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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 VI. The Church Established at Abeokuta

REMEMBERING that Abeokuta was a collection of townships, each with its own ogboni and self-governing, the first few days were wisely spent in visiting each chief in turn. In every case the missionaries were received by the local ogboni with his balogun and full council of local elders, and in every case Crowther, as an Egba, was the spokesman, explaining so that all might hear in their own tongue the object of their coming. Thus the national and municipal organizations of the city were utilized for giving publicity to the mission and making clear to all the motives that had brought them.

The next thing was to acquire a site on which to build a mission house, a church, and a school. A piece of land three acres in extent was at once given to the missionaries by the chiefs, and as Aké was the "royal township," in which the great Shodeke had lived, and where the council always met, it was decided that the mission centre should be there also. The house was to be built of mud, like all the houses in Abeokuta. The offer of threepence a day drew so many helpers that the pay was reduced to twopence. But still the number increased, and nearly 400 offered their services. For the third day the wage offered was one penny, but 670 persons came forward eager to be taken on. The chiefs watched the work proceeding under the guidance of the missionaries and Sierra Leone craftsmen, and from time to time, as they saw new methods employed, they exclaimed: "God is great! White men have sense! "

Townsend and Crowther did not wait for the completion of the buildings before entering upon their true mission. Regular services were held from the very first, even though there was no place to hold them save the veranda formed by the overhanging thatch in one of the compounds, with part of the congregation under cover and the rest sitting or standing in the open. The people listened attentively to the Christian message, especially when Crowther spoke to them. Each Sunday the congregations increased; and week-day preaching services were held in the markets and in the compounds of the chiefs' houses. Sometimes as many as 500 people were present and great interest was aroused throughout the town.

Amid these busy labours a great joy came to Samuel Crowther. Within three weeks of reaching Abeokuta he found the beloved mother and the sisters from whom he had been torn twenty-five years before and of whom he had heard nothing in the meanwhile. Hearing of her son's arrival, the aged mother set out at once for Abeokuta--she was living in a village not far away and soon heathen mother and Christian son stood face to face. Crowther himself has described for us the thrill of that meeting. He wrote:--

When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other in silence and great astonishment, while big tears rolled down her emaciated cheeks. She trembled as she held me by the hand, and called me by the familiar names.... We could not say much, but sat still, casting many an affectionate look towards each other. ... I cannot describe my feelings; I have given up all hope, and now after a separation of twenty-five years we are brought together again!

In her joy, the old woman, whose name was Afala, wanted to offer sacrifice to her heathen gods! What tales they had to tell when the first flush of overwhelming joy was over! After years of slavery she had been redeemed by her two daughters, they themselves having been set free by their husbands. [Mr. Marsh, the catechist, likewise found his mother in Abeokuta.] Soon the whole family met the long-lost brother, and the mother came to live with him at the mission house. She received Christian instruction with gladness, for she recognized that it was the Christian God Who had wrought such wonders for her son, and when, on February 5, 1848, the first group of converts received holy baptism, she was one of them. Thus Samuel Crowther, the ex-slave, had the joy of baptizing his own mother into the Church of Christ. He had translated the baptismal service into Yoruba for the occasion. Another of that first company of converts was a priestess of Ifa, and four of Crowther's own nieces were baptized at the same time.

The first church had already been opened (March 21, 1847), a simple mud structure with a thatch roof, capable of seating a couple of hundred people. It was in Ake, the royal township. Other chiefs gave permission for the building of simple little places for worship in their townships, and by the close of that year no less than four were in use. They were so primitive that they were described as "sheds," and were situated in the districts of Igbein, Owu, Itoku, and Ikaja. The chief of the last-mentioned township was particularly friendly, choosing for the church a site opposite his own dwelling and superintending the measuring of the ground; when the church was opened, he was the first to enter.

But amid many encouragements, the missionaries had not far to look for customs and practices that caused them deep pain, and sometimes made their blood boil. Though the people vaguely recognized a supreme God, whom they called Olorun, and to whom the enlightened Shodeke had built a small temple, the worship of the city centred round such deities as Ifa (the god of secrets), Ogun (the god of iron and war), Shango (the god of thunder), and perhaps most of all a powerful spirit believed to dwell in the Olumo rock and worshipped in the largest of its caves. Sacrifices were constantly offered, and the people held the gods in awe; but the fetish cults, then, as to-day, had no spiritual and very little moral value. Though loving freedom for themselves, the Egbas had no thought for other people. They did not scruple to hold slaves or to trade in them, and on occasion to engage in a war upon some neighbouring town or village, a war that was in reality a slave raid. Very soon after Growther found his long-lost relatives, he was thrown into great anxiety, for a strong force of Egbas laid siege to Abaka, the town where his two sisters were living. After a four months' siege the Abaka people were compelled to surrender and were brought to Abeokuta as slaves. "Another town swept off the face of the earth," wrote Townsend; "it was full of life and activity; now all is silent and desolate." As the captives from Abaka were led into the Egba capital, Crowther, in his anxiety, kept watch for his dear ones and found his brother, two sisters, and their children among the number, all of whom he was able to ransom for 150 dollars.

A month after the baptism of Crowther's mother, a new missionary reached Abeokuta, the Rev. J. C. Müller. He had landed at Badagry earlier in the year, and within a month had laid his wife in the grave beside Mrs. Gollmer. Almost heart-broken, Müller passed on up-country to face the work before him, and he at once relieved Mr. and Mrs. Town-send who greatly needed a short furlough.

One of the results of the mission had been the creation of a desire on the part of the Egba chiefs for trade with England. But the great obstacle to this was the fact that the shortest and most convenient way from Abeokuta to the sea, that through Lagos, the natural port of the whole Yoruba Country, had been long closed to them by the slave-raiding fraternity. The Egbas were also anxious to strengthen their friendship with the British. When, therefore, the chiefs learned that Henry Townsend was about to visit his native land they desired him to carry for them a message to Queen Victoria. Sagbua himself dictated it in full council. It is of such interest that we give it in full:--

The words which Sagbua, and other chiefs of Abeokuta, send to the Queen of England. May God preserve the Queen in life for ever; Shodeke, who communicated with the Queen before, is no more.

We have seen your servants the missionaries, whom you have sent to us in this country. What they have done is agreeable to us. They have built a house of God. They have taught the people the Word of God, and our children beside. We begin to understand them.

There is a matter of great importance that troubles us: what must we do that it must be removed away? We do not understand the doings of the people of Lagos, and other people on the coast. They are not pleased that you should deliver our country people from slavery. They wish that the road may be closed, that we may never have any intercourse with you. What shall we do that the road may be opened, that we may navigate the River Ossa to the River Ogun? The laws that you have in your country we wish to follow in the track of the same--the slave trade, that it may be abolished. We wish it to be so. The Lagos people will not permit; they are supporting the slave traders. We wish for lawful traders to trade with us. We want, also, those who will teach our children mechanical arts, agriculture, and how things are prepared, as tobacco, rum, and sugar. If such a teacher should come to us, do not permit it to be known, because the Lagos people, and other people on the coast, are not pleased at the friendship you are showing to us.

We thank the Queen of England for the good she had done in delivering our people from slavery. Respecting the road, that it should not be closed, there remains much to speak with each other.

In due time this letter was presented to Her Majesty, and she commanded the Earl of Chichester to send a reply on her behalf. Sagbua and his chiefs had, with their letter, sent the Queen a present of cloth finely woven on the looms of Abeokuta, and in return she sent to Sagbua a handsomely bound Bible, indeed two Bibles, one in English and the other in Arabic, there being no Yoruba version at that time. The Prince Consort added a gift of a steel corn mill.

Great was the interest when the Queen's message and the royal "dashes" arrived in the Egba capital, and a special assembly of the chiefs and people was summoned to hear the message from far distant England. Crowther had the honour of reading the letter and translating it. Here it is:--

I have had the honour of presenting to the Queen the letter of Sagbua and other chiefs of Abeokuta, and also their present of a piece of cloth.

The Queen has commanded me to convey her thanks to Sagbua and the chiefs, and her best wishes for their true and lasting happiness, and for the peace and prosperity of the Yoruba nation.

The Queen hopes that arrangements may be made for affording to the Yoruba natives the free use of the River Ossa, so as to give them opportunities for commerce with this and other countries.

This commerce between nations in exchanging the fruits of the earth, and of each other's industry, is blessed by God. Not so the commerce in slaves, which makes poor and miserable the nation that sells them, and brings neither wealth nor the blessings of God to the nation that buys them, but the contrary.

The Queen and people of England are very glad to know that Sagbua and the chiefs think as they do upon this subject of commerce. But commerce alone will not make a nation great and happy like England. England has become great and happy by the knowledge of the true God and Jesus Christ.

The Queen is therefore very glad that Sagbua and the chiefs have so kindly received the missionaries, who carry with them the Word of God, and that so many of the people are willing to hear it.

In order to show how much the Queen values God's Word, she sends with this, as a present to Sagbua, a copy of this Word in two languages, one the Arabic, the other the English.

The Church Missionary Society wish all happiness and blessings of eternal life to Sagbua and all the people of Abeokuta. They are very thankful to the chiefs for the kindness and protection afforded to their missionaries, and they will not cease to pray for the spread of God's Truth, and of all other blessings, in Abeokuta and throughout Africa, in the name and for the sake of our only Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


Having read the Queen's message, Crowther held up the Bibles so that all could see them, and spoke to them of God's Word through it to mankind. [These Bibles were destroyed some years later in a palace fire. When King Edward VII heard of this; he sent another Bible (with a suitable inscription on the cover) to the reigning Alake7 to replace those destroyed.] Then the corn mill was exhibited; a quantity of corn was put into it and loud were the exclamations of surprise and acclamation when, by turning the handle, fine white flour was produced.

Fourteen months elapsed between the sending off of Sagbua's letter and the receipt of the reply from Queen Victoria. During that period things moved rapidly in Abeokuta. There were, on the one hand, great encouragements, and on the other, very serious opposition.

Young Müller proved himself a born evangelist. He conceived it to be his duty, anywhere and everywhere, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the heathen, and almost from his first day in Abeokuta he devoted himself unsparingly to his task. Taking one of the catechists with him, day by day he visited one township after another. Sarah B. Tucker has given us a fine picture of his apostolic zeal. She wrote:--

His zeal and holy boldness were quickened by the sights and sounds that continually met him. Now a long procession, the people were carrying idols on their heads, and shouting in honour of the deities; at another time a company of women were drumming, dancing . . . and if he entered the house of a chief, the figures of Orisha and of Obbafulo showed that earthly riches and success in war were the objects of supreme desire.

He followed the example of his Lord in his mode of teaching, and in taking the subjects of his addresses from the spot on which he stood, or the objects with which he was surrounded. A projecting rock at Ijemmo served him as a pulpit, as he unfolded the infinite valueof the true "shadow of a great rock in a weary land." Crossing a stream, he stopped and drew attention to the cleansing power of its waters, and led his hearers to the blood of Jesus that cleanseth from sin. At another time he met a hundred people coming up from the river with calabashes of water, and arrested their steps and fixed their attention by crying out in the words of the prophet: "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the water!" The markets afforded him abundant opportunities, sometimes thousands were to be found congregated together; and no sooner did he stand still among them than a group would gather round while the corn, the salt, the dry wood, exposed for sale supplied him with topics for instruction. People often literally thronged him and some would follow him from place to place that they might hear more.

Such preaching naturally aroused curiosity, awakened conviction, or produced hostility. Many questions, intelligent and otherwise, were put to him, and men argued with one another concerning the message he proclaimed. One old chief greatly encouraged Mtiller by saying!: "We old men are sure that good will come from preaching God's Word here. Preach, preach; do not mind what some say, but persevere." For eighteen months Miiller continued his work. Then his health began to fail and a little later he died.

Meanwhile, Crowther was steadily building up the work in his section of the town. He had built for his growing flock a mud and thatch church similar to the one in Ake, his old friends in Sierra Leone providing the money for it and Egba Christians doing most of the work. He was busy, too, with the all-important work of translation and sent home for press St. Luke's Gospel, Acts, Romans, and a catechism. Great was the joy among his scholars when a supply of Yoruba primers arrived. Crowther himself established a school for boys, and Mrs. Crowther, who had been a teacher in Freetown, took charge of one for girls.

All missionary experience has shown that such work never goes on long without exciting opposition. In the very nature of things, the old priests see danger ahead and do all in their power to frustrate the progress of Christianity. It was so in Abeokuta. The churches at Aké and Igbein were filled to overflowing, the smaller churches were attended by hundreds, and the number of candidates for baptism was steadily increasing.

The inevitable trouble began over difficulties created in family affairs by the conversion of some young men who were shortly to be married. Urged on by jealous priests, the fathers of the betrothed girls refused to give them to their prospective husbands, on the grounds that, having become Christians, the men would not worship the household gods. The young men stood firm, and banded themselves not to marry any girl who would not join them in reading God's Book. Attempts were made to poison some of these resolute youths, and Christian girls also were threatened with the mysterious terrors of the Oro that for ages had filled with fear the heart of every Yoruba woman. Things grew more serious. Christian men and women were seized and thrown into prison, and some were put into stocks. One man was in the stocks for five days till his legs and feet were swollen with pain.

The first case of the death of an Egba convert roused new opposition over the matter of Christian burial; half a dozen men and women were made prisoners, kept for five days, and then severely scourged before being released, and strictly forbidden to receive further Christian instruction. In Igbore the storm broke out with redoubled fury. Everything was done to make the situation terrifying to the converts. The dreaded Oro was called out, and with a furious beating of drums, an excited crowd, armed with whips, clubs, and cutlasses, chased the Christians through the streets, and, when caught, dragged them to the council house of that township. There both men and women were mercilessly scourged, and the feet of the men were pushed through holes in the wall and made fast on the outside. Some of these holes were two feet above the ground on which the sufferers were forced to lie.

For five days and nights those people lay there, exposed alternately to the scorching tropical sun and tropical rain. Even food was denied them, and all the time they were pestered to forsake their new faith. Some must surely have died had it not been that on the council there were men who opposed the action of their colleagues and secretly fed and comforted the poor victims. Meanwhile, the dwellings of the prisoners were attacked and plundered of everything worth carrying away; even the doors were taken off their hinges and stolen. As so often happens, the persecutors overshot their mark, and the constancy of the Christians made a deep impression. There grew a general feeling of sympathy with the people who could suffer so bravely for their faith. Even the persecutors were puzzled, and asked: "What is it that the white man gives you to eat that makes your hearts so strong? "

In the Igbein, Itori, and Imo quarters of the town similar persecutions broke out. But in the other townships the chiefs, notably Sagbua, refused to permit it, stood by the Christians, protected them to the limit of their power, and in the end secured the liberation of the prisoners in those places where the councils had persecuted them. A visit from the British consul in the following year, the first "official" visit ever paid, had a marked effect on the persecutors. The afflictions neither daunted the courage of the Christians nor hindered the spread of the Gospel. Indeed, the time had come for expansion. The Townsends returned from furlough and several new missionaries arrived and this made it possible to extend the work beyond the town.» One of the new arrivals, the Rev. David Hinderer, was set free for pioneering expeditions in the surrounding country. Sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, and sometimes by canoe, he visited the villages and small towns, making friends with chiefs and people, and usually found ready listeners to the message he brought. Often, while preaching in some village market, the chiefs asked him to "sit down" in their midst (i.e., to come and live among them); and as this was in line with the policy of expansion now in the mind of the missionaries and the C.M.S. Committee, Hinderer looked out for a suitable village for the attempt. Opportunities presented themselves at several places, and at last Osielle, a small town some eight miles from Abeokuta, was chosen, and it became the first out-station of the mission. Hinderer settled there in the autumn of 1850, and at first lived in two small rooms in the chief's compound. In one of these rooms the chief kept his idols and worshipped them daily, but he removed them to make room for the welcome guests.

[About this time, also, the first American Baptist missionary arrived in Abeokuta,and European traders were beginning to come.]

On visiting the villages round his new station, Hinderer was ever conscious of the fear in which the people lived. They were in daily dread of the slave raiders, for every one knew that at any moment their foes might swoop down upon their village and carry them off into bondage. As he came upon men hiding in quiet places to do their work, he was constantly reminded of Gideon threshing corn in the wine press for fear of the Midianites. It was evident that outside the walls of Abeokuta there was no security. Within six months Abeokuta itself was threatened with destruction.

A hundred miles to the west, the great Dahomian king, Gezo, was planning to hurl his full strength against the Egba capital. In his skull-decorated palace at Abomey, a strange scene had taken place. [It was witnessed and fully recorded by Commander Forbes, R.N., who was then visiting the king.] It was the season of the annual festival with all its horrors of human sacrifice and ferocity. In one of the vast courtyards of his palace, the troops had paraded before their monarch. Regiment after regiment filed past, 7000 trained warriors, and took their oath of fidelity. The men paraded first; then came the most dreaded part of the army, the terrible Amazons. Under their female officers those fearless, ferocious women advanced to the throne, 2400 strong, singing lustily:--

The Amazons are ready to die in war;
Now is the time to send them forth.

Standing before Gezo, one Amazon chief cried on behalf of that terrible sisterhood: "As the blacksmith takes an iron bar and by fire changes its fashion, so we have changed our nature. We are no longer women, we are men!" They began literally to clamour to be sent forth on an errand of conquest, and one word was upon their lips. Louder and louder that cry arose as one division after another pressed to the throne, a fierce, vengeful cry, one word, and that word was "Abeokuta!"

With countenaces becoming more and more hard and cruel every moment, the Amazons waved their weapons and bowed before their king. "We have conquered the people of Mahi," they cried. "Now give us Abeokuta! . . . Have we not destroyed Attahpahm? Let us go to Abeokuta! We will conquer or die! ... If we do not conquer, our heads are at your disposal."

"As sure as Abeokuta now stands, we will destroy it!" cried another Amazon officer as she knelt before the royal stool. "Give us Abeokuta!" yelled her division in chorus. And as the standard bearers came forward with their skull-decorated ensigns, yet another regiment saluted and there came an even more sinister note; one officer reminded the king that, two years before, the Abeokutans had defeated an Amazon regiment; and at that reference, a loud cry for vengeance rent the air. And again there was the cry: "Give us Abeokuta!"

It must not be supposed that this desire to conquer Abeokuta was nothing beyond Dahomian lust for blood. For some time the Egbas, conscious of their growing power, had irritated their terrible neighbours by making raids upon their frontiers and destroying more than twenty-five of their villages and small towns, thus provoking the Dahomians beyond endurance.

Fortunately the news of the coming attack reached the Egbas in good time. As early as January, 1851, Beecroft, the British consul, warned them of Gezo's intentions. [Beecroft had been with Forbes in Abomey and had witnessed the scenes just described.] Sagbua and some of the more energetic chiefs at once began to make preparations; some miles of the city wall were repaired, and all possible was done to repel the enemy. On Saturday, March I, came news that the Dahomian army was approaching, 16,000 strong, 10,000 men and 6000 Amazons. The excitement in Abeokuta was intense. Against this well-trained and disciplined army, the Egbas had only 8000 fighting men. Yet every one knew that it would be a life and death struggle, and they managed to muster 15,000 men for the defence.

That Sunday was a day of suspense. The Christians gathered in their churches and cried to God for deliverance from their cruel foe. Very real and full of present meaning were the familiar words: "Give peace in our time, O Lord, because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, O God." Townsend at Aké, Crowther at Igbein, and Smith at Ikija, sought to strengthen and advise their people. All day long scouts brought in reports of the enemy's approach, and early on Monday morning, the Dahomians crossed the Ogun and stood before the walls. Fortunately they had been misled by the people of Issagga (who were secretly aiding the Egbas) and delivered their attack on the south side, where the defences were strongest. Had they carried out their original intention of approaching from the north (where the walls were in ruins) nothing, humanly speaking, could have saved the town. As it was, the conflict was a fierce one. The Dahomians flung themselves against the defences with ferocious recklessness; and the Egbas resisted each attack with desperate courage. The din was terrible; the shouts of the enemy as they came on time after time in well-ordered ranks, were answered by the heavy fire of musketry from the walls. The Egba women, and even the children, showed remarkable courage and stood behind their menfolk to reload the guns and carry water to quench their thirst, for all knew they were fighting for life and liberty.

Then the Dahomians extended their lines; but the Egbas saw the manreuvre and met it by lengthening their own line of defence. Over a battle front of a mile the conflict raged. There were moments when the issue trembled in the balance. At one point, after almost superhuman efforts, the enemy succeeded in making a breach in the wall and pressed through in triumph. For a moment the Egbas wavered. Had they given way the day would have been lost and thousands of their heads would have been carried to Abomey. But at that moment, when the issue hung by a thread, some one gave a cry of surprise, the Dahomians who had breached the wall were not men but women! Instantly the wavering Egbas rallied. They were not going to be beaten by women, and with a tremendous effort they stemmed the tide.

The fight had now raged for six hours without a pause. From the top of a high rock, behind the Aké mission house, the missionaries, with intense anxiety, watched the struggle, praying all the time that God would deliver the city they loved so well. Then as the sun was sinking towards the west, they detected a new development: the Egbas were outflanking their foes. The Dahomians wavered, and the defenders poured out from the gates to press their advantage. To baffle their enemies, they set fire to the dry grass that stood ten and twelve feet high, and swiftly the flames and smoke added confusion to the scene. Before those fierce onslaughts the Dahomians fell back, leaving hundreds of their dead upon the field. But their discipline and valour prevented the defeat from becoming a rout, and all through the night they fought rearguard actions.

At dawn, the Egbas pressed forward in force to drive their beaten foe from the country. At Issagga, another decisive battle was fought, if anything more deadly than that before the walls of Abeokuta, and again the Egbas were victorious. The proud Dahomians' armies were now in full retreat, and their losses were estimated at more than 3000 slain and 1000 taken prisoners.

Great was the rejoicing in the town, and not a few of the chiefs and people openly acknowledged that they owed their deliverance to the God of the Christians. They realized, too, that had not the white men warned them of their peril, the Dahomians would have caught them unprepared and their fate would have been sealed. On the Sunday that followed that eventful week the services were crowded, and with grateful hearts the Christians sang: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." But sorrow was mixed with joy, for some Christians had fallen in the battle and some were missing, were in fact carried off by the enemy to an unknown fate.

The missionaries were not a little anxious lest the triumph should be marred by cruelty to the prisoners who had fallen into the hands of the conquerors. With people still heathen, revenge would have been natural; and the possibility of it was increased by the violent behaviour of some of the captives. Two captured Amazons, for instance, killed the people who took them food. Yet Town-send was able to write: "I am not aware that the Egbas have acted cruelly towards their prisoners."

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