Protestant Missions in 18th Century West Africa: Redeemed from human slavery to serve Christ
By Rev Ajit Hazra
While the image of John Wesley preaching the gospel astride a galloping horse may be etched in Methodist consciousness, Wesley did not only preach freedom from slavery to sin but also advocated against the common practice of slave labour that was fuelling the industries of Europe of his day.
The slave trade
During the 18th Century, England was a leading naval power but also an active participant in the international trade of abducting Africans and bringing them to the continents of Europe and the Americas to work as slaves in factories and on sugar and cotton plantations. It is estimated that due to torture and inhumane treatment, as much as 50% of the captured men, women and children died in transit on the slave ships. Those who lived to reach their destinations faced an empty life of long back-breaking hours of work, interrupted only by sleep and meals, just so they could continue in labour. It was in the midst of such abject conditions and a meaningless existence that the Gospel gave hope to many of them.
Many of these African slave communities were transformed into Christian fellowships during the revival movements that swept across Europe and North America in the 18th century. They became communities of hope, well known for their distinct form of music, described as ‘negro spirituals’ or Afro-American music. Even as their bodies ached from slaving without rest and their dignities damaged from exploitation, their spirits were fortified as they sang of their hope in a ‘chariot that was gonna take me ‘ome’.
During the first half of the 19th Century, as slavery was progressively pronounced illegal, efforts were made to give the freed African slaves an option to return to Africa. Many did not choose to go because after 200 years of slavery, they were too far removed from Africa to see it as home. However, some freed slaves, mostly Christians, took the plunge and chose to board the ships for West Africa to what is known today as Freetown in Sierra Leone.
The Krio people
The first group of about one thousand people marched ashore onto African soil in 1792 singing, ‘Awake, and sing the song of Moses and the Lamb.’ These African Christians were unique. Physically, they looked like other Africans, yet their history as slaves in the West meant they were also not part of the land. They were Africans but dressed like Europeans. Many could hardly speak an African tongue. Neither was their spoken English easily recognisable because they spoke a dialect unique to African slave communities. Distanced from their immediate African environment by language, culture and by their Christian faith, these new arrivals soon emerged with a separate identity as the Krio people.
The Krio Christians played a significant role in the spread of the Christian mission to the interiors of West Africa. They joined the mission expeditions of the 1850s to sail up the Niger River for explorations and to create mission stations. They proved to be a valuable asset to the missionary expeditions as they adapted more easily to the tropical climatic conditions than their European counterparts and quickly learned the unfamiliar African languages that they came across.
Krio Christians were also instrumental in the spread of the good news to modern-day Nigeria at they sought for opportunities to start new communities and to establish business opportunities. One group of unsung heroes worked daily in the market places. These markets came to be dominated by the Krio Christian women and mothers with children who not only pedalled their produce but talked about the Lord of their salvation. Their pattern was to begin the day’s trading with public prayer and at the close of the day, after the last vegetable was sold, to close in prayer. Through their word and their witness the good news was made known to all who traded in these markets.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther
One notable former slave who was well known for his mission activities in West Africa was Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1807-1891). Crowther was abducted from his home as a young teen but was confronted with the Christian message while on board the slave ship. He recorded in his journals, “I was convinced of another worse state of slavery, namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart.”
Crowther’s conviction of sin set him on the journey to be trained for the church and ordination as an Anglican priest. In 1864, at the age of 58, he was consecrated as their first Bishop in West Africa. Crowther was instrumental in enabling the translation of the Christian scriptures into the Yoruba language. His work in Yoruba vocabulary and grammar fostered the birth of a Yoruba literature that also gave room to the Yoruba Christian community to take pride in their own language and culture. This self-awareness allowed them to express a Christian faith that rose above the debilitating history of their time in human slavery. Bishop Crowther was also acknowledged for showing how to cross political, religious and language boundaries in the many relationships he cultivated with the Muslim chiefs on the Niger River. It was a testimony to his work that some of these chiefs were present at his funeral.
John Wesley and his peers who were part of the movement for the abolition of slavery had no inkling of the possibilities and potential of the redeemed Krio community. But it is such faithfulness to the message of the Gospel that creates opportunities for the healing impact of the Gospel in our world of pain and evil.