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 X. A Period of Trouble and Disappointment

WE must now return to the story of Abeokuta and the Yoruba Mission. In a previous chapter we have noticed that the 'fifties formed a period of steady growth and expansion. With equal truth the following decade may be described as one of set-back and disappointment. The good Alake, Sagbua, had passed away and his death was a great blow to the Mission. Clouds gathered round the churches, still in their spiritual infancy, and troubles developed within.

The year 1860 had scarcely opened when news reached Abeokuta that another Dahomian attack was impending. After a reign of forty years, the great Gezo was dead, and there were good reasons for supposing that before he passed away he had given to Gelele, his son and successor, solemn charge to avenge upon the Egbas the great disaster of 18 51. The new king had "watered his father's grave" with human sacrifices--rumour said 2000--and now came a report that he would march upon Abeokuta.

One Sunday in February, 1861, as the Christians were at their worship, news was brought that the Dahomian army was close upon the town. But smallpox broke out in the enemy's ranks and they were compelled to retire. Thirteen months later (March 15, 1862), however, a Dahomian army six thousand strong swooped suddenly down upon Issagga, a few miles from Abeokuta, and avenged the part its inhabitants had played in the former attack. The chief was slain, and among many victims carried off there were upwards of twenty Christians, including the catechist in charge of the station. One of these Christians was publicly crucified in Abomey, and others were killed or sold as slaves. For four years the catechist remained in captivity, and when at last released he told that often the Dahomian king had made him read before him the Christian Scriptures. [Gelele (like his father Gezo) had come under the magnetic influence of Thomas Birch Freeman, and this may account for his curious interest in Christianity.] Exactly a year later to the very day, March 15, 1863, the Dahomians attacked Igbara, another small Egba town, completely destroying it and carrying off many captives. No wonder the Egbas were on tenterhooks!

Meanwhile, troubles of a very different kind had developed in the Yoruba Country, serious quarrels between the people of Ibadan and those of the neighbouring town of Ijaye. Vindictive messages and haughty challenges passed between them. A calabash was sent to Ibadan with the modest request that it would be returned with the head of one of the chiefs in it. Whereupon another calabash was sent to Ijaye with the words: "We want the head of chief Are" in this calabash first"! The forest paths between the two tribes were closed, and kidnappers were sent out to pounce upon any persons who ventured to work on the farms.

Then actual war was' proclaimed, and the Hinderers were horrified to learn that a human sacrifice was to be offered for a successful issue. A fine, handsome young man, twenty-five or thirty years of age, was selected and paraded through Ibadan that all might see how splendid a victim was to be offered. Mrs. Hinderer wrote: "Some of our people who saw him say that he looked proud of the honour that awaited him. From being a poor slave, he is all but worshipped and has the power of saying and doing all he likes except escaping his death in the evening. But, poor fellow, he believes all kinds of glory await him in the other world." At the moment he was killed all the people in the great market place prostrated themselves to pray for victory, and after feasting and rejoicing the army set out to battle. It pained the gentle spirit of Anna Hinderer to find that the body of the victim of that sacrifice was tended by the women with great honour, being rubbed with oils and decorated in the belief that his spirit would be reincarnated as an infant and become a mighty king. Hundreds of women paid honour to the headless corpse, each in the hope that she might be the mother of the coming babe.

It was one of those internecine wars that had for many years devastated the whole Yoruba Country, and through which the once powerful "King of all the Yorubas" had been reduced to a position of no importance with little more than an empty title of royalty. The war between Ibadan and Ijaye soon involved other tribes also. The Egbas, remembering what they had in the past suffered from Ibadan, aided the people of Ijaye, blockaded the paths between Ibadan and Abeokuta, and kidnapped any Ibadan people who came within their reach. For the mission, the position was complicated by the fact that Ijaye had become an outpost, the Rev. and Mrs. A. Mann being stationed there.

The position of the Hinderers and their colleague Mr. Jeffries now became one of great isolation and privation. They were cut off from their co-workers in Abeokuta and it was difficult to get messages or supplies through. For months the devoted missionaries in Ibadan had no communication with the outer world. [Mrs. Hinderer wrote: "This letter, if it reaches you, will have gone from here to Lagos such a roundabout way; twenty-five days' journey at least, instead of three."] With their family of children to provide for anxieties multiplied. Supplies of cowries began to run short, and there was little chance of replenishing the stock. David Hinderer was in poor health and could not have the nourishment he needed. There was plenty of food in the town, but without cowries they could not purchase it; Mrs. Hinderer wrote these brave words:--

Our living is rather poor--we cook yams in all sorts of ways to make them palatable. I can eat palaver sauce and beans; D. cannot, but he likes Indian cornflour made into porridge, so feeds fairly well. . . . Here we all are--ourselves, Mr. Jeffries, our school, our native teacher, in all seventy persons--and every one has for more than two months eaten from our store of cowries. That store is now nearly'exhausted, though we only allow our two selves a pennyworth of meat in our soup . . . and pinching the salt as if it were gold dust.

Three months later they had to send away all the children who had homes to go to, and the Hinderers rationed themselves to a handful of beans each day. They were reduced to taking such little personal possessions as they had to the market to barter them for food, and in these markets Yorubas can drive hard bargains! Everything that could be spared went in this way, article by article. Again and again the house was ransacked in the hope of finding some little things that previously escaped notice, empty tin match boxes, old biscuit boxes, the zinc lining of packing cases. Things put aside as lumber were now regarded as treasures to be turned into food. Sometimes there were seasonable little gifts from African friends, but the handful of converts were too poor to help much. The bale, or head chief, who might have helped them as his own "strangers" and entitled to his hospitality, had been smitten with paralysis and was helpless; the other chiefs were too intent on the war to think of them, and the heathen people as a whole cared little what the white people were suffering, though there were exceptions.

After over a year of war restrictions, Mr. Hinderer made a desperate effort to secure supplies. With two boys he contrived to get through the Ijebu Country to Lagos where he purchased provisions. Sudden illness prevented his returning with a small caravan of traders, a providential intervention, surely, for the caravan was overwhelmed by the Ijebus; some of the men were killed or captured, and of Hinderer's precious stores only one head-load reached Ibadan. The attack was really an effort to capture the missionary, for the Ijebu king had set a price on his head, and had even sent a message to Lagos to the effect that if Hinderer attempted to journey back to Ibadan through the Ijebu Country he would surely cut off his head. A similar message was also sent to the British consul in Lagos. But in spite of the threat, Hinderer went back to Ibadan, and went through Ijebu, that being the only possible way. When the Ijebu king heard that his intended victim had reached Ibadan in safety, he declared that only the white man's God could have delivered him. During the eight weeks of separation Anna Hinderer had passed through agonies of suspense on behalf of her husband. But the trials called out devotion, and we find the African Christians meeting for a prayer meeting at six o'clock every morning.

At last in March, 1862, after just two years of war, the men of Ibadan struck a decisive blow at their foes. Ijaye was captured and destroyed, desolation and ruin marked the place where there had been a prosperous town of over 50,000 people. Mr. and Mrs. Mann got away safely the day before the town was taken, but Mr. Roper, a lay missionary, who insisted on remaining, was captured and brought to Ibadan with other prisoners and subjected to great cruelty. Hinderer tried to obtain his release, but the ransom demanded by the chiefs was prohibitive. Eventually they allowed him to live with the Hinderers on parole. The missionaries hoped that the fall of Ijaye would bring peace, but it did not. The Ijebus now began active hostilities against Ibadan and the Hinderers were still isolated. At the close of the year (1862) Captain J. P. L. Davis, accompanied by the Rev. J. A. Lamb of Lagos and the Rev. G. F. Biihler from Abeokuta, succeeded in visiting them, in an effort to bring about negotiations for peace. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it greatly cheered the Hinderers and Mr. Jeffries, who for a further period of two years and a half endured what was practically a state of siege. The Acting-Governor of Lagos, Captain Glover, R.N. (formerly commander of the ill-fated Dayspring), made several efforts to relieve them, but on three occasions when he attempted to do so, the King of Ijebu absolutely refused to allow him to pass through his country. [Lagos had in 1861 been annexed as a British possession.] Thus the weary years passed, and missionary work could only be carried on under severest restrictions. Sometimes converts failed and had to be disciplined; sometimes candidates for baptism had to be put back because they were unsatisfactory. But the pure, unselfish lives of the workers witnessed to the love of God. Even in those years of privation Anna Hinderer's heart went out to the children, and when she came across an abandoned baby left helpless in the bush, and no one in the whole town dared to take it in, she, without hesitation, took it to her mother heart and home. Both she and her husband constantly suffered from ill health; yet they stood heroically at their posts, until, in April, 1865, Captain Maxwell (sent by Glover) found a new route through the bush to Ibadan and conveyed Mrs. Hinderer in a hammock to the coast. Hinderer himself remained at Ibadan, feeling it would be disastrous to leave the station unoccupied, until at last he was relieved by Mr. and Mrs. Smith from Badagry. After five such years, furlough was sorely needed.

When viewed from the standpoint of Abeokuta, the Ibadan-Ijaye-Ijebu wars presented themselves in a different light. The Egbas, knowing that they were envied by the surrounding tribes because of their commercial prosperity, had yielded to the selfish impulse to close the roads to the coast, thus cutting the Ibadan and other people off from trade with Lagos with a view to keeping the trade in their own hands. The Egbas were born traders, intent on commerce with England and not a little proud of their relations with her; the Ibadans were their old enemies and rivals, and it was not unnatural that the Egbas should take advantage of Ibadan's wartime weakness. The Egbas for some time had indulged in various little wars in several directions, some of which were virtually slave raids. In the midst of these disturbances more than one human sacrifice had been offered. Captain Glover, who was always disposed to be unfriendly towards the Egbas, strongly opposed the closing of the roads. Intent upon the promotion of commerce over as wide an area as possible, he denounced the Egba policy and supported Ibadan. This attitude was resented by the Egbas who could not understand why Captain Glover sympathized with their foes. For twenty years the Egbas had regarded England as their friend and protector and could not see why her representative should turn against them. Moreover, several things in Glover's policy and attitude towards them led them to suspect that their own independence was threatened, a point upon which they were naturally sensitive.

This strained situation renewed an old peril to Abeokuta. The Dahomians, thinking that the Egbas were abandoned by their English friends and ringed around with enemies, made another attempt upon the city that had so often eluded their grasp. The king, in ordering the expedition, gave emphatic orders that Abeokuta must be utterly destroyed and all Christians, black or white, put to the sword. In view of this, Captain Glover ordered all Europeans to come to Lagos; but the missionaries heroically refused to leave their people in their time of need. Then Glover took the unwise step of ordering a blockade of Abeokuta and forbade the sending of war materials to them, a form of assistance previously given by the British officers at Lagos. This aroused to still higher pitch the feeling of the Egbas, for it seemed to imply that England was not merely leaving them to their fate, but actually playing into the hands of their cruel foes. The news of the impending Dahomian attack reached England and aroused deepest anxiety in C.M.S. and other Christian circles, and much prayer was offered. Early in March, 1863, the Dahomian Sennacherib approached Abeokuta, confident of his power to destroy it. Seven miles from the city, he established a great war camp two miles in length, and for a fortnight the greatest fear and anxiety prevailed among the defenders. More than once the tidings came that the attack was about to begin, and every man and boy capable of bearing arms rushed to their places on the walls. The Christians within the walls were praying, almost in desperation, that God would deliver them from the cruel fate that overshadowed them. Then, to the utter amazement of every one, the Dahomian army quietly withdrew and went back home without attacking. The reason for that strange retreat remained a mystery. The Rev. G. F. Bühler wrote:--

I consider the retreat of the Dahomians as one of the greatest victories the Church of God has obtained by prayer. The King of Dahomey has not come into this city, nor has he shot an arrow here ... by the way that he came, by that same way has he returned. There is great rejoicing among all people, and many heathen acknowledge that it is the arm of the Lord.

A year later (March, 1864), another Dahomian army, 10,000 strong, appeared before the walls of Abeokuta. The attack was sharp and decisive, the brunt of it falling upon that part of the defences where the Christian Egbas were stationed to defend their lives and homes. Again the enemy was driven off after heavy fighting, and they are said to have lost the flower of their army.

Perhaps it was this victory that intoxicated the Egbas and led them to foolish acts of aggression, for in consort with the Ijebu tribe they laid siege to the town of Ikorodu on the lagoon behind Lagos, and this led Captain Glover to send a small force to disperse them. Deeply distressed at the increasing bitterness between his beloved Egbas and the British, Townsend begged Glover to allow him to negotiate between the two. The attempt was futile, for the Governor laid down such terms as only increased the resentment of the Abeokuta chiefs. The Alake was dead, and an interregnum period gave opportunity for division and lawlessness. Malcontents got the upper hand, and men who had formerly profited by the slave trade urged the Egbas to assert themselves and oppose the encroachment of the British. The position of the missionaries became very difficult in the face of increasing prejudice against Europeans, and it was even rumoured that they were betraying the Egbas to their enemies. Agitators played on the fears and suspicions of the people, and kindled their passions.

On Sunday, October 13, 1867, the storm broke, and popular indignation found vent in an attack on all the missions in the town--C.M.S., W.M.M.S., and American Baptists. On that Sunday morning the chiefs, apparently by agreement, sent round the official town crier, prohibiting the usual services, and that encouraged the mob to act with violence. The protests of the missionaries proved useless, and it soon became apparent that the attack was not so much upon the Egba Christians as upon the missionaries themselves. Their houses were plundered and their goods carried off or destroyed. Very wisely they offered no resistance, but stood sorrowfully by watching their homes being wrecked. Then they were expelled from the town. When some of the African workers and members attempted to defend the missionaries, the wrath of the angry crowd fell upon them, and some were beaten or threatened for taking the part of the English. Some of the churches also were damaged or destroyed, and a company of elderly women were dragged out of a prayer meeting, stripped, and beaten.

With sorrowful hearts the missionaries turned from the city they had loved and sought refuge in Lagos. It was a disaster, and for a time it seemed as though the work of over twenty years had been hopelessly wrecked.

But it was not all dark. When the first fierce blasts of the storm had died down, it became clear that the church in Abeokuta had not been uprooted. It was estimated that there were about 1500 Christians in the city, and they banded themselves to carry on their worship as regularly as possible. Being forbidden to use such churches as were not in ruins, they met in one another's houses, and under the care of three devoted African pastors the number of Christians actually increased. One of those pastors, Mr. Moore, even took the risk of gathering his flock in the ruins of Aké church and encouraged them with an address from the text: "I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burned." Moreover, the Egba Christians got into touch with their brethren at Ibadan, and although these two great cities continued to be enemies, they exchanged gifts in token of goodwill, saying as they did so: "However great misunderstandings may be among the heathen of Abeokuta and Ibadan, let unity and peace be among us Christians of the two rival cities, for we are followers of the Prince of Peace." [Aké church had been destroyed by accidental fire in 1866. It was rebuilt and reopened only six months before the riot in which it was again destroyed.]

Within two years the Abeokuta Christians rebuilt Aké church, and great was the missionaries' joy when they heard that a thousand people were present at the reopening service and had taken up a collection in cowrie shells equal to £73. That same day 316 people received Holy Communion.

Townsend was in England at the time the missionaries were expelled from Abeokuta and he did not return to Lagos till 1870. He received frequent messages from his people, and he wrote them a pastoral letter of advice and exhortation. He learned that the new Alake desired his return, and this encouraged him to attempt (in May, 1871) to visit Abeokuta in the hope of securing the return of the missionaries. But when he reached Isheri, he was stopped by Egba scouts and obliged to return to Lagos. Not until 1875, eight years after the outbreak, was he (together with his wife) permitted to return to the scene of his former labours, and then only for a few months. They had scarcely been in the town two months when the Dahomian army again drew near, for Gelele was still pledged to his father's spirit to blot out Abeokuta. They built their camp within sight of the town, but before they began the assault, the Egbas, emboldened by their former experiences, sallied out in two bodies and attacked them in open field. Day after day the fighting continued, and Townsend tells how the sound of worship and singing in the church mingled with the noise of muskets. At last, watching one day with a telescope from the top of a high hill, he saw the Dahomians in full retreat. Never again did they assault the walls of Abeokuta.

In August (1875) the Townsends were back in Lagos, and in the following year ill-health compelled their retirement from the work they loved so dearly. With the exception of these few months they spent in Abeokuta in 1875, no missionary was able to live there until 1880, a period of thirteen years after the expulsion.

Project Canterbury