Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter VII. Another Brave and Better Voyage

"Thou, whose Almighty Word,
Chaos and darkness heard,
And took their flight,
Hear us, we humbly pray,
And where the Gospel-day
Sheds not its glorious ray
Let there be light."--MARRIOTT.

AN expedition was once more fitted out to learn the secret of the Niger, and to follow--and if possible further extend--the path of their unhappy predecessors. In this case it was with the consent, but not at the expense of the English Government, having been started by Mr. Macgregor Laird, a merchant of Mincing Lane, who, with a small party on his vessel the Pleiad, had made up his mind "to establish a basis of commerce with the nations of the interior." There was also another incentive in the fact that Dr. Barth, the eminent African traveller, was supposed to be lost in the interior, and it was hoped that the expedition might meet with him, and bring him home. By the [74/75] permission of the Committee of the Church Missionary Society, Crowther was permitted to accompany the explorers, and Mr. Simon Jonas, a native interpreter and a Christian, was also allowed to make another of the party.

Crowther had by this time returned to Africa, and had continued, at Abeokuta and elsewhere, to make known the unsearchable riches of Christ. He spent some time in Sierra Leone, preaching in a manner to arouse the greatest enthusiasm on behalf of his work up the river. On landing at Lagos he was struck with the recollections of the place, when as a little slave boy he had first caught sight, with fear and trembling, of the great sea. He says, "I could well recollect many places I knew during my captivity, so I went over the spots where slave barracoons used to be. What a difference! Some of the spots are now converted into plantations of maize and cassava, and sheds built on others are filled with casks of palm oil and other merchandise, instead of slaves in chains and irons, in agony and despair."

His church at Abeokuta was a large and well-built edifice, boasting eight windows, and generally filled with a dense congregation of about three hundred natives. In one place the school children were seated, and all through the service the attentive audience, dressed in native costume, was a gratifying example of what Christianity can do for the welfare of savage man.

Already the babalamos or priests were gaining an ascendency over the mind of the new chief, and as a consequence a persecution broke out which sorely tried the faithfulness of the converts. At one time so [75/76] violent did this tyranny rage that Crowther's house was watched clay and night, and none suffered to speak to the missionaries under pain of death.

Under such circumstances those who were stedfast were brought into more vital union with each other and their common Lord; and when a better day dawned, it was upon a church purified and established in faith and patience. We can well imagine with what affection and regret these simple people came to say farewell to Crowther as once more he essayed to extend the Kingdom of God into regions of the upper river which they had not visited before.

His journals of this voyage are full of deep interest, and extracts from them will be welcome to the reader of these pages. When the party began to ascend the river, with the dismal recollection of the death-rate of the previous expedition in view, Crowther thought that probably the mischief of fever which had been so fatal then was the result of the green wood being packed in the bunkers for days together, and therefore he suggested the advisability in this case of stowing the fuel in canoes to drift astern. This precaution, which was readily adopted, doubtless saved the expedition from sickness and consequent failure.

On the 21st July 1854, the Pleiad anchored off Aboh or Ibo, where the brave explorers of 1841 had made some progress with the king. They had promised one day to return, and it is said that the old man used to watch in vain for the coming ships, and at last told his sons with a sad regret, "The white man has forgotten me and his promise too." There had also been some misunderstanding about the death of Mr. Carr, a medical missionary who had disappeared in [76/77] the king's dominions, and hostilities were actually commenced with a view to punish Obi for the offence. In Mr. Schön's opinion, however, the old king was innocent, and would have protected the Englishman had it been in his province and power. When the Pleiad reached the place, it was to hear of the old king's decease, and that his three sons were disputing the heirship, and indeed agreeing only upon the one point: that when the white man came he would tell them who should reign. The rightful heir seems to have been Tshukuma, and to him Crowther and his party paid a pre-arranged visit. He says, "We landed close to Tshukuma's house, which was very small and confined, his old house had been lately burnt. He had been worshipping his god that morn-ing, which we saw on his piazza, in a calabash placed in the front of a wall, covered with a white sheet. We waited about ten minutes before Tshukuma made his appearance, dressed in a pair of thin Turkish trousers, a white shirt, a white waistcoat, and a string of coral beads about his neck. He is smaller in size than Obi, his father, is very soft in his manners, and seems not possessed of much energy. He shook us all heartily by the hand, and in a short time the little square was crowded to excess, so that there was no room to move, and the place seemed so thronged that it was difficult to keep one's seat on the mat spread for our accommodation. Tshukuma used all his efforts [77/78] to command silence, but to no purpose. Obi's daughters and the chief's wives took their turns to command silence, but it only increased the noise. At last Tshukuma requested us to frighten the people away, which of course we did not do. As it was impossible to obtain perfect silence, I suggested to Dr. Baikie to begin business, as we could manage to keep close enough to hear each other."

After this a conference was held, and an endeavour was made to remove the feeling of suspicion and want of confidence which rested on the mind of Tshukuma. "Even then," adds Crowther, "Tshukuma said my words were too good to hope that they would be realised, and that he would not believe anything until he had seen us do as we proposed; that there was no difficulty on their part, nor need we fear any unwillingness to receive those who may be sent to them, or learn what they may be taught; but that the fault rests with us, in not fulfilling what we promised to do." This will show how quick-witted these heathen are, and how jealous of their own importance.

Shortly afterwards the king came on board the vessel, where they had further conversation; and came again on Sunday, July 23rd, when Crowther preached on deck from the words, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." The service over, Crowther tells us that he hastened to go ashore in order to speak to the people in the town, and he then had the opportunity of a conversation with the chief on the all-important subject of religion--Simon Jonas interpreting as he went on.

[79] This is how this royal savage received the message: "The quickness with which he caught my explanation of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for the sin of the world was gratifying. I endeavoured to illustrate it to him in this simple way, What would you think of any persons who in broad daylight like this, should light their lamps to assist the brilliant rays of the sun to enable them to see better? He said it would be useless, they would be fools to do so. I replied, Just so---that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was sufficient to take away our sins, just as one sun was sufficient to give light unto the whole world; that the worship of country fashion and numerous sacrifices, which shone like lamps only on account of the darkness of their ignorance and superstition, though repeated again and again, yet cannot take away our sins; but that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, once offered, can alone take away the sin of the world. He frequently repeated the name, Oparra Tshuku! Oparra Tshuku! "(Son of God! Son of God!)

After varying experiences they reached Idda, and sent word they would pay the Atta, or chief thereof, a visit. Ilere, again, as in the expedition of 1841, the king refused to demean himself by going into a canoe to receive his guests; and it was not until after considerable delay they reached his place, and found him sitting outside the verandah of the palace, on a mud bank overspread with a cloth, with an old carpet at his feet. On the carpet were placed his royal message sticks, with brass bells attached to them, and an old broken Souter-Johnny jug stood before hira. He had on a silk velvet tobi and a [79/80] crown of white heads fringed with red parrot tails in front, with other fanciful decorations. His neck was covered with a large quantity of strung cowries and corals, and other beads. This interview showed the necessity for the diplomatic tact with which Crowther, in dealing with these chiefs, prevented disagreeable results.

As they proceeded up the river, traces were continually seen of the ravages committed by the Filatas, who appeared to be organized bandits, unwilling to work themselves, and living upon the fruits of the industry of others. So terrible was the desolation wrought by Dasaba, one of the chiefs, that the whole of the right bank of the Niger had been cleared of every town and village to the number of about a hundred, and the inhabitants sold into slavery or killed.

An example of the practice of these bloodthirsty tribes is furnished in the words of Crowther's journal on August 11th. He tells us, "In the afternoon he landed at Kende, where some of the few who escaped seizure by the Filatas at Pandu have taken refuge, Here again is a picture of the misery those poor people are doomed to go through, for they live destitute of everything but their liberty, and that with difficulty. The Filatas, whose aim is not so much to kill as to seize and enslave, took Pandu by treachery. They professed friendship, and entered the town on that pretence, and the king presented them with bullocks and other necessaries. But when a sufficient number had got in, they commenced seizing the inhabitants, and scarcely gave them time to make resistance. Only the king, Oyigu, and a few persons about him, made any effort to repel them; but the [80/82] king could not long stand against his enemies, and was killed in the attempt. A great number was caught, and very few were so fortunate as to escape. The neighbouring towns and villages were immediately deserted by the inhabitants, who took refuge on the left side of the river."

It is not surprising that the appearance of the white men struck terror into the minds of the poor natives, who had lost all hope and happiness under the rule of these Filatas. When the steamer had reached Oruko the passage had become increasingly intricate, and the shallows were very dangerous to their progress. At last the captain, with Dr. Hutchinson and Mr. Guthrie, got into a boat to take soundings, and returned with the decision not to proceed any further. However, Dr. Baikie, who was, with Crowther, exceedingly anxious to penetrate these unknown regions, took entire charge of the vessel, and reached a place where Adama, the king of the Bassa country, met him. This king had also the same sad story to tell of the devastation of the country by the slave trade; and after receiving a few presents, undertook to protect any white men who should come up the river. The old man, who was of small stature, was elaborately prepared for the visit, having on a patchwork shirt of blue and white triangles, and a red Turkey cap on his head. He exhibited considerable politeness to his guest, and they observed that he was saluted by kneeling on the ground, two fingers of each hand being rubbed in the dust, which is then rubbed on the forehead several times. The people salute each other by embracing, the right hand being stretched parallel with the other as far as the shoulder.

[83] On more than one occasion the explorers were in considerable danger. Crowther tells us that at one time they started for the Mitchi market to purchase yams and other food. "On our approach we heard a great noise and clamour in the market, which is held in canoes on the water side, and when we came near, all the Ojgo canoes had dispersed in different directions, and everything was in great confusion. Some of the women were crying, for the Mitchis had plundered their property, and a strong party had armed themselves with bows and poisoned arrows to oppose our landing. We were but a few yards from them, but could not speak directly with them; besides which there was such uproar and excitement that it was impossible to gain their attention. They at times beckoned us in defiance to land, and armed people were stationed along the bank to oppose our doing so. There was not a single weapon in our boat. Dr. Baikie held out some handkerchiefs as an inducement, but the very sight of them seemed to enrage the people. At last an old grey-bearded man, who seemed to be the chief, with great passion and significant motion of both hands, wished us away."

The visitors wisely followed this advice. They afterwards found that these warlike natives were cannibals, who devoured the bodies of their enemies killed in battle. Still, it is very satisfactory to note that in most cases the people received these visits kindly, and showed their gratitude to the white man for coming to restore peace to their country.

Once a singular expression was used by a native whom they descried on the bank of the river. They addressed him in the Haussa language, which he [83/84] evidently understood, and told him they had come from the white man's country, and wanted to see the chief. Immediately he shouted, "Bature Anasara maidukia na gode alla;" that is, "White men, the Nazarenes, men of property, I thank God." Still repeating this strange cry, lie assisted the party to land, and led them into the bush, where the chief and a large party of armed warriors gave them a cordial reception. Perfectly defenceless, the white men moved safely among them, and delighted the chief and some of his headmen by shaking hands with them.

Crowther draws attention here to the mistake which explorers make in judging the natives of Africa as always hostile to Europeans. Making allowance for the antipathy aroused everywhere by the slave trade, and bearing in mind that the frequent tribal wars made the carrying of arms almost a necessity, he is still of opinion that where once an Englishman's peaceful intentions have been made clear, he has no cause to be afraid.

On the 7th November the gallant explorers safely reached Fernando Po, and heartily joined in raising their Ebenezer of thanksgiving for journeying mercies, through many perils and hardships without a single person being the worse either from sickness or accident. Such a four months' experience led Crowther to close his journal with the words, "May this singular instance of God's favour and protection drive us nearer to the Throne of grace, to humble ourselves before our God, whose instrument we are, and who can continue or dispense with our services as it seems good to His unerring wisdom."

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