THE SLAVE BOY WHO TURNED BISHOP – Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Those whom God love, so a saying goes, He leaves His mark on them before they are born. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba son, later to become Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa, and the first African to be so honoured, was one such man.
There came an expedition in 1841, which over-riding purpose was to bring Christianity to our shores and remove the evils of slave trade from our midst, that a stalwart Yoruba son, himself having been miraculously rescued from the hands of a slave dealer who had taken him as far as the territorial waters of Sierra Leone, was to make not only his presence felt, but leave his name as a monument in the history of Nigeria, West Africa and the world.
The name, Samuel Ajayi Crowther continues to ring like a bell today, not only in Christian churches and homes, but throughout our society. We came across it in Sunday school lessons, and drank in the written words about him in text books during very young age at school.
Having thus been removed from the hands of a slave merchant in 1822, and because of his discernable high intelligence by missionaries in Sierra Leone, he was sent to the local C.M.S. School in Freetown, for what was to become his first step in the acquisition of knowledge. This was only the beginning of things to come.
Little Ajayi, who quickly demonstrated that he would not be found wanting as far as intelligence and academic baptized and given the significant biblical name of Samuel. He however shrewdly for one so young kept his Yoruba name of Ajayi.
It soon became obvious to the group of missionaries who were his benefactors that to educate young Samuel Ajayi only in Sierra Leone would be doing the lad an injustice, as it wouldn’t be enough. For to properly educate him was outside the scope of the then West Africa teachers and institutions.
And so, he was dispatched to a parochial school in Arlington, London, where the surname, Crowther, the name of notable Church Missionary Society member was added to his other two names. From then on, he became known as Samuel Ajayi Crowther.
At the completion of his education in Britain he returned to Sierra Leone, the very place he had been taken to off a slave ship. And it was from there that the most turning point of his life and career began. For he found himself given pride of place among English missionaries and some Africans, setting out on the already mentioned expedition with the two-fold mission – bringing Christianity, and the abolition of slave trade.
Although Christianity had already taken hold in Liberia, and in the then Gold Coast, (now Ghana) and of course is Sierra Leone, it had not at all found any footing in Nigeria. Islamism and paganism were then the practiced religious. To remedy this oversight, and largely seek converts particularly among the pagans, was actually necessary among members of the expedition.
To go a step further, the inclusion and the presence of Samuel Ajayi Crowther among these enterprising gentlemen, it was hoped, would help to convert the Nigerian masses.
And it came about that in the July of the same year after having weathered sea-sickness and various other discomforts, that they reached the Niger, and began their work in earnest, and with feverish zeal.
While expounding the merits of Christianity with natural rulers, they at the same time, signed treaties on the abolition of slave trade, and in its place substituted more palatable trade agreements on the supply of legitimate goods in order that slave dealers would not incur trade deficits since their once lucrative source of livelihood, the sale of their fellow country men to foreign entrepreneurs must be made to cease perpetually.
On and on they went, in villages and hamlets until June 1842, when they felt their mission was accomplished, and the expedition therefore came to and end. The English members were instructed to return home, while the Africans among them were to be disembarked at Cape Coast in the then Gold Coast, also in Sierra Leone, and Cape Palmas.
The fruit of the labour of the distinguished Crowther, and other little known African members among the expedition were soon realized by Mr. Henry Venn, who was then the general secretary of the Church Missionary Society.
What the inclusion of Africans, particularly Crowther in the expedition Christianity would be better served if African clergy played a more prominent role since they spoke the language of the people. Not only that Henry Venn also knew that only the African clergy would understand the true African mind as well as their behaviour. And with this line of reasoning, he at once realized that in Samuel Ajayi Crowther, he had found the right man for the right job.
It therefore fell into the scheme of things that Crowther was made the head of the Anglican Church in Western Equatorial Africa. Bur before this came to pass, he was ordained a priest in London at the end of which he delivered to the congregation who had watched him so ordained such a moving sermon, that they could not help but impressed.
The result was that when the Yoruba Mission was founded at Abeokuta by Mr. Henry Townsend, Crowther was naturally included.
Crowther’s task however, was not allowed to end at Abeokuta. It spread father afield into the Niger delta. As he went along, the spreading of Christianity gained the upper hand, while the sale of his fellow Africans to foreigners diminished before his very eyes. Not a man happy to sit on his laurels, he marched on, making friends and bringing them to the fold.
Thus, it was. That Samuel Ajayi Crowther, whom God smiled upon, and who for his part, demonstrated equally through sheer handwork, that smile was not wasted on him found himself proposed by the same Mr. Henry Venn as Bishop of Western Equatorial Africa.
Typical of Crowther, he refused the honour, while Henry Venn insisted much to the anger of Henry Townsend who felt that he was better equipped and more importantly, deserved that honour better than Crowther, and bitterly opposed it.
The handwriting was however already on the wall, and the moving finger having written that Crowther should be made Bishop, had moved on, And Samuel Ajayi Crowther according to the handwriting on the wall, was in 1864, ordained Bishop in the ancient and magnificent historic Canterbury cathedral in Kent, South East England.
Nevertheless, to soothe the jealousy and ruffled feelings of European missionaries, the missions of Abeokuta, Lagos and Freetown, Sierra Leone were excluded from Crowther’s diocese.
But these, were the least of Crowther’s worries as he went from strength to strength, expended, and brought more and more souls into the fold of Christian doctrine.
•Culled from Headlines.
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