lecturer and, by 1964, professor and head of the English department. The college was affiliated to the University of Durham, and he earned his PhD, on the treatment of black characters in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, from Durham in 1962. In 1974 Eldred was made principal of the college.

In 1968 Eldred became the first editor of the influential journal African Literature Today, which he edited for more than three decades. After he lost his sight in middle age, his wife, Marjorie (nee Pratt), a dress designer whom he married in London in 1952, supported his work. This was recognised when the African Studies Association of the UK gave them jointly its Distinguished Africanist award for 2002. A resilient and adaptable man, Eldred, who had retired from Fourah Bay College in 1985, learned braille to continue his scholarly pursuits.

In 2002 he was elected an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College. His memoir, The Freetown Bond: A Life under Two Flags, was published in 2012.

A friend of my parents, Eldred had been my mentor since childhood. He was an erudite conversationalist and a cultivated man who loved books and music. He inspired respect, admiration and affection because of his brilliance, warmth and decency.

Marjorie died in 2015. He is survived by their daughter, Mimi, and a sister, Ethline. Another daughter, Essemary, predeceased him.