Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter II. A Childhood of Slavery

"Let the Indian, let the Negro,
Let the rude barbarian see,
That Divine and glorious conquest
Once obtained on Calvary.
Let the Gospel
Loud resound from pole to pole."--Williams.

HAVING now glanced at Africa as a whole, we will set our foot upon the banks of the lordly Niger, which will be the scene of the wonderful story of God's providence and grace which this volume seeks to tell. This river, second only in depth and importance to the Nile, cannot boast of a like classic history; but it is now full of memories of faithful work and endeavour, none the less valuable or interesting that they pertain to the present century.

All round the Dark Continent, with few breaks, is an invisible rampart of pestilence, the fever boundary which no European can attempt to pass without a risk, and often a loss, of life. In some places, however, the danger is deepest; and because this is true of the [22/23] Gold Coast, it has been aptly and pathetically called "the white man's grave." At this point the Niger enters the sea, not with a broad expanse of rushing water like most rivers, but spreading out into a number of outlets as it slowly creeps through thickets of mangrove trees, over stretches of poisonous slime to the ocean. This forms the Niger delta, spreading along the shore for over one hundred and twenty miles.

A French traveller, M. Adolphe Burdo, has vividly described this terrible labyrinth of creeks, in which utterly lost and disheartened his Kroomen despaired. Again and again did they attempt some new passage, pushing their way between the interlacing mangrove brandies along which the serpents crawled. A more desolate region can hardly be imagined.

In its course of nearly two thousand miles this river waters some of the most degraded and unhappy districts of Africa. Between its western arm and the sea-coast lies the country of the Yorului people, natives who have suffered more perhaps than other tribes from the desolations and cruelties of the slave trade. The people pride themselves on a remote ancestry, and Captain Clapperton was informed, by a curious geographical work he met with, written by a chief, that the Yoruba nation "originated from the remnant of the children of Canaan, who were of the tribe of Nimrod." Whether this be founded on fact or not, it is enough for us to know that out of this dark region God caused a light to shine, and called forth one who should become a shepherd to these souls. A stream of life history starting from the humblest source, and with these lowly beginnings, the career of Bishop Crowther commenced to unfold.

[24] Early in the year 1821, in the midst of the EyĆ³ or Yoruba country, a devastating war was being waged. The army of the Mohammedan Foulah tribe, swelled by a miscellaneous crowd of escaped slaves and man-stealers, ravaged the country to right and left. Sweeping everything before them, they came at last to Osliogun, a flourishing town mustering three thousand fighting men. The ill-fated inhabitants had no warning. In most of the huts the women were peacefully preparing the morning meal, and the men were either absent or had no time to seize their weapons. Fierce warriors surrounded the fence which protected the town. A short, sharp struggle ensued; the six gates were broken through, and the victors poured into the town. Here all was panic and despair. Terrified women caught up their little ones, and bidding the elder children to follow, tried to escape in the bush. In many cases, however, they fatally impeded themselves with baggage from their huts. The Foulahs swiftly pursued them, flinging lassoes over their heads and drawing them half-choked back into their hands.

In one of the huts at this supreme moment rushed again a father to beg his family to flee; and then, the warning given, he hurried back to the front to die in their defence. His wife, like the others, hastened to the bush with her little niece and three children; one an infant of ten months, and the eldest a boy of twelve years and a half, who, child as he was, valiantly seized his bow and arrows to protect them. This little fellow was Adjai, the future Bishop of the Niger. They too, however, in their turn, were; captured, and, tied together with ropes, were led out of the burning [24/25] town. As they passed along the blazing streets they saw many wounded and dying men lying, where they had been struck down, at their own doors.

Alter twenty miles' weary marching they reached a town, and caught a glimpse of some of their relations in the same miserable plight. The usual barbarities of the slave-march followed. The old and infirm, being no longer able to respond to the whips of their captors, were mercilessly killed, or left, with less compassion, on the wayside to die of hunger and exposure. At midnight [25/26] they reached the town of Iseh-n, where to their great relief, as the morning broke, they were freed from their galling ropes and hurried in a body into the presence of the chief. He forthwith began to allot them as slaves and spoil of war to his warriors. That is, one half were claimed by the chief, and the other half by the soldiers. Little Adjai and his sister became the property of the chief; his mother, with her infant in arms, was quickly transferred to other hands. This was the first time the little lad had been separated from his mother, and great of course was his grief.

The boy was exchanged for a horse, but the bargain not being satisfactory, he was taken to the slave market of Dah'-dah, where to his great delight he met with his mother again, and for three months enjoyed comparative liberty, having the precious privilege of seeing his parent whenever he wished. But one sad evening a man came and suddenly bound him, and he was carried away on the march again. By his side trudged another little boy, who had also been torn from the arms of his mother, and cried bitterly. They were dragged along for several days, one hand being chained to their neck; then Adjai was sold to a Mohammedan woman, and with her travelled to the Popo country, on the coast where the Portuguese came to buy slaves. As he passed on his way, towns and villages smoked in the ruin which the enemy had wrought, and in some of the market-places five or six heads were nailed to the large trees as a warning to all who did not willingly submit.

Although his mistress was kind to her little captive boy, a great dread seized upon his mind; and he determined to destroy himself, sooner than be sold [26/28] into the hands of the white man. It seems very shocking that the thought of suicide should gloom the mind of one so young; but a merciful God, who had marked him out as a chosen vessel in His service, overruled and prevented the rash intention. Though he tried to strangle himself with his waistband, his courage failed him when he held the noose in his hand; and it is remarkable that the thought of using a knife, which was always ready at hand, never occurred to his mind.

Before very long they approached the district where the Portuguese would be prepared to treat for the purchase of slaves, and here before he saw the dreaded white men he was given a few sips of the white man's evil spirit, a strong and unpurified rum. Then, still pinioned to prevent escape, the little slave boy was brought to the edge of a river; and as this was the first time he had seen so much water, he was much terrified thereat. So paralysed with fear was he that he could not obey the command of his driver to enter the stream to reach the boat, so he was lifted in bodily, and hid himself among some corn bags in the bottom of the canoe. The night came on, and through those fearful hours poor little Adjai expected every minute would be his last. Dreadful indeed was his terror at the sound of the waves as they dashed against the sides of the canoe. He had no more desire to end his career, as he had purposed, by casting himself overboard.

Having reached the other side of the river, he was, with his fellow-slaves, allowed his liberty, for escape was impossible. After landing he was then employed as storekeeper at his master's house at Lagos. [28/29] Then, for the first time, he encountered the white man, a spectacle as curious and alarming to him as the first impressions of a black man would be to a European boy. This Portuguese, who eventually purchased him, made a close examination of the points of little Adjai, as he would of a horse, and then, with a number of other unhappy captives, he was attached by a padlock round his neck to a long chain, very heavy and distressing to bear. Here they were stowed in a barracoon, or slave hut, almost suffocated with the heat, and on the slightest provocation cruelly beaten with long whips.

Early one morning they were hurriedly placed on board a slaver, one hundred and eighty seven in number, packed in fearful contact in the hold, the living and the dying and the dead. Rea-siekness, hunger, thirst, and the blows of their inhuman masters made these poor half-expiring wretches long for the end. But just at this extremity of suffering and helplessness came God's provided opportunity.

Two English men-of-war, cruising about the const, caught sight of the slave-ship and gave chase. A brief resistance, and the sailors boarded her decks and at once liberated her human cargo, transhipping them to the men-of-war. The master and slave-drivers were placed in irons, and the black men, hardly yet realising that they were in the hands of friends, stood on the British decks looking on with astonishment, not unmingled with fear.

An amusing instance of their suspicious and groundless misgivings was that they mistook the sight of a hog, partly cut up and hanging to the rigging, for the body of one of their own fellows, which the [29/30] English were going to eat. This idea was further strengthened by the appearance of a number of cannon balls, which they concluded must be the heads of their unfortunate comrades. Soon, however, they were relieved on this score, and showed in every way they could the gratitude which was in their hearts for their liberation from such cruel bondage.

The two vessels, full of freed slaves, made for Sierra Leone. One was wrecked in a storm, and lost all hands, including one hundred and two slaves; the other, with Adjai on board, reached Bathurst in safety.

Here is a wonderful indication of the working of the Divine overruling of events. One of the vessels which had captured the slaver was H.M.S. Myrmidon, and upon the deck, engaged in rescuing little Adjai and his companions was a young officer, whose son years afterwards was the devoted and useful Lieutenant Shergold Smith, the leader of the missionary enterprise on Lake Nyanza.

Shortly afterwards Adjai and the other slaves were sent from Freetown, whither they had been taken, to Bathurst, and returned for a short time in order to give evidence against their former Portuguese owners; then, coming back, they were placed under wise and kindly care. But it will be necessary, in order to clearly understand why this provision was already made for the reception of these poor slaves, to retrace a few steps of history.

The long struggle of twenty years to impress the mind of England with the horrors and inhumanity of the traffic in flesh and blood was becoming more and more desperate. The famous decision of Lord Chief [30/31] Justice Mansfield had been delivered in 1772. Thirteen years later Thomas Clarkson drew public attention to the subject by his prize essay at Cambridge University. Long before the passing of the Act, the agitation in the interest of the slave was carried on by the Abolition Society; and in 1787 Mr. Granville Sharp took charge of a crowd of four hundred negroes, and formed a settlement for them on the West Coast of Africa. This projecting piece of land, from its resemblance to a lion, received the name of Sierra Leone; and here, where slavery had hitherto been most prevalent, a colony had been formed under British protection as a rescue home for liberated Africans. But the congregation of so many degraded and lawless men soon produced anarchy and trouble in the colony, the moral condition of the blacks was disgraceful, and the prospects of the success of the enterprise seemed very remote. However, what man cainiot do God will accomplish, and in 1816 missionaries were sent thither by the Church Missionary Society; and after [31/32] much toil and constantly recurring deaths of the devoted workers, the blessing of the Almighty was seen. In 1822 the Lord Chief Justice publicly stated that in a population of 10,000 there were only six cases for trial, and not one from any village under the superintendence of a village schoolmaster. This gratifying fact was noted at the very time when the future Bishop of the Niger, then a little liberated slave-boy, had been landed at the place.

The climate was found to be most deadly for Europeans, and during the first twenty years of the Mission fifty-three missionaries or their wives had succumbed to the malaria. But as fast as gaps were made in the army of brave hearts, others came from England to fill their place; and so by constantly renewing the earnest helpers, the work was graciously crowned with success.

Little Adjai exhibited a proficiency for study, and under the care of the Mission schoolmaster made good progress. We are told that when his first day at school was over he hastened into the town and begged a halfpenny from one of the negroes to buy an alphabet card, all for himself. He became in time a monitor, and received for that official position sevenpence-halfpenny a month; but, best of all, it was here that the word of the Lord came unto the little freed slave, and gave him a liberty from the condemnation of sin which filled his heart with new-joy. He was baptized on the 11th December, 1825, by the Rev. J. Raben, taking the name of Samuel Crowther, by which name we shall henceforth speak of him as we pass along his interesting and useful career.

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