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Samuel Ajayi Crowther: from slave to Polyglot & first African Anglican Bishop

Written by Oadeye

The word “polyglot” comes from Greek. “Poly” means “many” and “glot” means tongue. Greek was the first European language to use vowels. It is an Afroasiatic language written right to left originally like Hebrew. Almost every word that starts “ph” in English comes from Greek, along with 12% of all English words – 150,000 words. There are 600,000 words in English, 120,000 words in Yoruba, and no-one has ever counted the number of words in Latin or Greek. Within six years of banning the slave trade, a former slave had the opportunity to produce a bible fully translated into Yoruba, a guide to grammar for Nupe, Igbo and Yoruba, a Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, receive a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford between 1861 and 1881, to become a polyglot, and become the first Anglican African bishop.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther - Canterbury Cathedral - view of the Western Towers engraved by J.LeKeux after a picture by G.Cattermole, 1821 edited

Canterbury Cathedral, View of the Western Towers engraved by J.LeKeux after a picture by G.Cattermole, 1821. Image rights: public domain.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther - Canterbury Cathedral - View from the north west circa 1890–1900.

View from the north west circa 1890–1900. Image rights: public domain.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther - Canterbury Cathedral - Roof of Bell Harry Tower

Roof of Bell Harry Tower, Image rights: public domain.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther - Canterbury Cathedral - Cloisters

Canterbury Cathedral Cloisters. Image rights: public domain.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther - Canterbury_Cathedral_Rood_Screen,_Kent,_UK_-_Diliff

Canterbury Cathedral, Choir Screen. Image rights: public domain.

If you happen to come across the library of the prestigious Fourah Bay Collage, located in the neighbourhood of Mount Aureol and overlooking the national capital, Freetown, Sierra Leone, you will find yourself walking among (apart from the shelves stacked with the finest of books) a number of portraits in gilt-edged frames adorning the library walls. Among those portraits, you will find one of an elderly African man wearing the ermine garb of a bishop. That man is Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who was one of the first students of the university when it first opened its doors to seekers of higher education in 1827. However, he was not originally from Sierra Leone, and the story of his arrival is rather a dramatic one.

samuel ajayi crowther - pic1 - portrait

Anglican Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1867 (source)

In 1810, Samuel Ajayi Crowther was born in the town of Osogun, Egbaland, in Yorubaland (the modern-day Western Nigeria) to a father who worked as a weaver and specialized in country cloth, while the rest of his family worked as small farmers. When Ajayi reached the young age of twelve, his hometown was raided; its people were captured and the town was set on fire. Ajayi, his two sisters, their mother and a cousin were taken away by the invaders and parted from each other. Ajayi was traded many times in exchange of different things, once for a bag of tobacco, another time for a horse. Later, he was sold to white slave traders (Portuguese) and loaded onto a slaving ship.

Between 1500 AD and 1890 AD, over twenty-two million (22,000,000) Africans were sold into slavery (R.A. Austen 1979). Seven million (6,856,000) were sold east, 3,956,000 were sold across the Sahara and 2,900,000 across the Red sea and the Indian Ocean (R.A. Austen 1979). Fifteen million (15,000,000) were sold who crossed the Atlantic. 70% of all Africans sold into slavery in the Americas were transported by Portugal and Britain. The median income for the United Kingdom for the tax year 2017 (6 Apr 16 – 5 Apr 17) was £27,300 (UK Office of National Statistics, 2018). The average life expectancy of a slave in the Caribbean was 9 years (D. Olusoga, 2016).

When slavery was abolished between 1834 and 1900, slave owners in Europe and the United States were compensated for each slave they freed. In the UK, slaves were forced by law to work up to 4 extra years free, to prepare them for freedom as labourers on “farms”. Assuming nine years of work and an annual salary of £27,300, importing 15,000,000 slaves was equivalent to a cash injection unpaid labour costs of £3.7 trillion over nine years (or $5.2 trillion). 22 million slaves exported was therefore equivalent to £5.4 trillion over nine years or $7.6 trillion over nine years.

Things looked bleak for the twelve year old. Ajayi however, had a different fate awaiting him.  After he was brought up on deck along with the other captives, they found a surprise awaiting them. The British Navy captured the ship, the Portuguese traders were put in chains and the captured Africans were set free. The liberated Africans were then taken to Freetown, a twenty-eight mile stretch of peninsula land on the coast of Sierra Leone.

This Province of Freedom was established by the British Anti-Slavery Movement in 1787 with the arrival of the first settlers, 411 ex-slave African Britons from England under the auspices of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. They were accompanied by white English wives and children. Some of these early settlers had never lived in Africa and those particular black settlers were ex-soldiers from Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, from Canada and run-away slaves from England. Most perished due to disease. The surviving original settlers were later joined by freed slaves from North America and Jamaica. Between 1807 and 1863, with the arrival of the last shipload of freed slaves at the shore of Freetown, about 50,000 freed captives started their new lives in Sierra Leone.

In Bathurst, a mountain village on the outskirts of Freetown, Ajayi stayed with an Anglican missionary couple where he was baptized into the Anglican Church and took the baptismal names Samuel Crowther.

samuel ajayi crowther - pic2 - portraitAbout the third year of my liberation from the slavery of man, I was convinced of another worse state of slavery, namely, that of sin and Satan. It pleased the Lord to open my heart ·.. I was admitted into the visible Church of Christ here on earth as a soldier to fight manfully under his banner against our spiritual enemies.”

– Samuel Ajayi Crowther –

 

As a young boy, he received a good education and when he was about 17 years old in 1827, the Fourah Bay College was newly established, which he joined as one of its first students. Around that time, Ajayi was developing interest in languages and so, he started studying Latin, Greek and Temne. His interest in studying the Temne language implies that he had a missionary vision that went beyond Sierra Leone.

samuel ajayi crowther - pic2 - fourah bay college.png

A postcard of Fourah Bay College, Freetown, early 1930s (source)

Ajayi was invited in 1841 to join an expedition up the Niger River organized by the British Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilization of Africa aiming to suppress the slave trading activities and to spread Christianity in the region. He kept a detailed journal of the trip, which earned him a worldwide acclaim as a missionary.

In 1843, as a result of his efforts and abilities during the expedition, he was ordained a minister into the Anglican Church. Shortly afterwards he got married to Asano, a school teacher and a Christian convert baptized as Susan. She was brought on the same Portuguese ship that first brought Ajayi to Freetown.

Ajayi returned to Nigeria and reunited with his mother for the first time after twenty five years of separation. He ministered as an Anglican missionary in his homeland, Yoruba along with other neighbouring areas. Ajayi was much respected and admired which led to him being consecrated a bishop in Canterbury Cathedral in 1864. This made him Africa’s first Anglican Bishop. His sermons were always full and there was barely room for the attendees, special trains ran from London to Canterbury to transport the attending crowds. He was also part of the vital discussion with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on how the Lagos slave trade could be stopped. Henry Venn from the Church Missionary Society arranged his tour.

His preaching always aimed to deliver a strong anti-slavery message, that along with his missionary work were part of a much broader abolitionist movement that was taking place at the time. Even though he was highly co-operative with the British colonial government, he still believed that the key for African people to gain their own rights and absolute liberty was in education. Thus, he worked on persuading missionary boards to finance the development of new African schools and promote education.

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Bishop Ajayi Crowther and his native clergy, 1890c (source)

 

Bishop Crowther the talented linguist, translated the Bible into Yoruba, and he also created a Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Furthermore, he compiled a “Vocabulary of the Yoruba language” that included a vast amount of local proverbs which was published in London in 1854. Still, he did not devote his efforts solely to Yoruba, but he enlisted evangelists from other ethnicities to work on translating the Bible into their own indigenous languages. In 1891, Bishop Crowther died of a stroke in Lagos, at the age of eighty one.

Crowther faced many difficulties as a bishop including; local opposition by both Europeans and Africans, and the fact that he was short of African assistants since many of his staff who came from Sierra Leone found it difficult to live in Nigeria. Nevertheless, he persisted, and the work prospered.

Crowther represented a Promethean persona that many years later, African Christians were inspired to emulate. He was the first African to lead the translation of the Bible from a European language into an indigenous tongue, and was also the first African to publish a study of his native language (Yoruba) in a European language. He was determined and keen on providing the Yoruba people with the social and cultural tools needed to survive while interacting with the European civilization that came through Africa’s shores and settled themselves on the African land.

 

Bibliography

  • Lewis, Donald M. (2004). Christianity Reborn: The Global Expansion of Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-2483-7.
  • Jacob Oluwatayo Adeuyan (2011). The Journey of the First Black Bishop: Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther 1806-1891. AuthorHouse. p. 70. ISBN 9781463407322.
  • “Crowther, Samuel Ajayi, Nigeria, Anglican”. Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Archived from the original on 2014-07-11. Retrieved 2014-09-01.

About the author

Oadeye

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