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 XIV. Reorganization and Progress

THE death of Bishop Crowther marks the close of an epoch in the C.M.S. Mission in Nigeria. We have referred to the saintly character and apostolic zeal of the great and good bishop; but the very kindliness of his nature led to some slackness in his administration of discipline. After his death the question arose as to whether the best interests of the work would not be served by the appointment of a European bishop to succeed him. The matter called for most careful inquiry. Moreover, at that time the Mission was worked in two separate sections, viz., the Niger, Crowther's diocese, and the Yoruba-Lagos section that had all along been under the Bishop of Sierra Leone. The time seemed to have come to unite the two in one new diocese, to be called (at the suggestion of Archbishop Benson) Western Equatorial Africa. [The fact that Freetown is 1500 miles from Lagos had made it impossible for the Bishops of Sierra Leone to exercise full control of the Yoruba-Lagos Mission. The best they could do was a very occasional visit--sometimes at intervals of several years. They were virtually absentee bishops.] The selection of a bishop with the personal and spiritual qualifications for this great diocese gave the C.M.S. Committee no little anxiety before the finger of God seemed to point to the right man, Joseph Sidney Hill.

As a young man, Hill had done a short term in Lagos, but had been invalided home. In 1891 he offered to go to Nigeria again, remarking that his health was now sound and he was "as hard as nails." Circumstances pointed to him as the most suitable man for the bishopric. He was a born leader, vigorous, tactful, and resourceful, just the man to lead the African churches to new victories for Christ. At the Archbishop's suggestion, he was sent out first for a six months' tour that he might make a firsthand study of the problems before him. This plan was carried out successfully. His genial disposition and practical common sense won esteem and affection on all hands. Realizing the importance of associating Africans with himself in the leadership of the Mission, Hill laid his plans on wise, broad lines, choosing two experienced African clergymen, Isaac Oluwole and Charles Phillips, to be assistant bishops of his huge diocese. When he returned to England he brought them with him and presented them to the Archbishop for consecration. All three were consecrated together in St. Paul's Cathedral on June 29, 1893. The experiment of the co-operation of English and African bishops has proved a great success, and the solution proposed by Bishop Hill has continued until the present time.

In November, amid great expectations and prayers, Bishop Hill sailed for Africa, accompanied by Mrs. Hill and a dozen new missionaries, five men and seven women. They reached Lagos in mid-December. Three weeks later there came the startling cable: "Bishop Hill and Mrs. Hill at rest." They had died in Lagos on January 5 (1894) within a few hours of one another. Then, before the Society at home had recovered from this terrible blow, and was still without details of the bishop's death, other cables came with tragic swiftness announcing the death of one after another of the missionaries: on January 17 the Rev. E. W. Mathias, on the 2oth the Rev. J. Vernall, on the 21st the Rev. A. E. Sealey, and on the 23rd Miss Mansbridge. It was overwhelming.

In sorrow and bewilderment the Committee waited for letters with full details of the disaster that had shattered'hopes and plans, waited too, with almost speechless anxiety for more cables, which happily did not come. The angel of death had passed on. The whole Mission, indeed the Society itself, was stricken. For seventy years the C.M.S. had known nothing like it. In due course the mails brought the sad story. Bishop Hill had died in the afternoon, and his wife, herself too ill to be told of her loss, just after midnight; and then, as one after another was stricken down by the unseen enemy, their colleagues nursed and watched over them with loving care, not knowing who might be the next victim. Those were terrible hours, days, weeks for the little band of missionaries in Nigeria. At the time men talked about malaria, and dysentery, and blackwater; it was years before scientific investigations discovered that the real enemy was yellow fever, a pestilence the very existence of which had never been suspected in Lagos.

The unexpected death of Bishop Hill created a very difficult situation. For two years the Niger had been without episcopal oversight. The death of so many missionaries and the retirement of others had disorganized everything, and it was felt that a new bishop must be appointed immediately. In the emergency, the Committee nominated the Rev. Herbert Tugwell, who, four years before, had gone out from Cambridge to Lagos and thus added to his other high qualifications a thorough knowledge of the field. With the full approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury he was summoned to England, and on Sunday, March 4, just two months after the death of Bishop Hill, he was consecrated in the historic chapel of Lambeth Palace. Five days later, at a great meeting in Exeter Hall to bid him Godspeed, Bishop Bardsley, of Carlisle, used a very memorable sentence. He said: "Some of you may ask, 'Might not the men who have given their lives for Africa have done longer and more useful service in our home parishes? Wherefore this waste? 'Brethren, let us not take up words from the mouth of Judas Iscariot."

In a few weeks Bishop Tugwell was back in Africa, and at once shouldered the burdens of his new office, arranging matters in Lagos and the Yoruba Country and then visiting the stations of the delta and up the Niger. Naturally, after the experiences of those terrible January weeks, many were anxious for him; but he was already acclimatized and soon proved himself the man for the post. A new era had dawned for the Mission that had known so many setbacks.

Long before Bishop Tugwell took charge, the troubles in the Yoruba Country had ended. It would be idle to pretend that the work had not suffered as a result of the events that disturbed the Mission between 1867 and 1880 (narrated in chapter X); but the churches were not overthrown. Indeed, when thrown back upon their own resources they had learned to fend for themselves. The African workers had done nobly, particularly the Rev. James Johnson, who, from a Lagos pastorate, had been sent to take charge of the whole Yoruba Mission. [At a later stage (1900) the Rev. James Johnson became assistant bishop, with the oversight of the work in the delta.] It was not an easy task; it called for tact, and firmness, and patience, as well as courage, to keep the churches together and steer them through troubled seas of heathen bitterness and anti-English prejudice. He made great efforts to lead the churches to do more by way of self-support, and this pressure was misunderstood and resented by some of his flock. In 1880 it was found possible for European missionaries to return to the interior after an enforced absence of thirteen years.

At first it was not easy to rekindle in England an interest in the Yoruba Country. A new generation had arisen that had forgotten the romantic days of Abeokuta and Ibadan, and knew not Townsend, Gollmer, and Hinderer. But in time interest began to revive and volunteers came forward. New stations were opened, and ere long the time came for unmarried women missionaries to be sent up-country as well as men. One very great change had taken place: the fear of Dahomian invasion had passed for ever, for as one result of the "scramble for Africa" the strong hand of France had been laid upon that once-dreaded kingdom; in 1892 the Dahomian king went into exile, the army was disbanded, and peace came where hitherto it had been almost unknown.

The settlement of Bishop Oluwole in Lagos, with charge also of the Abeokuta and Ijebu districts, and of Bishop Phillips at Ode Ondo, in the interior, to take charge of the northern part of the Yoruba section, set Bishop Tugwell himself free to travel widely and give attention to the Niger Mission with its many problems.

The first of these to receive attention was the delta section, where, under Archdeacon Crowther the churches of Bonny and Brass, with their surrounding out-stations had reached a stage at which they felt able to shoulder their own burdens, both financial and administrative. They had very deeply resented the drastic policy of four years before, and while not breaking away from the Church of England, they had severed themselves from the direct control of the C.M.S. and had formed themselves into a semi-independent "Delta Pastorate." While loyally recognizing the bishop as their "overseer," these churches desired a large measure of self-government, and to this difficult problem Bishop Tugwell applied himself. In drawing up a constitution for the Pastorate many perplexing and delicate questions necessarily emerged: personal feeling and national sentiment complicated the issues. But with rare tact and patience the bishop, assisted by Bishop Phillips, Archdeacon Crowther, H. H. Dobinson, and others, settled down to the task, and after nine weeks completed a proposed constitution, acceptable to all parties on the spot, and forwarded it to England for approval by the C.M.S. Committee and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was a notable accomplishment for the bishop's first year of office, and it greatly relieved what had for some time been a very difficult situation. "We must in future pursue a line of more trust in God and more trust in the Africans," wrote H. H. Dobinson, who for several years had gone through the thick of the troubles; "overmuch caution is as bad as rashness, and we seem to me to want a more trusting and generous policy towards the native African churches." In that spirit the new scheme for the Delta Pastorate was carried through. The bishop was greatly pleased with much that he saw of the work in that area, "a great and successful work, the like of which we have nothing on the Niger proper," wrote Dobinson. They found Sunday congregations at Bonny varying from 1600 to 900. "Thanks be to God!" wrote Dobinson during his stay there with the bishop; "Bonny was a very difficult place to begin with, owing to bitter opposition and severe persecution. Now almost all love the Church." And he added:--

Before Bishop Tugwell and I preached on Sunday last we were told that what we said would be repeated in six or seven different chapels far inland, and in the Ibo markets. Bonny people are remarkable for travelling and teaching. At places sixty, seventy, and eighty miles distant, where they go to buy palm oil for trade, they build for themselves rough prayer-houses and chapels and assemble themselves and others on Sundays. Two or three teachers will repeat word for word sermons they have heard in Bonny.

It soon became evident that the troubles on the Niger were slowly being overcome; unworthy members had been disciplined or expelled from the churches, unsatisfactory workers had been replaced, while, on the other hand, a few of the more worthy of those who had been so hastily dismissed were restored. A period of rebuilding had dawned. Best of all, Dobinson and Bishop Tugwell, by their never-failing tact, patience and goodwill, had won back the confidence of the churches. Racial feelings which had been aroused began to die down, and by degrees a friendly and helpful co-operation between the European missionaries and their African fellow workers greatly strengthened the Mission. Dobinson, who for half-a-dozen years had done splendid work at Onitsha, was made archdeacon, but within a year he died. In the Yoruba Country, a training institution, known as St. Andrew's College, was opened at Oyo, for the training of teachers, catechists, and clergy. The Abeokuta mission celebrated its jubilee; new churches were built there and at Ibadan and other places, and a mission was planted in the Ijebu Country. The whole Mission was better staffed and under closer supervision than had been possible before. New life, pulsating through the diocese, soon discovered new outlets, and a new era of expansion began.

Meanwhile, the Royal Niger Company was steadily introducing a new order of things throughout its chartered territories. With a firm hand it was seeking to bring to an end the evils of intertribal war and slave raiding and to induce the chiefs, small and great, to rule on more humanitarian principles than aforetime. No doubt there were blunders, but slowly order grew out of chaos. Not unnaturally, there were from time to time local troubles. Tribes did not understand the new conditions, and chiefs, sensitive as to their rights, were not at ease under the rule of the Company; some of them resented what they regarded as interference with their affairs. Occasionally a punitive expedition or a little war had to be organized against some gross offender, as, for example, when (in 1895) the people of several delta towns united in an attack upon Akassa, a trading port at the mouth of the Nun: the Europeans escaped by the timely arrival of a mail steamer, but there was a merciless massacre of Kroo boys and African clerks, some of whose bodies were carried back to the bush and eaten. Two years later the members of a government mission to Benin were ambushed and killed. In each case a force was sent to punish the outrage.

Of much greater importance was the expedition against Bida on the Upper Niger. For many years it had been the head-quarters of notorious slave-raiding emirs who carried out big raids on both sides of the river. At last Sir George Goldie's patience was exhausted, and he resolved to crush the men who for the sake of slaves kept the country in a state of fear and unrest. Most people agreed that this drastic step was necessary for the safety and wellbeing of oppressed tribes under the protection of the Company. It was a short, sharp campaign; within a month Bida was captured (January, 1897), and its ferocious Fulani rulers driven away. The power of slavery was broken in the Nupé Country, and on the Diamond Jubilee Day of Queen Victoria a decree was promulgated from the Company's head-quarters abolishing slavery throughout the Niger Territories.

Bishop Tugwell was eager to seize the new opportunity. He had himself visited Bida two years before its capture by the Company's forces, and almost immediately after its fall issued an appeal for missionaries to occupy it in the name of Christ. Since Crowther and Dr. Baikie visited it (just forty years before) it had grown into a great city with a population estimated at 50,000. It appeared to be a strategic centre for missionary activity. But the capture of the city was not followed up by British occupation; the Company's troops were withdrawn, the Fula emir returned, and for the moment it was deemed unsafe to station a missionary there.

But though Bishop Tugwell was prepared to wait his opportunity, he had no thought of dropping the project. Meanwhile, his thoughts turned further east to the Basa Country lying north of the Benué River. In 1896 he had journeyed as far inland as Keffi and in the following year stationed his first missionaries among the Basa people. It was the first organized work north of the rivers.

A still larger project was shaping itself in Bishop Tugwell's active mind, nothing less than the fulfilment of the mission to the Central Sudan for which Brooke and Robinson nad laid down their lives. But that is a separate story and demands a separate chapter.

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