We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Barnes, Isaac Edmestone (1857–1930), land surveyor and businessman, was born on 2 June 1857 in Highholborn Street, Kingston, Jamaica, the eldest legitimate son of William Barnes (1832–1891) and his wife, Amelia, née Johnson (c.1834–1893), coffee planters of Kraal district in the mountains of Clarendon, Jamaica. After attending Calabar high school he studied for five years for the Baptist ministry at Calabar Theological College, but refused to be ordained because he was unhappy with both the fundamentalist theology and the colonial bias of the curriculum. For several years he studied land surveying under Thomas Harrison, Jamaica's surveyor-general, but was refused a commission because he was black. He then attended the University College of Jamaica and obtained the West Indies diploma in civil engineering. Sometime before the age of twenty-six he acquired by means unknown ownership of Lucky Valley, one of Jamaica's largest and most historic sugar estates. He converted this into a large-scale banana plantation, and became a major shipper of the fruit to North America. He also restored an old chapel on the estate and in his spare time began a career as a popular evangelist. In October 1888 an attempt on his life was made by a rival trader which left him grievously wounded. During the following year he met John Chesterfield Blenman, a Barbadian evangelist of the Christadelphian Brotherhood (Brethren in Christ) and was baptized by immersion on 15 July 1889 in Kingston. Soon afterwards he founded the Kingston Christadelphian Assembly, whose headquarters were in Orange Street. With the support of his Africanist father, he decided to ‘repatriate’ himself to Liberia, with a view to combining land surveying with missionary work.

Barnes's first visit to Britain was in March 1890. The purpose was to recruit help for the Liberia Mission which he had founded. Harry Clements, a young Christadelphian from Dudley in the west midlands, joined Barnes at Clay Ashland in Liberia, but quickly succumbed to fever. Barnes became a Liberian citizen, and was appointed surveyor-general of the republic. In September 1891 he again sailed for Britain to seek further funding for the mission. He left the mission in the hands of capable Liberians, and decided to settle in Britain. He visited many towns in England, Scotland, and Wales, lecturing on biblical topics to enthusiastic audiences numbering many hundreds. In Abergavenny, for example, in midwinter so many were unable to gain admittance to his indoor meetings that he was offered the open market to address the huge crowds. For some time he resided in Partick, in Glasgow, and assisted Thomas Nisbet, publisher of an independent theological journal, The Investigator, with articles and editing. This period of the early 1890s can be considered a high point in his spiritual development and influence. He propagated a Bible-centred Christianity: an egalitarian, non-racial, non-hierarchical, and non-violent vehicle for spiritual anastasis (upstanding, revival), as he termed it, for blacks, and indeed all people, worldwide. His views greatly matured during these years, and he never wavered from this passionately held conviction for the rest of his life.

Rather than become involved in Scottish ecclesiastical disputes, Barnes took up residence at Gordon's Café in Norwich, where he again led evangelistic campaigns in the vicinity, especially in Great Yarmouth. Among his converts were Wilhelm and Eliza Fried, wealthy Jews from Hanover in Germany. More significantly, he met, converted, and in 1894 married Fraulein Fried, perhaps Wilhelm's twenty-one-year-old sister. This led to a dramatic change of direction in his life. The whole family moved to Hanover, then to Hamburg, and Christadelphian congregations (Urchristengemeinde) were established in both cities, with converts among the Frieds' wealthy Jewish friends and neighbours. Thereafter support for the Liberia Mission was taken over by the German congregations. With assistance from the Frieds, he studied at the University of Leipzig. He appears to have been the first black student to do so. Following his first period at Leipzig, he and his wife moved with the Frieds to St Petersburg, Russia, where he practised land surveying.

In November 1897 Barnes sailed from Hamburg to Venezuela. He became prospector and mining engineer at the El Callao gold mine (El Dorado), the world's most lucrative source of gold from Amerindian times until the end of the nineteenth century. The mine was jointly owned by his fellow Jamaican Jewish millionaire George Stiebel and the Corsican ‘don of dons’ Antonio Liccioni. Barnes struck rich and the proceeds enabled him to live in comfort thereafter, although he never lived ostentatiously. While working at El Callao, in 1899 he was recruited as a surveyor for the British diplomatic team on the UK–Venezuelan boundary dispute over Guiana. Although never politically agreed upon, the boundary Barnes surveyed remained the de facto border thereafter.

In 1901 Barnes returned to Leipzig for advanced studies in the mineralogy of diamonds and precious metals. This was the beginning of an extraordinary six-year period in which he resided in Brighton, England, but owned and operated diamond mines in South Africa. He became the first black executive officer of a mining syndicate in modern African history. He floated two diamond mining syndicates in the City of London. The first, New Premier, appears to have been inadequately funded or structured, and was soon dissolved. The second, Orangia, was very different. Directors included ‘Natty’ Rothschild, the world's richest, most successful, and shrewdest banker at that time; Bruce, earl of Elgin; and the Allens of Sheffield, one of the premier producers of mining equipment. Orangia or Barnes personally owned or leased 10,000 hectares of diamondiferous land around Kroonstad in the Orange River Colony, and operated at least two producing mines. He was issued a special British passport instead of a ‘British colonial’ one. Despite warm support for him from the Afrikaner communities among whom he stayed, the British military government contrived to declare him persona non grata and he was deported to Britain. Just before he left, he addressed 10,000 people of all races from the balcony of Cape Town city hall, the only black man to do so until Nelson Mandela, eighty-one years later.

Barnes's subsequent residence in Brighton was brief. He returned to Liberia, and became ‘minister’ (more likely, administrative director) of public works. In November 1911 he was appointed by President Barclay to be Liberia's chief boundary delimitation commissioner, with diplomatic status. However, British intransigence, financial problems, and political corruption within the Liberian government made negotiations with the British a hopeless task. After another attempted assassination he took refuge in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and by 1912 was again residing in London, this time at Lincoln's Inn.

For most of the duration of the First World War Barnes lived in the USA, including Indianopolis, Washington, DC, and Harlem, New York, where he had a brief flirtation with Garveyism. In March 1919 he returned to London, where he owned various residences, including in Mayfair, until his death eleven years later. Despite his colour, he was clearly a man of means and social standing. In November 1919 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a prestigious recognition for a black man at that time.

While surveying the Sierra Leone–Liberia border in 1911, Barnes had suffered a serious fall, and was nursed in the town of Boyama. Recuperating, he explored the area and became convinced that it was diamondiferous. Eight years later, in August 1919, he formed the Lahun Diamond Mining Syndicate, with offices in Great Swan Alley in the City of London. For the next eleven years he shuttled between London and Boyama. He is reliably reputed to have discovered the first brilliant from West Africa to be sold at Hatton Garden. The Lahun Syndicate was voluntarily wound up at his death in 1930. He may credibly be considered to have been one of the highest salaried black men in Britain, and perhaps even in the world, at this time. The exact date and location of his death are unknown, and no probated will has ever been found.

Barnes was once described by a journalist as very tall, very thin, very black, and gifted with a prodigious memory. Besides his professions as surveyor and mining engineer, he was fluent in many languages, including, unusually, Afrikaans and Mende; a virtuoso musician and harpist; and a rapid-fire orator who rarely used a script or even notes. His religious convictions and his philosophy of black anastasis energized his life and gave purpose to his extraordinarily varied career. At various times he was a citizen or legal resident of thirteen countries: the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana, Liberia, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Venezuela, South Africa, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and the USA. Within the Christadelphian Brotherhood he was the first to establish non-English speaking congregations. His efforts to encourage large-scale repatriation to Liberia were unsuccessful, and his wide-ranging fund-raising for a network of agricultural and religious institutes in the tribal hinterland of Liberia was largely ineffective due to the First World War and the deliberate marginalization of the hinterland by the Americo-Liberian government of Liberia. His son Ben with Frau Fried-Barnes, legally a Jew, born in London, England, but educated in Germany, became a naturalized Brazilian in order to escape the Nazi death camps, in one of which his mother is widely believed to have perished in 1944. A close friend of President Juscelino Kubitschek and an adviser on the development of Brasilia, Ben Edmestone Barnes (1903–1969) was a renowned educator who taught tectonics, sedimentology, structural geology, and crystallography at the Ouro Preto School of Mines.

L. Alan Eyre

Sources  

The Fraternal Visitor (1889–93) · L. A. Eyre, ‘Isaac Barnes: first Jamaican Christadelphian and missionary to West Africa’, Caribbean Pioneer, 31/7 (1989), 29–40 · L. A. Eyre, ‘The Isaac Barnes story’, Caribbean Pioneer, 32/8 (1990), 15–21 · L. A. Eyre, ‘A 1909 Cape Town publication and its author: a puzzling mystery solved’, Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 59/2 (2005), 62–71 · L. A. Eyre, ‘Isaac Edmestone Barnes in Kroonstad, Orange River Colony: the troubled life of a black Jamaican mining executive’, Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 60/4 (2006), 105–27 · L. A. Eyre and O. Lewis, ‘Colour blind in a white man's world: the life of Isaac Edmestone Barnes’, Jamaica Journal, 32/1–2 (2009), 31–41 · L. A. Eyre, Black genius in a white man's world: the remarkable life of Isaac Edmestone Barnes of Jamaica, 1857–1930 [forthcoming] · University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, Lumsden collection · private information (2012)

Wealth at death  

wealthy