Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter IV. The Niger First Explored

"Rise, gracious God, and shine
In all Thy saving might;
And prosper each design
To spread Thy glorious light.
Let healing streams of mercy flow,
That all the earth Thy truth may know."--HURN.

"August 20th, 1841. The Wilberforce and the Soudan (so runs Crowther's journal) got under way this morning in pursuit of the Albert, and in about two hours we lost sight of the sea, and Mere completely surrounded by thick mangroves on both sides of the creek. Apparent satisfaction was seen on every countenance, that we had now commenced our river navigation, although some could not help remarking that they were going to their graves.

"August 21. We were gradually introduced from the mangroves into a forest of palm and bamboo trees, embellished with large cotton trees of curious shapes, interspersed among them on both sides of the river, and of other lofty trees of beautiful foliage. All hands [43/44] were invited on deck by this new scenery, and the day was spent with great interest at this novel appearance. We passed on both sides of the river several plantations of bananas, plantains, sugar-canes, cocoa or kalabe--so-called by the Americans--and now and then some huts with natives in them.

"The natives were so timid that they several times pulled their canoes ashore, and ran away into the bush, where they hid themselves among the grass, and peeped at the steamers with fear and great astonishment. We got opposite to a village containing about seven or eight huts, where the inhabitants in very great earnest armed themselves with sticks and country billhooks, and ran along the bank to a neighbouring village, to apprise the villagers of the dreadful approach of our wonderful floating and self-moving habitation. These villagers also followed the example of their informers. Having armed themselves in like manner, they betook themselves to the next village to bring them the same tidings. When they were encouraged to come on board, it was difficult to find persons bravo enough to do so. Those who ventured to come near took care not to go further from shore than the distance of a leap from their canoe, in case there should be cause for it.

"The Captain perceiving some of them inclined to come off, stopped the engine, and persuaded them to come near us. In the meantime he had come opposite to a larger village into which all the former villagers had collected themselves. There was a little boy who acted as their interpreter because he understood two English words, 'Yes' and 'Tabac,' which he had picked up at some place. They constantly told him [44/45] something to tell us, but he could not say anything else besides his 'yes' and 'tabac.'

"After much hesitation a large canoe came off with no less than forty-three persons in it. It was with great difficulty that some of them were persuaded to come on board. Their fear may be accounted for by the slave-traders having often pursued their victims through the mangrove swamp. My expectation was greatly raised when I found among them a Yoruba boy of about thirteen years of age, from whom I thought we could get some information about these people; but the poor little fellow had almost lost his native language, through his lonely situation among them. He could not even understand me very well when I asked him about his father and mother and his own town. He must have travelled hundreds of miles before he got into this secret part of Africa. Here we were overtaken by the Albert and Wilberforce, the latter took another branch of the river this evening to prove its course. The Albert and the Soudan dropped anchors about ten miles from the branch taken by the Wilberforce, to spend the first Sabbath of our ascent up the Niger. Plenty of cocoanut trees were seen in many of the villages to-day.

"August 22, the Lord's Day. We are now below a small village quietly enjoying the Christian Sabbath. Not more than two furlongs from us are a people who know no heaven, fear no hell, and who are strangers from the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. How inexcusable art thou, O man, who art living in a place where the gospel of Christ is preached every Sabbath, yet who preferrest to live in darkness, in ignorance of God, of Christ, and [45/46] of the state of thine own soul, to being made wise unto salvation by the saving knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Take care lest these people rise up in judgment against thee, and condemn thee, because thou rejectest the counsel of God against thyself.

"August 23. This morning, about half-past 5 o'clock, we got under way, leaving the Albert behind, as she was waiting for the return of the Wilberforce. We continued to pass several huts and plantations of sugar-canes, bananas, and plantains. Many natives made their appearance, and came out to us in their canoes; some being dressed in old soldiers' and drummers' coats, having on old common black hats. You scarcely can imagine how they looked in these dresses, having on neither shirt nor trousers, with the exception of a piece of cloth or handkerchief around their waists. As their coats were rod and showy, they took a very great pride in their whimsical dresses. A blue flag, with fanciful figures of man, monkey, bottle, etc., was flying in one of their canoes. They were not afraid of us, for they came of their own accord, with their notes of recommendation from the captains of former steamers. After we had steamed for about two hours we came to another large village, from whence the natives soon came around us with plenty of bananas and plantains. The people here scarce want anything else in exchange for their fruits beside rum, for which they constantly call out, 'Vlolo, Vlolo!' at the same time applying their hands to their mouths, intimating to us that they wanted something to drink. But as Captain Allen would not countenance anything of the kind, we could buy very little of their things.

[48] "August 29, Lord's Day. Lay at anchor yesterday, a little above Ibo, to enjoy the Sabbath, an emblem of the rest that remaineth for the people of God."

Crowther then goes on to describe his visit to king Obi, a potentate whose position and influence made the incident of his coming in contact with the expedition of much importance. A man of average size, with a pleasant smile, dressed in calico trousers and coat, and ornamented with huge strips of pipe coral, leopard's teeth and brass buttons. In order that we may better understand the king and his people we will quote from the journal of Mr. Schön, who had specially to arrange the slave treaty with him.

"King Obi sent one of his sons to welcome the strangers. He was a very fine-looking young man, about twenty years of age. Both himself and his companions attended our morning devotions, after which I told them what book it was of which I had been reading a portion, and that I had come to this country to tell the people what God had in it revealed to us. They were surprised, and could not well understand how it was possible that I should have no other object in view. They are sensible of their inferiority in every respect to white men, and can therefore be easily led by them either to do evil or good.

"When I told one this morning that the slave trade was a bad thing, and that white people washed to put an end to it altogether, he gave me an excellent answer, 'Well, if white people give up buying, black people will give up selling slaves.' He assured me, too, that it had hitherto been his belief, that it was [48/49] the will of God that black people should be slaves of white people!

"This afternoon I satisfied myself of the correctness of various particulars which I had previously obtained of the Ibo people respecting some of their superstitious practices. It appears to be but too true that human sacrifices are offered by them, and that in the most barbarous manner. The legs of the devoted victim are tied together, and he is dragged from place to place till he expires. The person who gave me this information told me that one man had been dragged about for nearly a whole day before his sufferings terminated in death. The body is afterwards cast into the river. Interment is always denied them, they must become food for alligators or fishes. Sometimes people are fastened to trees or to branches close to the river until they are famished.

"Also if a child should happen to cut its top teeth first the poor infant is likewise killed; it is considered to indicate that the child, were it allowed to live, would become a very bad person. To say to any person, 'You cut your top teeth first,' is, therefore, as much as to say nothing good can be expected from you; you are born to do evil, it is impossible for you to act otherwise.....

"The Ibos are in their way a religious people, the word 'Tshuku,' God, is continually heard. Tshuku is supposed to do everything. When a few bananas fell out of the hands of one into the water, he comforted himself by saying, 'God has done it.'

"Their notions of some of the attributes of the Supreme Being are in many respects correct, and their manner of expressing them striking. 'God [49/50] made everything. He made both white and black,' is continually on their lips. Some of their parables are descriptive of the perfections of God, when they say, for instance, that God has two eyes and two ears, that the one is in heaven and the other on earth. I suppose the conception that they have of God's omniscience and omnipresence cannot be disputed.

"On the death of a person who has in their estimation been good, they will say, 'He will see God;' while of a wicked person they will say, 'He will go into fire.'

"I had frequent opportunities of hearing these expressions at Sierra Leone; and though I was assured that they had not heard them from Christians, I would not state them before I had satisfied myself by inquiring of such as had never had any intercourse with Christians, that they possessed correct ideas of a future state of reward and punishment, Truly God has not left Himself without witness!

"Another subject upon which they are generally agreed, but which I am sorry to say, I shall have no opportunity of pursuing any further, is the following: It is their common belief that there is a certain place or town in the Ibo country in which Tshuku dwells, and where he delivers his oracles and answers inquiries. Any matter of importance is left to his decision, and people travel to the place from every part of the country. It is said to be in the rainy season three months' journey from this town, but that in the dry season it could be made in a much shorter time.

"I was informed to-day that last year Tshuku had given sentence against the slave trade. The person of him is placed on a piece of ground which is immediately and miraculously surrounded by water. Tshuku [50/51] cannot be seen by any human eye, his voice is heard from the ground. He knows every language on earth, makes known thieves, and if there is fraud in the heart of the inquiring he is sure to find it out, and woe to such a person, for he will never return. He hears every word that is said against him, but can only revenge himself when persons come near him. I once asked a man, 'Did the people ever drive him out of his hole?' when he said to me very seriously, 'Master, do not take such a word, perhaps by-and-by you go see the place. Tshuku will kill you. You hear now, "You must drive me out of my hole;" and the time he begin for talk you no go open your mouth again.' They sincerely believe all these things, and many others respecting Tshuku, and obey his orders implicitly; and if it should be correct that he has said that they should give up the slave trade, I have no doubt that they will do it at once."

[52] The native interpreter on hoard the Wilberforce was Simon Jonas, one of the liberated slaves; and when he came amongst people who had known him they could not credit the fact of his being still alive and well. It was the prevalent notion among these natives that slaves purchased by the white people were killed and eaten, and their blood used to dye red cloth. One of these poor heathen was, at the request of the interpreter, brought on board, and Mr. Schön goes on to tell us:

"Though many years had elapsed since our interpreter was sold, and the other had in the meantime become an old man, they instantly recognised each other, and I cannot describe the astonishment manifested by the Ibo man at seeing one whom he verily believed had long since been killed and eaten by the white people. His expressions of surprise were strong, but very significant. ' If God Himself,' he said, 'had told me this I could not have believed what my eyes now see.' The interpreter then found out that Anya was the very place to which he had been first sold as a slave, and at which he had spent nine years of his early life, and that the very person with whom he was speaking had been his doctor and nurse in a severe illness, on which account he had retained a thankful remembrance of him. The Ibo man was kindly treated by the captain, and his request to be allowed to accompany us to Obi was instantly granted. He calls himself brother to Obi; but it is well known that the word 'brother' has a most extensive signification in Western Africa. When he was asked whether he thought that Obi would be glad to sec white men, he gave a reply which I was not prepared [52/53] to hear from the lips of a pagan. 'These three months,' he said, 'we have been praying to God to send white man's ship.'

"Oh that I could believe and be convinced that this was something of the cry of the Macedonians, 'Come over, and help us!' But a suspicious thought intrudes itself on my mind, and makes me suppose that it is the desire of seeing a slave dealer with his cargo in exchange for their own flesh and blood."

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