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 VII. A Decade of Expansion and Progress

THE year 1851 was one of continual warfare throughout the area of the infant mission. In March there was the Dahomian attack on Abeokuta recorded in our last chapter. Though beaten off, there was only too good ground to fear that Gezo might do what Dahomian kings had so often done, wash the graves of his ancestors in the blood of human sacrifices and then return with increased strength to blot out the town that had dared to resist him. Commander Forbes therefore visited Abeokuta to advise the Egba chiefs as to the defence of their city, a visit that helped greatly to strengthen the feelings of friendship towards England.

On the coast, matters were rapidly approaching a crisis in which Lagos, Badagry, Porto Novo, Dahomey, and Abeokuta were all more or less involved. For several years there had been a marked increase in the slave traffic. The new Free Trade policy of Great Britain had led to a great increase of sugar planting in Brazil and Cuba, and that increased the demand for slaves for the plantations; consequently slave running revived. "Sugar became cheaper in England and the cost fell upon Africa." Synchronizing with this, there was in England a strong movement for the withdrawal of the patrol fleet from the coast, partly on the grounds of expense and partly on the pretext of its ineffectiveness. The C.M.S. Committee and all other friends of Africa knew that with the withdrawal of the cruisers the slave traffic Would grow by leaps and bounds, and the work of forty years would be undone. A stiff battle had to be fought in England, and missionary and church leaders threw themselves into the conflict. We find the secretaries and members of the Committee, and such missionaries as were on furlough, going constantly to the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, and to the official and private residences of Her Majesty's Ministers to urge their case.

Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell took up the matter most earnestly, and when the resolution to withdraw the squadron came before the House of Commons it was defeated. The Government adopted a policy of increasing, instead of diminishing, their efforts to crush the slave traffic.

But those interested in the slave trade stirred themselves to defend it and if possible to sweep the English from the Slave Coast. [The name then given to the coast of Africa from the Volta to the Niger, because it was the chief sphere of export of slaves.] To this end Kosoko, the usurper chief of Lagos, and the chiefs of Porto Novo combined with the Popo chiefs in Badagry.

Three months after the attack on Abeokuta, the Popo slavery party in Badagry, instigated by Kosoko, rose against those who were favourable to the Egbas and the British (June 12, 1851). In the fierce conflict that ensued, the town was set on fire and totally destroyed, except the quarter where the C.M.S. and Wesleyan missions and the trading concerns were situated. But the attack was repulsed with great slaughter. Kosoko was furious at the failure of his plans. Badagry had become the Egba point of contact with the sea; it was there that the Egbas and the white men "shook hands"; Sierra Leonian traders landed or embarked there as they journeyed to and fro between Freetown and Abeokuta. In his blind rage Kosoko resolved upon another effort to capture Badagry, believing it to be the key to the situation. Rallying his allies, a few weeks after the first failure, he made a new attack on the town (July 22, 1851). Soon after dawn a fleet of 150 large canoes, each with twenty-five to thirty men, and several mounted with swivel guns, approached along the lagoon and began the grand attack, and were later reinforced by their allies from Porto Novo. But the timely arrival of a force of Egbas turned the scale and after a six hours' struggle the enemy drew off, beaten. All through the trying experiences, Gollmer, though too ill to stand up, stuck to his post. He wrote: "I felt that I was at the post where God had placed me and I must not desert it."

Still undaunted, Kosoko began to prepare for a still greater effort to capture Badagry in which all his allies were to co-operate. But the wily chief had not counted the cost. Britain had decreed that the slave traffic must cease, and she could not be defied by the chief of a little island in a lagoon. Moreover, the 3000 Sierra Leonians in Abeokuta, and several hundreds more in Badagry, were British subjects and had to be protected in their lawful trade, and it was obvious that there would be trouble so long as Kosoko had any power. So it was resolved to strike a decisive blow at Lagos. On December 26, 1851, a British squadron sailed up the lagoon, landed a force of marines, and after severe fighting, Lagos was taken, Kosoko the usurper deposed, and the slave market closed. Akitoye, the rightful chief, was reinstated, and he at once entered into a treaty to suppress slavery and open the port to lawful trade. This was the fatal blow to the overseas slave traffic; with Lagos in British hands, its final suppression was only a question of time. Thus closed that eventful year 1851.

For the mission, the whole outlook was changed by these events. The natural road to Abeokuta (from Lagos by the River Ogun) was now open. Indeed, by virtue of its geographic position, the island-town was the gateway to the whole of the Egba, Ijebu, Yoruba, and Ijesha Countries. With the opening of Lagos, the fate of Badagry, always inconvenient of approach, was sealed, and from that time it steadily declined. As a missionary, as well as a trade centre, Lagos was better in every way.

The work in Badagry, in spite of the devoted labours of Gollmer and his colleagues, had not been very successful, for the Popos were not attracted by the message of Christ. So the new opportunity in Lagos was eagerly seized upon; a catechist was sent immediately, and on January 10, 1852, in the presence of the restored chief Akitoye, he preached the first Christian sermon in the town that was destined to become the greatest port in West Africa. Soon Gollmer followed, for as Badagry lay in ruins there was little purpose in remaining there. An important new mission station was thus opened in a key position. [The Wesleyans also quickly occupied the new port.]

Up-country, Abeokuta (with its one out-station at Osielle) was still the only centre of Christian light and English influence, a beacon in the midst of the surrounding heathenism. The Christian position there had been consolidated, and the time for an advance had now come.

Several days' journey to the north lay the great town of Ibadan. At that period it was smaller and of less importance than Abeokuta, its walls being only ten miles in circumference, and its population less than that of the Egba city. [To-day it is the largest pagan city in Africa with a population of 240,000.] But it lay in the very heart of the Yoruba Country, a very important centre lor evangelistic purposes. Soon after the deliverance of Abeokuta from the Dahomians, and while the troubles with Badagry and Lagos were still in progress, David Hinderer turned his mind to Ibadan, and sought from Sagbua and his war captain permission to visit it. This was far from easy to obtain, for a good deal of jealousy existed between the Egbas and the men of Ibadan, the former being excessively proud of their friendship with the English and not wanting to share with other towns the honour of having white men living among them. Sagbua and his chiefs were eager to keep the missionaries in Egba territory, and urged every conceivable difficulty.

But Hinderer was not to be put off, and in the end secured permission on condition that the Ibadan people were willing to receive him. A messenger was sent to Ibadan, and contrary to Sagbua's expectation he returned with a hearty invitation. The journey through the forests and mountains was not a little dangerous, for the people of the Ijebu Country to the east were prone to attack small parties of travellers. Hinderer therefore joined a caravan of some 4000 people, chiefly African merchants with an escort of warriors. But with so large a company delays were numerous; the soldiers were inclined to linger, drinking and quarrelling and even trying to extort money from the people they were supposed to protect. Such company was distasteful, and Hinderer and a few others resolved to risk the perils and push on alone. 44 I must confess," he wrote, "that I sometimes felt uneasy, ahead of all the caravan, in the midst of the dark lurking-places of our sworn enemies the Ijebus; but my trust was in the Lord on Whose errand I was thus exposed."

The forest was so dense and the path so narrow and overgrown that often he had difficulty in forcing his horse through the entangled creepers and overhanging branches. All his party suffered, too, from thirst until they found some rainwater in a hollow of rock in an otherwise dried-up river. At night Hinderer and his companions had to lie down on the ground and sleep in the forest, and they had no means of lighting a fire. He lay awake listening to the night noises of the forest and feeling "an awful loneliness." After five days' travelling, he reached Ibadan. He was the first white man to visit the town, and his arrival caused great excitement; he was greeted with cheers as he proceeded through the streets to the dwelling of Abere, the head chief.

Though, like the Egbas, the people of Ibadan belonged to the great Yoruba race, they were of a different branch and unlike them in many ways. They were more warlike, less inclined to agriculture and commerce; all the important chiefs were war chiefs, and both they and their people delighted in fighting; cruelty and human sacrifice were such common features that the surrounding peoples were apt to call them "the mad dogs of Ibadan." Only two years before Hinderer arrived, a notable chief had passed away, and seventy human beings were sacrificed over his grave. Abere appeared to be less cruel than his predecessor, but Hinderer found him and all the other leading men of the town terribly demoralized; often when he went to the council house for a palaver he found them too drunk to conduct business. Moslems were numerous in Ibadan; many of them were engaged in the slave traffic, but they were in high favour with the chiefs who were only too ready to aid them. These Moslem slavers scented mischief when Hinderer arrived, and they urged Abere and his council to expel them on the plea that "white men had made the people of Abeokuta like women, so that they no more went out to war." It was a lame excuse to urge so soon after the Egba defeat of the terrible Dahomian army, but it visibly moved the chiefs of Ibadan. One chief, however, an old councillor named Agbaki, who stood high in the confidence of Abere, rose and defended the white men in general and the missionary in particular, and he carried the day.

Although the chiefs and their soldiers and the slavers loved war, the common people, who were the sufferers, were longing for peace and security, and they listened readily to the message Hinderer brought to them. Often they greeted him with such exclamations as: "God bless you and help you, white man. You always speak words of peace, but our chiefs are for war. You must stay here and help us; the chiefs will not listen to us, but they will listen to you." For three months he remained in the town, striving to win the confidence of chiefs and people alike. He was the one white man in all that heathen land, and he was for ever conscious that in the sacred groves in the depths of the surrounding forests, the grim rites of fetishism were daily practised. The news of his presence in Ibadan spread through the surrounding country, and ere long messengers began to come begging him to visit other towns also. Ill health prevented his responding to such calls. Nor were the people of Ibadan willing to permit it, for they said: "Now that we have got a white man we must hold him very tight." Time after time he was laid aside with sickness, and at last he deemed it wise to return to Abeokuta where, among his missionary colleagues, he could have such attention as would facilitate recovery. He left Ibadan amid profuse expressions of regret and hearty invitation from chiefs and commoners soon to return and "sit down" in their town. Shortly after reaching Abeokuta it was thought advisable for him to take a furlough in England, and he came home for a few months.

When Hinderer returned to West Africa at the beginning of 1853, he had with him his bride. Unlike so many missionary wives, she passed safely through what in those days was called "the seasoning fever" and was spared for many years of devoted service. After a few months in Abeokuta, David and Anna Hinderer settled in Ibadan, which for seventeen years was to be the scene of their labours. In that remote town, cut off from all contact with European civilization, and several days'journey from their nearest missionary colleagues in Abeokuta, they laid the foundations of the future Yoruba Church.

Few missionary wives have ever given themselves more wholeheartedly tp the work of the Mission than did Anna Hinderer. She was a great lover of children, and being without children of her own, she poured out the treasures of her love upon those of Africa. At first she found them shy; their curiosity compelled them to come near and watch her; but the moment she raised her head and looked at them, they ran from her "as though she were a serpent." But no children could fear her for long, and soon a little black maiden mustered up all her courage and brought the white lady a flower, holding it timidly at arm's length, and then ran away. Friendship grew rapidly after that, and Mrs. Hinderer organized games for the children each evening when the heat of the day was over. Instead of fearing her, they now rushed to seize her hands and hung on to them. They gave her the name of lya (mother). She opened a day school, and so won the confidence of the chiefs and other people of Ibadan that they begged her to take their children into her own house and bring them up, a task into which she entered with eagerness. Motherless babies were brought to her and sometimes little slaves. Thus a boarding school developed, and this childless woman became the mother of many. No matter how her family of black boys and girls increased, she could always find room in her heart and home for one more. Very beautiful is the story of one tiny slave boy who ran to her and said: "lya, you can't kiss me because I'm black and you are white!" She answered by folding him in her arms and showering kisses on him.

While the Hinderers were toiling at their lonely station, events were bringing new opportunities around Abeokuta and Lagos. The missionary staff had been strengthened by the arrival of several new missionaries and also more Sierra Leonian catechists, one of the latter being Crowther's son. Like the Hinderers, Mr. and Mrs. Townsend took children into their house, and'so urgently did the chiefs press them to take others that soon they had a family of two dozen under their care. Other missionaries took similar steps. This system of "families" led naturally to the development of more organized schools, especially boarding schools. More careful attention was given to education, and steps were taken to provide for the training of Egba catechists and teachers. During the same period another most important development was taking place. Henry Venn, the C.M.S. secretary responsible for West Africa, convinced of the importance of introducing into Africa industry and commerce, had sent cotton gins to Abeokuta, and by 1859 there were nearly 300 of them at work. As early as 1854 a printing press was set up in Abeokuta, and five years later it began to issue an African Christian newspaper, the Iwe Irohin. At that time there were at least 3000 people who in C.M.S. schools had learned to read, and the missionaries felt it their duty to provide them with literature.

The growth of the Mission was such as to demand an episcopal visit, and towards the close of 1854 Bishop Vidal of Sierra Leone visited Lagos, Abeokuta, and Ibadan, where he confirmed nearly 600 persons, ordained three new missionaries and two Africans, and held conferences with the workers at each station to discuss important questions of policy and method. Unfortunately he contracted malaria which developed immediately after sailing from Lagos on his return journey, and he died before the vessel reached Freetown. Five years later Abeokuta received its second episcopal visit, this time from Bishop Bowen, who opened a fine new church at Aké, confirmed 190 candidates, and ordained another missionary.

More frequent calls were now coming in to Abeokuta from surrounding places. One urgent message came from the chief of Ife, the sacred city of the whole Yoruba nation, situated three days' east of Abeokuta. It was, and still is, a stronghold of fetish worship. The people believe it to be a sort of Yoruba Olympus whence all the gods have come, and the birthplace of the whole human race. The great chief of Ife, called the Oni, sent to ask for Christian teachers, and, moreover, for a treaty between himself and the Egbas and their English allies. Another call came from the chief of Ketu, a town of 10,000 inhabitants, sixty miles southwest of Abeokuta, asking that Crowther should visit them. The chief of Ijaye, two days to the north, sent so pressing a message that Townsend went to see him, and soon an out-station was established there with a missionary in charge. The policy of beginning with a strongly staffed central mission in Abeokuta was beginning to justify itself. Already the Egba metropolis was a beacon light for the whole country around, and from it new lights were being kindled.

But the decade we have been dealing with (viz., 1850-60) witnessed a still more important extension movement in an entirely different direction, and that must now be dealt with in separate chapters.

Project Canterbury