Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter VI. An Unexpected and Happy Meeting

"Tell it out among the heathen that the Saviour reigns!
Tell it out! Tell it out!
Tell it out among the nations, bid them burst their chains!
Tell it out! Tell it out!
Tell it out among the weeping ones that Jesus lives,
Tell it out among the weary ones what rest He gives;
Tell it out among the sinners that He came to save,
Tell it out among the dying that He triumphed o'er the grave.'


ALTHOUGH the first Niger expedition had closed so disastrously, there was one fact which it evidenced most satisfactorily, namely, that Samuel Crowther had within him the stuff of which a true missionary is made, and was entitled to be ranked among those glorious witnesses for Christ who are charged with the message of mercy to heathen lands. In many hours of trial and suffering, when the crews of the ill-fated vessels lay around the decks in agony, Crowther showed the sympathy of a Christian minister, and his words were not unfruitful at such a trying time. There was also shown in his treatment of the chiefs of the various tribes the advantage of negotiating [63/64] through one of their own colour and country, and whatever success did attend the efforts put forth in establishing good relations with the natives was largely due to the services of the future Bishop of the Niger. Combining courage with gentleness, and possessing no small show of that patient tact which is indispensable in dealing with these people, Crowther won his spiritual spurs under these trying circumstances. It was also very satisfactory to find that while the white people were prostrate with sickness, Crowther maintained his thoughts and vigour, demonstrating beyond question the importance of working such a dangerous field with native agency.

It is not surprising, therefore, that on his return to Fourah Bay College, Mr. Schön wrote to the Committee of the Church Missionary Society in London, pointing out Crowther's usefulness and ability, and recommending them to prepare him for ordination. In accordance with this he was recalled to England, and on the 3rd of September 1842, landed again upon our shores.

During this voyage he had busied himself with his translations, and had prepared a grammar and vocabulary of the Yoruba tongue, which was afterwards of the greatest service in spreading the Gospel among those of his own people and country. He came to the Highbury Missionary College, in the Upper Street, Islington, which was then under the able care of Rev. C. F. Childe. Here he prosecuted his studies, and in due time, on Trinity Sunday, June 11th, 1843, he received at the hands of the Bishop of London (Dr. Blomfield) the rite of ordination, the first of several native clergy who were then dedicating [64/65] themselves to the service of the Lord. After four months of diaconate he was admitted into full orders as a minister of Christ's flock.

It was the beginning of a now era in missionary enterprise, and the good Bishop in his sermon on behalf of the Society, referred to it in these terms of appreciation and gratitude:--

"What cause for thanksgiving to Him, who hath made of one blood all nations of men, is to be found in the thought that has not only blessed the labourers of the Society by bringing many of those neglected and persecuted people to the knowledge of a Saviour, but that from among a race who were despised as incapable of intellectual exertion and acquirement, He has raised up men well qualified, even in point of knowledge, to communicate to others the saving truths which they have themselves embraced, and to become preachers of the Gospel to their brethren according to the flesh."

As soon as possible Crowther was on his way to Africa; and it was on the 2nd December, 1843, that once more he stepped on shore at Sierra Leone, and on the Sunday following preached his first sermon in English to the crowded assembly of native Christians which filled the church. His text was appropriately, "And yet there is room," and he spoke, as it were, the pioneer word of faith and hope in his new work. At the close of the sermon he administered the sacrament to a largo number of negroes, and when he got home penned the following words in his journal:

"December 3rd. Preached my first sermon in Africa. . . . The novelty of seeing a native clergyman performing divine service excited a very great interest [65/66] among all who were present. But the question, 'Who maketh thee to differ?' filled me with shame and confusion of face. It pleases the Disposer of all hearts to give me favour in the sight of His people, and wherever I go they welcome me as a messenger of Christ."

Not long afterwards he preached again, but in his native Yoruba; and among a crowd of rescued slaves he proclaimed in their own language the wonderful works and mercy of God. At the close they all heartily responded with "Ke oh sheh," their equivalent for our "Amen."

"We have already seen, in giving the details of Crowther 's capture as a slave, how fiercely the Foulah race wore devastating the Yoruba people. The object of these wars seems to have been simply to supply men for the slave-market, and to effect this, three hundred native towns were ruthlessly destroyed. But such oppression could not for ever be pursued; so we find that the several refugees gathered together finally at a spot where a huge rock, called Olumo, lifted up its head as with a protective air, and there they founded a great city, four miles in diameter, and with a population of 100,000 souls, called Abeokuta, or "under the stone." They strongly fortified their position; and being only seventy miles from their port of Badagry, a trade soon began to be established between their city and Sierra Leone. Some of those who returned from the latter place to Abeokuta were baptized Christians, and they begged that a missionary might be sent to them. Mr. Henry Townsend was therefore despatched thither, and received from the principal chief, Shodeke, a very cordial [66/67] reception. Thus in 1844 the Yoruba Mission was begun, and Crowther, with Mr. Gollmer, another missionary, went there to establish this work, taking with them their wives and children, with interpreters and native catechists.

They were detained for eighteen months at Badagry; and while there learned with some dismay that the friendly chief Shodeke was dead, although they soon received from his successor a hearty welcome. During this enforced stay at Badagry they worked hard among the people. Crowther translated the Scriptures into Yoruba, and preached the Gospel to a large war camp which was established in the district. The door of opportunity which eventually opened for them to go up like men to take the city in Christ's name was singularly unclosed by a slave dealer. This man was finding his infamous trade suffering, so he sent £200 in presents to the chief at Abeokuta, offering more in return for slaves. With this Crowther sent a messenger to the new chief, Sagbua, and immediately the road was opened and the missionaries entered Abeokuta on August 3rd, 1846. Great rejoicings followed their arrival, the Christians especially hailing with delight teachers who would instruct them and build up their Church. And here, after three weeks, there occurred an incident in the life of Crowther, which is perhaps one of the most pathetic and interesting this book can record. It was the meeting with his mother. We cannot refrain from telling the story in his own words.

"August 21. The text for this day in the Christian Almanac, is 'Thou art the Helper of the fatherless.' I have never felt the force of this text more than I [67/68] did this day, as I have to relate that my mother, from whom I was torn away about five-and-twenty years ago, came with my brother in quest of me. When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other with silence and great astonishment, big tears rolling down her emaciated cheeks. A great number of people soon came together. She trembled as she held me by the hand and called me by the familiar names by which I well remember I used to be called by my grandmother, who has since died in slavery. We could not say much, but sat still, and cast now and then an affectionate look at each other--a look which violence and oppression had long checked--an affection which had nearly been extinguished by the long space of twenty-five years. My two sisters who were captured with us, are both with my mother, who takes care of them and her grandchildren in a small town not far from here, called Absika. Thus unsought for--after all search for me had failed--God has brought us together again, and turned our sorrow into joy."

Shortly afterwards, during a tribal war, Abaka was destroyed by the enemy, and Crowther's sisters, their husbands, and children sold as slaves. He however ransomed them; and his mother, safe in Abeokuta, became the first-fruits of the mission there. That it was blessed with success may be gathered by a note which Crowther makes in his journal, under date August 3rd, 1849: "This mission is to-day three years old. What has God wrought during this short interval of conflict between light and darkness! We have 500 constant attendants on the means [68/70] of grace, about 80 communicants, and nearly 200 candidates for baptism. A great number of heathen have ceased worshipping their country's gods; others have cast theirs away altogether, and are not far from enlisting under the banner of Christ."

About this time Mr. Townsend was recalled to England, and the Egba chiefs of their own accord, sent by him a letter to the Queen, expressing their gratitude for the repression of the slave trade, and asking that commerce might be encouraged with the Yoruba nation.

"We have seen your servants the missionaries; what they have done is agreeable to us. They have built a House of God. They have taught the people the Word of God and our children beside. We begin to understand them."

The Earl of Chichester was instructed to reply graciously to this native appeal; and on a grand occasion when all the great chiefs were gathered together for that purpose, on May 23rd, 1849, the answer was read. Mr. Crowther was the spokesman, and translated the letter sentence by sentence in their ears. Here is part of it.

"The Queen and people of England are very glad to know that Sagbua and the chiefs think as they do upon the subject of commerce. But commerce alone will not make a nation great and happy like England. England has been great and happy by the knowledge of the true God and Jesus Christ. The Queen is, therefore, very glad to hear that Sagbua and the chiefs have so kindly received the missionaries who carry with them the Word of God, and that so many people are willing to hear it."

[71] With this kind and admirable message came some presents, two magnificent Bibles in English and Arabic respectively from the Queen, and a steel corn mill from Prince Albert; this latter was a marvel to the men. Crowther tells us how in their sight he fixed the mill; and then some Indian corn being put in the funnel, to their great astonishment it came out white flour by simply turning the handle. It is worthy of note that Crowther was a practical friend and helper to these people. He taught them handicrafts, and encouraged them in the cultivation of cotton, for which there seemed a wonderful opening in the way of trade.

The labours of these missionaries, and their friends at home, for the restriction, if not total suppression, of the slave trade, began to bear good fruit. The principal centre of this infamous traffic on the coast was Lagos, where, after vainly trying to impose pledges upon the slave-owning tyrant of the district, the English took possession of the place, and soon changed what had been a desolate swamp with the most distressing associations, into a thriving and prosperous town. Lagos became a commercial outlet of considerable importance, and a brisk trade was speedily established between this place and Liverpool.

Once more we find Crowther in England, and this time engaged with Lord Palmerston in placing before him the condition of things at Abeokuta, enlisting his sympathy and help for the native Christians. The king of Dahomey, with such a vile reputation for cruelty and bloodshed, was harassing the states which desired to co-operate with the English people [72/72] in the advancement of religion and commerce. The words of Crowther were not unavailing, and Lord Palmerston soon afterwards wrote to him in the following words:

"I am glad to have an opportunity of thanking you again for the important and interesting information with regard to Abeokuta, which you communicated to me when I had the pleasure of seeing you at my house in August last. I request that you will assure your countrymen, that II.M. Government take a lively interest in the welfare of the Egba natives, and of the community settled at Abeokuta, which town seems destined to be a centre from which the lights of Christianity and of civilization may be spread over the neighbouring countries."

Supported by such a generous interest in the welfare of the people, the Missionary Societies in England stirred themselves to reach out to the natives of the interior the blessings of the Gospel; and the Church Missionary Committee wore not behindhand in the good cause.

Crowther, who was still working in England, was able to complete his valuable dictionary of the Yoruba language, for the service of out-going hewers; and the Rev. O. Vidal, a clergyman of remarkable linguistic gifts, was consecrated Bishop of Sierra Leone.

God's ways are past finding out, and it is lamentable to record that this faithful and useful pastor of the flock of Christ was spared only for two years, dying, to the regret and loss of all, on his way to England. But though the great Taskmaster buries his workers, the work goes on; and as those whom He sent to feed [72/73] His flock on that fatal shore were in succession laid low, He supplied their places with other brave and capable men.

Although in Bishop Vidal the Mission lost a valuable helper the vacant episcopate was well filled again by Bishop Weeks, who had a long and useful knowledge of the colony already. Then on his decease from fever, after two years' work, Dr. Bowen left the Holy Land to take his place. Two years more, and he, too, died in harness; and since then Sierra Leone has had three other bishops in succession.

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