Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

London: S. W. Partridge & Co., c. 1892.

Chapter I. The Home-Land of the Slave

"From Greenland's icy mountains,
From India's coral strand,
Where Afric's sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand;
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain
They call us to deliver
Their land from error's chain."--Heber.

FOR centuries the history of Africa has been the mystery and sorrow of the world. Up to a time still fresh in the memory of our grandfathers the map of the Dark Continent, dark in more senses than one, gave little trouble to the schoolboy, being simply an irregular coast-line enclosing wide spaces in blank, trespassed upon by lines of almost guess-work boundaries, and in the middle thereof sundry high places denoted by the romantic title of the Mountains of the Moon.

[14] Its history is, strange to say, of the oldest and the youngest. Amid the sands of its northern deserts we turn up the relics of a civilization which astonished Joseph and his brethren, while our knowledge of the interior is but the discovery of yesterday. A weird mystery hangs over this marvellous land; we know not whether our next step will reveal the dim shadowy life of a day when the world was in its early spring, and awaken the echoes of a past unknown.

If it were the purpose of the present work to revive the memories of Africa's remote glories, especially when its Christian martyrs and teachers swelled the roll of the early Church, much might be told of enthralling interest; but we have in these pages to tell the story of our own time. And yet the better to understand our ground, we must glance back at the growth of our acquaintance with the Dark Continent during the last two or three centuries.

It seems remarkable that for so many years the traders who were the only European visitors to its shores should have remained contented with a knowledge of the very fringe of that vast land, making few if any efforts to penetrate into the interior. For the discovery of the coast-line credit must be given to the Portuguese, whose stately galleons in the fifteenth century touched in turn at the Canary Islands, Cape Verd, Sierra Leone, the Cape of Good Hope, and round eastward up as far as Cape Guardafui.

It was two hundred years later that the Dutch settled in the southern districts, where still their nationality makes itself known and felt. Nothing seems to have been added to our store of information about Africa until comparatively recent times, when [14/15] our own countrymen began to search for the source of the Nile. Neither the philosopher's stone nor the North Pole can boast of more ardent and spirited discoverers than those brave explorers, who under privations and perils sought the secret spot where the bubbling waters of the Nile first rushed forth amid tangled grasses and fronded palms on their way to the sea. Bruce traced the Blue Nile along its devious course at the end of the last century; but it was only a little more than twenty-five years ago that Spoke on his second journey sent home the message, "The Nile is settled," as Grant and ho stood on the shores of that magnificent inland lake, the Victoria Nyanza, from which mighty source the ancient river of Egypt evidently flows.

Before then, however, other rivers had been traced at the price of precious lives, notably the Niger, which Mungo Park sighted in 1790, and afterwards Dunham, Clapperton, Laing and Lander; the Congo where Tuckey died in 1830, and the Zambesi, by whose banks David Livingstone, in 1854, made his brave and patient way while traversing the Continent. But in these later days the "eye to business "motive has quickened interest and exploration, and European States are scrambling for allotments of the black man's land.

Of the people, we know enough to awaken our pity rather than our admiration. If they are accounted naturally indolent, it is because in their native condition there is no necessity to put forth energy, save in war. A distinguished man, who has recently visited them, assures us that when an opportunity presents itself they can work as hard and more [15/16] patiently than others. Their intellectual capacity, and painstaking studies, the subsequent pages of this book will verify in the life of one of Africa's worthiest sons.

Many have treated the black man as having no mind, and more have virtually denied him a soul. That he has both, however, is the growing conviction of the Christian Church to-day, and she is anxious to vindicate her responsibility in support of this. The spiritual condition of the Africans is curious and distressing. Taking the population to be about two hundred millions, quite three-fourths of them are utter heathen, living in the densest darkness of superstition and sin. The immense majority of the other fourth are followers of the false prophet, and the spiritual conquest of Africa by the green flag of Mohammed is still actively pressed to-day.

There are a few Jews living on the shores of the blue Mediterranean Sea, and of course Christianity is not without its witnesses. Also, besides the Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are the Copts and Abyssinians. But, speaking generally, the natives of Africa profess two religions, one of Mohammed, the False Prophet, and the other of the Devil in multiplication. Of the former we shall have something to say in the later pages of this work, for it is the key to much of the misery of this sad land. But even in those districts where Mohammedanism has got the firmest hold, it has not superseded, but rather grafted itself upon the superstitious demon worship of the natives everywhere.

In a fearfully real sense, to the African "the things which are seen are temporal, and the things which [16/17] are not seen are eternal." His terror is the environment of evil spirits, peopling the ail1, hiding in the trees, whispering in the wavelets of the stream, seated on the crest of every hill, and lurking in the rank grasses of the plain. From this ubiquitous company of devils the poor negro can never hope to be free.

We hare only then to add, that these Satanic agencies are all credited with a vindictive) hatred to the human race, to complete the picture of unspeakable and oppressive horror which crouches like a nightmare upon the hearts of the African people. In their wretched dread they are for ever making friends with these demons, propitiating them not unfrequently with the sacrifice of human life.

No wonder, then, that witchcraft is everywhere, and that the medicine man, like the Romish prelate of the Middle Ages, can strike a terrified submission even into the heart of kings. Tetzel with his indulgence business never did so well as they; to make a charm nothing comes amiss--a stone, a bit of bone or filthy rag, a shell, a leaf, an animal or a piece of it, any of these will do as a fetish, with power to exorcise the evil spirit. The priest's hand, true of superstition everywhere, has in Africa its black grasp on the substance of the poor.

Here, too, is evidence of that declaration of Holy Writ, that "the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty." The "customs "of the country show an utter disregard of human life; and in the western districts, with which these pages will have more especially to do, it will be seen that a wholesale slaughter often follows the death of a king, in order that he may be suitably accompanied [17/18] to the land of shadows. The cruel and pitiless character of paganism is here fully revealed.

In one respect, at least, the superstitious fear of the poor African is well founded, for upon his country has settled an evil spirit in verity and truth, and that demon is called Slavery. In the mere mention of that word, with the knowledge of what it means, one realises how weak at the strongest is language to express the truth. Words of burning Maine are wanted to describe this awful curse. There was a time when the hearts of the English people were thrilled and shocked with their own responsibility in the matter, and we made perhaps the costliest sacrifice in history for the sake of moral principle. It became high time to act. A hundred years ago our ships carried their share of 38,000, out of 74,000 slaves, exported annually, and Granville Sharp sent the Lord Chancellor a cutting from a newspaper, advertising the sale of a black girl, at a public-house in the Strand! There is no need to tell the story over again. Wilberforce as well as Wellington will be never forgotten, for "peace hath her victories as well as war." the patient and prayerful agitation of years was crowned by the passing of an Act of Parliament, which struck the fetters from the slave on English ground. Immediately our cruisers appeared in African waters to capture the slave dhows, and set the living freights at liberty.

But while curtailed by our watchfulness of the coast, the trade in "black ivory" still throve, and we are ashamed to say thrives still, in the interior of Africa. To arrest this we have spent lives more precious than gold. One of the first, best, and noblest friends Africa [18/20] ever had, David Livingstone, telling his countrymen of the desolating wrongs of the slave trade, besought them to "heal this open sore of the world." And when weary with his wanderings he laid himself down to die on the grass at Ilala, he breathed his last, as he would have wished, on the soil of the land for which he had worked and prayed. And Gordon too, the fearless Christian knight whose very name makes the heart beat more quickly, all the world knows how in Lower Egypt he drove back what seemed the irresistible progress of Arab slave-trading; and in his supreme moment of victory and defeat he also poured out his blood upon the desert sand of that Africa he loved so well.

We have called it the home-land of the slave because from its shores he is dragged a helpless and ill-treated exile. With all its pains and sorrows it is still his home. To it in many a moment of lonely and distant captivity he turns his thoughts again, and on the threshold of another world his longings lie towards Africa. Longfellow has beautifully expressed this in his well-known poem, a few verses of which shall close this chapter.

Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand,
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep
He saw his native land.

Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed,
Beneath the palm trees in the plain
Once more a king he strode,
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain road.

[21] He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand,
They clasped his neck, they kissed his check,
They held him by the hand!
A tear burst from the sleeper's lids,
And fell into the sand.

* * * * *

The forest with their myriad tongues
Shouted of liberty;
And the blast of the desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled
At their tempestuous glee.

He did not feel the driver's whip
Nor the burning heat of day,
For death had illumined the land of sleep,
And his lifeless body lay
A worn out fetter which the soul
Had broken and thrown away.

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