Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter V. A Sorrowful Return

"While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee!"--Toplady.

THERE are few spectacles so disappointing as that of brave endeavour baffled by forces which it cannot overcome, returning with its noble aim unaccomplished. Nothing could exceed the courage and energy displayed by those who composed this expedition up the Niger; and although in dealing with these native tribes, especially on such a delicate subject as the commerce in slaves, the explorers held their lives very cheaply, they found a foe barring their progress which no efforts of theirs could overcome. A pestilential fever, which, leaving no impression on the natives, was rapidly fatal to Europeans, soon began to decimate the party. It is a saddening record of high hopes extinguished in feebleness and pain. There seemed to be a strange fatality attaching to [54/55] the ships, and accident as well as disease was at work in impeding their progress.

Crowther tells us that when they reached the important native town of Attah, "the Ingalla interpreter, whose services were mostly needed at this place, accidently fell overboard from the Albert, and was drowned. I was just on the way to ask permission to go on board the Albert, as she was going nearer the town with all who were desirous of going on shore, when she got under way, in search of this poor man who had made himself very useful in this country. The Lord seeth not as man seeth. 'Trust not in man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of.'"

It appears from what Mr. Schön says of this event, that there was reason to deplore specially the end of this man's life. lie was a Christian convert, and had been a communicant for several years of the church in Sierra Leone; and his only child, a girl of fifteen, was then a promising pupil in one of the schools. It seems, however, that on his return to his native place here he spent the night on shore against the orders of the commander, and had partaken too freely of the palm wine of the natives. Thus it is feared that on his return he was not altogether under control, and paid the awful penalty of losing his life. At his death the apathy of the natives was apparent, although the poor fellow was struggling in the water within reach of three canoes, holding at least a hundred persons, not one attempted to stretch out a hand to help him!

As the vessels approached the confluence of the Tshadda with the Niger, the country became more [55/56] hilly, and the river had overflowed its banks, flooding the villages in the vicinity up to the tops of the huts. But notwithstanding the pleasant scenery, the illness which was spreading over the vessels told too plainly how deadly was the climate. Mr. Schön tells us what he felt at this moment.

"The country we are now in, the clear air and dry atmosphere we now enjoy would cause us to doubt that the climate could be dangerous, were it not for the sick and the dying by whom we are surrounded. I pray for them, I pray with them, and their sickbeds have taught me many a lesson. I cannot speak of decided cases of sick or death-bod conversions; but I have had pleasing proofs that my feeble assistance was acceptable, and, I trust, blessed by God to them. Of some I am certain that they have not engaged in this expedition for the sake of double pay, but were actuated by better and nobler motives; and to them belongs the promise of the Saviour, that they shall in no wise lose their reward. I feel much supported by the assurance that many prayers are offered up in distant lands on our behalf, by the friends of the great cause in which we have the honour to be engaged. The heat to-day was great--87°"at 5 p.m.--but by no means oppressive. The only inconvenience I felt arose from the want of sound sleep. I am covered with the prickly-heat, which made me feel all the night as if I was lying on needles.

"September 12th, Lord's Day. Another death on board the Albert last night, and several persons still very ill in each of our vessels. There is no knowing what another day may bring forth. If ever I felt the importance and responsibility of the minister of [56/57] the Gospel it was to-day. Our service was to my mind a solemn one. I administered the sacrament for the first time on board the Wilberforce. The service was held on the quarter-deck; behind mo was the lifeless corpse of N------, a sailor who expired last night, before me an attentive audience of as many as: could be spared from their work. On deck were the carpenters making a coffin; on the forecastle of the vessel were seven persons dangerously ill of fever; and at a few yards from us was the Albert, lying with the usual sign of mourning--a lowered flag. I spoke on the right state of mind which ought to possess us at the approach of death. My text was taken from Acts vii., the last two verses. It was not a studied sermon, it came from the heart; and if I'm not mistaken, found its way to the heart. The sailor was buried by myself at Adda kudda this evening. I heard of no new case of sickness to-day, and was thankful when I observed that some of our people were to all appearance improving. I could truly and fully enter into the feelings of one man when he told me that he hoped by God's mercy to be spared and permitted to see his wife and child once more. The chord of sympathy was powerfully touched by his expression of this desire."

One of the most serious aspects of this fever was that the medical men attached to the expedition were beginning to suffer themselves; and one of them, Mr. Nightingale, the surgeon on the Albert, was mortally struck down. He was a young and particularly healthy man, with a prospect of being very useful, and learned in his profession. One of the two missionaries was with him in his dying moments, and was led to believe [57/58] from his last words that the Saviour of sinners was precious to him. Fifty-five persons were now lying helpless on the decks of the ship, and from time to time they were added to the number of the dead. Where they had hoped to bring the blessing of Christian teaching they found only a grave, and a piece of land was purchased from the king of Attah as a burial ground, where Dr. Nightingale and others were interred. A deep solemnity rested on the crews, and the morning and evening prayers became times of impressive feeling. As the shadows drew on and night closed in they sang with heart-breaking emotion and yet a reviving faith,

"Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death's alarms?
'Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
To call them to His arms."

At last the captains being laid low, urgent steps were necessary, and it was decided that the Soudan, with a mournful cargo of invalids, should turn and glide with all haste back to the sea. With it Crowther returned; and he tells us how dispiriting was that journey, in which the two brave leaders, Captain Trotter and Captain Allen, were lying side by side in dangerous sickness. Death passed among the suffering, and again and again they had to consign their bodies to the deep; while many of those who lived on raged in delirium, and in one or two cases flung themselves from the ships in the madness of fever. The Wilberforce followed on the homeward track shortly afterwards, a moving hospital, with scarcely enough strength on board to direct its passage down the river.

The Albert, however, with a very small staff, was [58/60] ordered to pursue her way up stream, and upon her decks was Mr. Schön. With varying experiences they pursued their way, coming in contact with the Nun people; observing everywhere the terror exhibited at the oppression by the Fulatahs, and having a most interesting and encouraging interview with Rogan, an old chief, at Egga. The Mohammedans had it all their own way in these districts, and the Mallams who represented that religion treated Mr. Schön very courteously, giving him copies of their Arabic books, which, however, they were not able themselves to read. Much valuable information was obtained as to the sale of slaves; of service to those who came afterwards. But death pointed once more with bony finger down the stream, and commanded them to return. We read in Mr. Schön's journals:

"October 4th. 'Hitherto shalt thou come and no further,' was the message of this morning. 'Draw up the anchor and return to the sea as fast as possible." I always apprehended this. My feelings naturally opposed it continually, and the thought of it grieved my heart; but now I feel reconciled to it, seeing that it is the only resource left to us. Captain Trotter was taken ill last evening, and the symptoms of fever were too plain this morning to favour the hope that it was merely a momentary indisposition. Only one European officer was able to perform duty on board. The fever on the others has not subdued; and not one will be able to do duty for some time, even should their lives be spared, which at present appears very doubtful.

"We made but little progress to-day in our return to the sea, as there was some business going on at [60/61] Egga, and the engineers being still ill, steam could not be got up. Captain Trotter, I am thankful to say, appeared better this afternoon; but the other invalids, I am sorry to add, were apparently no better. May their valuable lives be preserved for the good of the cause in which they are zealously labouring.

"October 5th. All of us were disturbed last night by the illness of several of our companions, but especially by one, who, in a state of delirium, continued making a great noise up to one o'clock this morning. In the gun-room we surrounded the dying bed of Lieutenant Stenhouse, expecting every moment to see him yield up his spirit unto God who gave it. He was partially delirious, but there was a great contrast in his conduct to that of the others: the former cried, 'We are all lost--we are all lost--God Almighty has said it;' while the lieutenant was as meek and gentle as a lamb, and his expressions betrayed grief on account of sin, and at times indicated some enjoyment of the consolations of the Gospel.

"He said, 'God be merciful to me, Christ died for me. Thy kingdom come!' Seizing my hand, he said, 'God bless you! God be with you. I thank you.'

"Captain B. Allen seemed better in health this morning. He is always in an excellent frame of mind; all the Christian graces shine in him. He says, and, with the Apostle, feels what he says to be true, 'For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain;' and if there be a prevailing desire in his mind it certainly is, 'rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.' O enviable state of mind! May my soul be seeking more and more to be in such a state!"

The intense trouble which wrung the heart of Mr. [61/62] Schön maybe seen in the following extract written at the moment of their sad return, when he says that the whole result of the expedition may be written in one terrible word, "failure!"

"I long for better days, and for a change in our condition. I have endured personal sufferings, family afflictions, sore and grievous, and witnessed and shared in the trials of others during my residence of eight years in Sierra Leone, but nothing that I have hitherto seen or felt can be compared with our present condition. Pain of body, distress of mind, weakness, sorrow, sobbing, and crying, surround us on all sides. The healthy, if so they may be called, are more like walking shadows than men of enterprise. Truly, Africa is an unhealthy country! When will her redemption draw nigh? All human skill is baffled--all human means fall short. Forgive us, O God, if in these we have depended and been forgetful of Thee, and let the light of Thy countenance again shine upon us that we may be healed! "

In due time they sighted the other ship, and a new life thrilled the blood of the poor invalids as it was announced to them that the sea glittered in the distance. The salt breath of the ocean seemed to bring energy back again; but alas, to many it was but the flicker of life's expiring flame! With hearts full of deep thankfulness, Mr. Schön and Mr. Crowther met each other once more; and thus ended the fatal and sorrowful enterprise known as the first Niger expedition. So great was the disappointment and regret in England that for twelve years public opinion would not allow another expedition to follow it.

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