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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 V. Planting the Mission in the Egba Capital

WHEN Townsend's report reached England, the Committee of the C.M.S. felt that only one course was open to them. The hand of God was beckoning to Abeokuta, and for the moment there was no opportunity of carrying out the earlier project of a mission on the Niger. Every possible circumstance pointed to the Egba capital as the strategic base for the new venture. A number of the teachers and catechists in Freetown, being Egbas, were keen to work among their fellow-countrymen. Crowther himself was an Egba, and, as he had recently been to England for ordination, he was available as the first African clergyman for the proposed mission to his kith and kin. [In those days, there being no bishop in West Africa, it was necessary to come to England to take Holy Orders. Crowther was the first African in modern times to receive ordination.] Obviously Townsend was the man to lead the mission, so he too was called to England to be ordained. The Rev. C. A. Gollmer (who had spent a short time in Sierra Leone) was also to be one of the pioneer party. Naturally the project aroused the deepest interest, not to say excitement, in Freetown. Many Egba and Yoruban ex-slaves volunteered to accompany the missionaries as carpenters or labourers. The Governor interested himself, and the Commander of the West Coast squadron promised all the help and protection in his power.

On December 18, 1844, after breakfasting with the Governor, the party embarked from Freetown amid scenes of deep emotion and excitement. Crowds gathered at the wharf to see them off. Schön and the other missionaries were there to offer prayer for protection and guidance in the great new enterprise.

The party was a large one, for it was felt that in such a place as Abeokuta a beginning must be made on a scale that would give reasonable hope of success. There were four Europeans: the Rev. and Mrs. C. A. Gollmer, and the Rev. and Mrs. Henry Townsend. The Rev. Samuel Adjai Crowther was accompanied by Mrs. Crowther and their two children. The other African workers were: Mr. Marsh (a catechist) with his wife and two children; Mr. Phillips (a schoolmaster); Mr. Mark Willoughby (the interpreter) with his wife and three children; four carpenters, three labourers, and two servants. They took with them, in addition to the usual equipment for such a journey, windows and doors and other fittings for the houses they were to build in Abeokuta.

After a month's voyage they landed in surf boats on the sandbank opposite Badagry on January 17, 1845, and on reaching the town were welcomed by the Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Annear of the Wesleyan Mission, who entertained them at the mission house Freeman had built. A message was sent to Shodeke to tell him of their arrival. Then the first blow fell, the great Egba king was dead! The fetish priests had taken alarm at his eager welcome of Christian missionaries and in their jealous fear of losing their own power had poisoned him. [One day while Freeman was in Abeokuta, Shodeke had summoned before him both, fetish priests and Moslem moulvis and ordered them to expound their beliefs. Then Freeman proclaimed the Christian message, and the chief was so impressed that he declared: "The white man's religion is true, and both myself and you will have to follow it" (vide T. B. Freeman, p. 157).] As the grand old chief lay dying he turned to the priests and sorrowfully rebuked them. "You have succeeded in poisoning me," he said, "but you will never get another Shodeke!" For long years afterwards old men used to declare that: "On the day Shodeke died the sun forgot to shine and the birds to sing." Shodeke's death was a serious blow to the C.M.S. pioneers. But they resolved to go forward to the war camp near Ado, and if possible on to Abeokuta. The war chiefs at the camp advised them to remain in Badagry until a successor to Shodeke was appointed, for all was unsettled in the capital. There seemed no alternative; and as Badagry would have to be the port of entrance for the future, they gave themselves to securing their position there as the Wesleyans had done. A site was secured, and within seven weeks of landing they opened for worship the first C.M.S. church in the new field. On the following morning a day school was opened. Then another blow fell; in April Mrs. Gollmer died, and the new mission field was consecrated by its first Christian grave.

Then came news that the Egba chiefs had elected Sagbua to be their head chief, and the new ruler almost immediately sent down to Badagry a letter of welcome and an invitation for the missionaries to proceed at once to Abeokuta. But a new hindrance arose. The great armies of Dahomey were on the move, and it was believed that they meant to attack the city. The very thought of the terrible Daho-mians struck terror everywhere. Their warriors, especially their renowned Amazons, were almost invincible, and the great object of their wars was to capture multitudes of slaves. The chief palace of the King of Dahomey was decorated with the skulls of more than 6000 prisoners taken in a war with Badagry some years before. For some time King Gezo, greatest of all the Dahomian conquerors, had watched with jealous eye the rising power of Abeokuta, and his Amazons were eager to storm its walls. Now, taking advantage of Shodeke's death, they had come, and the land trembled before them.

The Egba war chiefs in the camp near Ado had to face a double peril: the Dahomians were trying to cut them off from Abeokuta, and they feared that their Ado rivals might attack them in the rear. With great courage the Egba commander laid his plans; part of his force held the camp to keep the Ados at bay, while the larger number went forward to meet the Dahomians and help in the defence of Abeokuta. The latter force was defeated next day, and wild confusion prevailed; women and children fled into the bush and tried to escape by unfrequented paths. The danger was a serious one, the very existence of Abeokuta trembled in the balance. Soon the tide of war turned. A force of Amazons was defeated by the Egbas near Ado, and lost its officers (women), and, what was vastly more important, a royal stool and a state umbrella. [The equivalent of a standard.] For the moment the danger had passed; but Gezo swore to be revenged.

Although the Dahomian army had retired, the road to Abeokuta was still blocked, and the missionaries were compelled to remain in Badagry, and they were not safe even there. For the Ados and Popos, egged on by the slavers of Lagos, had joined in the war with Abeokuta and threatened to attack Badagry, but they were eventually beaten off. Thus for eighteen months the pioneers were disappointed again and again. But the time of waiting was not altogether lost. Though the Badagry people were unresponsive and even expected to be paid for sending their children to school or for attending church, the enforced delay gave time for working at the Yoruba language, and Crowther translated portions of the Bible in readiness for the advance. Occasional messengers passed between them and Abeokuta, and it was clear that they would be warmly welcomed when the path could be opened.

It opened in a most unexpected way. Domingo José Martino, a great Portuguese slave dealer of Porto Novo, found that the continual state of war was interfering with his business by making difficult the conveyance of slaves to the coast. He therefore used his "friendly offices" to bring about peace. In this he succeeded, but fearing that missionary work in Abeokuta might bring still further disaster to his trade, he persuaded his Badagry allies to do all in their power to prejudice the Egbas against the missionaries. The scheme failed, for the Abeokuta chiefs sternly answered: "We can ourselves tell who are our best friends, those who rescue our children from captivity and send them freely to us again, or those who purchase them for perpetual slavery and misery. The English are our friends; and you, people of Badagry, take care; for if any wrong is done to them in your town, you shall answer to us for it." They then summoned to their presence the missionaries' messenger, told him what had passed, and sent him with a cordial invitation to the missionaries to come at once to Abeokuta.

It was the middle of the rainy reason. But rather than lose the opportunity, the missionaries resolved to face the risks involved, and towards the end of July they set out, Gollmer, however, remaining in charge at Badagry.

The weather was as bad as could be for travelling and the narrow bush paths were flooded. The Townsends and Mr. Crowther rode on ponies, but Mrs. Crowther preferred a hammock, while the children were carried, African fashion, tied to the backs of carriers. Often the horses floundered up to their knees in water or sank deep in a swamp; at best the ground was so slippery that they could hardly keep their footing. In other places the path, long neglected through the months of war, was so overgrown as to be almost impassable and the horses' feet got entangled in briars, while overhanging branches or creepers caught the heads of the riders. Drenched with frequent showers and with torn clothes and bruised limbs, they plodded on. Mrs. Townsend had difficulty in keeping her seat, and Mrs. Crowther's carriers slipped and fell so often that she was obliged to walk most of the way. The path itself twisted and turned so tortuously between the trunks of trees that frequently there was not room to turn the hammock pole. At night, the only shelter was a tent pitched on the wet ground, with a fire to dry their clothes. Two nights their rest was still further disturbed by invasions of columns of the terrible driver ants. The missionaries had provided for crossing one river that they knew would be swollen to a considerable width, by taking with them a large barrel to use as a boat, and it served the purpose splendidly, the carriers piloting it backwards and forwards till all were across.

Abeokuta was reached at last (August 3, 1846). The Ogun was swollen to a broad, deep river, and it was raining in tropical style as the party entered the city. But a great reception awaited them. The public crier had been sent round to make proclamation as to their arrival, and wet as they were they were paraded round the town in triumphant welcome before being conducted to Sagbua. Mrs. Townsend, with her side-saddle, attracted general attention, she being the first white woman most of the people had seen. Moreover, the Egbas were intensely proud that Abeokuta had been chosen as the first town for the great English people to reside in, and it was on every tongue that the news of their arrival "would fly from Lagos to Ilorin, and excite the envy of all the chiefs." There had been eager discussion as to which chief and township should have the honour of entertaining the visitors; but eventually it was settled that it should go to Sagbua as premier chief. In the public council house of the Council of the Nation, and surrounded by the chiefs, he accorded to them a splendid welcome, and at the very first interview showed his sagacity in a remarkable way. The pioneers presented to him, as a gift from the C.M.S., a large mirror brought from England for the purpose. Lest so rare a present should stir up jealousy among his brother chiefs he caused it to be hung, not in his own palace, but in the council house, that it might be public property.

With as little delay as possible, a public council was summoned, under the presidency of Sagbua, at which Crowther, in his Yoruba mother-tongue, explained fully the object of their coming and their intentions as to future labours. Chiefs and people listened eagerly, promised to send their children to learn the white man's letters and to help in the building of houses and churches, and then and there contributed to the work, each one promising to give at least a thousand cowries (equal to about half-a-crown), while Sagbua himself contributed 20,000 cowries and a sheep. Crowther, commenting on this generous offering, said: "No wonder: some of the chiefs had liberated relations of their own sitting by them at the very time."

Probably no pioneer missionaries ever received such a spontaneous and joyous welcome to a new field.

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