ONE evening in the spring of 1822, two British men-of-war were cruising along the low, palm-fringed shores of the Gulf of Guinea. They belonged to the patrol squadron charged with the suppression of slave running. Their task was far from easy, for the lightly-built slave ships lay hid among the unexplored creeks and inlets of the Bight of Benin, watching an opportunity to ply their inhuman traffic; then, "when the coast was clear," they bore swiftly down upon a place where a consignment of slaves was in readiness, shipped them in a few hours, spread their sails, and made for Brazil or Cuba. But they did not always succeed in evading the vigilance of His Britannic Majesty's Navy; numbers were captured and their living cargoes liberated. It was so on the day our story opens.
That April evening, as H.M.Ss. Myrmidon and Iphigenia cruised slowly along the coast, the officers of the watch detected a suspicious-looking vessel on the eastern horizon, her white sails catching the light of the setting sun. Instantly the course of the warships was set in that direction, and all doubt as to the character of the strange vessel was soon removed, for, on sighting the men-of-war, she turned upon her track, and fled in the direction from which she had come. Unable to escape to the open sea, she sought in the twilight to evade her pursuers by entering a lagoon, that upon which Lagos stands. But the keen eye of Captain H. G. Leeke detected this manoeuvre; throughout the night his ships kept watch off the bar, and at daybreak he entered the lagoon and pounced upon his prey.
The slaver turned out to be a Portuguese vessel, with a cargo of 187 captives, shipped on the previous day from Lagos beach. She had only been at sea a few hours when the men-of-war sighted her. Her captain was soon in irons, and her living cargo liberated. But, the captives did not realize the significance of what had happened. In their ignorance, they thought that they had but exchanged one set of masters for another. On being transferred to the British ships they were filled with fear, for the Portuguese had told them that the English only seized slave ships in order to use the blood of the Negroes to dye their scarlet cloth and their flesh as baits for cowrie fishing. To their terrified imagination, the cannon balls piled on the decks seemed to be the heads of their fellow countrymen, and they mistook for human limbs some joints of pork hanging up to dry. But being allowed to wander freely about the ship they soon discovered their mistake; the cannon balls were found to be made of iron, and the cloven feet revealed the true identity of the drying flesh. Slowly the captives discovered that they were FREE! In the first flush of liberty one boy stepped up to the Portuguese captain, now in fetters, and struck him on the head. That boy's name was Adjai. We shall hear more of him as our story unfolds.
Behind the incident just narrated was a story of tragedy and bitterness that was characteristic of the times.
Far away in the vast forests of the Yoruba Country, in the Lagos hinterland, was the town of Oshogun, one of the many in that (for Africa) thickly-populated land. Its walls of earth and palisades, defended by a deep moat, were four miles in circumference and its population was estimated to have been at least 12,000. One morning, in the early spring of 1821, the people had risen as usual at daybreak. All seemed to be peace and security; from the compounds there rose the sounds of the women pounding yams for the morning meal, and the men were preparing to follow their occupation. Just then the cry was raised: "The Mohammedans are upon us!" and in an instant all was confusion. The men seized their weapons and flew to the walls, but the 3000 they could muster were not enough to hold so long a line of defences. For three or four hours they maintained a stout resistance, but while holding the enemy in check at one point, another party forced an undefended gate and took the town in the rear.
Terrible was the scene that followed. The fierce hand-to-hand fighting in the streets, and the cries of the defenders calling to their women to fly to the forest, the fire that spread rapidly from hut to hut: all was war and carnage. As women, with babies tied to their backs and children holding on to their cloths, attempted to leave the town they were caught by cords thrown over their heads and tied together by the necks like so many goats. The boy Adjai has left on record for us a tragic narrative of that terrible day. His father had given the signal to flee, and the mother with her children made a vain attempt to do so. They were captured before they reached the wall, and as the flames rose high they were led away captive with a sorrowing crowd of their fellow townsfolk. Old people who could not walk quickly enough were threatened with instant death unless they kept pace with the others, and some were actually struck down and killed on the spot.
Then came the division of the captives between the conquerors. Adjai was separated from his mother and sister; he was exchanged for a horse, and in a space of twenty-four hours was the property of three different people. For months he was moved from place to place and from one owner to another, until at last he was taken down to Lagos. There he was sold, with others, to the Portuguese slave dealers, who chained them together by the necks and shipped them from what is now Victoria Beach, where the white surf of the Atlantic breaks ceaselessly upon the coast of Guinea just beside the entrance to the lagoon. They had only been a few hours at sea when H.M.Ss. Myrmidon and Iphigenia hove in sight, and the slaver fled back to Lagos lagoon for shelter, only to be captured at daybreak. After all he had suffered, can we wonder at the bitter vengeance that welled up in the heathen heart of Adjai and vented itself upon the now captive captain of the slave ship?
That tragedy of Oshogun was one of common occurrence in the West Africa of those days; towns and villages were raided and left as heaps of burning ruins; thousands of human beings lay dead among the debris, and thousands more were led away into cruel slavery.
Leaving Lagos, then a sink of iniquity and a Stronghold of the Portuguese slave traffic, Captain Leeke sailed away westward, till in mid-June he cast anchor off Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he landed the slaves he had rescued. There Adjai again set foot on African soil, free. He was placed in a C.M.S. school, and in him the Church Missionary Society had its first important link with the great land now known as Nigeria. Little more than three years later, Adjai received holy baptism and took the name by which he became known throughout the world, Samuel Adjai Crowther.
Can we wonder that the great heart of England responded to the cry of Africa? After more than two centuries of shameful participation in the slave trade, the national conscience, stirred by the Evangelical Revival, awakened to the enormities of the inhuman traffic. In 1807, after a fierce struggle in the House of Commons, the first great victory was won, and Parliament abolished the slave trade so far as her subjects were concerned. [The Act of 1807 only abolished the trade; it did not give liberty to the people in bondage. Not until 1834 was the emancipation of slaves in British colonies accomplished.] France took a similar step in 1814. The British cruisers were stationed along the coast of Africa to give effect to the prohibition. The usual practice was to take the captured slave ships to Sierra Leone, and, having freed the slaves in a sheltered cove just east of Freetown, the vessels were burned. That cove came to be known as Destruction Bay.
But the traffic was too profitable to be lightly relinquished by those engaged in it. The risks of capture by British cruisers increased the value of a cargo successfully run across the Atlantic. In those days, along the 2600 miles of coast, from Cape Verde to the mouths of the Niger, there were nearly seventy ports from which slaves were shipped more or less frequently, and every year tens of thousands of captives were carried across to the Americas. So late as 1839 Lord John Russell wrote:--
I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the average number of slaves introduced into America and the West Indies from the western coasts of Africa annually exceeds one hundred thousand, and this estimate affords but a very imperfect indication of the real extent of the calamities which this traffic inflicts upon its victims. No record exists of the multitudes who perish in the overland journey to the African coast, or in the passage across the Atlantic, or the still greater number who fall a sacrifice to the warfare, pillage, and cruelties by which the slave trade is fed. The whole involves a waste of human life and a state of human misery, proceeding from year to year without respite or intermission.
So rampant was this overseas slave traffic, that there were times when its suppression seemed hopeless and the British cruisers appeared to make little headway. That they had real success is evident from the fact that in the three years 1835, 1836 and 1837, no fewer than 13,000 freed slaves were landed in Freetown; but even that result seemed small in comparison with the scores of thousands who were not fortunate enough to be rescued.
Then England took another step. In 1836 she attempted to buy Portugal and Spain out of the traffic, giving to the former £300,000 and to the latter £400,000 on condition that they would prohibit the unholy work. Unfortunately, for many years these bargains were not faithfully kept; the planters of Brazil and Cuba and even of the United States, still demanded slaves, and men in hope of gain were prepared to take the risks of supplying them.