The Birth and the spread of Thomas Birch Freeman of the C.M.S. in Nigeria

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Born in 1809

Thomas Birch Freeman was a Methodist missionary and colonial official in West Africa who worked as gardener & botanist for Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park near Ipswich until dismissed for abandoning Anglicanism for Wesleyan Methodism. He was sent by God to West Africa, founding Methodist churches in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria. After resigning as a missionary in 1857, he was employed by the colonial government as civil commandant of Accra district from 1857 to 1873. What a great missionary to learn from.  in October 1837, Thomas Birch was appointed as minister, on a trial basis, at Cape Coast. He had been ordained in Islington Chapel, London, on October 10, 1837. A few days later he married Elizabeth Boot, Sir Robert and Lady Harland’s housekeeper & sailed with her for Cape Coast on November 5, arriving on January 3, 1838. But Thomas fell ill and had to be nursed by his wife, who then died suddenly. Thomas recovered from his illness and from the blow of his wife’s death, and started work. 16 years later (in 1854), Freeman again visited Dahomey and Abeokuta, Nigeria & on his return home married an educated African woman who bore him 4 children. His wife helped him with his work, and he enlarged the Cape Coast church in 1855, and built 6 new churches in his district in 1856.

Freeman was the first Methodist missionary to arrive at Badagry in Nigeria on September 24, 1842, accompanied by William de Graft and his wife. They were permitted to establish a mission there, and had completed a mission house and chapel by the end of November, and William de Graft was put in charge. Thomas made friends with Captain George Maclean. British governor from 1830-43, who gave him encouragement. He also took advice from those who knew the country. He built the first Methodist Church at Cape Coast, opened on June 10, 1838. He trained two Fante youths, William de Graft and John Martin, for what was called the “native” ministry, since he himself was regarded as an Englishman. He made friends with several chiefs.”  Between 1843 & 1854 Freeman tried to extend the work of both the mission in Ghana & that of Nigeria, thereby spent enormous sums on traveling and other items. He did not keep proper accounts, and ran a heavy deficit. A committee was set up by the Missionary body to examine and report on his financial administration. The report was adverse, and as a result Freeman wrote to the committee in England to ask to be relieved of his post as chairman and general superintendent of the mission. He left without bitterness, and promised to work for the mission in any capacity. But he had incurred a debt as a result of financial maladministration, and had to pay it. After his resignation, he therefore accepted the post of administrative and civil commandant of the Accra district between 1857 & 1858.

September 1, 1873 he returned to the service of the Methodist Mission, and worked for another 13 years before retiring.

He supervised the building of churches, held religious revival camp meetings, and made the church very popular in Fanteland. Among other things, he had to face opposition from a Muslim sect which came to the Fante area from Lagos, but neutralized its influence by opening a school in the area. He also opened a new chapel at Mankesim, and baptized several converts with the aid of his son, Thomas Birch Freeman Jr., who had also been ordained a Methodist minister.

Towsend Henry of the C.M.S.



Birth Townsend


Townsend Henry



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University of Lagos



Townsend, Henry
1815 to 1886
Anglican (CMS)

Henry Townsend (1815–1886) was an Anglican missionary in Nigeria. Ordained in England in 1842, Townsend set off for Sierra Leone, landing there that same year. After working there only a few months, he was transferred to the Yoruba mission.

From 1846 to 1867, he based his mission in Abeokuta. Thomas Birch Freeman was actually the first European to enter Abeokuta. He arrived there on 11 December 1843. When he returned to Badagry on 24 December, he met Rev. Henry Townsend and they celebrated Christmas Day together sharing the Gospel in Badagry. According to Ajisafe, he was the first European person to enter Abeokuta, arriving there on 4 January 1843 and was ‘given a grand reception’ (Ajisafe 1924: 85). Working with Samuel Crowther, a Yoruba Anglican priest, Townsend wrote several hymns in Yoruba and aided in the compilation of Crowther’s Yoruba primer. He retired in 1876.

An English missionary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and one of the founders of the Yoruba mission, [1] in Exeter, England, into a family still known till date for their pedigree in the printing business. He entered the missionary college of the CMS in Islington in 1836, and that year he was assigned to Sierra Leone. Three years later he returned to England, where he married Sarah Pearse in 1840.

Townsend came to Sierra Leone as a missionary teacher and began his service in the village of Kent. [2] He was there until December of 1841 when he was transferred to Hastings. This transfer was auspicious for him and for the future of the society’s work in West Africa. Townsend found Hastings to be strategic to his interest in learning to speak Yoruba, called the Aku language at the time. No sooner had he started there than he noted in his journal that he had “recommenced learning the Aku dialect for which there are many facilities in this town and which I have much reason to think would be abundantly useful in our visits to the people.” [3] He took immediate advantage of the opportunity and noted in his journal in March 1842, “My labours in the Aku dialect have been steadily pursued since I resumed it in February… The people have considerably aided me by addressing me in Aku whenever I meet them and by explaining what they say when it is not sufficiently clear to me.” [4]

The usefulness of Townsend’s occupation with the Yoruba language began to unfold in October of 1842 when some of the speakers of the language in Hastings requested from the society missionaries to accompany them back to their country. These converts wanted missionaries to accompany them home. [5] Mr. Townsend first heard of this desire of the people to have missionaries sent to their country eight months after he began to serve in Hastings. He wrote then with delight that, “It gave me much pleasure to hear one of our communicants say that they (the Akus) had begun to pray that the Lord would send a missionary to their country.” [6]

At a special meeting held on October 4, 1842, the local committee deliberated on the formal request from Hastings that missionaries be sent to the Yoruba country. It resolved that Mr. Townsend “be requested to visit Badagry & its vicinity as soon as a favourable opportunity presents itself, to obtain information relative to a missionary objects; that Andrew Wilhelm the society’s Christian visitor at Hastings be requested to accompany him…” [7]

Townsend and his team left Freetown on November 15, 1842, on their assignment to “Badagry and its vicinity.” In Badagry they met the Methodist missionary to the Gold Coast, Thomas Birch Freeman, and his colleagues, Mr. and Mrs. DeGraft, who were returning from Abeokuta where they too had gone to explore the possibility of starting a mission. [8] On January 4, 1843, Townsend reached Abeokuta and was warmly received by Sodeke, the commander of the Egba army, and his people. Prior to his arrival, the effect of the British anti-slavery campaign had been felt in Abeokuta through the home return from Sierra Leone of relatives that were long thought to have been dead. This obvious achievement of the campaign predisposed the people to mission and Mr. Townsend did not have to convince Sodeke and his Egba compatriots to open their country to mission. [9]

The team on exploratory visit to the Yoruba country returned to Freetown on April 13, 1843, having been away for five months. Mr. Townsend reported his findings to the parent committee of the CMS and sent a few native manufactures of cloth and cushion to the lay secretary. As for the readiness of the people to receive missionaries, whatever it meant at the moment, there was enough enthusiasm on their part and with their chief, Sodeke. The chief promised to give the mission “more children to teach than [they] are able to manage.” He had even written a letter that Townsend delivered to the governor of Sierra Leone, thanking England for delivering his people from slavery and resolving to exert his own power to see the slave trade fully suppressed. [10] For Townsend, in view of the earlier failed attempt to penetrate the interior of Africa through the Niger River, the success of the exploratory visit was significant:

It is a great and merciful providence that while the door of access to the interior thro’ the Niger is closed against us that God should give us favour in the sight of the Akus by which we might reasonably hope to be as useful to the African race and eventually to penetrate to its remotest nation. I earnestly hope that as providence has opened a large field of usefulness that in like manner he will provide the means, and suitable agents, to enter upon the work he has prepared. [11]

The missionary from Exeter returned to England in October 1843, and in view of starting the Yoruba mission, he was ordained a deacon on Trinity Sunday, 1844, and a priest on October 20 by the bishop of London. He was assigned to begin the work alongside Samuel Crowther, then the foremost Yoruba convert in the service of CMS, and Charles Gollmer, both co-pioneers being already ordained as priests and serving in Sierra Leone. The three missionaries and their wives arrived in Badagry in January 1845, but they could not proceed to their intended mission base at Abeokuta. News reached them, barely a week after their arrival in Badagry, that Sodeke had died. [12] They were advised to wait for the appointment of a new leader for the town in view of the war situation of the country. [13]

Abeokuta–“Sunrise within the Tropics”

The waiting at Badagry lasted longer than the there missionaries could have imagined. The new authorities in Abeokuta, Sagbua and Sokenu, wanted them to wait, ostensibly for the wars to abate. Townsend got to know the fact behind their delay when he finally began the work in Abeokuta. Sodeke’s death was seen by a few powerful chiefs as an opportunity to reverse his pro-missionary stance that threatened their interests. [14] But even with this delay, things took a turn for the worse, and the road between Badagry and Abeokuta became unsettled again. When the situation eventually improved, the politics of war and slave trade among the peoples east and south of Abeokuta complicated things. After seventeen months in Badagry they were invited to begin the work at Abeokuta. Messrs. Townsend and Crowther and their families arrived there at the end of July 1846. Mrs. Gollmer having died barely two months after arriving in Badagry, Mr. Gollmer was left in the town to run the young fledgling mission among the recalcitrant Popo people.

With his assertive nature, Townsend quickly became the driving force of the mission, although he was sensitive and unassuming when he related with Egba authorities. In no time, the mission made inroads into the Abeokuta community. More missionaries arrived in the field and made impact they never imagined as the people responded favorably to their message. Barely a year after the commencement of the mission, Henry Townsend could write that:

The success that has already attended our efforts so lately commenced exceeds what would have been a reasonable expectation at the commencement; God…gives his word & his servants favour in the sight of the heathen so that we are welcomed & treated with the greatest respect by all classes & the word of God is listened to with the greatest avidity. [15]

In spite of this sanguine state of affairs, the missionary was aware that the people had not yet fully come to terms with the mystery of new life unfolding before their eyes in stack contrast to the culture of death and destruction that had prevailed hitherto:

Our intentions in coming amongst them are not quite understood & sometimes a suspicion to our disadvantage arises, such suspicions as are common to a superstitious & credulous people as fear of the existence of a supernatural power with us by which we might bring some dire affliction upon them. But such suspicions as have arisen have been rejected again by themselves, unaided by us, the return of the Sierra Leone people seems at all times to be a sufficient evidence of the good faith of Englishmen, to them a standing miracle of mercy that rebuffs the fear of the most timid. [16]

As Townsend and other pioneer missionaries in mid-nineteenth century Yoruba country would acknowledge time and again, the return of the Yoruba recaptives from Sierra Leone was the ice-breaker that opened the country to mission. The reunion of families with their long forgotten relations commended missionary motive to the people as altruistic. And the converts among the returnees were also in the vanguard of mission, telling their stories to the high and low of the goodwill that sustained them away from home. These were stories that contrasted with the realities around the people and, farfetched as they sounded, they could only point to the dawn of a new day.

As churches were being established in the different quarters of Abeokuta, Mr. Townsend enjoyed the confidence of Sagbua whose seat of administration was at Ake. Sodeke, Sagbua’s deceased relative and predecessor, gave Ake this political primacy among all the quarters of the town when he made it his seat of government even though he was from Itoku. This district having so emerged as the seat of Egba government at Abeokuta, the chiefs also resolved to give the mission three acres there on which to build their mission. [17] This close, physical proximity between church and state in Abeokuta, far from being the intention of the missionaries, was a result of the formal relationship between them and Egba authorities from the beginning. With Townsend serving as their letter writer, the Egba authorities kept up their communication with the Queen of England whenever the opportunity availed itself for them to communicate with the English crown. It all flowed from their gratitude to the English people for freely redeeming their people from slavery and rehabilitating them in Sierra Leone. [18] The resultant trust and goodwill between the mission and the state worked for their good relationship; but with the passage of years, it became a burden for Townsend and disillusionment for the Egba state.


The progress Yoruba mission made at Abeokuta in a short time was too rapid and indeed threatening to some interest groups in the town. Some parents opposed their children’s conversion and some couples had difficulties with managing the experience of conversion of their spouses, especially the conversion of the women folk. But all these issues did not amount to much as they were mostly domestic in nature. According to Miss Tucker, the public persecution that erupted resulted from the economic threat conversion represented to the guild of Ifa priests, the Babalawo; the wood carvers who fashioned religious icons; and those who traded in the livestock used for sacrifice. Members of the Ogboni conclaves in some districts of the town were also peeved by the loss of gratuities that should have accrued to them as converts were being buried according to the new Christian rites. For these people, conversion was bad for business, and as in Ephesus, they would not fold their hands.

It was during the temporary return of Mr. and Mrs Townsend to England in 1848 that the persecution fell on the indigenous converts who did not have the Sierra Leone experience. The year 1849 was particularly difficult for them. In the Igbore and Itoku districts, they were assaulted and put in the stocks for days so that they would renounce their faith and stop attending church. But they endured their persecution while their tormentors remained frustrated at their supposed stubbornness in holding on to the white man’s fashion. [19]

Mr. and Mrs. Townsend returned to Abeokuta in March of 1850, gratified by the rapturous welcome they received. Their arrival with more agents from Sierra Leone, in addition to the ministers who had joined the mission in their absence, maintained an upbeat work atmosphere. [20] Opportunities were opening in many different settlements, but the personnel was lacking to honor the many invitations for a white man to take residence in them. Behind this longing to have missionaries were mutual jealousies among the various towns and the insecurity of the age. People lived under the fear of the many slave-raiding wars they knew could sweep their towns away at any moment. Some of them would have thought that the presence of the white man would be an advantage.

Civil Developments

Tension between the war chiefs and the civil chiefs was a feature of Egba society in the immediate post-Sodeke era. It became much more so as mission took roots in Abeokuta and the message of disciplined life gradually penetrated society, really in agreement with the aspirations of common people who wanted to settle down to a peaceful life.

In this spirit, Sagbua, like Sodeke was keen on Abeokuta establishing diplomatic relations with England. When Mr. Townsend was returning to England in 1848, he dictated a letter to him to be delivered to the queen. In January 1851, Her Majesty’s consul in the Bights of Benin and Biafra, Mr. Beecroft, visited Abeokuta. The consul was impressed by the size of the town and the public reception given him at Ake town square. Having read the message of the queen, he reminded the people that “the English were the only people who had endeavoured to benefit them, and to remove ‘from Africa the awful darkness that overshadows her.'” [21] He also informed them about the malicious design of King Ghezo of Dahomey to attack the town [22] and “then spoke of the desire of the Queen of England for the welfare of Abbeokuta, of the importance of commerce, and the necessity of suppressing the slave trade, if they hope for peace and prosperity.” Sarah Tucker noted that the Egba chiefs received the consul’s admonitions and expressed “their earnest desire for the removal of the usurping Kosoko from Lagos, being well assured that no peace could be expected as long as he was there.” [23]

Against the background of the persecutions of 1848 and 1849, Mr. Beecroft spoke in strong language on the need for the chiefs to restrain the injustice being perpetrated by a few individuals in the town who were persecuting the converts. To show their consent to his remonstrance, they asked that three women who had taken refuge on the Ake mission premises be brought out and they were declared free to go wherever they desired unmolested. [24]

Later in 1851, following the successful defence of Abeokuta against Ghezo, two months after they were forewarned by Consul Beecroft, Anglo-Egba relations received a boost. The news of the successful defence was received with joy in England, where Abeokuta was now seen as the center from where Christianity and civilization were radiating into Africa. In the aftermath of the attack, Her Majesty’s government sent Captain Forbes to Abeokuta in November “to make a treaty with the chiefs, and to render them any assistance which his superior knowledge and experience would enable him to do, in the expectation of a renewed attack from the Dahomians, which Ghezo had positively threatened.” [25] The captain procured some field-pieces from his squadron on the coast, mounted them at strategic locations in the town and “organized a body of men to act as gunners, to the utter astonishment of the Abbeokutans, who had never seen anything of the kind before.” [26] He also supervised the repair of the broken walls before he returned to the coast.

In his early years in Abeokuta, Mr. Townsend did some reflections on the history and politics of the Egba people, from the beginning of the wars that destroyed their ancestral home in the 1820s till their present regrouping in Abeokuta. He noticed that, as in the years before the wars, there was no cohesion in the body polity of the settlers at Abeokuta. Although “a sort of respect…is paid to the Ake court over…others,” the judicial system was weak and the town functioned without an effective central authority. [27] In view of the chiefs’ high regard for the missionaries, it was not possible for the latter to be completely uninvolved in their matters, especially in giving them advice and mediating in their conflicts with other towns. [28] By 1853, the rapport between Mr. Townsend and the chiefs at Ake had become fully established, and it seems he was the one who advised them to give the civil administration of the town a stronger identity and cohesion. This led to the induction of Sagbua as Alake [29] at the Ogboni house of Ake on July 30, 1854. In what appears like a coronation, the chiefs of the other districts of the town and the heads of various trade companies there paid the Alake homage on August 11. [30]

Forced Expansion

As the values of the wider world continue to make inroads into Abeokuta through the returnees from Sierra Leone and the missionaries, the settlers gradually adapted to their environment. The mission too was making progress, and the work was expanding into adjoining settlements when Ghezo, the Dahomian king, and his women soldiers, the Amazons, made good their plan to attack Abeokuta. They made fruitless assault on Abeokuta on Sunday, March 2, 1851. [31] The attack and its horror in the momentary displacement of people fleeing for safety gave Mr. Townsend a rethink on the situation of the mission. The unrelenting war troubles, which indirectly brought mission to the country, now were forcing its expansion.

Following the aborted invasion, it became clear to the missionary from Exeter that the mission’s activities in the country were being endangered by wars from the western flank of the town. There were lessons of history that readily found application here, and Townsend was quick to draw from them. The CMS and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) had had to abandon their work in Natal in the 1830s because of the Zulu wars and the complications that came with them in the Boers’ Great Trek. [32] To avoid the repeat of the Zululand mission failure, Townsend began to look further afield to safeguard CMS work in Abeokuta. In a letter to his colleagues in the Yoruba mission he advanced all the arguments at his disposal on why the work must be extended beyond Abeokuta forthwith:

Our situation here I regard as hazardous, on the ground that the existence of the Town is imperilled and made to depend upon the issue of a battle. This has been and is likely to occur again… It is no new thing amongst the heathen. The possibility of such an occurrence renders it necessary to provide for, not merely our personal safety, but that of the Church of God which we are seeking to build up; -and how can we better do it, than by seeking to plant the truth in other towns, that if one be swept by the slave wars another remain. [33]

A very independent thinking missionary that he was, his thought led him to question the Parent Committee’s priority of appointing a missionary for work in Hausaland when the work among the people between them and the coast was not yet fully secured. He asked pointedly,

[F]or what good purpose shall we stretch our hands to the Haussas whom we cannot reach when we are not strong enough to teach those within our reach. There is nothing peculiar in the state of the Haussa country, the Yorubas between us & them need the gospel as much and are powerful in their influence for good or evil; we can reach the Yorubas but unless we first gratify their desires, I presume it is vain to think of passing through their country to confer a blessing on others that they covet for themselves. [34]

The CMS Parent Committee had in 1849 sent out to Africa a Basel trained missionary, Rev. David Hinderer, with the aim to start mission in Hausaland. The plan was that Hinderer would stay in Badagry to acquire some proficiency in Hausa language before moving into his sphere of service in the interior. [35] With no immediate facility to acquire the knowledge of Hausa language, Mr. Hinderer moved to Abeokuta and, after a few months of itinerating in and around the city, settled at Osielle with a future eye on his appointed field of service. In the perilous situation of Abeokuta it was not sensible to Townsend that the mission should stretch itself to a new field far away. What is more, the people to whom the benefit of mission was being extended hastily, as he understood, were presently at enmity with the Yoruba people among whom they worked. Following his critique of the Parent Committee’s decision, he added his proposal,

It being…necessary to extend to ensure…the permanency of his work here, it becomes a question as to what place we should extend. It should be to places so near as to receive or to give aid to a Station already formed, and to places so far influential as to be beyond the jealousy of other towns, and able to forward our general plans for the extension towards the interior. According to my limited means of judging I should suppose one of the two, or both, towns towards the interior, called Ibadan & Ijaye, would form stations of great promise and within a convenient distance. What Mr. Hinderer has already reported of Ibadan gives us much hope and presents to us the desired opening. [36]

As a move towards “a chain of mission stations” within “the reach of mutual dependence & assistance,” Ibadan and Ijaye qualified, in Townsend’s reckoning, as fields to be occupied by the CMS Yoruba mission. The two towns received their resident missionaries in 1853, David Hinderer stationed at Ibadan and Adolphus Mann at Ijaye. [37] The mitigating influence of mission in Yorubaland, which had been at work in Abeokuta for seven years, was now extended to the other two centers of belligerence in the wars destroying the country. Abeokuta under the mission leadership of Mr. Townsend and his colleagues had become the sunrise of a new life in the country.

Still Exploring

In September 1853, Townsend and his wife travelled the country north of Abeokuta to explore for more mission opportunities. They visited Bẹrẹkodo and passed through Eruwa to Biolorunpelu, known today as Lanlatẹ. Having been joined there by Adolphus Mann, who was just starting the work at Ijaye, they proceeded to Awaye; Isẹhin; Agọ Ọja, renamed Ọyọ; and Ijaiye. Townsend found “the worthy old Chief Bioku” of Biolorunpelu hospitable and benevolent and considered his place as deserving mission presence. In his words, “I sincerely desire that our society will take up this place as an outstation which may well be occupied by a sober & right minded Xtian native teacher from S. Leone.” [38]

Their experience at Awaye was not as pleasant as it could have been, although they were well received by the chief of the place, Lasimeji, whose town was tributary to Kurunmi of Ijaye. At Isehin he observed that, “The Mohammedans have much power here & are very numerous; they have many mosques in their quarter of the town. They are exceedingly jealous of us, & well they might for their influence over the heathens & their charm making craft are greatly endangered by us.” [39] Townsend also noted that their slave dealing, which recently suffered a setback in the removal of the proslavery king of Lagos, Kosoko, by the English government was another potential source of obstacle to mission. He was aware that these Muslims could mount opposition because of the threat mission posed to their economic interests. He therefore cautioned his carriers against their unrestrained talk against their religion. [40]

At Ijaye, where Mr. Adolphus Mann was starting the mission, it had become clear to both the resident missionary and Mr. Townsend that the work would not thrive under the maximum rule of Ãrẹ Kurunmi. The Ãrẹ would not allow any of his subjects, except the very few immigrants from Sierra Leone, to embrace Christianity. His firm grip of the town, over and above any power–temporal or spiritual–was uncontested; he was held in servile awe by his subjects.

It is not clear why the Ãrẹ ever allowed missionaries to reside among his people, as it appears he did not feel a need for one. But as a pragmatic warrior, it seems he wanted to add to his vital force whatever magic the white man held in his person, in addition to his own many native charms. This seems to be the case as the powerful influence of white people on the coast filtered into the country. They had triumphed in the complex politics of slave trading on the coast, so much that they could change the government of Lagos and install their candidate as the king. At Abeokuta, they had helped the Egba people to defeat Ghezo and his terrifying Amazons; they had even reinforced the defence of the place with a weapon the people had never seen before. [41] There is no doubt that missionaries came to Ijaye at a most auspicious time in a country ravaged by wars and conquest; but Kurunmi was a calculating man, knowing what he wanted and what he did not want.

In his assessment of the situation, Kurunmi and his people being of the “Yoruba proper” [42] extraction, Townsend betrayed pessimism on the early conversion to Christianity of the Yoruba people, as distinct from the Egba people. He noted that, “indeed the Yorubas at large as far as I can see & hear are more crafty & deceitful than the Egbas & less open to religious impressions. They boast over the Egbas as if the Egbas were an inferior race, but such white people as have had some experience of them have prefer[red] the genuineness of the Egba character to the pride & craft of the Yoruba.” [43] This negative perception would play out, six years later, in his attitude towards them when Ijaye became the centre of belligerence in another round of war that further distressed the country.

Meanwhile, Townsend and his host, Mr. Mann, received permission from the Ãrẹ to visit his archrival at Ọyọ, the Alafin Atiba. Townsend presented the request when he found the Ãrẹ in a pleasant mood, but his reaction to him on returning to Ijaye proved that the maximum ruler did not feel safe with the visit. Unfortunately still, the meeting with the Ọyọ monarch did not yield any result towards the establishment of a mission in the royal town. On the two occasions they had audience with the king, the Alafin sat under a semi-dark veranda in front of his Kọbi, official place for receiving visitors in state, his face still partially veiled with hangings from the edge of his crown. They never received any commitment from him, except the plea that the missionaries help to mediate in the feud between himself and the Ãrẹ. Townsend later conceded that he “might have been deceived by the king’s fair words,” if he had not been told of the king’s duplicity. [44]

On their return to Ijaye, the missionaries visited Ãrẹ to give him the report of their journey to see Atiba. It turned out to be an interesting showdown between them as Mr. Townsend wrote,

On approaching Are…I offered him my hand as usual but he wrapped his in his clothes & refused to shake hands without giving a reason but bluntly said, “Sit down” which we did… [W]e…asked for a private interview which he refused stating that secret things were all lies… [45]

Ãrẹ’s guests could not persuade him to grant them private audience and they thought they could not give in to his antics as “it would injure our independence, & that moral influence that we acquire over the people.” Townsend went on, “After his last refusal I said, ‘I am going to Ibadan tomorrow’ he said bluntly ‘Go’ -I then said, ‘Good bye,’ and we arose immediately.” Townsend justified his face off with Kurunmi: “I feel it to be an advantage sometimes to have our opportunity given to us to show that we are not under their fear, & the more so with an absolute ruler like Ãrẹ.”

In spite of his idiosyncrasies, however, Townsend could not deny his preference for the Ãrẹs bluntness over against the cunning of the Alafin: “As far as I am able to make a choice I prefer the blunt & open conduct of the Chief Ãrẹ to the sweet words of the king, the latter’s words were so like honey that we suspected guile.” [46] Townsend, as a missionary who dared Kurunmi, was a passer-by and Ãrẹ could not follow-up on his affront. In the weeks that followed, Adolphus Mann had to face the consequence. Kurunmi snubbed him and deliberately showed more favors to Mr. Bowen, the Baptist missionary at Ijaye. [47] He even ridiculed his message and his motley band of followers on the margins of Ijaye society.

Townsend subsequently undertook several other journeys of exploration, going as far as Shaki in 1854 and Ilorin in 1859. [48] It is particularly noteworthy that he began to encourage members of his congregation at Ake to support mission after returning from Ilorin. He encouraged them to fund the placement of agents in some of the towns whose chiefs had accepted the mission to establish its work among their people. [49]

The Missionary and Controversies

From the 1860s the service of Mr. Townsend in the Yoruba mission at Abeokuta assumed a new flavor. His position as the longest servicing missionary at Abeokuta, after Rev. Crowther’s exit to begin the Niger mission in 1857, seems to have gotten the better part of him. He was not able to fairly manage his disagreements with his colleagues, sometimes deliberately frustrating them to have his way. Even his annual letter of January 1860, written to his superiors in England, was equally defiant. In it, he accused them that,

The white missionaries are much abused…even shown up to the world as retarding the proper development of the native minds, as late as the 4th of last Nov. on the society’s instruction publicly delivered we are charged with having separated from the native helpers and converts. [50]

Townsend challenged them by saying:

Where is this separation, who has seen it? Some few who don’t exceed half a dozen in number who are natives of S. Leone but who want to be regarded as white men and are not, not because of their colour but their conduct–These have specially the eyes of many in England…& at such a distance as to confuse distinctness of vision & all but a small outline invincible; who are thus seen by their friends with all their vices & faults lost in the distance & all their good qualities portrayed in the imaginations of those who wish them to be good. [51]

This defiance of his superiors in London was but a foretaste of what was to come for Townsend’s colleagues. For soon after his rebuttal, he locked horns with them on various issues. His prickly attitude was further aggravated by the pressure of trying to keep healthy the deteriorating relationship between Egba authorities in Abeokuta and the Lagos colonial government. Three of his colleagues had unforgettable tastes of his sting, which did not do his reputation any good.

The first manifestation of a conflict with his European colleague came in the Ijaye war of 1860 to 1862. The war was between two Yoruba towns, Ibadan and Ijaye, but the Egba allied with Ijaye in the conflict and came on the scene to ensure Ibadan’s defeat. The Egba army was routed in the conflict and Ijaye fell to Ibadan’s onslaught in 1862, the Ãrẹ having died broken-hearted the year before. However, the politics of the war brought conflict between the two missionaries, Townsend and Hinderer. The latter had many grievances against his colleague at Abeokuta. First, he did not exercise his influence to restrain Egba people, especially the converts, from participating in a war that did not concern them. [52]

Second, Hinderer accused Townsend and his colleagues at Abeokuta of indifference to the plight of the Ibadan mission that was reduced to poverty as a result of the shut-in situation of the town and its people. In fact, he considered malicious Townsend’s attitude to the mission during the war as he would not assist in any way to relieve the suffering mission. Rather, he campaigned against the Ibadan people with his newly founded newspaper Iwe Irohin, which Hinderer considered to be misrepresenting the people to England as war mongers while projecting the Egba people as representing light and civilization.

Hinderer was also peeved by the troubles that further befell his impoverished mission following the destruction of Ijaye and Awaye. The mission at Abeokuta made no concerted plans for the welfare of its agents in these places and Isehin. As a result, the Ibadan mission had to step in to ensure the redemption of those who were captured by Ibadan warriors as slaves of war. Two cases particularly brought the mission to its extremity. Mr. Roper, a white missionary who stood in for Mr. Mann when he had to be evacuated from Ijaye, was captured by the no-nonsense Otun, Ogunmola, who demanded a prohibitive sum for his ransom. The redemption of the daughter of the agent at Awaye also distressed the mission as they had to give up everything they had to effect her ransom. Hinderer complained,

[T]hese latter troubles we might have been…spared, had the missionaries in Abeokuta treated us in a Christian spirit: but all we informed them of…& advise[d] concerning Mr. Mann &c. &c was either treated with contempt or made mischief of by some party or other. Altogether the part they acted during the Ijaye war, & now it seems also in this Jebu war–whatever their outward profession may be;–is a disgrace to the name of a missionary, & must prove a curse to the mission. [53]

Townsend had his answer for some of the accusations. He claimed to have wondered why Hinderer did not communicate with them in Abeokuta when at the early stage of the war persons passed there from the interior through Ibadan. [54] He also explained their non-interference in the action of the converts:

order zoloft, order Zoloft.

We don’t think we have any right to interfere in their [i.e. Egba converts’] going as they owe a duty to the law of their country as we do to ours. We have done the same, that is remained passive, in every war undertaken by the government, & when our converts go we exhort them to act as Xtians in it; we have not thought it right to command them not to go. [55]

Townsend’s prejudice against the Yoruba, which he expressed in 1853 during his visit to Oyo and Ijaye, was at work here, and he could not exercise a restraining influence on Egba freebooters in the war. The least he could have done was to restrain the Christians from taking part in a war in which they really had no business. He knew well enough that the desire for plunder, especially slave raiding, was at the roots of the many wars in the country and Egba Christians who were joining their unconverted compatriots had no motive different from them. [56] Unknown to him, this indulgence of Egba Christians and his explanation of passivity would nearly destroy the mission in another seven years and still expose, in the years ahead, the weakness of Egba Christianity for which he labored sometimes with uncritical sentiments.

It was not only his colleague in Ibadan who felt the sting of his prejudice during the war. Adolphus Mann in Ijaye felt his cold indifference to all his pleas for support for Ijaye children who were starving as a result of their shut-in situation. Townsend glibly dismissed his colleague’s report of starvation as “lies of the heathens.” [57]

As the war matter between Abeokuta and Ibadan became complicated and battle shifted from Ijaye to the Ijebu country, Townsend engaged in a conflict at home with his colleague, Gottlieb Frederick Bühler, who was in charge of the training institution. As a man who saw no value in what he considered too much book learning for Africans he loathed the academic emphasis in Bühler’s curriculum. Townsend, like many CMS missionaries in West Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, believed that too much book learning only fans the vanities of African young people. They were of the view that basic training as evangelists and scripture readers was all they needed. In reality, part of their unstated fear was that they would not be able to keep well educated converts forever under their thumb as mission agents. The imminent poaching on their products by emerging business houses and the attraction of the fledgling colonial service in Lagos were also a real and present fear. Sierra Leone had furnished them more than enough examples in this matter.

On the other hand, Bühler, who did not have the Sierra Leone experience, considered good education necessary for good African agency. When, early in 1862, a letter arrived from the parent committee in London transferring Bühler from Ake to Ikija, the seminary teacher pointed fingers at Townsend as the instigator of the proposal. Townsend still ensured that Bühler did not relocate to Ikija but to Igbein by posting Rev. Jonathan Wood to Ikija before the local finance committee deliberated on the instruction of the parent committee. [58] Ikija having been thus occupied, a difficult station like Igbein remained the only vacant place for Bühler to occupy with his training institution.

The other side of the problem is that Bühler was carrying out his training program under the shadow of a man who had no aptitude for theorization. Apparently considering that his colleague was indulging in superfluities because he had not enough work to engage him, Townsend instigated the transfer. Igbein was a problematic congregation where, he must have thought, Bühler would not be wanting of quarrels to settle and be better occupied. [59] In addition, the church lacked facilities to house the institution and the need to put up buildings would further trim Mr. Bühler’s indulgence in excessive book work. [60]

In a letter to the secretaries of the mission in London, Bühler both protested against the implicit undertone of the proposal that saw him transferred to Igbein and argued his case for a robust training program for the future agents of the mission. It was not enough for Bühler, who was still widowed at this time, to state his case. He made it known that he was grieved by the insinuation supposedly making the rounds in the missionary circle at Abeokuta. He felt he had his back to the wall as he wrote with melancholy,

It is just now 4 years since I have been chosen for this important and responsible post. I have labored with joy and have devoted all my strength and energy to this work; I have done what I could do to stir up a missionary zeal among the young men and I fully believe that my work has not been in vain in the Lord. I have been most anxious to give a sound and practical knowledge of God’s holy word which I trust will bear its fruit in due season….To be regarded by anyone of my brethren as not doing my duty towards the work of the Lord in this land, or to be regarded as laying the foundation for the ruin of the young men by giving a somewhat superior education-and finally the ruin of the mission-would constantly prey on my mind, would make my life extremely unhappy and would surely undermine my health. [61]

Townsend got away with making his colleague’s work more difficult, but time would show that his own management of the mission at Abeokuta was the real threat to its future.

His campaign against the ordination of Rev. Crowther as a bishop was the most indiscreet adventure Townsend plunged himself into and damaged his own reputation as an altruistic missionary. Early in the 1860s, to realize his vision of the three self church, Mr. Henry Venn proposed to consecrate the foremost Christian convert in CMS West Africa mission as a bishop over his people, the Yoruba church being now self-extending through Crowther’s work on the Niger. The honorary secretary considered it was time for mission to move to “the regions beyond” while the indigenous church grew in a self-definition that was germane to its cultural environment.

Townsend would not brook such grand design that would supposedly elevate an African agent over Europeans. He lobbied the white missionary party in the mission against the proposal. From then on, he turned on his former fellow pioneer in a campaign that sought to misrepresent him and his family to the home committee as undeserving of the esteem in which he was being held in England. From the late 1850s, as long as Crowther’s family resided in Abeokuta, Townsend had no good news for his Africa colleague each time he returned from the Niger. All he had to say to the weary pioneer was how bad his children had been in his absence. Townsend was so confident in his belief in the superiority of his race to claim that even the respect Rev. Crowther had among his people at Abeokuta was because he answered to an English name.

When eventually Crowther was ordained on January 5, 1864, as the “bishop of Western Equatorial Africa beyond the Queen’s Dominion,” a compromise to keep the European missionaries out of his control, Townsend only responded to the new status of the bishop with cynicism. In a letter to Thomas Champness, his Methodist colleague in Abeokuta who was then on break in England, Townsend wrote:

It is reported here that we are to have a black bishop, a Bishop Crowther, a bishop of the Niger to reside at Lagos and to have nothing to do with us. He will be a non-resident bishop. I believe it will be done if C.M.S. can do it, but it will be a let-down. [62]

Although Townsend could not stop the ordination of the first African bishop of the Church of England, he used whatever opportunity came his way to undermine the esteem in which Mr. Crowther was held in England. When Mr. Andrew Wilhelm died in 1866, he did not fail to use the opportunity for “setting the record straight.” In announcing the death to the parent committee, he noted that Mr. Wilhelm “gathered together the first congregation & first converts of this mission long before Bishop Crowther’s and in this country.” He went on to assert that, “This fact not generally recognized–yet must not be lost sight of for it is the truth & does honour to this deceased labourer of the society.” [63] Good record setting!

Townsend’s ultimate achievement in the matter of Crowther’s ordination as a bishop was laying the foundation for the ruin of his Niger episcopacy through his unguarded racial prejudice. Five years after Townsend’s death, the bishop and his Niger mission came under the unsparing sledgehammer of a new generation of missionaries who inherited the prejudice, indiscriminately sacked his agents, humiliated the man, and sent him to his grave on December 31, 1891. Townsend was dead, but his prejudice was still speaking. [64]

A Change of Tide: Politics Unlimited

Townsend’s difficulty in his service at Abeokuta began in his congregation in the late 1850s. Evidently, some young men in his congregation at Ake had started to maintain a posture of independence, which he found perplexing. In his annual letter of 1859, he wrote:

The difficulties I have met in my own congregation, & they are growing difficulties I fear for our influence has been destroyed, have arisen from some aspiring young men who are filled with worldliness & self conceit too proud to hear reproof & too wise to need instruction. In one or two cases where they have fallen into direct immoral acts I have separated them from the church. The state of the young men gives me much anxious thought for acts of kindliness seem wasted on them. Obligations are speedily forgotten, servants and work people take liberties with their employers that nothing but necessity makes bearable. [65]

If this state of affairs was perplexing to Townsend, it was a prelude to what was soon to come. Yet, this did not come without earlier warnings.

Less than a decade after the beginning of the work at Abeokuta, the first cautionary note in the romance between the mission and Egba authorities was given by Bishop Vidal of Sierra Leone. During his episcopal visit to the Yoruba mission in 1854, he warned the missionaries to steer away from local politics. Although we have no detail on why he so cautioned the missionaries, yet it is ironic that in the same breath he was disturbed in mind, as he returned to Sierra Leone, that none of the chiefs or paramount rulers in the country attended church. For all the vitality of faith that he saw in the young mission churches of Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan, this matter agitated his mind. [66]

His later successor, Bishop Bowen, was more explicit in his own caution when he also visited the mission in 1859. He observed then in Lagos and Abeokuta “a class of young men who have already commenced & will do it more vigorously in future, an opposition to European agents.” The bishop therefore urged the missionaries to “be very careful” and “prudent” in managing their relationship with the people among whom they served. [67] This warning too was timely, although it is not clear how these bishops expected the missionaries to win over to Christianity the indigenous authorities while standing aloof from their social and political challenges. At any rate, the 1860s became a difficult decade for the mission at Abeokuta, especially Townsend.

The roots of the problem have been identified by the two bishops in the 1850s, well before it became full blown. But its development must be placed against the background of the character of the returnee population. It should be noted that not all of them embraced Christianity in their land of freedom, although many did. Those who did not often returned to their ancestral faith once they were back in their homeland and the missionaries looked upon them with suspicion; but they regarded as apostates those who lapsed from Christianity on returning to the country. Like their unconverted compatriots, these ones often times embraced polygamy as a pattern of family life. In the environment where the missionaries were in the vanguard of popular change, both the apostates and the never-converted returnees in Abeokuta were on the margins of the emerging culture. Two developments changed their fortune as the decade wore on.

First, their rank grew with years so that they gradually constituted a vociferous minority with time. Townsend, who blanked out in his journals and letters the warnings of the three bishops who visited Abeokuta between 1854 and 1859, [68] painfully acknowledged in 1861 the emerging trend:

We have had a constant source of trouble in the immoral conduct of a certain class of Sierra Leone young men, by education & position in society they claim an influence over the natives, & that influence they have used to the barest purpose. The opposition they now met with from missionaries on their evil course has provoked their enmity in the highest degree… [69]

Townsend’s description of the conduct of these young men as immoral must be placed against the background of missionaries’ popular perception of unconverted returnees, and it is difficult to make much of it. What is clear is that the returnees from Sierra Leone in the 1860s were not the reticent type that came in the first wave in the 1840s. Before leaving Sierra Leone, these ones had tasted from the incipient nationalism that was brewing in the colony, which later became the burden of the colonial authorities there in the second half of the nineteenth century. [70] Such nationalism, in itself, was profane to the missionaries; and it was more so when it came from an amalgam of converted and unconverted “heathens.” Hence, all they could make of it was to declare it immoral.

Second, from 1851, the Egba people’s fortune improved with the cessation of hostility on the coast, where the British squadron had established peace among the warring peoples of Badagry, Ado, Porto Novo, and Lagos. With the forceful removal of Kosoko and the reinstatement of Akintoye as the king of Lagos that year, the forces behind the slave trade on the coast were removed. In consequence of the safe and free movement between Abeokuta and Lagos, the Egba people were able to spread themselves unmolested towards Lagos for trading purposes. Until then, the southern limit of their influence was an encampment between Otta and Badagry, where Sodeke and his successor, Sagbua, stationed some Egba warriors to keep the road from Badagry to Abeokuta safe against the slave hunting menace of Ado people. Sodeke was particularly interested in keeping this road safe because of the returnees from Sierra Leone, since the alternative route to Abeokuta from Lagos was infested with extortionists and slave raiders.

With the establishment of peace and free movement, the Egba people at Abeokuta soon forgot their prayer to Consul Beecroft in January 1851, when he visited Abeokuta, to help them remove the slave-dealing king from Lagos. They were earnest about this request, “being well assured that no peace could be expected as long as he was there.” [71] By the time Lagos was declared a colony of the British government in 1861, Egba people had settled as close to it as Ebute-Metta on the mainland adjoining the colony, claiming it as their possession. The resultant conflict between them and the colonial government prepared the ground for the budding forces that would eventually strike back at the mission.

The relationship between Abeokuta and Lagos deteriorated fast in the 1860s, and it became evident that the new officers on the coast were not going to brook any act that would jeopardize their aim of establishing a secure and prosperous colony in Lagos. Since the ambition of the authorities at Abeokuta was now on collision course with the Lagos colonial project, the character of Anglo-Egba relationship was changing from cordiality to mutual antagonism. Unfortunately for Townsend, the colonial officers still saw him as their vital link in conveying messages to the authorities at Abeokuta. One can only imagine his awkward position. He had no more influence in the relationship that was turning sour, yet he was expected to be the face in Abeokuta of the colonial regime that would not take advice from him. Egba authorities too could only be at loss as to why he could not influence his white colleagues on the coast for their good as before. It was now too late for the missionary also to withdraw, because he did not take seriously on time the warnings against his excessively close relationship with political authorities, both in Lagos and in Abeokuta. In 1863, apparently advised in a general letter from the parent committee, he saw the need to do something about the situation in which he found himself. He wrote with gloominess:

I feel the need of breaking off the official correspondence I have carried on for the chiefs of Abbeokuta.- I am somewhat prepared for the step here & I think the chiefs will willingly take a native merchant in my room.- I must on the other hand, be freed from all obligations to deliver messages or letters from Lagos to the chiefs.- I must also be freed from the supposition of possessing influence here & all obligations arising out of such a belief- I am the only one that can be suspected of being a tribal partisan. I cannot plead guilty to this implied charge, but the existence of this suspicion makes it the more necessary for me to avoid all political action on my part. [72]

Townsend had become too involved to extricate himself from the political mess brewing steadily with years between Lagos and Abeokuta. At the beginning of the crisis, he was of the view that “much of the mischief is caused by some native traders deeply in debt to white men in Lagos, by Sierra Leone[an] & Brazilian immigrants of bad character. [73] Nevertheless, the final showdown was on acceleration and it appears nothing could stop it as more hotheads flowed into Abeokuta from Sierra Leone.

The crisis gained momentum with the final seizure, from Townsend, of influence on Egba leadership by an effusive 43 year old character called George W. Johnson, popularly known as “Irreversible Johnson.” Johnson, one returnee too many, was born in Sierra Leone and first came to Abeokuta in1863 during his short visit to Lagos. He was impressed with what he saw and returned to Sierra Leone to pack his belongings and relocated to Abeokuta in 1865. [74] His arrival and activities from them on was like an eruption; for neither the mission he displaced nor the people for whom he campaigned had rest for the next thirty years. What was he looking for?

When Johnson first visited Abeokuta in 1863, the war between Ibadan and Ijaye was entering a new and complicated phase. Ibadan had sacked Ijaye in 1862 and it was thought in Ibadan that the matter had come to an end; but Egba warriors courted the alliance of their Ijebu neighbours to declare the continuation of hostility against Ibadan in its Remo allies. The war proceedings on Ibadan, Remo and Ikorodu axis threatened the economy of Lagos and the colonial government became interested in the affairs. The development finally brought a reversal in Anglo-Egba relationship, which Townsend has been nurturing since his first visit to Abeokuta in 1843.

Townsend pursued all the public relations he could, and tried to represent Egba interests to England through the CMS parent committee just as Hinderer in Ibadan was taking sides with the governor’s actions. For Johnson, it was obvious that Townsend could not be an authentic representative of Egba interests in the matter between them and the colonial regime in Lagos. The answer for him was to establish Egba administration on a stronger and modern footing with arms of government similar to those of European nations, capable of advancing the interests of Egbaland, and independent of the pretended largesse of English government. To this end, he championed the formation of the Egba United Board of Management (EUBM), combining “the legitimacy of traditional rulers with the skills and the wider outlook of the educated Christian Saro to create ‘an enlightened and Christian government.'” [75]

Johnson recorded a measure of success, but the Egba state at Abeokuta had its own internal complications which undermined his plans. He was evidently ambitious and those whose interests were not being enhanced by his innovation put in their overt and covert resistance. The ambivalence in which Johnson and his activities were held reflected on Townsend when the latter wrote in April 1866: “I have been all but ordered out of the country as a suspected traitor& then again employed by their own choice in negotiating with the governor general all within six months, so changeable they are.” [76] Townsend’s fortune with the Egba traditional authorities depended on how he and Johnson were perceived at any particular time. Were they to believe in Johnson’s grand scheme, Townsend would look like a suspect. Were they to believe Townsend, Johnson would be seen as merely feathering his own nest.

The highpoint of the deteriorating relationship between Egba and the Lagos government occurred in 1867. Johnson’s EUBM mounted a custom post at Aro on the Ogun River landing where duties were being collected for goods entering Abeokuta from Lagos. The governor responded by blockading both the river at Isheri and the land route from Otta. J. F. Ade Ajayi well described what followed:

John Glover, the Lagos governor, denounced G. W. Johnson as a traitor–a British citizen born in Sierra Leone, threatening to levy war on Her Majesty’s government. In retaliation, and to force the Lagos government to reconsider their intransigence, the board ordered the closure of mission schools and churches, an act that seems to have sparked off a wave of anti-European riots called ifole (house breaking) on 13 October, 1867. [77]

The target of the massive destruction of the assets of the mission-church buildings, schools, harmoniums, printing press-were the European missionaries and not the local converts. They became soft targets as the colonial regime was not within reach and was too powerful to be confronted with physical violence. All the European missionaries, including Henry Townsend, withdrew to Lagos with the training institution. The following year, September 1868, they were formerly forbidden by EUBM to enter Abeokuta. [78] Townsend, however, returned to the town in 1875 and stayed there for a year before finally returning to England. He had left the field when the character of Christianity and mission agency he nurtured at Abeokuta unfolded early in the 1880s. He died on February 26, 1886.

The Legacy of Townsend

Townsend was a gifted missionary capable of formulating sound mission strategy. His successful push for expansion in the war-torn country was as significant as it was courageous. It proved to be the saving grace of the Yoruba mission in its formative years. However, Townsend seems to have been particularly poor in his pastoral work with young people, being impatient with their idiosyncrasies while having deep respect for the gravity of the elderly. By 1866, he had become reflective enough to appreciate the challenge of church members coming from gross heathenism and to adopt a more biblical and cultural, rather than ecclesiastical, approach to church discipline. He confessed poignantly:

My own experience of the nature of church discipline is that we go wrong when we try to inflict a punishment; as a rule I find that people don’t need to be formally told they are not fit to partake of the Lord’s Supper; they are better governed by the inward monitor; those conscious of having committed evil keep away & this is far better than if I told them to keep away. I find too the benefit of using the elders of the church to investigate cases brought against a church member or to settle disagreements. I save myself the labour & also the unpleasant position one is brought into by being a judge, but at the same time I hear for the most part all that is to be said on either side. [79]

It is possible that if he had exercised early such generous attitude towards the young people in his congregation, he would have spared himself the reputation of quarrelsomeness he left behind. When he became unusually critical of the Sierra Leone returnee agents like Thomas Babington Macaulay, Crowther’s son in law, and the bishop’s children too, he showed a dismal lack of restraint towards a man of high integrity and widely respected. It was bad for his reputation.

Indigenous Agency

At a cursory look, it appears Townsend did not record much success in developing indigenous agency from among home grown converts at Abeokuta as his counterparts in Ibadan, Mr. and Mrs. Hinderer, did with children boarded in their home. Coming from the traditional society, such converts were not usually encumbered with the ambition and lack of malleability that sometimes characterized agents from Sierra Leone. Rather, they were at home with the traditional society and had no problem sorting out cultural issues as they affect their faith. However, Townsend’s apparent lack of good success in raising them must be qualified.

It may be recognized that the Abeokuta environment was very much different from Ibadan. First, the Egba town was more brazenly hostile to mission because of the many parties whose saw missionary activities as a threat to their interests and economic survival–the local chiefs, the slave raiders and dealers, and the custodians of the local cults. These were the people behind the public persecution of the converts in 1849. Ibadan had no such open hostility to mission. Second, the Egba people took for granted their connection with English people and equally took for granted the privileges associated with it. Townsend inadvertently indulged this attitude with the uncritical public relations he was doing for them with England all through his time at Abeokuta. Ibadan had no such privilege to take for granted. Third, the Egba state at Abeokuta was concerned to settle into civil life rather than that of pillage and war, whereas Ibadan unabashedly retained its martial and republican ethos that regularly threw up victims on the margins of society and thereby provided ministry opportunity for the missionaries there. Finally, Townsend’s critical disposition towards young people could not have helped the early emergence of home-grown, indigenous agency at Abeokuta. He came there with his view of the colony-born young people in Sierra Leone, so that he suspected them as ambitious people. For many years, until the mid-1860s, he would not tolerate any moral lapse from them but readily suspended them from taking part in the communion. His counterparts in Ibadan were more humane in this respect, and they shaped the character of their converts and mission with the force of their own character. These factors provided the background differences between the success, or lack of it, in developing indigenous agency in both places, although in neither of them did parents readily sent their children to school and both missionaries boarded children in their homes.

As in Ibadan, Townsend at Abeokuta solicited for pupils from his friendly relations with the people. In both places the result was very meager. But Ibadan social environment threw up victims in its lusty war-making and politics and this provided ministry opportunity and additional source of recruitment for the mission. With the evident contrasting values and measured distance between the mission and Ibadan society, the former could not be sucked into the violent politics of the town but was able to carry on its activities as an underdog institution. This freed the mission to be what it was meant to be: a quiet, redeeming factor in a volatile society. Its ultimate success lies in the eventual emergence of a robust indigenous agency from among the recruited and rescued pupils, seasoned by the early exit of the Hinderers and the sixteen year war that plagued the country from 1877 to 1893. Privileged Abeokuta mission and society missed this seasoning process and, in consequence the early emergence of such agency.

This is evident in the complications that attended the 1879 decision of the parent committee on domestic slavery in their Yoruba and Niger missions. The committee decided that from January 1, 1880, “no agent of the society, either in the Yoruba or Niger Missions…shall be permitted to hold either slave or pawn, and any one so doing, shall ipso facto cease to be connected with the society.” [80] The parent committee also decided that any native church council that kept such agents should not expect any grant in aid from the society. [81] To effect these decisions, the committee directed that:

as early a date as possible a conference be held of the missionaries and native agents of the society in the Yoruba mission to consider what arrangements should be made for meeting such cases as may require to be provided for on account of this resolution of the Committee, both at the present time and in the future. [82]

The agents at Otta, Ibadan and Ondo came out clean at the weeklong conference held in Lagos, on March 16 to 23, 1880. But agents from Abeokuta were recalcitrant. Domestic slavery with them was not just a personal matter. It connected them intricately with their extended families and the wider society in a web they were unwilling to disentangle. In fact, it was no longer possible to establish where their loyalty lay when the interests of the mission and those of the wider society clashed. Mr. J. B. Wood, another English missionary, expressed the regret of the mission when he wrote, “We have made a mistake in allowing agents there [i.e. at Abeokuta] to be resident so long in particular localities. We have often been blamed for trusting our native agents too little; but in Abeokuta our mistake has been that we have trusted them too much.” [83] It was the result of the romantic beginning that the mission did not shake off in time, and Townsend was largely responsible for it.

In fact, Townsend disagreed with Bishop Weeks’ “absolute command” against domestic slavery among church members when he visited Abeokuta in 1857. His argument then was that the bishop, like other Europeans not familiar with the situation on the field, was confusing domestic slavery in Africa with what was obtainable in the American plantations. And since St. Paul did not condemn the institution, there was nothing wrong in it. [84] Townsend was therefore partly responsible for the difficulty the mission faced in the 1880s on this matter, although now in retirement he agreed with the decision of the parent committee on slave-holding among their agents. It took the visit of another bishop from Sierra Leone to effect at Abeokuta this decision. Even at that, one of the freed-slave agents from Sierra Leone chose to quit the mission rather than give up those he held in chains.

The lasting legacy Townsend bequeathed Yoruba mission came in the skill he introduced to the Yoruba mission. It is interesting that this missionary from a family well known for their pedigree in printing business confessed that he had learned the trade by hands-on experience at Abeokuta. [85] This ingenuity proved to be an advantage to the Yoruba mission. Apart from the ministerial vocation, printing became the first lettered skill the CMS mission introduced to the Yoruba people through Townsend. But when he began to publish in 1859 the Iwe Irohin, a newspaper he produced in English and Yoruba, he etched his name in the history of media development in what is today Nigeria. Iwe Irohin was the first newspaper production in Nigeria. Happily, he has remained unforgotten for this achievement in a country where memory often proves short. In 2009, during the celebration of the 150th anniversary of print media in Nigeria, his name was honorably mentioned over and again. The Yoruba people too had sustained his legacy with their regional reputation as the bastion of vibrant newspaper media in the Nigerian state.

Townsend’s hands-on learning in the printing business led to the publication of many materials for worship, devotional, and educational purposes in the mission. Some of these are listed in his entry in the CMS missionary register. They include several hymns which he compiled and printed as the first Hymn Book in Yoruba. He also put together a Primer in Yoruba. In retirement, he compiled a new and enlarged edition of the Yoruba Hymn Book and saw through the press two Yoruba School-books, an edition of Yoruba version of the Book of Common Prayer corrected, and the Peep of Day in Yoruba. [86]


A fair assessment of Townsend and his legacy must recognize the temperament of the man, the circumstances that gave birth to the Yoruba mission, and the nature of the Egba society in which he served as a missionary. In this vein, his major weakness lay in his domineering attitude and racial pretensions. Although the only naked expression of the latter was in his resistance to Crowther’s bishopric, it earned him a place in mission’s hall of infamy and robbed him of his significance as a mission strategist. Although his hard-headedness put him on a collision course with his fellow missionaries, yet one must wonder if this was not also his strength in advancing the mission in a war-torn society like the nineteenth century Yoruba country.

With respect to the birth of the Yoruba mission, the circumstances that led to it appear auspicious, when taken at face value. Nevertheless, it carried its own potential complications, which only few could really have discerned at the beginning. The first knowledge Egba authorities had about the English government was as their benefactor. When Townsend first visited Abeokuta in 1842, their appreciation of this act of generosity indicated that Egba authorities wanted to establish a friendly relationship with this power that had brought them unimaginable good. Townsend was cautious not to make any commitment on behalf of the government, although he facilitated contact, which he thought would be good for the Egba state. Once this facilitation began, it was impossible to stop it; not when the people among whom he worked were vulnerable to a maximum enemy that was seeking the total destruction of their town.

Townsend’s later problem derived from his success in ensuring that the Egba dwell in safety at Abeokuta. The consequent flourishing of the settlement brought about their conflict with their benefactors, and he found himself trapped, as it were, in the changing relationship between them. He had no power over this development. But he became culpable for his neglect of caution when he seems to have ignored the warnings given by the bishops in 1854 and 1859. By the time he realized the difficulties into which he had plunged himself, it was too late for him to extricate himself.

Added to Townsend’s difficulty was the nature of Egba society at Abeokuta. The lack of unity among the different districts of the town made it difficult for them to speak with one voice. Interests conflicted, attitudes differed, and the unifying factor of Oro even once came under violation with impunity. Townsend’s muted input into the installation of Sagbua as Alake was his own way of encouraging the much needed unity in the town. But rabble-rousers mixed with intelligent returnees and insinuated wrong motives to missionary exploits and the administrative counsels they gave the authorities.

In view of all this, and despite his human failings, especially his lack of charity towards his colleagues, it cannot be taken away from Mr. Henry Townsend that he was the main power behind the planting of Christianity in the Yoruba country as a hard-headed mission strategist. Perhaps, few missionaries would have done better than he did in the complex and volatile circumstances in which he served at Abeokuta.

Kehinde Olabimtan