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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 XII. "The Black Bishop"

AFTER consecration as Bishop of the Niger, Crowther returned to his sphere of service. His restless activity fitted him admirably for his task. He has been described as "a little man with nerves of steel, upon whose constitution neither lagoon nor mosquito could leave any deadly germ, whom incessant work did not seem to wear. Intellectually alert, spiritually optimistic and full of faith, he was always on the tiptoe of new achievements, and yet no man had more native dignity or common sense."

Within a few months he was back at Onitsha where he ordained one of the African workers. It was an epoch-making moment, when, in the midst of that heathen town on the banks of the mighty river, an African knelt before an African bishop to receive the laying on of hands. A new thing was taking place in Africa. Yet at that very time human sacrifices were being offered in Onitsha because of the death of a prince; victims were buried alive with the corpse, including an innocent eight-year-old girl who was to be the prince's snuff bearer in the spirit world! A few days later Crowther was up at the confluence baptizing and confirming converts at Gbebe. Then he went to Idda to make another attempt to gain a foothold in that difficult place. Then down the river again on a special visit in response to a call from the chief of Bonny.

In these days Bonny was a typical delta town, built amid dense forests and mangrove swamps, on the banks of a muddy creek not far from the sea. The low tide revealed vast stretches of black, evil-smelling mud that bred disease, and when the tides were exceptionally high its streets were inundated with muddy water that eddied and swirled among the houses. It was seldom free from mud and slush. The swamps around were the lurking places of alligators and pythons, and it was a veritable inferno of mosquitoes. All this was typical of its moral and religious condition, for the town was a cesspool of darkest paganism. It was literally overrun with sacred iguanas or monster lizards, many of which were six feet in length. They were believed to be the protectors of the town, and lay about at their pleasure. Even if they lashed savagely with their long, serrated tails, wounding the bare legs of passers-by, they were not under any circumstances to be molested. It was death to kill one. The belief was not that the lizards themselves were divine, but that they were indwelt by the spirits of the departed; any harm done to them, or any insult offered to them, was therefore an injury to the spirits of the dead. The dark bush around was the secret abode of "juju" with its evil priests and degrading rites; the people had good cause to shun the "juju" bush.

Being so easily accessible from the sea, Bonny long had an infamous notoriety as a slave market, and for many years had been visited by European oil traders, who lived in their ships or hulks anchored in the river, the town itself having no attraction for them. But beyond the mere matter of trade Bonny remained practically untouched by either civilization or Christianity. Commerce alone cannot civilize. A degraded pagan in his squalid hut by the mangrove swamp may don a European shirt and hat and remain both pagan and savage. Hence the stress laid by Macgregor Laird, and by the men who planned the 1841 Niger Expedition, on the close co-operation of Government, commerce, and missions.

The local chief, a man named Peppel, who boasted the title of "King of Bonny," had in reality but little influence or power over the other chiefs of the town, and, as became such a place, the majority of the people were the slaves of the chiefs. There had long been trouble in Bonny, and the king had been exiled to Ascension Island, and afterwards he contrived to spend several years in England. While here, in the early 'sixties, he received baptism, taking the name of William. He returned to his native land at least a nominal Christian, and soon afterwards, for motives not easy to analyse, he wrote to Dr. Tait, then Bishop of London, asking for a missionary for Bonny. The bishop sent the appeal to Crowther, who was not the man to miss any possible opening for the Gospel.

A less promising place for a mission could scarcely be imagined, and Crowther walked through Bonny several times before he found a place dry enough for even a temporary school and teacher's house. But a site was found at last and a beginning was made. The king and chiefs signed written agreements and promised £150 a year towards the mission and school. So Crowther stationed there two African teachers to conduct the school and preach in the market place. Ten minutes' walk outside the town, he came upon a sandy patch, four feet above the spring tides, and covered with trees. This he chose as a site for a more permanent mission station to be occupied later.

On a subsequent visit, in 1866, when the school was established and the workers well-known and trusted, the bishop pressed for permission to build a house for the teachers on the site he had chosen outside the town. At once there was trouble. The priests declared that the place was "juju bush," and the fear-stricken people exclaimed that it was "very bad juju bush."

"The spirits must not be disturbed," said the priests.

"The Christians will die if they go there," echoed the people.

But Crowther was unperturbed. "Give us the ground," he said, "and leave us to settle the palaver with the spirits."

The king and chiefs consented; but when it came to clearing the bush and felling the trees, the people stood aghast and refused to do the work. At last the king sent his son George, who had been educated in England, with ten slaves who could be trusted to obey. Even George, with his smattering of Christianity, felt nervous when it came to the point, and asked that some one should read the Scriptures and offer prayer. Then the work began, and as branches were lopped off and trees were felled it turned out to be a place where the bodies of human sacrifices and twin babies were thrown and left to decompose. It was indeed "very bad juju bush," strewn with skulls and bones. When the vegetation and all traces of man's wickedness had been destroyed, a mud and thatch school chapel was built on the site of that once repulsive fetish grove. Then a curious discovery was made. In the town a large copper bell, more than a yard in diameter, was brought to light. For long years it had lain unused, unless, indeed, it had been worshipped as juju. When cleaned up, it was found to bear an inscription to the effect that it had been cast at Downham, Norfolk, in 1824, "for Opooboo Foobra, King of Grand Bonny." It was now, at the personal expense of one of the chiefs, transferred from its resting place and used as the bell for God's house.

In their jealousy the juju priests did all they could to hinder the spread of the Gospel, and even worked upon the fears of one chief to such an extent that he bore the cost of rebuilding a celebrated fetish house that had fallen on evil days, a shrine that was decorated with the skulls of human sacrifices. This effort to infuse new life into the old heathenism was parried by an effort on the part of the Christians to overthrow the cult of the sacred lizards. On Easter Sunday, 1867, it was publicly proclaimed that the lizard worship was henceforth renounced by George Peppel, who had become chief of Bonny in place of his father now dead. The order went forth, that the reptiles were no longer "juju" and were to be killed or driven away. To many of the superstitious townspeople this must have seemed perilous in the extreme, and probably hundreds would have dived into the sea and taken their chances with the sharks rather than run the awful risk of lifting a hand against one of the sacred iguanas.

But the Christians had no such fear, and carried out the chief's command, chasing the long-pampered creatures and killing them. Seeing that no judgment fell upon the transgressors, and that the spirits did not retaliate, others joined in the pursuit, until the whole town became the scene of a grand lizard hunt. Crowther declared that it seemed as though the people were moved to revenge at the thought of the long thraldom under which they had been held. In one market place no less than fifty-seven dead lizards were counted. This drastic reformation was effected within three years of Bishop Crowther's first visit to Bonny, and it serves to show the power of an African chief when influenced in the right direction. It is doubtful if such a change could have been brought about in so short a time had it not been decreed by the chief and his council.

That distinguished African administrator and traveller, Sir Harry Johnston, in lecturing to the Royal Geographical Society in London said, in reference to the lizard worship of Bonny:--

For its effectual abolishment, which has been of the greatest benefit to the well-being of Europeans and natives alike, we owe our thanks, not to the intervention of naval or consular officers, nor to the bluff remonstrances of traders, but to the quiet, unceasing labours of the agents of the Church Missionary Society.

That same year, 1867, found Crowther taking up a new enterprise. At the mouth of another inlet of the Niger delta, between Bonny and the Nun, was the port of Brass, called Brass-Tuwon to distinguish it from the more important town of Brass-Nembe some miles higher up the river. Brass and Bonny had much in common, an evil past, a pestilential situation, and a degrading paganism. In Brass, instead of iguanas, the boa constrictor was the chief object of devotion, under the belief that the repulsive reptiles were possessed by spirits. So sacred were these snakes held to be, and so deeply rooted was the worship, that it was actually recognized in a treaty made in 1856 between the chief of Brass and the British consul, one clause of which laid it down that a fine of a puncheon of oil was to be levied upon any English subject who killed one of the snakes! Slavery, gin, and other baser elements of "civilization" had also done their deadly work in Brass, and the people were demoralized.

Yet here also Crowther gained a foothold. The chief, Ockiya by name, welcomed him, gave permission for the opening of a mission, and even agreed to pay half the cost of maintaining a teacher and a school. Though less romantic than that at Bonny, the work in Brass was steady and effective. Among the people who received baptism was one of the prominent chiefs, and his son became a mission teacher. Then another chief, who had been a bitter enemy of the Gospel, fell under its influence. But it was ten years before Ockiya himself surrendered his jujus.

The Niger Mission had its tragedies as well as its victories, and often its brave bishop had to drink the cup of sorrow as well as sing the psalm of praise. Bad news came down the river: the town of Gbebe, at the confluence, had been blotted out in a fierce tribal conflict, and the promising mission station, with its cotton gins, school, and church, was utterly destroyed, for the town had been burned down by the victors. Thanks largely to the timely help of the consul at Lokoja (Mr. Fell), on the opposite side of the Niger, the teachers and Christians escaped with their lives but with the loss of all else. [The new trading and consular post that Dr. Baikie had established opposite the confluence, on the land purchased in 1841 for the model farm, the one tangible result of that ill-starred expedition.] Some of them found refuge in the bush, but others were saved by canoes that the consul sent across the river to their assistance. As soon as he received the news of the destruction of Gbebe, Crowther went with all speed up the river, visited the ruins of the devastated town, and rebuked the chiefs who had been guilty of destruction and plunder. This disaster led him to transfer the work of the mission to Lokoja, which from that time took the place of Gbebe.

That eventful year (1867) was to be marked by yet another tragedy. In September, while travelling up the river by canoe, accompanied by his son Dandeson and a band of canoe men, the bishop was suddenly seized by the Abokko of Oko-Okien (one of the chiefs of the Atta of Idda), deprived of everything save his clothes, and held a prisoner for ten days. The man had formerly appeared to be rather friendly and Crpwther was at first puzzled by this unexpected change of attitude. Ultimately it turned out to be greed and jealousy. The fellow had noticed that for twenty-five years Crowther had been on board almost every ship that came to Idda, whether man-of-war or merchantman, and was therefore the oldest visitor known on the river. He had concluded from this that the bishop owned all the ships and was a man of great substance. He felt that this great man, owner of so many vessels and director of so much trade, had not given him suitable "dashes" or dues, and he was now resolved to compel payment! In vain the bishop strove to explain; the wily chief would not be put off, and demanded £1000 ransom for Crowther and a second £1000 for his son.

Meanwhile, they were treated with great harshness and indignity, being made to sleep on the damp ground in an open shed with the canoe boys; they were denied access to their clothing and other luggage and provisions. The bishop at last contrived to get a message to Lokoja, and the consul came to his assistance. But the Abokko was insolent and refused to release the bishop until the ransom was paid. The consul absolutely refused to pay, knowing full well that it would encourage other chiefs to play the same game. Finding matters at a deadlock, Fell called to Crowther and the others to make a dash for liberty, and the whole party ran to the boat followed by musket shots and a flight of barbed arrows. As the boat was pushing off a poisoned arrow struck the consul; and in spite of all Crowther could do Fell sank rapidly and died before the boat reached Lokoja. Very touching was the bishop's grief over the man whom he had learned to honour and love. It afterwards transpired that the Atta of Idda had shared in the plunder.

As the years went by the bishop's time was fully occupied with ceaseless journeyings through his great diocese. In his diaries and letters we get glimpses of him travelling by canoe, by trading ship, or by gunboat, whichever chanced to serve his purpose at the moment, confirming converts in one place, ordaining African clergy in another, exhorting the flock here, and trying to smooth over some difficulty with a troublesome chief there. Almost daily he was confronted with the most baffling problems, some arising from the gross heathenism on every hand, and others due to some moral failure within the infant churches. Often we find him remonstrating with some chief and his councillors over some instance of human sacrifice that had just come to light, or reasoning with them concerning the folly and wickedness of infanticide.

The treatment of twins caused Crowther constant anxiety. To the pagan mind, the birth of twins has always appeared something unnatural and terrible, the work of an evil spirit; and the fear of some impending calamity has overcome the natural love that normal African parents have for their offspring. In Bonny, and among the Ibo people it was the custom to kill both the children; but in and around Brass it was usual to put only the second child to death. In other tribes the unhappy mother was killed or driven into the forest and the twins were thrown away to perish. At each mission station efforts were made to dispel the dark superstitions that lay behind these practices. The bishop and his helpers reasoned with chiefs and peoples, but fear is not easily expelled from the African heart. Too often they were met with the answer: "It is the custom of our tribe." Naturally the change began first among the Christians, in whose hearts the light of the knowledge of God was slowly breaking. As their trust in an almighty Father increased, their dread of spirits diminished; they abandoned the cruel custom for themselves, and began to help the mission staff in their efforts to overthrow it in the town or the village where they lived. Crowther himself, when occasion required it, spoke sternly to king and chief, and knowing the African mind as he did, he dealt with the subject so convincingly that he sometimes achieved his object.

At times some shrewd chief found a strange way of surmounting the difficulty. At Bonny, for instance, the king in full council decreed that In future twins were not to be slain but taken to the mission station and given to the missionaries! One wonders whether the proposal was not prompted by the keen African sense of humour, or a desire to pacify the troublesome remonstrant, rather than by any conviction as to the wickedness of the old practice. But the results were satisfactory; people began to bring their new-born twins to the mission house, and the Christians were vigilant in looking out and reporting such births. In this way not a few baby lives were saved. The evil practice died slowly, but it died. And the day came when the priest of Bonny, who had been the most bitter opponent of the change, was himself overcome by the Christ he had hated; he received Christian baptism and became a communicant.

Another very serious social evil, that constantly brought sorrow to the bishop and his helpers, was the practice of human sacrifice. All the tribes of the delta and up the river were more or less addicted to it.

Not infrequently the bishop was anxious about one or other of his stations, fearing that in some tribal war it should be destroyed. Once he learned that Lokoja itself was in danger, for Dasaba, the Fula king of Bida, was in a nasty mood. Crowther at once went up river to Bida, saw the king, and succeeded in getting promise of security. Next we see him opening a new church and preaching before the king at Onitsha, where a daughter of the king and several other palace women had been baptized. Yet a few days afterwards, in that very town, a young girl was put to death as a sacrifice for the people. She was dragged by the feet for a couple of miles along the rough ground, until, bruised and bleeding, her life ebbed out. On another occasion an outbreak of smallpox at Onitsha was attributed to the construction of a well in the mission compound, and the priests wanted to throw a man down the well to appease the anger of the spirits. Joy and sorrow, sunshine and storm, blended strangely in those days. One outstanding joy came in 1870 when Crowther ordained to the ministry his own son Dandeson, an event of unique interest, it being the first time an African bishop had ordained his African son. [The ordination took place at Islington, London, during one of Crowther's visits to England. That son is now Archdeacon Crowther.] Another source of joy was the readiness of converts to spread the news of the Gospel. This was especially so at Bonny, where many of the Christians, being keen traders, constantly travelled about the rivers and creeks of the delta and sometimes settled in heathen villages or towns. In this way it was nothing unusual for them to introduce Christianity into new places and to found new churches.

Often it was necessary for the bishop to succour and advise converts and even teachers who were being persecuted. Usually these were isolated cases, but at times a more general persecution broke out in some town or village. Such an instance occurred at Bonny after the work had been established there for nearly a dozen years. On Christmas Day, 1873, the baptism of nine converts stirred the juju priests to anger, and they succeeded in rousing the chiefs to believe that their slaves, when they became Christians, would no longer obey them. It largely resolved itself into a matter of Sunday work and worship, and some leading chiefs forbade their slaves to attend church or school. But the poor creatures, so little removed from gross heathenism, could not give up the strength and comfort of Christian worship, and they met under cover of night in secret places in the forest. As soon as possible Crowther went to Bonny and reasoned with the chiefs on the value of a day of rest and on God's claims. He admitted that the bodies of the slaves belonged to the chiefs, but maintained that both body and soul belonged to God. He wrote:--

To convince them of the truthfulness of this, I put the question to them individually, whether, when God sent His messenger Death to take away the soul of any of their slaves, could the owner prevent that soul from obeying the summons? They unanimously replied "No."

But the chiefs would not yield, and the slaves had no redress.

The baptismal service held the following year proved the signal for another and more violent outburst of persecution. This time the crucial point was that of eating meat that had been presented to idols, a subject that reminds us of apostolic times. One of the converts was a slave of a chief who paraded the adopted name of "Captain Hart." As the slave took the baptismal name of Joshua, he became known as Joshua Hart. Nothing would induce him to eat things offered to idols, and he regularly attended church. No other charges seem to have been made against him. Punishment did not deter him, and his brutal master resorted to sterner measures. Time after time he was flung high in the air and allowed to fall heavily on the ground. Arguments and threats were only met by the brave, calm answer: "If my master requires me to do work for him, however hard, I will try my best to do it.... But if he requires me to partake of things sacrificed to the gods, I will never do it." In wrath, the master had his slave bound hand and foot, and taken out in a canoe to be drowned. During those awful moments, while his very life hung in the balance, Joshua prayed aloud that the Lord Jesus would forgive his persecutors. This still more inflamed the anger of Captain Hart. "You be praying again!" he yelled, and the next moment flung poor Joshua into the water. Bound as he was, he did not sink, and his master had him pulled into the canoe again and gave him a last chance. But that simple illiterate African would not deny Christ. He was again thrown into the water, and as he rose to the surface he was beaten on the head with a paddle and prodded with a sharp-pointed pole until he was dead.

Encouraged by the heroism of Joshua, other Christians stood firmly for their faith. One poor canoe man was deliberately starved to death because he absolutely refused to eat the forbidden meat. "Master, I am on God's side," he said; "therefore I cannot eat things offered to idols." He was kept without food or water, until after six days death released him from his sufferings. Others were equally brave. The persecutors, fearing to carry out their torture of Christians too publicly, and thus be discovered by English traders, carried their victims to the bush where their sufferings could not be seen or their cries heard. Some were stripped naked and left bound on the ground to the mercy of sand flies, driver ants, and other pests that have the power of making life unendurable. Two free men were kept in the bush, in chains, for a year, and were offered chiefships if they would return to the old faith. "Jesus has put a padlock on my heart, and has taken the key to heaven," said one of them to a juju priest who was bullying them. Yet in the midst of that persecution we find the Bonny Christians praying in a church prayer meeting in these words:--

We beseech Thee, O Lord, not to rain down fire and brimstone upon these stiff-necked people ... We pray Thee to rain down Thy love upon them as in the case of Saul, so that our persecutors may be arrested on their way.

It was by the blood of such men that the early Church was built up; and with such noble examples before us, who shall say that the children of Africa are incapable of living for ideals?

As usual, the persecution utterly failed to achieve its end. The Church was not overthrown. Within three years Captain Hart himself was so subdued that after an interview with Dandeson Crowther he persuaded his fellow-chiefs to grant liberty of conscience, and a few months later he received baptism. Two canoe loads of his idols were thrown into the estuary. Again the church became full of worshippers, the Sunday congregations numbering a thousand. No longer compelled to meet stealthily in the bush, Christian people now began to hold regular family prayers in their compounds.

Trading steamers in increasing numbers were plying the waterways of the delta, and sometimes proceeding up the main stream of the Niger. This often caused new complication for the Mission. Not infrequently white traders brought discredit upon the white man's religion, and the gin they sold inevitably tended to demoralize those whom the bishop and his people were trying to help. It sometimes happened too, that Sierra Leonian traders settled at places up the river, and although some were a very great help to the churches, others, intent on material gain, proved unable to resist the temptations that surrounded them and fell into gross sin. Too often God's Name was "profaned among the heathen." The Negro peoples, naturally imitative, noted the lives and habits of these "civilized" strangers in their midst, both white and black, and copied their vices more easily than their virtues. Often converts but a few years, or even months, removed from gross heathenism fell back into sin and needed admonition or discipline. The teachers and catechists were men of very limited education and Christian experience, and though earnest and devoted, were not strong enough to deal with difficult situations and the pastoral problems that constantly arose. It became evident that a mission steamer was needed to enable the now ageing bishop to travel quickly from place to place. He needed "to be everywhere at once," yet he was entirely dependent upon canoes and chance ships, with the result that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to exercise the oversight that was necessary. Friends in England therefore responded to his appeal and provided a paddle steamer, which was most appropriately named the Henry Venn.

Great was Crowther's joy when the new vessel reached him, and she proved of inestimable service. In addition to the essential work between stations, she achieved some important exploring results. For example, in 1879, the year after her arrival in Africa, she made a memorable voyage up the Benué and reached a place 140 miles beyond that reached by Dr. Baikie in 1854.

But again trouble was mixed with joy, for while the Henry Venn was up the Benué trouble developed in the neighbourhood of Onitsha. Ignorance and superstition had led some tribesmen to fire upon passing steamers, and there were other attacks on British subjects. Riots and outrages occurred, and the mission premises were plundered by a mob even while a gunboat with the consul on board was anchored off the town to inquire into the troubles. The chiefs were reluctant to negotiate, and during the night H.M.S. Pioneer was fired upon and her captain wounded. Next morning, after giving time for the populace to leave the town, the gunboat opened fire upon Onitsha and destroyed a large portion of it. The mission church was partly wrecked in the burning of the town. On the previous Sunday 260 people had been present at the service; now the place was blotted out.

After the bombardment it seemed wise to transfer the mission to Asaba on the opposite side of the river and make a new beginning there. But not a few of the Onitsha Christians stood firm, and even amid the wreck of their sanctuary they carried on their worship, a schoolboy reading the service and expounding the Scriptures as best he could.

Thus had Crowther to contend with sorrow upon sorrow, trial upon trial. And beside all these things that were without, there was that which came to him daily, the care of all the churches.

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