Project Canterbury

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 IV. The Call from Abeokuta

THE hand of God does not always lead in the way men expect. It was so in the founding of the Nigeria Mission.

While the Niger Expedition was being planned and equipped in England, a movement of a very different kind was taking place in Sierra Leone. In Freetown many thousands of freed slaves were slowly settling down to their new life, but their thoughts naturally turned often to the homes and families from which they had been torn so ruthlessly by the slave raiders. Most of them had little or no expectation of again seeing their native land. In their new country they took up various forms of employment in agriculture or industry. But the Negro is a born trader, and not a few engaged in various trading ventures.

In 1838 a half-caste man bought from the Government at a very low price, a captured slave vessel and planned a trading voyage along the coast. He had no difficulty in enlisting willing helpers, and he engaged an Englishman to be captain. The old slaver was re-named the Wilberforce, and laden with such goods as were likely to sell, set sail "down coast." Among other places, they reached Lagos and entered the lagoon where, sixteen years before, Crowther had been rescued from the slave ship.

The name Lagos was new to these Sierra Leonians, but as the Wilberforce sailed in, several of them recognized it as the place from which they had been shipped by their captors. "This is Eko," they exclaimed; "this is our country!" On landing they sought information about their own tribes up in the interior, and heard strange stories. They were told that in the great Yoruba Country there had been many wars and much slave raiding. They heard, too, that the Egba tribes, to which they belonged, hearing of a plot to enslave them to the Yoruba chiefs, had fought their way to liberty and had established themselves in a stronghold among rocky hills; there they had built a great city and had fortified it against their foes, calling it Abeokuta. Under a great chief named Shodeke, the Egbas were dwelling in their new home in peace and prosperity, cultivating their lands and selling their produce. Thrilled by this news, the Sierra Leonians made eager inquiries as to the possibilities of visiting Abeokuta, and finding it not impossible, they made the attempt. On reaching the city gates, they were challenged by the guards to whom they gave account of themselves and asked about their relatives. The news of their coming spread rapidly, and strange scenes were witnessed.

The greetings over, their wondrous story told, those traders returned to their ship and to Sierra Leone. There they blazed abroad that they had found their own kith and kin, and told of Abeokuta, of Shodeke, and of the welcome they had received. Great was the excitement in Freetown, and ere long other vessels set out for Lagos carrying people eager to return to their homeland.

But the inhabitants of Lagos were deeply implicated in the slave trade, brutalized by their hateful business. Finding that the Sierra Leone emigrants brought their possessions with them, the men of Lagos set upon them, robbed them of all they had, and taunted them that they should be thankful that they were allowed to proceed at all. Of nearly 300 emigrants who landed from three ships, not a man or woman escaped with anything but the clothes they wore, and not always with those. They would have been re-enslaved had it not been that they had become British subjects and the slave traders were afraid to touch them. So a new route to Abeokuta had to be found, and from that time the emigrants landed at Badagry, a town on the lagoon some forty miles west of Lagos, and soon a more or less regular stream of Sierra Leonians was passing from Badagry to Abeokuta. Between 1839 and 1842, over 500 ex-slaves returned to their homeland.

The missionaries in Sierra Leone were not a little troubled at the emigration of so many of their flock, and did all they could to advise and caution them of the dangers before them. On the other hand, on reaching Abeokuta, not a few who, in the security of Freetown, had paid but little heed to religious instruction, began to long for it, and joined with their more zealous fellow-emigrants in sending urgent appeals for teachers to be sent to shepherd them. In Freetown itself there was a growing feeling that a missionary should be sent to look after those who had gone forth into the perils of heathendom, and a petition was presented to the local committee of the C.M.S. As a result, it was resolved to send a young lay missionary, Henry Townsend, to Badagry and Abeokuta to investigate and discover, if possible, the best way of dealing with the situation. [The Wesleyans, who were very strong in Sierra Leone, were facing the same problem. Many of their adherents were among the emigrants, and these also sent urgent appeals for help. In response, the Wesleyan Missionary Society sent their outstanding man on the coast, Thomas Birch Freeman, to investigate.]

Embarking, with a couple of African catechists, at Sierra Leone in the ex-slave schooner Wilberforce, Townsend sailed slowly along the coast. It took nearly five weeks to reach Badagry, and a most uncomfortable journey it proved to be, for the ship had no accommodation for white passengers. He speaks of his cabin as a mere "dog-house"; it was just large enough for him to put his mattress on the floor, and so low that he had to crawl in; when he sat up in bed, his head almost touched the ceiling.

On December 17, 1842, the pioneer landed on the coastal strip opposite Badagry. The town itself does not stand upon the sea shore, but on the farther side of the great lagoon that lies behind the actual coast. This lagoon is part of a series that run for more than a hundred miles, more or less parallel with the sea shore, and separated from it by a narrow strip of sandy land usually about a mile or so in width. Badagry was a place of ill repute; it had long been known as a stronghold of fetishism and human sacrifice, and it was also an important slave market. But hostility to the slavers of Lagos, and a friendship with the rising power of Abeokuta, had somewhat modified the more sinister characteristics of the inhabitants and they were inclined to be friendly to the Sierra Leonian emigrants passing through their town or even settling there, as some of them did for purposes of trade, a fact that caused one section of the place to become known as "Englishtown."

On making inquiries after landing, Townsend learned that the Methodist pioneer, the intrepid Thomas Birch Freeman, had, quite unknowingly, preceded him by nearly three months, and had built a mission house in Badagry; and at that very moment Freeman was in Abeokuta investigating the possibilities of a Methodist mission there. [See the present writer's book, Thomas Birch Freeman]

On Christmas Eve, Freeman returned to Badagry, and the two pioneers met to discuss their plans for "planting the banner of the Cross" (a familiar phrase of Freeman's) in the very heart of the country long ravaged by the slave raiders. Christmas Day was spent in united worship, the missionaries joined in conducting services for their travelling companions and such Sierra Leonians as were then in Badagry. Thus began that happy fellowship and spirit of co-operation that has always characterized the two Missions in their efforts to evangelize Nigeria.

Townsend was in extremely bad health, and Freeman was not a little anxious as to his strength for the journey to Abeokuta. But Townsend and his African helpers felt that nothing should be allowed to hinder the project, and he resolved to go forward. The more experienced man at once offered all the advice and gave all the help he could. Apparently Townsend had not realized all the difficulties of the journey and was not well-equipped. Freeman therefore gave him supplies of tinned provisions, and other requisites, and offered him the loan of a horse. But Townsend was unaccustomed to riding and decided to be carried in a basket. After a few days together they parted, Freeman to visit the great King of Dahomey and Townsend to proceed on his journey to Abeokuta. [Freeman left an African worker and wife to take charge of the newly-established mission at Badagry.]

Leaving Badagry on December 29, Townsend was carried forward in what was known as a travelling basket, a most uncomfortable affair, the shape of a coffin, made of basketwork and carried on the heads of two strong men. The traveller lay full length, his head on a pillow, and was carried feet foremost along the narrow bush paths. Townsend found it impossible to look about much, his head being too low, and in the more open country the heat and bright light of the sun upon his face tried him severely.

The journey took six days, resting all day on Sunday, much to the annoyance of the heathen guide. Through swamp and forest the path led onward. There were streams to be waded and rivers to be crossed in dug-out canoes. The chief peril, however, was that of sudden attack from wandering parties of Lagos people or their allies, who constantly watched the forest paths to kidnap travellers to sell as slaves. To counteract these marauders, Shodeke had established midway a military camp, thus keeping the path open. Shodeke's brother, who was in charge of the camp, received Townsend with kindness though with manifest surprise, for the missionary, unaware of the customs of the country, had not sent in advance a message of his coming. He found that, owing to the stories told them by the returning emigrants, the Egbas had great respect for the English people and were eager to show it in every possible way.

As the little party drew nearer Abeokuta, they met an ever-increasing number of travellers going to or from the city; one evening, for example, some 200 wayfarers encamped around them. Farms and cultivated land became more frequent.

At last from a hill top Townsend caught a first glimpse of the Egba metropolis, nestling among its rocky hills and huge masses of granite boulders piled one on another as though by giants at play. That evening he and his party encamped by the River

Ogun that flows past Abeokuta, and remained there for the night. A message of welcome had arrived from Shodeke, and a promise to send on the following morning men to escort Townsend into the city.

Early on the morning of January 4, Shodeke's son came with a band of Egba warriors to receive the visitor. A party of Sierra Leonians also came out to join in the welcome and were a little distressed because Townsend was not so well dressed as they thought he should be for such an occasion. Unfortunately he had nothing better to put on, but the emigrants insisted on his using his umbrella as a matter of becoming state. Being the dry season, the river was so low that it was possible to cross its granite bed on foot, and with much noise of drums and shouts of welcome, the crowd of horsemen and others led Townsend over and into the town. It was a truly African procession, without form or order, everybody following his own inclination, some armed with spears or long swords, and others with muskets. "It was a motley group," wrote the missionary in his journal. "Sometimes those armed with muskets would rush forward and discharge them; then the horsemen would have a race, and pull up their horses suddenly when at full gallop." Thus escorted, and sitting in his travelling basket, Townsend entered Abeokuta. After passing through the gate, the crowd increased. Out of every door, and at the corners of the streets, the people gazed at their new visitor. "Long life to you, white man," they cried. "A blessing on you white man! "' Others exclaimed: "It is one of the English who save our people!" For the time, even the markets were suspended, the whole population crowding the streets to unite in the welcome. The efforts of Great Britain to overthrow the slave trade had made a deep impression in Abeokuta. The tremendous welcome, given first to Freeman and then to Townsend, was the popular expression of gratitude. [Strictly speaking, Townsend was the first white man to enter Abeokuta. Freeman was the son of a black father and white mother, though the Egbas were not aware of that and regarded him as a white num.]

Before the palace of Shodeke the procession paused. Townsend got out of his basket, and was conducted into the courtyard, where sat the great chief to receive him, clad in scarlet velvet and surrounded by wives and councillors. After a kindly greeting and a few words of introduction, the missionary was led away to a house prepared for his reception, where soon afterwards Shodeke visited him and presented him with a sheep and a bag of cowries, used widely as money in West Africa. Next day Townsend conducted a service at the palace in the presence of Shodeke and a great multitude of people. Very appropriately, he read and expounded the Parable of the Great Feast in St. Luke xiv, being interpreted by Andrew Wilhelm, a catechist who accompanied him.

During the week Townsend stayed in Abeokuta, he was greatly impressed with the size and importance of the place. Its population was then estimated to be anything from 45,000 to 80,000 though less than twenty years had elapsed since its foundation. [A dozen years later it was estimated to be at least 100,000.] Its story is a veritable romance. One of those great piles of rocks and granite boulders, the Olumo, had been the hiding place of bands of robbers who dwelt in its caves, and from this stronghold looked down upon the forest and jungle with which it was then surrounded. In time the robbers vacated the place, and in 1825 the rock became the refuge of a few Egbas who had fled before the merciless raids of slave hunters. Driven by hunger, they began to cultivate plots at the foot of their rocky hiding place.

At that time the' whole Yoruba Country was seething with war and turmoil; and by degrees other refugees gathered around the lonely fastness of Olumo. Each of these companies represented a different Egba tribe, and in their new home each founded a separate settlement with its own chieftain and war captain; each retained its own laws, and had its own council house; and each took the name of the town or district from which its people had been driven. Thus, within a few years, there sprang into existence, in the forest around the Olumo rock, a group of villages, each independent, yet united by common peril and the ties of common blood.

About 1827 the great Egba chief Shodeke and his tribe, breaking free from those who sought to enslave them, had made their way to the Olumo stronghold and there founded a settlement to which they gave the name of Aké. Shodeke was every inch a leader, and by sheer genius succeeded in welding together those hitherto independent villages until they grew into one great city. To protect themselves from the almost certain onslaught of their enemies, they surrounded the place with a strong rampart of mud, fifteen miles in circumference, and defended on the outer side with a moat. To this new Egba city there was given the name of Abeokuta: "Under the Stone," a reference to its position under and around the great Olumo rock.

The city as Townsend saw it in 1843 was a collection of townships or wards, each representing one of the original tribes of refugees, and each still retaining its own form of self-government. Over each township there was a chief called the ogboni, and a war chief called the balogun, and each township had its own council of elders. But Shodeke, the wise nation builder, had been elected supreme chief over all, and while each township continued to manage its local affairs, he ruled over the whole with a supreme council of the nation composed of the ogbonis and baloguns of the separate wards. The population steadily increased, the vacant spaces within the walls were either built upon or cultivated, and farms came into existence in the country around. A large and prosperous city had sprung up where a few years before there had been only forest and robber fastnesses. Such prosperity not unnaturally attracted jealous eyes of enemies, and time after time the Egbas had to defend their liberties. Cruel foes hurled themselves against the walls of Abeokuta, only to be beaten off by the defenders. The Egbas were a people to be reckoned with, and the fame of Shodeke echoed throughout the land.

Such was the man who extended so joyful a welcome to Henry Townsend. A man so enlightened as Shodeke saw instantly the advantages of cultivating the friendship of the English nation. For several years he had been hearing of the British hatred of slavery and kindness to the people of Africa. Now two white men had taken the trouble to visit him and he found them equal to his expectations. He welcomed them with genuine enthusiasm and eagerly responded to their proffered friendship. He had already given Freeman a plot of land for a mission station; now he was prepared to give one to Townsend also for the C.M.S. He expressed the hope that many white people would come to his city, and he was prepared to welcome them all. No thought of rivalry or "overlapping" occurred to any one.

Great indeed was the opportunity before the two missionary societies. There was ample scope for both in and around the Egba metropolis and the great Yoruba Country beyond. Indeed, the task was greater than either or both of the societies could cope with. One day Townsend climbed the Olumo rock and from that lofty pile gazed down upon the great city that lay at his feet, stretching away among its rocky hills to its great mud rampart. He felt that at least six missionaries should be stationed there if any real impression was to be made upon its life. Churches and schools should be opened in several different parts of the town so that the gospel message might simultaneously ring forth from them all.

The first visit was not intended for anything more than a reconnaissance, and after a week's stay, our pioneer took leave of Shodeke and his chiefs and returned to Badagry en route for Sierra Leone, whence he reported to the Committee in London the results of his investigations.

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