Sir Milton Augustus Striery Margai (1895-1964) was a Sierra Leonean physician and political leader who became his country's first prime minister.
Milton Margai was born on Dec. 7, 1895, at Gbangbatoke in the southern protectorate. The son of a wealthy Mende merchant, Margai was educated at the Evangelical United Brethren School in Bonthe and at the Albert Academy and Fourah Bay College in Freetown, where he received a bachelor's degree in history.
The first protectorate student to graduate from the college and to become a doctor, Margai earned several additional degrees from King's College Medical School, University of Durham. He also attended the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
After practicing a few months, Margai entered government service, rising, between 1928 and 1950, to senior medical officer. He served in 11 of 12 districts in the protectorate, working with women's groups on pre-and postnatal care and child welfare. Margai also trained midwives for the Native Administration and wrote Mende instructions on midwifery.
Margai's political activity began in 1930 with election to the Bonthe District Council, a local governmental unit of representatives from the chiefdoms. Later he represented the council in the Protectorate Assembly, a governmental advisory body on economic, social, and political matters. Both groups reportedly developed from suggestions Margai had made earlier to tribal leaders. In 1946 he joined the Sierra Leone Organization Society (SLOS), formed to promote the cooperative movement. He also organized and helped manage the first protectorate newspaper, the politically influential Sierra Leone Observer.
Five years later, with the help of his lawyer brother Albert, Margai founded the Sierra Leone People's party (SLPP), the first significant indication of a nationalistic movement in the country. An outgrowth of the SLOS, the SLPP aimed to promote colony-protectorate cooperation. Basically conservative, it stood for political unification and self-government within the British Commonwealth.
In November 1951 the SLPP became the majority party in the Legislative Council, and the British appointed Margai to the Executive Council. He became minister of health, agriculture, and forestry in 1953. When Sierra Leone gained self-government a year later, Margai became chief minister as well. In 1957 he was reappointed, assuming also the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Development.
At this time, the more active nationalist Albert Margai contested the leadership of the SLPP, opposing the mild nature of his brother's policy. Although winning 22 to 21, the rebel faction withdrew and formed a new party. In 1959 Milton Margai was named premier and knighted; in anticipation of independence, his title was changed the following year to prime minister.
A man of considerable energy, slight and wiry, Sir Milton was able, direct of speech, conservative, and pro-British in outlook and temperament—in short, one of the mildest nationalists in Africa. He enjoyed music and played piano, violin, and organ. He died on April 28, 1964, after several months' illness.
Material on Margai appears in several recent works on Sierra Leone: Christopher Fyfe, A Short History of Sierra Leone (1965); Martin Kilson, Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone (1966); Gershon Collier, Sierra Leone's Experiment in Democracy in an African Nation (1970); and John R. Cartwright, Politics in Sierra Leone, 1947-67 (1970).