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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 IX. Crowther Founds the Niger Mission

THE C.M.S. was fully prepared to enter upon a mission to the Niger. The main difficulty was that of access, for there were no regular steamers plying on the river beyond the delta. Macgregor Laird had lost so much money on the Pleiad expedition that he did not feel able to undertake another. The British Government had its hands full with the Crimean war, and the general public, even the mercantile public, were apathetic. This time it lay with the C.M.S. to make the move. In 1856, soon after the conclusion of peace, the Committee laid a memorial before Lord Palmerston, and this resulted in an agreement between the Government and Laird to send up the river a small screw steamer, the Dayspring. Her total length was only seventy-six feet, and her gross tonnage seventy-seven tons. At her bows she carried the figure of a dove with an olive leaf, a fitting symbol of her errand. Again Dr. Baikie was in command with Lieutenant Glover as captain of the vessel. Crowther was to accompany the expedition with a band of African workers to be stationed along the river.

The plan was to follow the main stream of the Niger to Rabba, whence Baikie and Crowther were to travel overland to visit the great Fula Sultan of Sokoto, the capital of the Fulani Empire.

The planting of the Niger Mission gave Crowther the opportunity of his life, and very careful were the preparations he made. His chief helper was an African clergyman, the Rev. J. C. Taylor, a son of slave parents of the Ibo tribe. Simon Jonas was also to go, together with a few other catechists from Freetown. The intention was to station these workers at Abo, Idda, the farm, and elsewhere. But Crowther's purview also extended to the great Moslem areas of the Sudan, Rabba, Bida, Kano, and Sokoto. As no convert from Islam was available, he took the remarkable course of selecting a liberated Yoruba slave, still a Moslem, who was a teacher of Arabic and full of gratitude to both the British Government and the C.M.S. for all they had done for him. Crowther believed that "such a man will do a vast deal in softening the bigotry and prejudice of men by his persuasion." And he added this note:--

The beginning of our missionary operations under Muhammedan government should not be disputes about the truth or the falsehood of one religion or another; but we should aim at toleration, to be permitted to teach their heathen subjects the religion we profess.

In July the Dayspring entered the Niger. The expedition began with a disappointment. Simon Jonas was to be stationed at Abo to carry on the Work he had begun in 1841 and 1854. But the young chief, Aje, had deteriorated into an insolent and rapacious ruffian, and it was manifestly wiser to try how things stood elsewhere. At Onitsha, on the eastern side of the Niger, the outlook was more promising. It proved to be a good-sized town, lying two or three miles from the river, and being about 100 feet above the high water mark was in no danger of such inundations as Crowther had witnessed at Abo on his previous visit.

The chief of Onitsha and his councillors welcomed their visitors cordially, and readily gave sites for a trading factory and a mission. As in so many African tribes, the rudiments of democracy were not unknown, and the chief, before pledging his word to the white man, turned to the crowd of men and women who thronged his compound and asked if they concurred. With loud cries and the firing of muskets they signified that the proposal was "carried unanimously," and one man stepped forward to voice the approval of the crowd.

Here, then, the Niger Mission was founded. Dwellings were secured, Mr. Taylor and Simon Jonas were stationed, and three young Christian Sierra Leonians also elected to make Onitsha their home. Thus the Mission began entirely with African effort and an African staff.

The need for the Christian Gospel was strikingly manifest, even while the expedition was at Onitsha. After his first night on shore, Simon Jonas went back to the Dayspring to tell Crowther that a human sacrifice was shortly to be offered, and that the victim, a slave woman, would be put to death when the visitors left. Crowther sternly denounced the sin, and succeeded in saving one human life.

Passing on to Idda, now under a new chief, there was the old difficulty concerning etiquette, and so vexatious were the delays that the Dayspring went on to Gbebe, near to the confluence, where another teacher was stationed. Here, as elsewhere, we find the intrepid pioneer expounding to the people the meaning of the Christian message and his purpose in planting a mission in their midst. Then the Dayspring went on again to the mouth of another tributary, the Kaduna, on the north side of the Niger. As this river appeared to be navigable, and seemed to lead towards the great Moslem camp at Bida, the centre of Fulani rule along the Niger, it was decided to explore it. For a whole day the little vessel steamed cautiously up, until at sunset she reached the ruins of Gbara, the ancient capital of the great Nupé kingdom. Like so many other places, it had been laid waste by the Fulani, and it chanced that one of the Daysprivg's interpreters recognized it as the old home from which he had been kidnapped forty-five years before. Listen to the story of that invasion and desolation as told by an aged man to a modern traveller. Swinging his finger round the horizon, he told the things he had, as a boy, heard from his father:--

Farm land was everywhere. There was no shelter for elephants or flocks of antelopes, because our hunters drew every river glade. Towns both great and small covered the face of the land and thousands of people gathered in the market squares. Folk from Ilorin (far to the south of the Niger) came to us to purchase grain and clothing. They came from Kano (300 miles to the north) and did the like. Oxen were slaughtered daily in all the markets, and every evening the elderly drank their beer. No man went hungry, but all men worked. The men went to the farms and laboured. The women went to the markets and toiled. All the people of the Sudan said: "The Nupetchi are the richest of all mankind." Thus our fathers before us spake to us old men. But then came the Fulbe (i.e. Fulani) as Monafiki (i.e. instigators, traitors, cheats) into the land. Our young men were sold into slavery. Our women were dragged to their camps. Nothing but grass was grown on the farms. The apes stole the last ears of maize. The looms fell to pieces. The towns were wasted with fire. Foreign thieves (t.e. Fulani) built their nests in the farmsteads. The Fulbe slaughtered our beeves. They struck off the heads of our kings and set them on boards in the markets. Our smiths were only allowed to make handcuffs for the wrists of our fathers when they were driven away.

Crowther and his fellow travellers must have listened to many such tales from the lips of men and women who had taken part in the tragedy. Even to-day, traces of that awful drama may be found when old bushland is cleared and remains of the relentless destruction are laid bare. Both Baikie and Crowther were anxious to visit the great Fula king, Sumo Zaki, and his half-brother Dasaba, in their famous camp at Bida; Baikie in the hope of getting into touch with them on behalf of the British Government, Crowther because he felt how important it would be for his mission to secure promise of security and protection from such powerful rulers. So they sent messengers to announce their approach, and with true Moslem courtesy the king sent horses for the use of his distinguished guests.

At dawn one morning Baikie and Crowther reached the immense camp and found multitudes of Moslem warriors engaged at their prayers. In African travels, there are few experiences more impressive than to come suddenly at sunrise or sunset, upon a company of Moslems at worship and to hear, rising from the bush, the low rhythmic sound of the Arabic prayers. In striking contrast to that scene of worship, Crowther chanced upon the market place and there found numbers of slaves for sale. At that moment a woman and her baby were being sold for 70,000 cowries.

With considerable ceremony the representatives of Christian civilization were led into the presence of the Fula king. He received them with every kindness and respect, offered them seats on mats already spread for them, and with characteristic Moslem oiety declared that he owed the favour of their visit, not to his own goodness, but to God's mercy. If such words seem strange on the lips of the man who had devastated hundreds of square miles of country, we must remind ourselves that African nature is full of strange contrasts and that in such chiefs, whether Moslem or pagan, a perfectly sincere courtesy and piety and utter ferocity are but different aspects of the same nature.

In dealing with such a man as Sumo Zaki, Crowther knew quite well that the first step was to establish friendly feelings, and his policy of having with him the Moslem interpreter justified itself.

The king and his chiefs were surprised to find one of their own co-religionists come to them in the company of Christians, and they questioned him eagerly, hearing with some surprise of the kindness he had received at the hands of the British. All this prepared the way for Crowther, but he knew that it would be worse than useless to begin by asking permission to preach the Christian religion to Moslems. With true African tact, therefore, the messenger of Jesus introduced himself as a mallam (teacher), sent by the great mallams of the white man's country, to see the state of the heathen population and to know the mind of the rulers, whether he might teach those people the religion of Anasara (Jesus) and also introduce trade among them.

To this the king agreed and even offered to give a place for a station at Rabba, a little higher up the Niger. Dasaba, the king's half-brother and co-ruler, however, seemed to treat the mission as a huge joke and literally rolled on his mat with glee and laughter. All ended happily, and the usual kola nuts were broken and eaten together as a symbol of friendship. But as they rode away from the camp, Crowther knew that it would not take much to change the whole aspect of affairs; a few false reports, a few seeds of suspicion, and Sumo Zaki's lower nature would be aroused and easily inflamed against the Christians. Still, Crowther felt that he had made the most of the opportunity.

On leaving the Fula king, the expedition returned down the Kaduna and continued its voyage up the Niger to Rabba which is on the north bank. For a time it had been the head-quarters of Sumo Zaki and Dasaba. Its importance was mainly due to the fact that it was the crossing place for caravans travelling between Kano, the centre of Hausa commerce, and Ilorin, the chief Moslem stronghold south of the Niger.

At Rabba, Crowther met men who were able to throw light on the death of Mungo Park and his companions, fifty years before, when their boat the Joliba was wrecked among the rocks at Bussa. The Dayspring steamed gaily on, her company little dreaming that a similar fate awaited their own vessel.

They had steered safely through the narrow channels beside Jebba Island. The great fetish rock reared its huge form above them, rising like a pinnacle with almost sheer precipices from the river. Suddenly, with a crash that shook her from stem to stern, the Dayspring struck a submerged rock. Disabled, and leaking badly, she drifted for a few minutes, then jammed upon other rocks and lay a helpless wreck. The great spirit that dwelt in the rock was avenged upon the white men who had dared invade his dominions; the people of the neighbourhood said that he was offended by the colour of the clothes they wore! But, unlike the Joliba, the sinking Dayspring was not surrounded with enemies. Dug-out canoes swiftly put out to her assistance; with their help the whole ship's company reached the bank in safety, and were also able to save a few things of importance. Darkness fell swiftly upon them, and during the night there was a violent tornado; the survivors had little but their raincoats to protect them. At dawn they set off in dug-outs to examine their precious little Dayspring, but she was seen to be a hopeless wreck, quite beyond possibility of repair in such a place, and Lieutenant Glover was compelled to come to the decision to abandon her. [Her remains can still be seen at low water, lying near Jebba rock. After she was abandoned, the natives carried into the bush her crank-shaft, engine, and propeller, apparently to use as fetishes, and they were found on Jebba Island in 1916 when the engineers were constructing the railway bridge that now spans the Niger. They are exhibited on Jebba railway station.] The whole party returned by canoes to Rabba to wait for relief. They were aware that another vessel, the Sunbeam, was to follow the Dayspring up the river at an interval of a few months, and they hoped that, if all went well with her, she would pick them up and take them back to the coast.

More than a year passed before the looked-for relief came. But to such men the time was not wasted. Glover, in canoes, carefully surveyed the river and several tributaries; Baikie visited the chiefs and entered into friendly negotiations with regard to future trade, and Crowther eagerly examined the possibilities of the district as a mission centre. Rabba itself offered fine facilities. The very fact of its position as a caravan centre presented splendid opportunities. Some of those caravans passing between Kano and Ilorin were several thousands strong, with hundreds of heads of cattle. The ferrying of such numbers across the broad water of the Niger necessarily occasioned delay, and that very delay would enable mission workers to sow among them the seeds of Christian truth. With permission of'the chiefs, Crowther obtained a piece of land on which to build five conical huts after the style of the locality, surrounding them with a palisade.

Purchasing a large dug-out canoe, he fitted it up with seats for half-a-dozen passengers in addition to the canoe men, and gave to it the name of Mission Canoe. When finished, this canoe de luxe was re-launched in the presence of an admiring crowd, and in it Crowther made visits to numerous villages on both sides of the Niger. Nor was he less active in visiting places that lay inland from the river, sometimes making quite considerable journeys and running no small risks from dangers of all kinds, including here and there a village chief or headman who turned out to be greedy or treacherous. Sickness visited that little band of refugees and death also, the purser falling a victim to dysentery. [Two other members of the Dayspring's company had died before she was wrecked: the mate and one of the crew, a South Sea Islander.] Two Other incidents are too interesting to be passed over: it was found possible to send a messenger with letters overland to Abeokuta; and one day an American Baptist missionary, the Rev. M. Clark, arrived, having travelled from Abeokuta; he brought with him news of the Indian Mutiny and was able to spare the refugees some sugar, tea, and coffee.

The long sojourn at Rabba gave Crowther splendid opportunities for studying the Nupd language, and also for personal conversation with numbers of Moslems, many of whom he found prepared to talk quietly about Christianity. He was convinced that these people could, and should, be reached by the messengers of Jesus.

At last in October, 1858, the long-looked-for Sunbeam arrived, and the whole party embarked and travelled down the mighty river. Crowther himself elected to leave the vessel at Onitsha in order to spend some time with the workers there. He found that success had attended the efforts of Mr. Taylor and the others, and already there was a small company of converts. Sometimes in the market place, as many as a thousand people listened to the preaching. After inspecting the work at Onitsha, the dauntless Crowther, instead of making for home, again ascended the Niger, this time in a dug-out canoe, a slow, wearying method after his former voyages by steamboats. He had a plan of his own to work out. His experience had taught him the uncertainty of steamboats on the river. If a mission was to be maintained, some more regular and reliable, if slower method must be found. He resolved to try canoes. It was not easy. He had trouble with the canoe men, who from time to time demanded more money and used threats to enforce their demands, only to find that Crowther could not be browbeaten. Back he went to Idda, then to the confluence, and then to Rabba. The arrival of the American missionary overland, and the sending of his own messenger to Abeokuta, during his year at Rabba, had made Crowther resolve to explore that "overland route" for himself, realizing that it might prove the easiest and most sure way from Lagos to the Upper Niger, and therefore important for the future development of the Mission.

So after a brief rest (and a little work) in Rabba, he set out on his first long land journey, a distance of some three hundred miles. The exposure and worry of the canoe journey up the river had brought on an attack of dysentery, and he was far from well, but he pushed steadily on with his face towards the sun, over the hills and through the long grass of the Nupe1 Country to Ilorin, and then through the forests of his Yoruba homeland till the rocks of Abeokuta rose high before him. He was the first member of the C.M.S. to make the overland journey between the coast and the river that afterwards became frequent. On reaching Abeokuta, he found that the Bishop of Sierra Leone had just arrived, and with him was Dr. Baikie; they had come up the Ogun from Lagos. Crowther himself speedily went to Lagos to meet his wife and family whom he had left there and from whom he had been separated for two years.

But he could no longer regard Lagos or Abeokuta as his post; the Niger was his God-appointed sphere and from that time his life was dedicated to its evangelization. In the summer of 1859 he once more went up the river, this time on the Rainbow, another vessel sent by Macgregor Laird for purposes of trade. He visited the workers at Onitsha, called at Idda, and intended to go on to Rabba. But at the confluence he received a brief message from Dr. Baikie (who had gone overland from Abeokuta) telling him that for the present Rabba was closed to missionary operations. No explanation was given, but knowing the situation as he did, Crowther concluded that his own fears had been realized and that enemies had succeeded in poisoning the minds of the rulers against the messengers of the Gospel. Sumo Zaki was dead; Dasaba, the famous slave raider, the man who had laughed so uproariously at the idea of missionaries, had become King of Nupé, and was building the city of Bida where the great camp had been; it was quite understandable that he had no use for missionaries. Though disappointed, Crowther found ground for encouragement at Gbebe where, as well as at Onitsha, converts were being prepared for baptism. Unfortunately the voyage ended in tragedy. As the Rainbow passed down the narrow waterways of the Delta, she was treacherously fired upon from the matted undergrowth of the banks and two of her crew were killed. This incident again delayed the establishment of regular steamboat services and the river was closed for two years. Then, in January, 1861, Macgregor Laird died; his vessels were withdrawn and his trading posts closed.

During this period of suspense Crowther was often anxious about the lonely workers up the river. But he was undaunted, and with the concurrence of the Committee in London he was laying plans for work on a much larger scale. By August, 1862, he was at the mouth of the Nun with a party of thirty-three African workers (including wives and children) ready to go up the Niger. They were taken up by a gun-boat, H.M.S. Investigator. At Gbebe, at the mouth of the Tshadda, a great joy awaited the pioneer: a company of people were now ready for baptism. One September morning, in the presence of two hundred people in the little mud chapel, he baptized eight adults and one child, the firstfruits of the Niger Mission. The service was the more significant in that the persons who received baptism represented several different tribes. In his joy Crowther wrote: "Is not this an anticipation of the immense field opened to the Church to occupy for Christ?" Nor was it less notable that the first baptisms took place, not near the mouth of the river but 250 miles upstream, at the confluence, the meeting place not only of the great waters but also of great peoples, the pagans of the south and the Moslems of the Sudan, and almost exactly in the geographic centre of the vast area that now comprises the Nigeria Mission of the C.M.S.

With his new workers, Crowther was able to staff the station at Gbebe and begin industrial work for the purpose of preparing, cleaning, and packing cotton for export to England. While Crowther was there the Fula king Dasaba sent messengers, really spies, to see what he was doing, and they were not a little surprised at the wonders of the industrial school with its western machinery. Crowther sent them back to tell the king what they had seen, and to ask him to judge whether such efforts were injurious to the prosperity of Africa or favourable to its peace and welfare.

By this time the Committee of the C.M.S. was beginning to face a very important question with regard to the Niger Mission. There was only one bishop in West Africa, the Bishop of Sierra Leone, nearly two thousand miles away. He might occasionally visit Lagos and Abeokuta to conduct confirmations and ordinations and generally supervise the work; but it would be utterly impossible for him to take charge of the river mission also. If the Niger Mission were to be established and develop, as there appeared every possibility that it would, there must be a bishop in charge. Yet all experience tended to show that Europeans could not, with any degree of safety, live on the Niger.

It was Henry Venn, at that time secretary for the West African field, who found the solution of this problem: the Niger Mission had begun as a purely African enterprise, pioneered, staffed, and directed by men of Negro race; let it continue so under the guidance of an African bishop, Crowther. The proposal was revolutionary. All sorts of obstacles at once presented themselves, and many who knew Africans considered the experiment too risky. Crowther was admittedly an exceptional man; could the young West African Church reasonably be expected to produce a successor as good? Venn overcame all the difficulties. He won the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in turn secured the approval of Her Majesty's Government, and in due course the Royal License was issued for the consecration of "Our trusty and well beloved Samuel Adjai Crowther, clerk in Holy Orders, to be a bishop of the Church of England in the West African territories beyond the British Dominions."

Having secured this, Venn set to work to obtain for the bishop-elect a degree, that nothing might be lacking to give him standing and prestige; and at his recommendation, and on the grounds of Crowther's work on the Yoruba Grammar, Yoruba and English Dictionary, and Yoruba versions of many books of the Bible, plus reasonable scholastic attainments, the University of Oxford conferred upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity.

On St. Peter's Day (June 29), 1864, in Canterbury Cathedral, Crowther, the ex-slave boy, was solemnly consecrated Bishop of the Niger Territories. Close by, dressed in full naval uniform, sat Admiral Sir H. Leeke who, forty-two years before, had rescued him from the stinking hold of the slave ship in Lagos lagoon. And not far away sat an old lady, widow of Bishop Weeks of Sierra Leone, who quietly remarked to an officious sidesman who challenged her right to be there: "I think I have a right to this seat, for I taught Mr. Crowther his alphabet."

Crowther was the first man of colour to be advanced to a bishopric in modern times.

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