SAMUEL AJAYI CROWTHER: FIRST AFRICAN ANGLICAN BISHOP IN NIGERIA

 

Samuel Ajayi (Adjai) Crowther was born in 1809 in Osoogun, in Iseyin Local Government Area of Oyo State. It is bordered by fellow Ibarapa tribes like Lanlate, Maya, Eruwa and Iseyin, a little farther away. It was a large town where people from neighbouring towns came to trade, before invaders came and sold them into slavery, leaving the lucky ones to abandon the town. It was told that at the time of his birth, a diviner had indicated that Ajayi was not to join any of the cults of the Yoruba divinities because he was to be a special being chosen to be a servant of ‘Olorun’ (the God of heaven).

Ajayi was 12 years old when he was captured, with his mother and toddler brother and other family members, along with his entire villagers by Muslim Fulani slave raiders in 1821. On this fateful day, the Fulani invaders seized the town without warning to the inhabitants. The men had come out immediately to defend themselves. Sometime later, Ajayi’s father sneaked in and informed his household to flee the town while he went back to join other defenders. Ajayi’s mother took him, his two other brothers, sister and cousins to run away but they were captured and taken away.

The Tree Late Crowther Was Tied as a Slave

 

He was passed from one master to another six times before ending up at a major slave market where he was sold to Portuguese slave traders. He contemplated killing himself rather than getting sold into the hands of white men: he tried to strangle himself with his waistband but his courage failed him when he held the noose in his hand.

After several weeks, he and one hundred and eighty-seven fellow slaves were loaded on a ship bound for Portugal. The ship set sail but was intercepted off the coast of Lagos by two British Man o’ War ships, under the command of Captain Henry Leeke, positioned on the waters primarily to enforce the abolition of slavery. The master and slave-drivers were placed in irons and the Africans were set free but were not returned to Lagos; they were taken instead to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

While there, Crowther was cared for by the Anglican Church Missionary Society, and was taught English. He converted to Christianity, was baptized by Rev. John Raben, and took the name Samuel on 11th December, 1825.

While in Freetown, Crowther became interested in languages. 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.

The House Where Ajayi Crowther Translated The Bible Into Yoruba Language

 

In 1826, he was taken to England to attend a parochial school. He also attended St Mary’s Church 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. He returned to Freetown in 1827 and attended the newly-opened Fourah Bay College, an Anglican missionary school, where his interest in language found him studying Latin and Greek but also Temne. It was from there that the most turning points of his life and career began. 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.

He became the first teacher to graduate from the Church Missionary Society’s Teacher Training College at Fourah Bay. After completing his studies, he began teaching at the school. Fourah Bay College eventually became the first institution to offer university level education in tropical Africa.

A girl, Asano, (i.eHassana, formerly a muslim), who was also on the Portuguese slave ship that originally brought Crowther to Sierra Leone,  also got converted and replaced her native name with Susan. They grew up together, were fond of each other, and after a happy period of courtship, they were married.

Crowther

 

He joined the 1841 Niger expedition, sent out by England to explore the Niger River, combat the slave trade, and open the country for legitimate trade. Climatic conditions prevented success, but Crowther distinguished himself.

The fruit of the labour of the distinguished Crowther, and other little known African members among the expedition were soon realised by Mr. Henry Venn, who was then the general secretary of the Church Missionary Society.

With 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.

He was invited to England for further training and ordained in the Church of England on June 11, 1843, by Charles James Blomfield (the Bishop of London at the time) and became the first of several African clergymen. He delivered to the congregation who had watched him so ordained such a moving sermon, that they could not help but impressed.

Bishop Crowther and his Son Dandeson

 

Crowther was made the head of the Anglican Church in Western Equatorial Africa. He worked as a priest in Sierra Leone but soon became a member of the Anglican Mission in Nigeria at Badgray. Crowther’s first sermon at home was in English and took place on December 3 of that year. By accident in Badagry, he recognised his mother after 25 years of separation and baptised her in 1848.

After an initial reconnaissance carried out by Henry Townsend, a mission party went to Abeokuta. It was headed by Townsend, Crowther and C.A. Gollmer, a German missionary. They were accompanied by a large group of Sierra Leoneans from the liberated Yoruba community, including carpenters and builders who also worked as teachers and catechists. The mission intended to demonstrate a whole new way of life of which the church, the school and the well-built house were all a part. The Sierra Leonean trader-immigrants who had first brought Abeokuta to the attention of the mission became the nucleus of the new Christian community.

Crowther went to London in 1851 to present the cause of Abeokuta. He saw government ministers; he had an interview with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; he spoke at meetings all over the country, invariably to great effect. This grave, eloquent, well-informed black clergyman was the most impressive tribute to the effectiveness of the missionary movement that most British people had seen. Henry Venn, the CMS secretary who organised the visit, expressed the belief that it was Crowther who finally moved the government to action.

Bishop Ajayi Crowther and His Native Clergy Men (1890c)

 

Ajayi preached in Yoruba, translated parts of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer and also published a Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language (1852). He believed that evangelisation and trade should go together in order to bring peace and prosperity to the country. The book included an account of the language’s grammatical structure and is believed to be the first of its kind written by a native speaker of an African language. A Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer followed later. In 1854 and 1857 Crowther was a member of two further Niger expeditions. The second suffered shipwreck, and Crowther did not return to Lagos until 1859.

The Church Missionary Society secretary, Henry Venn, saw Crowther as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating African churches and in 1857 sent him to open a new mission on the Niger. The entire staff were Africans, mainly from Sierra Leone, and Venn moved toward an Anglican version of the “three-self” formula by securing Crowther’s appointment in 1864 as “Bishop of the countries of Western Africa beyond the Queen’s dominions.” In the upper and middle Niger territories Crowther pioneered an early form of Christian-Muslim dialogue for Africa. He oversaw J.C. Taylor’s ground-breaking work in Igboland and directed the evangelization of the Niger Delta, with notable results at such centers as Bonny.

In 1855, he published Journal of an Expedition up the Niger and Tshadda Rivers, and in 1859, with J. C. Taylor, The Gospel on the Banks of the Niger, 1857-1859. After the British Niger Expeditions of 1854 and 1857, Crowther produced a primer for Igbo in 1857, another for the Nupe language in 1860 and a full grammar and vocabulary account of Nupe in 1864.

AJAYI CROWTHER

 

Crowther made frequent visits to England. In 1857, he was made head of the Niger Mission, and as the work prospered, white reverends – including many within the CMS hierarchy, vehemently opposed the idea of a black man becoming a bishop. Nevertheless, on St Peter’s Day in 1864, Crowther was ordained the first African bishop of the Anglican Church. He was also awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree by Oxford University.

As a bishop, Crowther faced many difficulties. There was local opposition, both African and European; his duties and rights were not easily defined, and he was short of African helpers. Many of his African staff came from Sierra Leone and found it difficult to live in Nigeria. But the work prospered, and soon there were more than 600 Christians, with 10 priests and 14 teachers and catechists. His task was hard, but the fact that he was an African bishop inspired many African Christians in the years that followed. He supervised the translation of the Yoruba Bible (BibeliMimo), which was completed in the mid-1880s, a few years before his death. Crowther suffered a stroke and died on December 31, at the age of 82 and was buried in Lagos.

Bishop Ajayi Crowther’s grandson, Herbert Macaulay became one of the first Nigerian nationalists and played an important role in ending British colonial rule in Nigeria.

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