Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Samuel Crowther: Missionary/Ethnographer

Bishop Samuel Crowther 1988
Bishop Samuel Crowther 1988

[Note:  i have decided to publish this “Aside” as it is, even though it is barely started, and doesn’t include Onitsha at all at this point.  My reasoning is that what it does present may be of some value to readers who may have heard vaguely about this amazing person but otherwise know nothing about him.  I will add Onitsha-related materials as I find time to do so.]

Samuel Adjai Crowther was an Oyo Yoruba raised in  Oshogun Town, a boy  in his mid-teens when he was captured and enslaved by Fulani raiders as they sacked Oshogun in 1821.  Bought and sold several times while  being moved toward the Guinea coast, he was eventually placed on a Portuguese ship in Lagos, bound for the transatlantic trade.  But that ship was intercepted by a British man-o’-war, which bombarded,  then captured it, later  releasing the African survivors in safety at Freetown, Sierra Leone In 1822.1

Transformative experiences in Freetown and beyond

This might have been the end of his story on the stage of global history, but this youth possessed what can nicely (if rather inadequately) be described  as “outstanding intellectual powers”.  Even while on the British ship he  “became a great favourite with the sailors as a lad of exceptional quickness and intelligence”, and so he was sent to a Church Missionary Society schoolmaster at Bathurst, a small town a few miles from Freetown, and placed directly in “the wise and loving care of Mr. Davey and his wife”, where “the best in the boy opened as the flower to the sun”:  “in six months from the day of his landing Adjai was able to read his New Testament”, and also learned the art of carpentry (important new technology for those places at that time).2

He was baptized in 1825, the English portions of his name being drawn from “a venerable clergyman, the Rev. Samuel Crowther, vicar of Christ Church, Newgate Street, London, and one of the first committee of the Church Missionary Society.”3  In 1826, he briefly accompanied his schoolmaster Mr. Davey to England, where he attended school there for a few months.  After his return, Mr. Davey, upon receiving a request from London for “sending a likely native youth to England for training, responded4 :

The only lad I could at present recommend as fit to be sent to England is Samuel Crowther. He would,I have reason to believe, prove a very useful instrument for carrying on the work in Western Africa. He has abilities far surpassing any I have met with before, and added to this he appears to be truly pious. Our only fear respecting him might be that he should be lifted up too much by a second voyage to England. He has improved very much under the assiduous care of Brother Haensel, and gave great satisfaction in the examination the other day.

Note here the reference to piety.  This was a major value affecting CMS relationships in the Niger Mission, and requires some underlining, as we shall see.  “Brother Haensel” was Rev. Charles Haensel, a young Lutheran missionary from the Prussian  Basle Seminary,  who had been selected to head the new educational institution of the CMS in Sierra Leone (which later became known as Fourah Bay College and whose first student was Samuel Crowther himself).  Page5 quotes one of his pastoral letters in full:

It has been my endeavour (he writes) to prevent any sudden rise in the outward condition of the youths. Coming out of Government schools, or out of menial employ, they have mostly brought scanty clothing with them—

a couple of shirts, a pair of trousers, a hat and perhaps a jacket, with a book of Common Prayer, and in some instances a Bible, constitute their entire possessions. I have, in the first place, where necessary, added a Bible to their stock, a pair of trousers, and a shirt after a little while, a jacket, if necessary, after a month or two, and another pair of trousers some time after that. This for their full dress on Sunday and other particular occasions; at home they always go barefooted.  Even Samuel Crowther does so at home, though his visit to England has raised him to the height of white stockings, a suit of blue cloth, a waistcoat, and a beaver hat on Sundays!

Their food consists of rice and yams (a sort of potato), plain boiled, with some meat or fish occasionally and palm oil, which they eat out of tin pans. The youths are their own servants;  they sweep and scrub the schoolroom and sleeping room, clean the table, and wash their clothes. I send occasionally one or other on errands, just to remind them that they are not above carrying a basketful of rice or anything else on their heads.

From Samuel Crowther I require only the inspection of these services. I have,however, pointed out to him the necessity of example accompanying precept in this as in all other branches of our work, and he follows my suggestions. When Samuel Crowther first entered the Institution he brought with him a mattress with which he had been presented when in England, but as this was too great a luxury I at once forbade its entrance, to which he readily consented. I wish for the good of his own soul to see him in that state of lowliness of mind which Africans so easily lose by visits to England.

(The emphasis above is added to the quotation.)  Interestingly, Crowther’s biographer also quotes from a letter written by Crowther “after a lapse of forty years”, regarding character traits of  his former principal:6 :

Mr. Haensel was a peculiar person altogether; we could never find one to match him. He was so venerated by all the merchants, they would all tremble at his presence if they did not act straightforwardly or honestly. He would tell  you in language which was not offensive, but which you could never forget, and next time you saw him you would tremble to act in the same way, either by speaking inadvertently or by acting contrary to Christian principles. He was a man of very penetrating qualifications.

“Lowliness of mind” (and related features of character alluded to in these two quotations) became primary character standards for guiding policies in the CMS Mission to the Niger.  They would (as we shall see) form a striking contrast, not only with the standards guiding their local subjects,but also with the very pragmatic (and socio-politically considerably more effective) methods adopted by the Roman Catholic Fathers in Onitsha beginning in 1885.

Crowther quickly rose to prominence at this new College, as a teacher, a student of languages, an active proponent of higher education for Africans, and an advocate of establishing new material projects to further the lives of West Africans.7 This reputation proved pivotal when the British Government responded proactively to policies advocated by humanitarian groups for stopping the slave trade and regenerating the people affected by it (the introduction of “commerce, civilization, and Christianity”), by mobilizing  the Expedition to the River Niger of 18418.

The River Niger Expedition of 1841

Crowther, then a catechist for the CMS, was selected to join the British Niger Expedition of 1841.He distinguished himself as an acute observer and thoughtful participant in this disastrous adventure where more than a third of the participants died (despite plentiful supplies of quinine available on-ship, unfortunately they were used only when patients showed signs of recovery9

Ordained by the C.M.S. in 1843, he helped open a mission at Badagry and then in Abeokuta, where in 1846 the missionaries helped defend the city against external attack. Crowder p. 128

  1. See Ajayi 1965, pp. 20-21.  “Freetown”  was the city established by the British at the end of the 17th Century (when abolition of the slave trade was forcefully under way) and grew as part of the new Crown Colony of Sierra Leone.  See  Page 1909:pp. 22-26 and Banton 1957:  for details about its history and growth. []
  2. Page 1909, pp. 17-18. []
  3. Ibid. p. 19. []
  4. On Christmas day, 1827, Page p.34 []
  5. 1909, pp. 38-9 []
  6. Ibid. p.  39 []
  7. Ajayi, p. 26-7.  Ajayi adds that he “lived a blameless life.” []
  8. Dike, K.O 1962; Ekechi1972:9-10. []
  9. Crowder p. 126. []
Scroll to Top