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 VIII. A Voyage up the Niger and Tshadda

IN the midst of the development recorded in the last chapter there came a new call to the Niger itself.

The failure of the Government Niger Expedition of 1841 had for the time discouraged further effort, though the consul (Mr. Beecroft) had made a voyage up the river in 1845. Up to that time all exploration of the river had been attended with great loss of life. [The expeditions of Mungo Park (1805), the Brothers Lander (1830), Macgregor Laird (1832-3), Beecroft (1836, 1840), the Government Expedition (1841), and Beecroft (1845).] But that noble-hearted Scottish merchant-prince Macgregor Laird could not banish from his mind the belief that the Niger could and must be opened to the influence of Christian civilization. His own expedition of 1832-3 had proved disastrous, both financially and in human life, forty out of the forty-nine Europeans having died. Undismayed, he began in the early 'fifties to make preparations for another attempt. Her Majesty's Government was sympathetic, but not prepared to undertake responsibility. So, at his own expense and risk, Laird fitted out a small steamer, the Pleiad, for the double purpose of exploration and trade, and the Government appointed several naval and other officers to accompany the expedition, the chief of whom was Dr. W. B. Baikie, R.N. As the introduction of Christianity among the riverside tribes was an essential part of his project. Laird asked the C.M.S. to allow Crowther and the catechist Simon Jonas to accompany the expedition, offering them free passage on the Pleiad. Crowther was eager to go, and the C.M.S. Committee was only too glad to seize the opportunity.

On July 12, 1853, the little vessel crossed the bar at the mouth of the Nun. The water was considerably lower than it had been in 1841, and there was need for more careful navigation. Soundings had to be taken constantly and sometimes a launch was sent ahead to find the deep channels. From time to time the Pleiad struck sandbanks and had to be got off with the help of boats and canoes, a task that often proved extremely difficult. One feature of the expedition was the care taken to guard against sickness, and every day quinine was served out to all on board.

The first objective was the town of Abo, where the Obi had been so friendly and had signed the treaty with Captain Trotter. But the Obi was dead and there was a dispute as to his successor. One of the claimants, Tsukuma, a son of the late Obi, welcomed the visitors with cordiality. A palaver was held in public in the presence of a great throng of people, the white men and Crowther sitting on mats spread for them. So great was the excitement that even the chief failed to get silence and the business had to proceed amid a babel of voices. Dr. Baikie reminded the chief and his councillors of the former visit thirteen years before, and of the treaty then signed. He assured them that the British still adhered to that agreement and that in seeking to fulfil it, the Pleiad had come to trade with them and renew the friendship. Tsukuma, in reply, affirmed that the old Obi, before he died, had particularly charged them not to deviate from the paths he had trod, and to preserve the friendship of the white man. The failure to trade was not their fault; it was the English who had not fulfilled their promise to come and trade. He was glad that they had come at last.

Then Crowther explained that one of the objects of their visit was to see if it were possible to establish a mission station at Abo as they had done at Lagos, Badagry, and Abeokuta. To this the chief replied that the words were good, too good for them to hope that they would be realized; he would not believe anything until he saw what it was proposed to do. The difficulty, he insisted, was not with the people of Abo, who were willing to be taught, but with the white men who for so many years had not fulfilled their promise. It was arranged, therefore, that the Ibo interpreter, Simon Jonas, should again be left at Abo1 to teach the people until the return of the expedition to the sea.

The next stage was to visit Idda, eight days higher up the Niger. The reigning Atta was the same man whom Crowther had met in 1841, and again there were the same provoking difficulties and delays owing to the local customs and etiquette. He remembered Captain Trotter's visit, and at once recognized Crowther. He also remembered the promises made to him thirteen years before, to send traders and teachers, and to organize the agricultural farm, and wanted to know why the white men had failed to fulfil their promise. It was explained to him that there had been difficulties, but that, so far from having forgotten their promise, the Pleiad had come expressly to trade with them, and had, moreover, brought Crowther to see what could be done to send them Christian teachers. Whereupon the Atta ordered his people to give shouts of joy to express their satisfaction. So anxious was he to detain the expedition that it was difficult to get away.

As the Pleiad slowly proceeded up-stream there were increasing signs of warfare among the tribes themselves, and the ever-present shadow of a still greater danger, the organized raids of the Fulani, the powerful Moslem conquerors from the Sudan. Originally a race of shepherds, they had imposed their rule upon the great peace-loving Hausa nation whose country lay to the north of the Niger and the Tshadda, a region then known as the Central Sudan. [The Sudan is a great belt of country stretching across Africa, south of the Sahara and Egyptian deserts, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic.] They were notorious for their slave-raiding proclivities, and were constantly attacking the pagan tribes of the Niger territories, sowing dissension among them and setting one tribe against another that they themselves might benefit by the unrest and turmoil., In their fear of the Fulani, some tribes had removed from one side of the river to the other, in order to be less exposed to sudden attack, and some had built new villages on the surrounding hills or on islands. So great was the fear of the Fula conqueror, named Dasaba, brother of the King of Rabba, that scarcely a village could be seen on the western bank of the river near the confluence.

Three days after leaving Idda, the expedition visited the site bought by Captain Trotter thirteen years before for a model farm. It was overgrown with trees and rank vegetation; instead of a garden, a wilderness. The people of the surrounding villages asked if the English intended to come again and occupy it, and Crowther assured them that one day they would do so.

Immediately opposite the site of the projected farm, the mouth of the Tshadda or Benué, the Niger's greatest tributary, opened out before the voyagers, and as they entered its broad stream the more important work of the expedition began. The chief task was to explore this great river and discover its possibilities. The water was rising and the river presented the appearance of an extensive sheet of water. [At the confluence it rises as much as thirty feet in the wet season.] As the Pleiad ascended, it was noticed that the tribes differed widely from those of the Niger. Many of the villages were squalid, and the people often dirty and less clothed. But here and there they came upon a chief of importance who sat clad in silk robes and kept considerable state. Everywhere there was the fear of the Fulani; the people were timid and suspicious; their spies were constantly on the alert and ready to scent the least approach of danger. Here and there were traces of quite recent raids. They came upon one wide area the entire population of which had been carried off to Sokoto as slaves for the sultan. Often it was difficult for the expedition to get into touch with the chiefs, and in some cases the whole population fled into the bush.

Usually it was Crowther, as an African and most familiar with the African mind, who undertook to open up negotiations, carefully sending the interpreters first to announce his coming, a point of etiquette almost universal in West Africa. Sometimes, on landing, he noticed around him men armed with spears and bows and arrows ready for any emergency, but his tact removed their fears. He always felt that allowance had to be made for the perpetual fear under which they lived, and he believed that many European explorers mistook nervous caution and suspicion for hostility. But sometimes even Crowther could not establish friendly relations with a chief, especially those more directly under Fulani influence. At many places they heard of the great cities of Kano and Sokoto, and the powerful emirs who ruled over millions of people.

Passing beyond the points reached by previous expeditions, the Pleiad steamed cautiously up the splendid waterway to regions where the people were "the most degraded and uncivilized" Crowther had ever seen. For over seven weeks they went forward until they reached a place 350 miles from the confluence. [Two hundred and fifty miles beyond any previous expedition. Onitsha itself they did not see, for it lay inland. In those days, there was merely a canoe landing and a market at the riverside.] Then they had to face an unsurmountable obstacle: they could no longer obtain wood for the furnaces of the ship. But even then the indomitable Baikie would not return until he, with one Englishman and a few Africans, had gone still higher in a couple of open boats.

On the return journey to the confluence, much country was under water, and villages previously visited were flooded. Navigation was difficult, and at one place the Pleiad stuck so fast that it seemed impossible to move her. A terrific tornado with torrents of rain added to the difficulty, and the force of wind and current drove the ship deeper into the mud. For three days all their efforts were in vain, and it seemed as though she must be abandoned. But at last the steadily-rising waters aided the efforts of the officers and crew, and the gallant little vessel reached the confluence after a cruise of 101 days. Steadily they sailed down the mighty Niger, touching again Idda, and a riverside market called Onitsha. They picked up Simon Jonas at Abo, and found he had done good introductory work and secured the friendship of the people, who were eager to retain him. The chiefs offered a site for a mission station, and it was definitely marked off; but Crowther's practical eye perceived that Abo would never do for European missionaries, for the whole town was flooded by the rising of the river, and large market canoes were paddling along the streets. He, however, promised the chiefs that with as little delay as possible he would send one or two teachers to live among them.

On November 7, with cheers of joy, the Pleiad crossed the bar and stood out to sea. For the first time on record an African expedition had fulfilled its mission without the loss of a single life. It was proved that by taking proper precautions and using quinine freely, it was possible for Europeans to venture up the river for short periods. From every point of view the attempt had been successful. They had found that for at least 600 miles up the Niger and Tshadda there was a navigable waterway, and that the people were, on the whole, friendly and eager to trade.

Nor was the expedition less encouraging from the point of view of Crowther and the C.M.S. Here was a magnificent highway to the very heart of Africa. To them it was a reconnaissance to be followed up as quickly as possible by definite missionary occupation. Never for a moment did Crowther doubt that this would be the mind of his Committee, and throughout the voyage he had done a great deal of valuable preparatory work on the riverside languages. He had prepared long lists of words and phrases, and with the help of the interpreters (most of whom were C.M.S. teachers from Sierra Leone) he had carefully collected the equivalents in the principal vernaculars. In presenting his report to the Committee, he urged the immediate undertaking of a River Mission, and he enforced it with this irresistible plea:--

God has provided instruments to begin the work, in the liberated Africans of Sierra Leone, who are natives of the banks of this river. If this time is allowed to pass away, the generation of liberated teachers who are immediately connected with the present generation of the natives of the interior will pass away with it. Many intelligent men who took deep interest in the introduction of trade and Christianity to the Niger, who had been known to the people, have died since; so have many of the chiefs and people of the country, who were no less interested to be brought into connexion with England by seeing their liberated countrymen return. Had not Simon Jonas been with us, who was well known to Obi and his sons, we should have had some difficulty in gaining the confidence of the people at Abo. ... It takes great effect when a returning liberated Christian sits down with his heathen countrymen . . . and invites them, in his own knguage, with refined Christian feelings and sympathy, not to be expressed in words but evidenced in an exemplary Christian life.

Project Canterbury