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Abbeokuta; or Sunrise within the Tropics
An Outline of the Origin and Progress of the Yoruba Mission

By Sarah Tucker

New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1854.

Chapter XV. The Dahomian Attack

"Hitherto shalt thou come but no further, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed."--Job xxxviii. 11.

It was Sunday, March 2, 1851; but the Sabbath at Abbeokuta was far from being one of peace and tranquillity. All was excitement in the town; the congregations indeed met as usual, but care and anxiety were marked on every brow; and it seemed as if the petition, "From battle, and murder, and from sudden death, good Lord deliver us," had on this day a peculiar emphasis.

As night approached, the noise and confusion in the town increased; horsemen who had been sent out in the morning were returning at fnll speed; war-gongs were beating in every township; war-chiefs and their soldiers were hurrying to the walls; while women and children ran wildly about the streets, screaming, crying, and exciting the men to courage.

Evidently an enemy was at hand; and we shall turn from Abbeokuta to tell our readers who that enemy was, and what cause the Egbas had for fear.

[204] When we used to read in ancient history of the Amazons, and shuddered at their unfeminine delight in war and carnage, we little thought that even now there could be a stern reality of what we then believed to be a fable. But the last few years have taught us differently; and we now know that among the daughters of Africa, for the most part so affectionate and full of pity, there exists at this present time a band of women, who, treading under foot every tender feeling, and setting at nought the ties of nature and of home, have enrolled themselves as an army of blood-thirsty female warriors. And we know too there is a nation that is not ashamed to suffer them to fight its battles, and a king who shrinks not from leading them to the conflict! [Every body knows the story of the African woman of Bambarra, who, when Mungo Park, weary, destitute, neglected, and almost exhausted from want of food, was one evening sitting under a tree, with a heavy storm coming on, and in fear of wild beasts at night, looked on him with pity as she passed along, and invited him to her house. Here she supplied him with food, spread a mat for him to sleep on, and when she had prevailed on him to lie down, she called to the female part of her family to resume their spinning. As they spun, they sung, and one of their songs was an extempore kind of ballad on himself; it was sung by one of the young women, and the others joined in chorus. The melody was simple and plaintive, and the words ran thus: "The winds roared and the rains fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk, no wife to grind his corn."--Chorus--"Let us pity the white man; no mother has he," &c.]

[205] Our readers will know that we are speaking of the fierce Dahomians and their cruel king; a people whose occupation is war; whose delight is in bloodshed and rapine; whose favourite ornaments are the skulls of their slaughtered enemies; and whoso religion chiefly consists in offering a daily human sacrifice to the manes of their ancestors, and annually "watering their graves" with the blood of hundreds of their fellow-creatures. [It is needful that such things should be known, that we may see how debased our nature can become, when left to its own ungoverned will, and that we may be moved the more earnestly to pity and to care for the souls of those who care not for their own. But we may be spared the pain of entering into further details ourselves, as this has been done in the Church Missionary Intelligencer of May 1851, and more fully by Commander Forbes himself in his "Dahomey and the Dahomians."]

Gezo, their king, derives his large revenues from the slave-trade, both by kidnapping and selling slaves on his own account, and by the tax he kn-poses on every slave exported from his dominions. Neither agriculture nor lawful commerce would, he thinks, yield him so rich a harvest, and hence he does all in his power to repress them, and takes every means of encouraging the profitable slave-wars. All the country round is depopulated and laid waste, as one town after another has fallen beneath his murderous sword; and the dreadful history [205/206] of Okeâdan is only one among the many others that, were the earth to disclose her slain, would rise up to the condemnation of the tyrant. [Okeadan was a large town inhabited by Ottas; they were at peace with Dahomey, and were actually entertaining some Dahomian messengers when intelligence was brought that the army was coming against them. At first they disbelieved such treachery from their allies, and, when convinced of its truth, it was too late to make any effectual resistance. The chief and large numbers of the people were slain, the town burnt, and 20,000 captives led to Abomey, some to be sacrificed, the rest to be sold for slaves! A few escaped to the bush, and afterwards settled themselves again near their former homes.] Abbeokuta, as likely to become the seat of civilization and industry in this part of Africa, was particularly hateful to him and to his troops; and when the late Commander Forbes and Mr. Beecroft, her Majesty's consul, visited Abomey, the capital, in May, 1850, and 5000 female warriors were paraded before them, the fierce cry went up from these unhappy women, "Give us Abbeokuta! Attahpahm is destroyed! give us Abbeokuta!"

The two English gentlemen well knew that this tyrant king dared not refuse a demand thrice made by this portion of his army; yet they endeavoured to avert the threatened blow by representing to the king that the Egbas of Abbeokuta were our allies, that several English people were residing there, and that even the emigrants returned from Sierra Leone [206/207] were British subjects. The only answer they could obtain was, to advise them to remove the white men from the place, for that he should certainly visit it in his next campaign.

Mr. Beecroft lost no time in sending the missionaries notice of their danger, and they immediately communicated the intelligence to the chiefs. But few, however, of these took any heed to it. The Dahomians had threatened Abbeokuta before, but had changed their purpose, and doubtless it would be so now. There were some, however, who attended to the advice of the missionaries, among whom were Sagbua and Ogubonna, and these set about the repair of the walls, which were in a most ruinous state, as far as their jurisdiction extended. They had great difficulty in persuading the people to assist thein and it was not till they saw their chief going himself to the wall with basket and implements that they were effectually roused.

Much of the wall remained untouched, and this of course added to the anxiety of the missionaries. But they determined at all risks to remain at their posts, and we are not quite sure whether their repeated assurances to the people that, come what would, they intended to cast in their lot with them, might not in some degree have lulled their apprehensions. Heathens can little understand the self-forgetting heroism of Christianity; and it is not [207/208] improbable that they attributed this determination to a secret disbelief of the real danger.

Under these trying circumstances the missionaries had no resource but to place themselves and their whole concerns in the hands of that God who had brought them thither, and whose almighty power could preserve them from harm if He saw fit. "This," said Mr. Crowther, "is the only place where the light of the Gospel shines. Surely God will not let it be quenched, nor will He permit the labours of England for the destruction of the slave-trade and the conversion of Africa to be thwarted by a bloodthirsty tyrant!" They knew, too, how many prayers were continually ascending for themselves and for their mission; and thus as the time drew near and their anxiety increased, they endeavoured to comfort one another with these thoughts of peace.

The visit of the consul to Abbeokuta in January 1851, and the kindness with which he entered into their dangers and difficulties, was a great relief to the minds of our friends. As we mentioned in the preceding chapter, he narrated to the chiefs the visit he had paid to Abomey,--and the imminent danger which that visit had convinced him they were in, and urgently pressed them to take immediate steps to put their town in as strong a position of self-defence as possible. The result was the repair of [208/209] another small portion of the wall (which afterwards proved of great importance), and now the western and south-western quarters were effectually strengthened, though the north-western remained as exposed as before.

And here we again trace the hand of God overruling events for the welfare and preservation of His people: "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm."

Our readers will remember a visit that Mr. Hinderer some months before paid to Isagga, a town seventeen miles to the west of Abbeokuta, and the friendly kindness with which he was received. The Isaggans were not Egbas, but all their sympathies were with them, and they took advantage of an unexpected opportunity, to render them a most important service.

Their town lay in the direct road to Abbeokuta; and the natural and shortest course for the Dahomian army to have taken, after passing Isagga, would have been to have gone straight to the Abak; gate at the north-west extremity of the town. But they were ignorant of the, local details of the country, and when they reached Isagga, instead of destroying it, as doubtless they would otherwise have done, they endeavoured to make use of the people by proposing a treaty of peace. The Isaggans, afraid to [209/210] refuse, consented; a sacrifice was killed, and the two parties sat down to feast upon it.

During the repast, the Dahomians made various inquiries about Abbeokuta, stating that they proposed to make the attack on the north-western portion. "On no account attack it there," exclaimed the Isaggans, who well knew the state of the Abbeokutan defences, "the people in that quarter are the bravest of any; they will not even have a wall for their protection, but depend on their own prowess and valour. No, go to the south-west, where the people are so cowardly, that hearing of your coming, they have built a high wall that they may hide themselves behind it. Trust yourselves to us, we will guide you the right way. And at what time of the day," they continued, "do you think of falling upon them?" "In the night," was the answer. "You are again mistaken," replied the Isaggans, "in the night the men are all in the town, and will give you a great deal of trouble. Wait till noon; the men will then most of them be at their farms, and the few that remain will be asleep under the palm-wine sheds."

While this conversation was going on, the Isaggans dispatched some trusty messengers to Abbeokuta with the bones of the sacrifice, and a message to the Abbeokutan chiefs that the Isaggans had made a treaty with the Dahomians, and intended to lead [210/211] them the next day by the best way to their town. The Abbeokutan chiefs understood the meaning of this enigmatical message; and it was this that gave rise to the anxiety and dismay we spoke of at the beginning of this chapter.

The suspense of that Sunday, and that Sunday night, are not to be forgotten. The Dahomians were almost at their gates, their well-trained army was 16,000 strong, 10,000 men, and 6,000 women, all animated by a ferocity and recklessness of danger that very rarely failed to secure them an easy victory. In Abbeokuta there were only 8,000 fighting men, and none of these had been regularly disciplined. The odds were fearful. Yet a determined spirit animated the Egbas; they knew the conflict would be for life, and liberty, and all that was dear to them; and the sober yet courageous bearing of the people showed they expected and were prepared for a desperate struggle. When the morning of Monday dawned, fresh accounts arrived of the enemy's advance; and at noon a heavy fire of musketry proclaimed that the work of destruction had begun. Mr. Crowther's house was too near the south-west wall to be a place of safety; and Mrs. Crowther was prevailed on to take refuge at Mr. Townsend's less exposed abode at Aké, while he himself remained behind to minister help and comfort to his agitated people. Mr. and Mrs. Smith had gone that morning from Ikija to [211/212] Aké, to spend some time with Mr. and Mrs. Towns-end, but when the mid-day firing began, Mr. Smith returned immediately to his station, adoring the sparing mercy of his covenant God. Had the Dahomians followed out their first intentions, and assailed the town on the north-west, nothing could have saved himself, and all that belonged to him, from destruction; for the Ikija mission-house is near the Abaka gate, and there is only the church between it and the wall. As it was, he saw, from the western side of his house, Ogubonna's portion of the army with desperate courage defending the wall that lies beyond the river. [As Mr. Smith passed from Akd to Ikija, it was very distressing to hear the terrified people calling out for help, some to Ifa, some to Sango, and some to their revered and departed Shodeke; while many, when they saw him approaching, changed their cry into "O white man, and white man's God, save us!"]

Mr. and Mrs. Townsend, Mrs. Smith, and Mr. Bowen, ascended a rock that stands in the Akfi miKbion-premises, and took a survey of the sorrowful scene around. [An American missionary, who was endeavouring to penetrate into the interior.] It was sad to see the throngs of frightened fugitives; the old and the very young, the sick and the infirm, women and children wending their way as fast as their feeble steps would carry them, to the north-eastern gates, hoping to find [212/213] shelter in the neighbouring towns. Some were leading a sheep, some a goat, others bore with them all they could collect of their household goods; but the excitement and distress in all was too great for utterance, and they moved on in silence under the scorching glare of a tropical noonday sun. [Poor people! many of them had not been beyond the walls for years, some perhaps never; and so great was the agitation, that Mr. Hinderer, who met hundreds of them as he came in from Osielle, mentions that many were fainting, and some were even lying dead by the side of the road.]

There was no silence in the opposite quarters of the town. Here, as the missionaries from their different positions look to the south or the south-west, they see the Dahomians come on in compact and well-ordered masses. They hear the tremendous fire poured upon them from the wall; the progress of the enemy is arrested;--they expected not so stout a resistance, and they change their mode of assault. Now they extend their line in front of the wall. The soldiers within make a similar movement, and the firing recommences. A fresh party of Dahomians is coming up; there is a narrow space between the river and the wall, and hero they make a desperate assault, but they are as desperately resisted, and are repulsed with dreadful slaughter. [The next day Mr. Crowther counted eighty dead bodies of Dahomians within the space of a few yards on this spot, all of whom, except five, were women!] Again the [213/214] Dahomians extend their line, till more than a mile is occupied; but the Egbas do the same, and at last outflank them. For six hours the murderous strife has lasted, and evening is coming on. The enemy seems to waver. Can it be that they are giving way? Yes--for see how the Egbas are pouring out from those gates; the Dahomians are retreating, and they are in hot pursuit--God has indeed heard the prayers of His people, and has sent them deliverance!

Could the Abbeokutans have continued the pursuit, there is little doubt that the Dahomian army would have been destroyed or dispersed. But they were exhausted with fatigue and hunger, and they returned to the town, leaving the enemy about two miles from the walls, where it was supposed they would take up their position for the night.

The Egbas rose at early dawn, and, encouraged by success, set off to meet the Dahomians again in combat. To their surprise they were nowhere to be seen, they had fled, and the only traces they had left behind were the headless bodies of near a hundred poor farming people, men, women and children, whom they had seized as they advanced on the preceding day, and had now mercilessly beheaded, that they might carry the heads away as trophies!

It afterwards appeared that when the Dahomians reckoned up at night those who were missing, they [214/215] were alarmed at the unusual loss they had sustained, and feared to risk a second battle. [There could scarcely have been less than eighteen hundred Dahomians left slain before the walls of Abbeokuta. They were the flower of the army, and were chiefly women, who are always placed in the foremost of their battles as more to be depended on. The Abbeokutans had heard that women fought in the Dahomian army, but would not believe it; and now when they found it really was so, their indignation knew no bounds, and doubtless helped to urge them on to the pursuit and to the second battle before Isagga.]

The Egbas followed them to Isagga, which they were preparing to attack and destroy, in revenge for the evil counsel they had given them. [Not only had the Isaggans misled the Dahomians as to the best point and time of attack, but had purposely led them to cross the river at a spot much deeper than the proper fording place, so that some of the soldiers lost their muskets in the river, and much of the ammunition was spoilt.] Another battle ensued, more deadly, it was said, than before; the Egbas were again victorious, and rejoiced in thus delivering the Isaggans from a danger they had incurred for them; while the discomfited Dahomians hastened back to their own country, mortified and enraged, and determined to embrace the first opportunity of avenging themselves on Abbeokuta.

The loss they sustained cannot be accurately known, but it is supposed that it must have been more than 3,000 killed and 1,000 taken prisoners. What a frightful loss of human life! Well might Mr. Hinderer say, "my heart is bleeding for bleeding [215/216] Africa! Thus to see Satan snatching away thousands of immortal souls to a hopeless eternity; and yet this is only one of Africa's many scenes!"

And all to satisfy the avarice of Gezo and the savage bravery of his army! [Gezo was also urged on by Kosoko of Lagos, and the other principal slave-dealers, from whom he received large presents and assistance in various ways. Kosoko was so delighted at the prospect of driving the white men away, and of destroying Abbeokuta, that, never doubting the issue of the conflict, he actually had salutes fired when he found the Dahomians were approaching Abbeokuta.] Oh that the gospel of peace might soon be proclaimed in Dahomey! that the grace of God might change the hearts of this fierce people, that the men might bow their necks to the King of kings, and that the women, turning with horror from their present ornaments, might adorn themselves with that "meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price." [The very drinking cups which the ladies of the royal harem carry at their girdles are polished human skulls.]

The women of Abbeokuta showed upon this occasion that they were not behind their Amazonian neighbours in the courage that belongs to woman. Not a few of them, during the hottest of the fight, regardless of the bullets that were flying in every direction, employed themselves in carrying water to the thirsty soldiers on the walls, and two of them had the satisfaction of thus relieving a man who, at the [216/217] time of the persecution, had been one of the bitterest of their foes.

Mr. Hinderer, who was engaged in the same errand of mercy, and was convoying refreshment to the exhausted chiefs at the south-west extremity of the town, told us that as he approached the wall, he found the road lined with women. One had a calabash of water, another some palm-wine, a third some country beer, and others were provided with some substantial food. As he drew near, a soldier was coming up from the walls. "Where are you going?" cried the women: "Into the town," was the answer. "I am hungry and thirsty, and tired of fighting." "What," they exclaimed, "turn your back upon the enemy! here is food for you, eat and drink, and go back to your post; but if not, leave your musket behind you, and we will find some one to take your place." Once and again did this happen, as Mr. Hinderer rode along. The soldiers ate and drank, and, refreshed and encouraged, returned to drive the invaders from the walls.

What a day had that day of battle been for the missionaries! In the morning, the remembrance of the fate of other towns, and the thought that this might be the last day of Abbeokuta; as the hours passed on, the agitation of the actual combat, the imminent danger to themselves and to their children, the crowding of terrified people into the [217/218] mission-compound for succour they had no means of them, and the bringing in of wounded soldiers! And then the evening, bringing the consciousness of a deliverance almost too great to be believed; a confused sense of joy and thankfulness scarcely realized, mingled with deep distress for the sufferings of others. We do not wonder at the excitement they speak of, from which it took them days to recover.

We may imagine the joy of the Abbeokutans at this preservation from misery and ruin. Even the heathen openly acknowledged that they owed it to the God of the Christians; and they all felt the missionaries to be their truest friends. They often also spoke with gratitude of the consul's visit: "Had it not been he who told us of our danger, we should have taken less notice of it, nor should we have repaired that small portion of the wall that did us so much service."

The conduct of the Dahomian prisoners, especially of the women, was so violent that the chiefs talked of putting them to death; but the missionaries interceded, and they were spared. [Two of these Amazons killed the persons who brought their food.]

With what different feelings did the Christians of Abbeokuta meet on the following Sunday, the 9th of March! The anxiety and dismay of the preceding [218/219] Sabbath were changed into joy and gladness; and the Psalms must have appeared as though purposely selected. How thankfully could they exclaim, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," and how feelingly acknowledge "I will not trust in my bow, neither is it my sword that shall help, but it is Thou that hast saved us from our enemies, and puttest them to confusion that hate us. We make our boast in God all day long, and will praise Thy name for ever." [Psalm xlvi. 1; xliv.]

And it was a happy coincidence, that by a previous arrangement no less than twenty-four adults were on that day baptised in the church of Aké--twenty-four men and women--who had so lately seen what earthly warfare was, and were now professing themselves "not ashamed manfully to fight under the banner of Christ crucified" against all their spiritual foes, "and to continue Christ's faithful soldiers and servants unto their life's end."

But in the church of Igbein a note of sorrow mingled with the hallelujahs; for one was missing from among them, and they believed him numbered with the dead. This was John Baptist, a communicant whose history must not be passed over; but as it is too long to be inserted here, we will reserve it for the next chapter.

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