Milton Augustus Margai was the first prime minister of independent Sierra Leone. Margai was born on December 7, 1895, in Gbangbatoka, Sierra Leone, the eldest of 18 children. His father, M.E.S. Margai was a prominent businessman. Young Milton was the grandson of a famous Mende warrior chief.
Margai attended the Evangelical United Brethren secondary school in Bonthe, Sierra Leone, and completed his secondary education at Albert Academy in Freetown the capital of the British colony of Sierra Leone. He continued his education at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, earning a B.A. degree, and then at King’s Medical School in Durham, England graduating in 1926. Earlier that year Margai married Gladys Gosman on January 16, 1926, in Newcastle, England. He later briefly studied at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
Margai earned his qualification as a medical doctor and returned home to practice medicine in 1928. He was the first indigenous Sierra Leonean to become a medical doctor and was employed by the Colonial Medical Service where he worked with the local traditional women’s societies to incorporate hygiene, basic literacy, and childcare into the curriculum of “Bush Schools.” In these traditional schools, girls were initiated into their tribal society; learning from matriarchs in their community. The concept of using traditional schools to teach western concepts was unorthodox but proved quite successful.
In 1930 Margai became involved in local politics when he was elected to the Bonthe District Council. He later became a representative in the Sierra Leone Protectorate Assembly which advised the British colonial administration on local matters. In 1946 Margai joined the Sierra Leone Organization Society, a conservative group of local Sierra Leoneans who advocated a unified Sierra Leona with self-government within the British Commonwealth.
In 1951 Margai helped form the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) which soon became the majority party in the legislative council of the colony. Margai was appointed to the Executive Council of the British colony. In 1953 he served as Minister of Health, Agriculture, and Forestry in the British colonial administration.
When Sierra Leone was awarded self-governing status by the British in 1954, Milton Margai became Chief Minister of the government. In 1959 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his service to the colony and British Commonwealth.
On April 27, 1961, 65-year-old Sir Milton Augustus Margai led Sierra Leone to independence from the United Kingdom. The nation held its first general elections on May 27, 1962, and Margai was elected Sierra Leone’s first Prime Minister by a landslide. As Prime Minister, Margai fostered good relations with the British and other western nations. He tried to unify the new county by having people from throughout Sierra Leone serve in his administration and the military.
Sir Milton Augustus Margai died in office on April 28, 1964, at the age of 68. He was truly a Renaissance man—an extraordinary physician, masterful politician, and accomplished musician who played the organ, violin, and piano.