Project Canterbury

Samuel Crowther
The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger

By Jesse Page

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

Chapter IX. An Enforced Halt--Onitsha

"Come labour on!
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear,
No arm so weak but may do service here;
By feeblest agents can our God fulfil
His righteous will.

"Come labour on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
While the long shadows o'er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
Servants, well done!"--H. L. L.

THE loss of the Dayspring, while it precluded any further progress up the river, left Crowther and his party to settle for a time at Kabbah and the immediate neighbourhood. That which is perplexing to the human mind is, however, always in God's good time evidence of His goodwill and guiding providence; and so we find that the visits of the future Bishop of the Niger to the kings and headmen of these out-of-the-way places prepared the way for the establishment of Christian missions in their midst at a future day. Crowther's journals, written in the midst of these [96/97] wild people, and often under circumstances of peril, are full of deeply interesting incidents. The people of Nupé held the great river which flowed through their land, the Niger, in high esteem. Their intensely superstitious minds had believed it to be the mother of all the rivers of the world, and it was customary when the corn ripened to offer a few grains to the rushing stream, with many prayers to propitiate its powers. Here also there is the divine worship of the manes of the dead which we find in all quarters of the inhabited world. That strange undying impress of immortality links the living with those who are passed into the land of spirits.

As in Yoruba, the natives of Nupé sacrifice to these spirits under the personation of a mask, and Crowther tells us that the Gunuko or masquerader who performs this function is of an enormous height. Raised some twelve or fifteen feet by slight bamboo supports, and dressed in a frightful costume, he dances along the villages, filling the hearts of the people with terror, and his own hands with the cowries which they gladly give him.

This constant fear, which made the hearts of the poor natives quake, was prevalent everywhere, and Crowther laboured hard to break the fetter from their spirits, pointing them to that Great Deliverer whose perfect love casteth out all fear.

In one respect the religion of the Yoruba natives corresponds with that of the Chinese. They have a rite by which a sheep is offered as a sacrifice to their ancestors. In our illustration the figures traced on the wall represent the honoured dead, and the various [97/98] birds, agricultural implements, and so forth, are to set forth his rank and condition. The zigzag scroll work is the sacred signs of the Oro worship, and is coloured red and white. Before the victim is killed some leaves are given to it; and when its blood is shed it is caught in a bowl, and then reverently sprinkled upon the forehead of the persons present.

During Crowther's wanderings at this time the work and influence of Mohammedanism was plainly discerned as having its iron grip on the consciences of the people; and when in the course of his preaching he alluded to Adam, Noah, Abraham, or any of the ancient patriarchs, the natives recognised the names at once as being taught them by the Mallams.

These teachers of the false prophet are most diligent in their efforts to extend the belief of their religion. Sometimes they will spend the whole night in the tents of the kings and chiefs, reading to them from the Koran, and expounding it to their listeners. Its strange and imaginative stories, just written in a style to catch the attention of a barbaric outlaw, with his many wives and unlimited lust of battle, chain the attention of the African people.

In the practical working of the Moslem creed, too, the harms and fetishes are found very useful auxiliaries, as, for instance, when the story of Jonah is told. The Mallams relate that this prophet, called Nunsa-bun-Mata (Jonah the son of Amittai), presumptuously flinging himself into the sea, a great fish swallowed him. An alligator then swallowed the fish; and finally a hippopotamus swallowed the alligator. So in these threefold walls Jonah hid a thousand years, and then in answer to his prayer God commanded these creatures [98/100] to throw him upon the land. The gaping wonder with which this extraordinary story is received may he well imagined; and the lesson is so readily believed that whenever anyone has a fish-bone in his throat he has only to say "Nunsa-bun-Mata," and the charm will remove it.

Crowther on several occasions saw these Mallams produce a long parchment roll inscribed with the names of the great angels and prophets, beginning with Gabriel, and at the foot of the list is Isa, Jesus.

Surely the day will come, is the anticipation of the true Christian, when He whose right it is to reign, whose Name is above every name, shall enlighten these dark places of the earth with His glorious light of life. Crowther, face to face with this great enemy of Christianity, places on record his impressions of the magnitude of the evil, and how needful it is that Mohammedanism shall be dealt with wisely. He says:--

"These are the people Christian missionaries have to withstand and oppose; their false doctrines have to be exposed, their errors corrected, and they, as well as the heathen population, led and directed to Him who is 'the Way, the Truth, and the Life.' In doing this a few things must be remembered, namely, that they are the masters of the country, and bigoted protectors of their religion, and that by this 'craft' the Mallams have their wealth. If these things are not well pondered, and the instruction of our blessed Saviour, 'Be wise as serpents,' is not closely adhered to and practised, we may defeat our object of doing any good, either to the Mohammedans themselves or to the heathen population under their government. Now [100/101] that so many centuries have passed without this light of the glorious Gospel of Christ shining into the country, and into the dark hearts of this benighted people, now that it has pleased the Lord of the harvest to give the Church an access to them, shall His servants by an unwise step block up the way against themselves, and the introduction of the Gospel of Christ, by a zeal without knowledge, which may prompt them to act as if the natives were the nation to be converted in a day?

"The soil on which we have to work in this un-ploughed ground is gross heathenism and Mohammedan bigotry, through ignorance.

"The Word preached finds a more yielding soil in the minds of the heathen hearers than in that of prejudiced Mohammedans. The same reasonable Scriptural exposure of the heathen superstition made use of by the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings xviii.), by the Psalmist (Psa. cxv.), and by the Prophet Isaiah (lxiv.), sympathetically read to them, applied to the hearts by the Holy Spirit, never failed to have the desired effect. Hence our success among this class of the people, among whom we labour.

"On the contrary, Mohammedanism arms the hearts of its professors with deadly weapons against Christianity, by denying its fundamental doctrine, the Sonship of Christ, and His divinity as one with God the Father, to be blasphemy according to the teaching of the Koran.

"Thus their hearts are hardened with prejudices, self-conceit, self-righteous spirit, and self-confidence in their meritorious religious performances, especially in prayer and fasting, and in works of supererogation, [101/102] which they believe they can make over for the benefit of others who are deficient. They are freely allowed the indulgence of the sinful lust of the flesh; they do not scruple to commit acts of cruelty and oppression on those who are not professors of their faith; slave-holding and trading is fully sanctioned, to carry out which slave wars are waged against the heathens with great cruelty, in order to enslave them with oppression and violence, without remorse, contrary to the law of charity, 'Do to others as you would that they should do to you.' Hence slave wars have desolated the lands of populous heathen tribes and nations, whose inhabitants were carried away captives and sold into slavery, and those who are reserved in the country are doomed to perpetual servitude, hewers of wood and drawers of water, and most oppressive tributaries.

"This is a faint description of the soil of the minds of the professors of Islamism, in which the seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being attempted to be sown, by preaching repentance of sin and a renewed change of heart through faith in Christ Jesus the Son of God, who is ' the Way, the Truth, and the Life,' without whom none can come unto the Father. But for all his earnestness, the preacher is looked upon with horrified contempt as a blasphemer, because God never had a Son. ' There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet.' Notwithstanding these stern oppositions from Mohammedans, one feature of encouragement that Christianity shall prevail must not be overlooked, namely, Christianity was only recently introduced into these parts of West Africa--to Abeokuta in the Yoruba Mission in 1846, and to the Niger in 1857--notwithstanding that Mohammedanism had been [102/103] introduced into these countries a century before, with full licence of all sinful enjoyments.

"What surprises me most is, that Christianity, with its strict restraints of the enjoyment of sinful lusts, and, moreover, enjoining conscientious self-denial of all the allurements of the world, the flesh, and the devil, should get so many converts in the face of all the free allowances in the enjoyments of all these by the religion of the false prophet. It proves that Christianity appeals to the hearts and consciences of man as a reasonable being who ought to judge between truth and error. Even some Mohammedans have been known to admit the truth of Christianity, but dare not confess it, lest they should be persecuted by their co-religionists. Notwithstanding all oppositions, Christ ' shall divide the spoil with the strong 'in this spiritual warfare."

Crowther's idea clearly is that, instead of spending our time and strength in fighting the Moslem creed. we had better pass it by in silence, and trust to the sword of the Spirit to win the victory for Christ. Mohammedanism, baleful as it is, must be treated as an accomplished fact, which however must fade and lessen as the knowledge of the Saviour spreads abroad. But a positive attack upon it will probably result in the incensed enmity of its votaries, and the Christian missionaries being driven from the spheres of their labours for the Lord.

One of the most important results of the voyage of the Dayspring was the foundation being laid of the mission work at Onitsha. This important point on the Niger was reached at the end of July, 1857, and it will be remembered how favourably the visitors were [103/104] received by the king, Obi Akazua. After Crowther had carefully prepared the way, and stayed for a short time to arrange with the king and his chiefs as to the site for mission premises, he left the Rev. J. O. Taylor, a native missionary, with Simon Jonas, the interpreter, to take charge of the work.

Fortunately, Mr. Taylor kept a journal of his experiences in the midst of this field of labour. He tells us that soon after he had settled down, he called upon one of the chiefs and entered into conversation with him in his hut. "I drew his mind to the principles of religion, and pointed out to him the sinful nature of man by nature. I asked him whether he had a soul? 'Yes,' he replied. 'How is that soul to be saved?' 'Amazoru,' i.e., 'I do not know,' was the answer. Then I pointed out to him that Jesus Christ is 'the Way, the Truth, and the Life.' He exclaimed, 'Jesu Opara Tshuku, Zim uzo oma,' i.e., 'Jesus, Son of God, show me the good way.' "

A difference arose with the king of Ogidi, and the missionary had to transfer his work to the war camp, and there he preached the Gospel with great effect. The Lord's Prayer, which he had translated into their tongue, made a deep impression upon them, the sentence of all others which seemed to strike them most being, "But deliver us from evil." As Mr. Taylor reasoned with them their faces assumed a wonderful change, and, from what he gathered, their faith in the false gods and fetishes was severely shaken. So gracious were the signs of success that he writes with great joy and earnestness: "I am thankful to say that I begin to see signs of the remarks of the late Bishop Vidal being fulfilled: [104/105] that the time will come when the Tshuku (gods) of Abo and the Ibos in general shall fall down before the Gospel, as Dagon fell before the ark. Their multifarious shrines shall give way for the full liberation and introduction of the Gospel to their forlorn, degraded, long bewitched, but ransomed people, to lead them to God."

On every hand he found the people willing and glad to hear the Gospel. On the morning of Sunday, October 25th, a service was held in one of the enclosed spaces near a chiefs house, and a large crowd of natives listened with eagerness to the Word of God. Mr. Radillo, a Baptist interpreter, translated for Mr. Taylor, who, although very weak through an attack of fever, preached a sermon on the text from St. Luke: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me."

As the weary missionary was going home after the service two women came to him, saying, "The word is a true word, we will not be ashamed of Tshuku (God). You must bear patiently till God shall turn the whole of Onitsha to follow your religion, which is far better than all our fetish customs." What a wonderful word of encouragement from these poor natives!

Mr. Taylor, in exchange, gave them also a loving and cheering message from his Master, and urged them both to follow the gracious Saviour whose word they had heard that day. "One of them raised her eyes unto heaven," he says, "and with uplifted hands heaved out this short petition, 'Opara Tshuku mere ayi ebere,' i.e., 'Son of God, have mercy upon me!' [105/106] Christians, imagine my feelings on this occasion. Might not the words of our Saviour be applied to her, 'Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound these many years, be loosed from her bonds on the Sabbath day?'"

Still there was much to shock and distress the heart of the Christian in the conduct of these poor heathen. One day the missionary was walking with others towards the river, and presently a crowd shouting and crying approached them, dragging a poor young girl, tied hand and foot, with her face on the ground, to the river. This was one of the superstitious customs, for they believe in making a sacrifice for their sins by beating out the life of a fellow-creature in this manner. As she is drawn along, the crowd cry, "Aro ye, Aro, Aro! "i.e., "Wickedness, wickedness! "and believe that the iniquities of the people are thus atoned for.

There is also a horrible practice among the Onitsha people of killing all children who happen to be born twins. This superstition is so deeply rooted that the mother is also degraded and cruelly treated. One such, a convert to Christianity, one night became the mother of two little girls, and immediately in sheer terror she fled to the bush for safety. Her friends hesitated about casting the infants away to be torn of wild beasts, as was customary, and sent for Mr. Perry, the minister. He said at once, "Destroy them not, for a blessing is on them; "and in spite of a perfect tumult of anger, "a furious mob of five hundred men armed to the teeth with guns, cutlasses, spears, clubs, bows and arrows, who surrounded the [106/107] mission compound, demanding that the babes be given up to them," the little ones were safely conveyed to the English ship Wanderer on the Niger, and saved from destruction.

There is a celebrated god called Tshi, whose power is to preserve the people from witchcraft, and once, when visiting one of the chiefs, the visitors were asked by his wife to witness her sacrifice to this deity. A goat was killed, and the blood allowed to run into a bowl, and then over the slain victim, she said, "I beseech thee, my guide, make me good; thou hast life. I beseech thee to intercede with God the Spirit, tell Him my heart is clean. I beseech thee to deliver me from all bad thoughts in my heart; drive out all witchcrafts; let riches come to me. See your sacrificed goat; see your kotu-nuts; see your rum and palm wine." She tried to persuade her guests to drink some of this wine, but they refused.

To the great sorrow of Crowther and Mr. Taylor, on the return of the latter to Fernando Po, at the end of November, the sickness of Simon Jonas increased, and at last this useful helper in the mission work passed away. He was a great loss, not only for his excellent and consistent Christian character, but because of his ability in translating into the language of the tribes. On the Sunday after his death, Mr. Taylor records in his diary the following affecting incident:

"This morning a woman came into my residence and requested me to follow her, for she wanted to see me very particularly. I got myself ready and went with her. After walking about two miles we came to a very beautiful sand beach, where to my surprise I [107/108] found twenty-four persons, well clad in decent dress, being twenty women and four men. One of them rose up and said, 'Sir, we expressly sent for you to preach to us the Word of God; do, for we thirst to hear God's living word; please, sir, help us!' I stood under a hollow tree, and told them I was sorry I had no book with me. To my great surprise each one brought out a hymn book. I then gave out that beautiful hymn, 'Jesus, where'er Thy people meet;' and I took one of their Bibles, and expounded the words of the Apostle Paul from Acts xvi. 13: 'And on the Sabbath we went out of the city by a riverside, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.' Thank God for this opportunity!"

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