Whether you are a feminist or just love to see a stereotype challenged, you’ll definitely warm up to Stella Thomas (later Marke), who Ed Keazor tells us, was as accomplished as she was bold and intelligent. Meet the woman: the first female lawyer in West Africa and first female magistrate to sit on the bench in Nigeria.
In many ways, the story of Stella Jane Thomas began before her birth in Lagos in 1906. Her father, Peter J. Thomas, was a wealthy businessman of Sierra Leonean descent and later became the first African to be president of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce (1923-1930). His firm, S. Thomas and Co., was so successful, it had over 26 branches spread across Nigeria and West Africa, employing over 300 staff – including nine expatriates – all overseen from his three-storey office complex on Williams Street in Lagos. His ventures spanned from produce export and mechanised farming, to milling, hides and skin and the import of a wide variety of goods. Considered against a context of colonial strictures and early 20th century racial politics, his achievements are all the more remarkable.
With such a track record, it should come as no surprise that Stella Thomas was greatly influenced by her father. Described by one commentator as “a great businessman, a great philanthropist and a lover of his kind”, Thomas was as well-known for his moral integrity and as he was for his business acumen. Stella grew up deeply steeped in his strict values and soon cultivated a reputation for being forthright and equipped with a keen sense of justice herself. Whilst undoubtedly a highly intelligent student, she was also fortunate to have a father with the means to finance her education beyond secondary level. Nonetheless opinion divided in the family as to whether she should be permitted to seek further education. Demonstrating faith in his daughter’s abilities, Stella was granted permission to travel to the United Kingdom in 1926. Two years later, she decided on law as a profession – a bold undertaking that would make her West Africa’s first female lawyer. In 1929, she gained admission to the Middle Temple Inn of Court, where she received her professional training for the next four years.
On May 10 1933, she was called to the Bar and was applauded with a feature in the Nigerian Press. Her achievement was also celebrated by the London-based West African Students Union with this printed announcement:
We are pleased to avail ourselves of the privilege to publish here, the first female Ogboni Agba, who recently passed her final Bar examination. Miss Thomas is to be the first lady Barrister in the whole of West Africa. In the spirit and letter of the WASU doctrine of unity and co-operation, Miss Thomas hails from Nigeria, Gold Coast and Sierra Leone.
Stella Thomas had long been an active member of WASU, which she had joined as far back as 1930. This accolade was one of the more distinguished forms of international recognition specific to the African community of the day. The honourary title of “Ogboni Agba” (esteemed elder) had similarly been bestowed on the popular American lawyer, singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, having been dubbed with the honourary title “Baba ‘sale” by the Union.
No stranger to activism, Stella Thomas was also a founding member of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), which was established in 1931 by Jamaican Dr. Harold Moody to bring together minority interests (Asian, Caribbean and African) under one banner. Great Britain at the time was not the friendliest of places for ‘people of colour’. In the inter-war years, the question of colour and colony were largely undifferentiated, with discontent growing amongst colonial students, especially those from non-self governing provinces. The first ‘race relations organisations’ came in the 1930s, typically working to discourage racial discrimination, provide welfare support for black workers and families whilst highlighting their positive contributions to the society at large. The League of Coloured Peoples, where Stella Thomas staked her membership, was moderately successful in achieving these aims. LCP was a voluntary group that depended on charitable subscriptions and a ‘Christian liberal-humanitarian approach’ in its quest to improve race relations. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, it attracted more white members than black – a pull symptomatic of the aligning social consciousness in the imperialist society with inherent class conflicts.
Thomas’ activism reached its highest renown on March 24 1934, when she attended a lecture delivered by historian Dame Margery Perham, at the Royal Society for the Arts in London. The Hall was filled with a distinguished audience that included academics William Macmillan, CK Meek McGregor Ross and Lord Frederick Lugard, the former Governor-General of Nigeria (1914-1919). During post-lecture question period, Thomas rose up and delivered a stinging diatribe in which she dismantled the notion that a solution to Africa’s problems could be provided without the consultation or involvement of Africans. She then focused on Lord Lugard directly and criticised his dual mandate policy in Africa in strong terms, which she lambasted “for making puppets of African Chiefs”. In a brutal but levelheaded outpour, she went further to argue that “there must be real cooperation and real understanding, at present the British were dictating to them and the Africans had to do what they were told”. She countered the suggestion that more British anthropologists be sent to Nigeria to study and advice on development, describing it as completely unnecessary and stating that with education Africans would be able to build their own institutions and determine which institutions suited them. Her measured, unflinching statement won her huge acclaim amongst African activists and the Nationalist movement.
Stella Thomas also undertook the duties of her legal profession on the continent. She returned first to Sierra Leone where was registered at the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone in October 1935 and a month later to Nigeria where she was enrolled in November 1935. After seven years of practice, in 1943 she was appointed a magistrate, becoming the first Nigerian woman to sit on the bench. A prominent figure in the public life of Lagos, particularly in women’s civic and social organisations, she became part of Freetown society on her marriage to fellow Sierra Leonean barrister Richard B. Marke, in November 1944.
Stella Thomas, now Marke, served in her capacity as a magistrate untill her retirement in 1971. Not one to be idle, she spent her last days in quiet devotion to her Christian duties. She passed away in 1974, at the age of 68, leading the legacy for Nigerian women lawyers as the first in a long distinguished line. More than just the first female member of the Judiciary, her political activism placed her firmly on the list of one of Nigeria’s finest legal practitioners.
This essay is part of a series called “Notable Nigerians”. See here for other articles published within this series.
The Law Times 1933
Middle Temple archives
Daily Times June 1971
Black Internationalism and African and Caribbean Intellectuals in London, Marc Matera.
The Red Book of West Africa. Alistair Macmillan, 1920.
“Sierra Leone, 1787-1987:Two Centuries of Intellectual Life”, Edited by Murray Last and Paul Richards, Christopher Fyfe. International African Institute, 1987.
“Black People in Britain: The 1930s” History Today, Volume 31, Issue 9, 1981. Available here
Banner image: Gathering of WASU members in London, 1956.
About the Contributor
Emeka ‘Ed’ Keazor is a lawyer, blogger and author of several books. His recent compilation “The 100 Greatest Nigerians We Never Knew” featured in Africa’s Social Media Week in 2014. In Nigeria and abroad, he works to unearth the many hidden gems in our nation’s history, using his uncanny ability to cull the lesser known highlights from the archives in his ongoing appraisal of Nigeria’s history and key personalities.