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date: 08 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

In 1807 most of the countries involved in the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade signed an international agreement to abolish the shipments of Africans to the western hemisphere. The British Royal Navy established a west Africa duty station to intercept smugglers of contraband human cargo. Africans freed by the British were returned to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Surrounded by strangers and often far from their native lands, many stayed to be educated at schools set up by the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society (CMS). Often they converted to Christianity, and their knowledge of two very different worlds helped European missionaries to reach peoples of the interior.

Perhaps the most famous African to follow the path described above was Samuel Crowther (c. 1806–1891). As a young teenager Crowther was captured and sold to Portuguese slave traders. Leaving the Nigerian port of Lagos, the ship carrying him to South America was spotted by a Royal Navy squadron, which took Crowther and his fellow captives to Freetown. There Crowther was one of the first students at the Church Missionary Society’s Fourah Bay College. He became a teacher and evangelical Christian with strong ideas on the value of the Christian message for Africans. In 1841 he joined the First Niger Expedition to explore commercial and missionary opportunities away from the Nigerian coast. The mission is usually considered a failure. As was frequently the case, most Europeans could not survive the diseases they encountered in the African interior, and many of the party died. But Crowther proved himself to the British as a translator and intermediary with the village peoples. In 1842 he was sent to England for training and ordination in the Church of England.

When Crowther returned to Africa, the mission he established among the Yoruba people became a model for others. As much as possible, each mission community became self-sufficient, so that it would not be dependent on the villages around it. The residents grew cash crops that authorities hoped would replace revenues lost with the abolition of slavery, ran schools for the young, wore western clothes, and accepted any tribal peoples who wished to receive education and learn of the Christian religion. Crowther was so successful in managing the Yoruba and Niger missions that he was invited back to England to be consecrated as bishop of the Niger territories, a huge tract reaching from Nupe in the north to the Niger Delta along the coast. He was the first African to reach such a position in the Anglican Church.

Samuel Crowther, Journal of an Expedition up the Niger and Tshadda Rivers. London: Church Missionary House (1855): xiii–xviii.

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