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The Romance of the Black River
The Story of the C.M.S. Nigeria Mission

By F. Deaville Walker

London: Church Missionary Society, 1930.

Chapter III. With the Niger Expedition of 1841

ON June 1, 1840, there was held in the Exeter Hall, London, one of the most momentous gatherings that ever met in that famous building. In the chair was the Prince Consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who only four months before had married the young Queen Victoria. Around him on the platform sat some twenty-five peers and bishops and a crowd of Members of Parliament and other influential persons. Among the people who thronged the hall there sat a young Scottish medical student, then unknown, David Livingstone. A silence fell upon the crowded audience when the Prince Consort rose to make his first public speech in England. In it he said:--

I have been induced to preside at this meeting . . . from a conviction of its paramount importance to the great interests of humanity and justice. I deeply regret that the benevolent and persevering exertions of England to abolish the atrocious traffic in human beings--at once the desolation of Africa and the blackest stain on civilized Europe--have not as yet led to a satisfactory conclusion. I sincerely trust that this great country will not relax its efforts until it has, finally and for ever, put an end to a state of things so repugnant to the principles of Christianity and to the best feelings of our nature. I do trust that Providence will prosper our exertions in so holy a cause; and that, under the auspices of our Queen and her Government, we may, at no distant period, be rewarded by the accomplishment of the great and humane object, for the promotion of which we have met this day.

Thomas Fowell Buxton moved the first resolution, and he was followed by Samuel Wilberforce (son of the great emancipator), Sir Robert Peel, the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester, the Earl of Chichester (then President of the Church Missionary Society), the Marquis of Northampton, and several others.

What object had drawn together such a distinguished assembly? It was none other than that which for more than a generation had been steadily winning the allegiance of freedom-loving Britishers the overthrow of the slave traffic. In spite of the Emancipation Act of 1834, the agreements with Spain and Portugal in 1836, and the vigilance of British cruisers along the coast, the iniquitous traffic was still going on. Moreover the exploration of the Niger had shown that in the interior, the African chiefs were continually raiding for slaves, both for themselves and for sale to the white men. The anti-slavery leaders in England had begun to realize that naval and other efforts along the coast were not enough; something must be done to deal with the up-country chiefs and kings; pressure must be brought to bear upon them to stop the supply of slaves at its source. Many clear brains were thinking out this problem; and then, early one morning in 1837 (a few weeks before the accession of Queen Victoria), Powell Buxton burst into the bedroom of one of his sons and roused him, saying that he had passed a sleepless night thinking about the slave traffic, and had hit upon the true remedy: "The deliverance of Africa is to be affected by calling out her own resources." His stirring book: The Slave Trade and its Remedy, was one of the first results.

In brief outline, Buxton's plan was this: (i) Strengthen the patrol squadron along the African coast; (2) negotiate with the kings and chiefs, both near the shore and in the interior, and if possible make treaties with them; (3) utilize the newly-discovered Niger as a highway into the very heart of the country and so get in behind the great slave-raiding tribes of Dahomey, Yoruba, and Ibo. To carry out this great purpose, Buxton urged the co-operation of all available forces, Government, the commercial companies, and the missionary societies; each had an important part to play, a contribution to make to the great effort. "The Bible and the plough must regenerate Africa," he said.

As a result, a "Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa" was formed, and it was remarkable how it appealed to men of widely different religious and political convictions. Buxton himself described it as "quite an epitome of the State: Whig, Tory, and Radical; Dissenter, Low Church, High Church, tip-top Oxfordism, all united!" One of the first to join was the rising young statesman William Ewart Gladstone. Government took up the matter. Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord John Russell, the Colonial Secretary, threw themselves into the scheme for a well-equipped Niger Expedition. Men of science helped with advice, and business men gave money. Government built three new iron steamships specially for the purpose, the Albert, the Wilberforce, and the Sudan, and a fund of £4000 was raised to found a model agricultural farm on the Niger. The government view of the undertaking was set forth in a letter from Lord John Russellj from which the following is extracted:--

Her Majesty's Confidential Advisers are compelled to admit the conviction that it is indispensable to enter upon some new preventive system, calculated to arrest the Foreign Slave Trade in its source. . . . Although it may be impossible to check the cupidity of those who purchase slaves ... it may yet be possible to force on those by whom they are sold, the persuasion that they are engaged in a traffic opposed to their own interests. . . .

With this in view, it is proposed to establish new commercial relations with those African Chiefs within whose dominions the internal slave trade is carried on. To this end, the Queen has directed her Ministers to negotiate conventions or agreements with those Chiefs and Powers; the basis of which would be, 1st, The abandonment and absolute prohibition of the slave trade; and 2ndly, The admission for consumption in this country, on favourable terms, of goods, the produce and manufacture of the territories subject to them. Of these Chiefs, the most considerable rule over the countries adjacent to the Niger and its great tributary streams. It is therefore proposed to dispatch an Expedition, which would ascend that river. ... It is proposed to establish British factories, in the hope that the Natives may be taught that there are methods of employing the population more profitable ... than that of converting them into slaves, and selling them for exportation. . ..

Having maturely weighed these questions, and with a full perception of the difficulties which may attend this undertaking, the Ministers of the Crown are yet convinced that it affords the best, if not the only prospect of accomplishing the great object so earnestly desired by the Queen, by her Parliament, and her People.

Every care was taken to insure that the expedition should be carried out on the highest possible lines, and the personnel were most carefully chosen. The command was placed in the hands of Captain Trotter (Albert), Captain William Allen (Wilberforce), and Captain Bird Allen (Sudan); and these three, together with Captain Cork, were appointed Her Majesty's Commissioners for the control of the undertaking. These Commissioners and most, if not all, the officers were Christian men; the crews, too, were chosen for their moral character as well as for their seamanship. A chaplain was appointed, and there were to be constant prayers on board each ship for the success of the enterprise.

From the beginning, the C.M.S. was in close touch with the expedition. Buxton had urged that Christian missions had their part to play in the redemption of Africa, and the Committee felt that the Niger must be claimed as a highway for the Gospel. Missions, as well as government posts and trading stations, must be opened along the great river; and when the Society asked to be allowed to send two carefully-chosen representatives with the expedition permission was readily given. The Committee's choice fell upon two men then in Sierra Leone. One was the Rev. J. F. Schön, a missionary of eight years' experience, a linguist and diligent student of things African; the other was a young African lay teacher, Samuel Adjai Crowther.

Quite naturally, there were people in England who strongly opposed the whole scheme of the Niger Expedition. Such influential papers as The Times and the Edinburgh Review attacked it with bitterness and persistence. But its promoters were unmoved and went forward with their preparations. Prince Albert continued his warm support, and visited the vessels as they lay in the Thames before sailing.

On April 14, 1841, the three vessels sailed from England. In ten weeks they reached Sierra Leone. [To-day the voyage takes ten days!] The people of Freetown, practically all of them freed slaves or the children of slaves, had long known of the proposed expedition and great was the excitement when the long-looked-for squadron cast anchor in the river. Schön and Crowther helped to secure interpreters for the expedition, and from the rescued slaves chose a dozen men whose mother-tongues were those of the Niger tribes or the surrounding nations, Ibo, Yoruba, Eggarra, Kakanda, Hausa, Bornoa, Laruba, and Fula. Crowther's own tongue was Yoruba, and Schön had some knowledge of Ibo and Hausa. Many of the Sierra Leone people were eager to accompany the expedition as seamen, labourers, or anything else, and a number were chosen. Special services were held in the Freetown churches, and a prayer meeting in the principal church was attended and addressed by the captains of the fleet. They sailed on July 2.

It was not until August 15 that the expedition crossed the bar of the River Nun, the most important mouth of the Niger, the sailors cheering as they did so. The last preparations were made, pilots taken on board, and on August 20 the ships weighed anchor and headed up stream, but not before special prayer had, by order of the Commander of the expedition, been offered on each vessel. One prayer (composed for the occasion by the chaplain) contained these words:--

Give success to our endeavours to introduce civilization and Christianity into this benighted country. Thou hast promised, Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God: make us, we pray Thee, instruments in fulfilling this Thy promise.

The time for proceeding up the Niger had been carefully chosen so that the river would be in flood, and therefore there would be less risk of sandbanks and other obstacles. It was also believed that that would be the least trying time for Europeans from the point of view of health.

Slowly and with great caution the vessels steamed up the narrow channels, past mangrove swamps, and then into more beautiful forest-fringed reaches. Here and there were cultivated patches with banana plantations, fields of yams and sugar cane, and then the primeval forest again. Occasionally a village was reached, the ships stopped, and an interpreter tried to get into conversation with the people, many of whom came in their dug-out canoes to gaze at the terrifying monsters that had come so suddenly upon them. Often the people were afraid to come too near, and it was not easy to convince them that the English were their friends, the only white men known in those places being the Portuguese slave traders. "There can be no doubt that there is much traffic in slaves carried on in this region," wrote Schön. "We have had such proofs of it as cannot be contradicted." He found that some of the riverside chiefs were unquestionably in the habit of carrying out raids upon their neighbours and sending their captives down stream to the coast for shipment.

Conversing with one chief, Schön asked if he was glad to have such a visit from white men, and got the surprising reply: "These three months we have been praying to God to send white man's ship." For a moment the missionary felt pleased; then it dawned on him that what the chief desired and prayed for was the ship of a slave trader to whom he might sell slaves! One of the interpreters on the Albert recognized the very village where he had spent several years in captivity and actually came across a man whom he knew. The astonishment was mutual, the more so because the villagers were under the impression that the slaves sent down to the sea were killed and eaten by white men; and to see one return, after an interval of years, dressed as a white man and living as white men live, was almost beyond credence. "If God Himself had told me this, I could not have believed it. But now I see it with my own eyes," said one. The very idea of white men who were not engaged in the slave trade was new to many of the riverside people.

The programme of the expedition especially related to three outstanding chiefs of great importance, in fact, kings. These were the Obi of the Ibo people, who dwelt at Abo on the western bank of the Niger; the Atta of the Egarra, at Idda on the east bank; and the King of Rabba, in the Nupé Country some 500 miles from the sea.

When the first of these places was reached, Simon Jonas, the Ibo interpreter, went ashore to explain the visit to the Obi. When this potentate heard of the suppression of slavery he hesitated and said: "This is a hard thing!" But he was persuaded to go aboard the Albert, and there the Commissioners explained fully the proposed treaty. Whether or not the Obi fully understood what he was doing may be open to question, but he agreed to put his mark to the document presented to him. Before the treaty was formally signed, it was explained to the chief that it was the custom of Christians to ask the blessing of God before doing anything of importance, and the whole company knelt in prayer. The Obi did as he saw the others doing, but as he knelt there and heard strange words uttered with deep fervour, he became alarmed, supposing that the white men were using incantations against him and his people. Perspiration rolled down his face, and trembling violently from very real fear, he called loudly for his charms. Only with difficulty was his peace of mind restored. The treaty was signed, and then Captain Trotter took the opportunity of speaking to the Obi about the true God. Mr. Schön joined in the conversation, and asked Simon Jonas to read and translate into Ibo the Beatitudes from St. Matthew's Gospel. The impression they produced upon the Obi was remarkable, and the missionary wrote:--

That a white man should read and write was a matter of course; but that a black man, an Ibo, one who had been a slave in times past, should know these wonderful things was more than he could have anticipated. He seized Jonas's hand, squeezed it most heartily, saying: "You must stop with me; you must teach me and my people; the white people can go up the river without you. They must leave you here till they come back."

It was arranged that, as soon as the Albert had passed beyond the Ibo Country, Jonas, being no longer needed as interpreter, should be sent back to Abo and remain there till the return of the expedition. He thus had the honour of being the first worker of the C.M.S. (or any other mission) to be stationed on the Niger.

From Abo, the expedition steamed swiftly up the main stream of the mile-wide Niger to Idda, where dwelt the Atta of the Egarra. A deputation, of whom Mr. Schön was one, went ashore to invite the Atta on board the Albert, to hear the message from the Queen of England. Though friendly, he refused; it would be beneath his dignity. "I am a king," he said; "and a king never puts his foot into a canoe. If the captain of the big English canoe wishes to speak to me he must come ashore." He complained, moreover, that the "dashes" sent to him were not sufficient for his rank, saying that he was like God and the dashes ought to be worthy of him and of God. So, to facilitate good feeling, the Commissioners with several officers, Mr. Schön, and half a dozen marines as a guard of honour, went ashore to visit the great man in his not very palatial abode. John Duncan, master-at-arms on the Albert, an ex-Guardsman, six feet three inches in height, wearing the full uniform of the Life Guards and with a Union Jack in hand, marshalled the party into the presence of the Atta.

The potentate sat upon his royal seat in one of his courtyards, dressed in a red velvet robe and wearing carpet slippers, while bangles round his legs and glass beads round his neck completed his attire. He greatly admired Duncan's glittering helmet with its wonderful plume, and offered to give an elephant's tusk in exchange for it. The palaver proceeded smoothly; the British proposals were explained as clearly as possible by the interpreter, and from time to time the Atta showed his intelligence and natural shrewdness by making some comment or by asking a question. When the subject of human sacrifice came up, for example, he wanted to know how the prohibition would apply in the event of his country being invaded by another tribe, or if he himself were compelled to make war. In the end, the treaty was accepted by the king and duly signed. Schön formed the opinion that he was an intelligent man and really grasped the meaning of the proposals laid before him; he even asked if it were possible to send two of his sons to England that they might learn many things from the white man.

Mr. Schön found opportunity to speak to the Atta of the Christian religion, and like the Obi of Abo, the Atta asked that a teacher might be left with him to teach him "English fashion." One thing was becoming quite clear and it was rather a surprise to Mr. Schön, that the Niger kings and chiefs were prepared to listen to an African teacher just as much as to a white man, and were eager to have black teachers.

One very definite step was gained: the Atta agreed to sell to the Commissioners a strip of land on the bank of the river for an English settlement and a model farm. Without loss of time, a suitable site some miles higher up the river, and immediately opposite the confluence with the Tshadda, was taken possession of in the name of Queen Victoria, and a few Europeans and Africans were landed with provisions and implements to make a beginning with the enterprise.

Trials were beginning to overshadow the expedition. From the first there had been some sickness on the ships, but it had been hoped that this would disappear when the unhealthy reaches of the delta were left behind. It was not to be so. The dangers to health were not understood, nor were the Safeguards known. No one thought of attributing malaria to the mosquito; the importance of drinking only water that had been boiled and filtered was unknown; and the Europeans did not protect their heads properly against sunstroke. Tropical fevers were rife on all the vessels. Soon after leaving Idda there were fifty-five on the sick list, including several officers. Six died in the course of a couple of days, and they were buried on the land so recently acquired for a model farm. Mr. Schön tells us that the Wilberforce was "more like a hospital than a man-of-war. Quarter-deck, forecastle, and cabins full of patients." In spite of all the medical officer and his helper could do, the sickness increased. Captain William Allen and Captain Cork were prostrate; and things became so serious that the Commissioners decided that it was necessary for the Sudan to return to the sea with the sick men. On September 19, to the intense disappointment of every one, she began her journey down stream. Two days later the Wilberforce had to follow her, so great was the number of sick.

In the Albert, Captain Trotter and Captain Bird Allen continued the voyage up the river, Schön and Crowther being on board. The renewal of the journey brought new hope to every one. But before nightfall several of the ship's company, including Captain Allen, were feeling unwell, and day by day others were added to the sick list. The vessel was now in the Nupé Country, and Captain Trotter was anxious to fulfil his instructions. On September 28 Egga was reached, the largest and best town they had yet seen. Here they found a slave market. Under one shed fifteen human beings were exposed for sale, and Schön was so stirred that he then and there addressed the people around him on the sinfulness of slavery in the sight of God. [Schön was able to speak in Hausa, which was widely known in that area, and needed but little help from the interpreter.] They had reached the country where the influence of Islam was strong, and where slavery was an intertribal system, almost entirely without connexion with the white merchants on the far-distant coast.

Captain Trotter was eager to reach Rabba, the last objective of the expedition. But troubles were thickening round him. The river was beginning to fall. Sickness among his officers and crew was increasing. Then he himself was seized with fever and only one officer remained fit to take duty. With great reluctance, the brave commander gave the order to lift anchor and return with all speed to the sea. But before doing so, ill as he was, he sent a message to the King of Rabba telling him of the object of the expedition and accompanied it with a gift of a handsome Arabic Bible.

On October 4 the order to return was given. It was not so easily obeyed. All the engineers and stokers were ill, and for two days and nights it was impossible to get up steam, for no one knew how to do it. The Albert just drifted slowly down the river. But Dr. Stranger, a scientist, pored over a book on engineering, to try to discover what should be done, and after a while, with some little aid from one of the engineers who was beginning to recover, he at last managed to get the engines working. There were anxious days and nights; the water was getting low and shoals and sandbanks became a very real peril to a vessel guided by inexperienced hands. The two captains were both dangerously ill, and one day Bird Allen seemed to be dying. Then Mr. Willie, who for some days was the only officer capable of managing the ship, fell ill and died, and Dr. Me William, the medical officer, had to act as captain, while Dr. Stranger continued to do his best with the engines. One of the engineers, in his misery, jumped overboard and was drowned. SchQn and Crowther looked after the sick and ministered to the dying.

Day by day men were dying as the stricken vessel slowly threaded her way between mudbanks, until on the sixth day from Egga they reached the model farm that had been purchased in such high hopes less than a month before. Several of the Europeans left here were ill and had to be taken aboard. That day, Captain Trotter and Captain Allen were so ill that they said good-bye to one another, expecting to die. Schön was able to arrange for Thomas King, a Sierra Leone schoolmaster, to remain at the place to carry on the good work he had commenced. When Abo was reached the Obi proved his friendship by doing all in his power to relieve the wants of the ship's company, and Simon Jonas reported well concerning the way fie had been treated while living there.

By this time only one white sailor remained in health and able to help Dr. Me William in navigating the ship. They were still a hundred miles from the mouth of the river, and on reaching it there would be the very serious difficulty of crossing the bar. But help was forthcoming. The whole company thrilled with the news that a ship was in sight. It was the Ethiope coming to their aid. Danger was now past, and two days later the Albert crossed the bar in safety. The three ships of the expedition reassembled at Fernando Po, where Captain Bird Allen and several other officers and men died soon after their arrival.

Thus the expedition, sent forth with such lofty purposes and high hopes, ended in tragedy.

From many points of view, the Niger Expedition was a failure. Its enemies sneered and The Times was triumphant. Yet experience was gained that was of value in later efforts. The river was proved to be a great highway, navigable for hundreds of miles; the riverside peoples were found to be friendly, and there was obviously great opportunity if only the deadly climate could be overcome. Though for the moment discouraged, the promoters of the expedition believed that the failure was not final and they had no thought of giving up the effort, least of all the C.M.S. On receiving reports from Schön and Crowther, the Committee felt that it had a call from God to minister to the tribes of the countries lying around the Niger, and they resolved to go forward when it should please God to open the door. Not only were the great chiefs found ready to listen to the white man's message, they were equally willing to be taught by black men, and the Committee recognized that this new factor "strengthened the obligation to train natives of Africa as religious teachers of their countrymen." There was the further fact that, in Sierra Leone, the Church had ready to hand men and women who were natives of these very Niger countries and were familiar with the languages as being their own mother tongues. In view of this, Sierra Leone was, for the purpose of training, "incomparably beyond any other spot." The Committee therefore placed on record this resolution (February 22, 1842):--

That, adverting to the afflictive results of the Niger Expedition . . . the Committee are of opinion that further measures should be adopted, in order to train Natives in Sierra Leone with a view to their being employed as teachers of their countrymen, and in order also to fix the most considerable native dialects and make translations into those dialects f6r missionary purposes.

A mission to the Niger countries thus became a definite policy for the C.M.S.

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