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Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter III. On the Threshold of the Work

"O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace.

"My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad,
The honours of Thy name."--WESLEY.

THE wonderful improvements which followed the introduction of Christianity into the disorderly colony of freed slaves at Sierra Leone was in no small degree due to the earnest and practical efforts put forth in finding something for their idle hands and undisciplined brains to do. Trades were taught the people; and, generally speaking, notwithstanding the common imputation that the negro is naturally a lazy fellow, these liberated slaves took to their handicrafts remarkably well. We have it on the authority of Professor Drummond, who has so recently had an opportunity from his own observation of the natives [33/34] of tropical Africa, that to blame the African for being lazy is a misuse of words. "He does not need to work; with so bountiful a nature round him it would be gratuitous to work. And his indolence, therefore, as it is called, is just as much a part of himself as his flat nose, and as little blameworthy as slowness is to a tortoise. The fact is Africa is a nation of the unemployed." When we free him from the forced servitude of the slave-driver we must laid him employment elsewhere, and with proper tact and encouragement he will soon work away with a will.

Samuel Crowther, settling down under such patient training, was instructed in that branch of human labour which will ever be surrounded with sacred memories. As a carpenter he soon showed a proficiency in the use of the chisel and plane, and in after years this ability to work for himself and for others became exceedingly useful to him. But not only were his hands employed, but his mind began to drink with avidity from the stores of human knowledge and education. Naturally studious and intellectual, the future Bishop yearned after more light.

It is not difficult to imagine with what wild joy he received the announcement that his kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Davey, would take him with them on a visit to England. This was in 18*20; and in duo time he caught the first glimpse of the white cliffs of that wonderful land about whose power and influence he had already heard so much. The ship reached Portsmouth on the 16th August; and shortly afterwards, during his stay of three or four months in London, young Adjai became a pupil in the parochial school at [34/35] Islington. These schools still remain, overlooking the leafy churchyard of the Chapel-of-Ease; but in the days when the youthful Crowther came to work for the first time by the side of English boys, Islington was still a merrie village famous for its country walks and new milk. Altogether he was not in England more than a year, but doubtless he made good use of his eyes and ears in making acquaintance with English life and manners.

Meanwhile the educational movement, inaugurated by the Church Missionary Society at Sierra Leone, was making good progress, and the Industrial Boarding School had developed into its original plan of a real Christian institution, the centre of a network of capital schools in the districts around. Hence it was proposed to utilise the place as a nursery for training native teachers, and an excellent clergyman, the Rev. C. L. F. Haensel, went out in February, 1827, to superintend its establishment. This became in due time Fourah Bay College; and the first name of the half-dozen native youths who are entered on its roll of students is that of Samuel Crowther.

As we have shown, the fatality of the climate to Europeans gave urgency to this effort to train others, who did not suffer from the same physical danger, to labour in this field. It was high time that something should be done. The Gold Coast had earned an awful name, and again and again its fever-stricken shores became whitened with the bones of the stranger. "The churchyard at Kissy," writes Bishop Vidal years afterwards, "with its multiplied memories of those not lost but gone before, is a silent but eloquent witness to the kind of schooling which the missionary [35/36] for Africa requires." Very graciously God blessed the new venture, and it became a spiritual home from which, from time to time, its sons sallied forth, full of faith and zeal, to preach the unsearchable riches of the Gospel to their brethren after the flesh.

Crowther made progress, and became an assistant teacher in the College, and this mark of confidence and respect was quite a turning point in his career. He who was in the Providence of God to rise to such an honourable position in the church, never forgot the humility of those early days, and with gratitude he was moved to say in a letter at this time, speaking of the moment of his being carried into captivity:

"From this period I must date the unhappy, but which I am ever taught in other respects to call blessed, day which I shall never forget in my life. I call it an unhappy day, because it was the day on which I was violently turned out of my father's house and separated from my relatives, and in which I was made to experience what is called to be in slavery. With regard to its being called blessed, it was the day which Providence had marked out for me to set out on my journey from the land of heathenism, superstition and vice, to a place where the Gospel is preached."

This thankfulness, which welled up from his heart, shaped itself into a determination, so far as God should give him opportunity and ability, to work among his own people, teaching them as he had been taught, and leading them also to the Saviour who had manifested Himself to him.

By his side, in those early and happy days at Bathurst, a little girl, taken like himself from the deck of a slave ship, was taught with him in the same [36/37] house. They grew up together, and in due time she being a Christian, was baptized from her native name Asano into the name of Susanna. They grew fond of each other, and after a happy period of courtship, which is the same sweet old story in Africa as elsewhere, they were married. It was the beginning of a long and blissful union, in which God blessed them with dutiful and useful children. One of them, the Rev. Dandeson Coates Crowther, is now Archdeacon of his father's diocese; two others are doing well as influential and godly laymen, and of his three daughters two have been married to native [37/38] clergymen, and are their faithful helpmeets in the service of our Lord.

In the year 1830 Crowther was appointed from the College to the care of a school at Regent's Town, and his wife was officially associated with him as schoolmistress. Two years after they were promoted to still more important duties at Wellington; and finally he came hack to the College on the installation of the Rev. G. A. Kissling, who afterwards became Archdeacon of New Zealand, as the new principal. Here for some years was Crowther's sphere of work; and it is gratifying to notice, that several who came under his training at this period were afterwards ordained and appointed as government chaplains at important stations on the coast.

In one respect Crowther has the same invaluable gift as Patteson, a natural aptitude for languages; and in his work at the College and elsewhere he showed how great an advantage he possessed in dealing with the chiefs and headmen of the district. This marked him out for notice at a critical moment which was approaching.

In the year 1811 the mind of England was greatly excited with a proposal, set on foot by Her Majesty's Government, to explore the river Niger. In a memorandum from Lord John Russell, then Colonial Secretary, it was explained to the Lords of the Treasury that such an expedition, suitably manned and equipped, would open up a new field for British commerce, and fit the same time materially assist in putting down that infamous system of slavery which the English people, so deplored. Prince Albert, then in the vigour of young manhood, and zealous as he always was of [38/39] good works, warmly espoused the idea, and the sentiment of the people was in its favour. It was pro posed to give those in charge of the expedition, power, in the Queen's name, to make contracts and enter into agreements with the native chiefs in the direction of the abolition of the slave-trade, and the introduction of commercial relations. They were also to establish stations, under proper protection, where factories might be built, and where the native might be taught a better method of trading than that of selling slaves.

The Committee of the Church Missionary Society quickly perceived in this undertaking an opportunity of exploring those undiscovered territories of the Niger, with a, view to bringing the blessings of the Gospel to those poor benighted people. The Government agreeing to this, two representatives of the Society were appointed to accompany the expedition--the Rev. James Frederick Schön and Mr. Samuel Crowther. The former had, during his ten years at Sierra Leone as a missionary, become an authority upon the African people and their characteristics, and of the latter little more need be said than that he was burning to preach the Word of Life, at any sacrifice, among his own people in the far-off interior. Happily the journals of these noble pioneers of Christianity have been preserved, and we shall now quote some of their own words therefrom, describing in a most interesting manner the incidents of the voyage.

When the tidings came to Messrs. Schön and Crowther that they were to accompany the expedition, they gladly prepared themselves for a step, which was not unattended with prospects of danger [39/40] to themselves. The jealousy and cruelty of hostile tribes, and the risks to health which the fearful climate of those regions involved, faced them as they entered upon their task. But the prospect of preaching the Gospel to those who had never heard of the love of Christ was a sufficient incentive to put aside all fears. In each case, too, a separation from wife and home was naturally painful, but most bravely was it borne. Mrs. Schön was only just recovering from a serious illness, and it was not until he had prayed long and earnestly for Divine help that her husband ventured to break the news to her of his immediate departure.

He tells us, "This being done, I approached the bed of my afflicted partner, and made her acquainted with the arrival of the vessels. She was not taken by surprise, but, on the contrary, to my astonishment, calmly replied, 'Oh! I can bear it. Never mind me, I am only sorry that I cannot assist you more in getting ready. Leave me, go on with your business, God will take care of me.' To find her in such a frame of mind was very cheering to me; I knew well that flesh and blood could not have given it to her, and that it was an answer to many prayers. I learned to understand anew that it was the will of God that I should engage in this important work. Hitherto the Lord has removed all obstacles, and has given me more than ordinary strength to prosecute my preparations for it. And although I more than ever feel my unfitness, I am not dismayed. I can lay hold on the precious promises of God, and will go on my way rejoicing."

Such was the spirit of one of these noble men, and [40/41] in such grand faith and self-forgetfulness did his wife bid him adieu.

With Crowther the parting was not less cosily or trying to human feeling. For many reasons he experienced much reluctance to leave Fourah Bay, his College work, his home, and those dear to him. Not a few tears were secretly shed during the packing of his boxes; but on the 1st July the Soudan sailed, and he waved his last farewells to those on shore.

"To-day about 11 o'clock," he tells us, "the Soudan got under way for the Niger, the highway into the heart of Africa. She was soon followed by the Wilberforce, which took her in tow in order to save fuel. When I looked back on the colony in which I had spent nineteen years--the happiest part of my life, because there I was made acquainted with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ--leaving my wife, who was near her confinement, and four children behind--I could not but feel pain and some anxiety for a time at the separation. May the Lord, who has been my guide from my youth up until now, keep them and me, and make me neither barren nor unfruitful in His service."

It was a sharp disappointment to Schön and Crowther to find that they were not to travel together, the former being attached to the Wilberforce, especially as they were hoping to work conjointly in their leisure in translating the Scriptures into the languages of the inland tribes. But by this arrangement we have now two distinct and most interesting accounts of the expedition, the Wilberforce exploring the Tshadda, and the Soudan passing up the main stream of the Niger.

[42] Bearing no arms of war; equipped for no devastating conflict with the natives, but carrying a message of peace and goodwill, these English vessels steamed up the river. The brave men who stood full of hope upon their decks little dreamt how disastrous would prove their venture, and how the return of their vessels would bring but a feeble remnant back to their native land!

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