Why I’m crowd-funding a documentary on Ajayi Crowther

September 24, 2021
Heritage & Monuments, Road Trips

On 27 September 2021 (World Tourism Day), I’ll be launching a crowd funding campaign for a documentary on Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809 -1891), who among other sterling accomplishments in a missionary career that spanned six decades, was the first Anglican Bishop in Sub-Saharan Africa.

An important milestone

This project is important for many reasons: most importantly, 2021 is the 130th anniversary of Bishop Crowther’s death as well as the 200th anniversary of his capture (and rescue) as a slave at his hometown of Osoogun in present day Oyo State (SW Nigeria). Having reported the arts, culture and historical heritage of Nigeria over the past two decades, I believe a documentary on the inspiring life, dedication to duty and selfless ground-breaking works of the slave-turned-missionary is necessary, especially in this milestone year.

Standing on the balcony of the Rest House of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Ota (SW Nigeria), where Bishop Crowther stayed to and from Abeokuta in the 1800

The project is also riding on the fact that it is thanks to him that millions of Christians in Nigeria today can read the Bible in their mother tongue, having been at the helm of the translations of the Holy Book into Yoruba, Igbo and Nupe languages.

Beyond being a linguist and translator, it is partly due to Bishop Crowther’s efforts that Christianity spread to several communities in Nigeria, including places like Bonny Kingdom, Lokoja, Onitsha, Abeokuta, Ogbomosho, Bida, Ilorin and Ibadan, to mention just a few. 

Also, in the Niger Delta region, and in a space of a decade (1868 – 1878) he planted churches in Opobo Kingdom, Brass, Andoni, Kalabari and Okrika communities; while in the South-East, he did same at Azumini, Akwete, Urata and Urua-Offiong. The list is a long one.

An adventurer at heart

The documentary will also partly focus on the missionary journeys of Bishop Crowther; as a minister of the Church Missionary Society, he travelled extensively to different parts of present-day Nigeria and documented his impressions, encounters and journeys in countless letters and journals.

 

“I have twice marched from the Niger at Rabbah and Bida to the seacoast of Lagos,” he wrote of a journey undertaken in the 1850s.  “The town of Iddah (sic), the largest and most important town of Igarra, is built on the summit of the cliff on the bank of the river. There are about 2000 huts and 8000 inhabitants. Nearly all the dwellings are the usual circular huts; the walls rise about 6 feet and are built of clay and stone. The roof is conical and thatched with palm leaves.”

Travelling on foot, on boats, on horsebacks and by ferries, he was a keen observer of the people he met and the places he passed through. For instance, he observed that in Iboland the people engaged in idols and fetish worship as part of a sacrificial offering, but noted that this was not “as indiscriminate slaughter as at Dahomey and Ashanti.”

Bishop-Crowther-Iron-of-Liberty-landmark-Lokoja

An ear for language

Bishop Crowther spoke and understood at least 10 languages, and spoke them fluently. On some of his travels, his linguist radar was activated. While travelling through Badagry, Abeokuta, Ilorin and Ibadan he recorded that the people spoke slight variations of the Yoruba language.

 “It is somewhat remarkable that in the course of a journey of 700 miles, we came in contact with no less than 13 different languages,” he wrote on an 1854 trip through Doma and Kororofo. “Ten of them are apparently of the same family and bespeak aboriginal tribes. The fullah and Hausa are languages which origins are remote…”

While researching his life and work, I have come across information that corrects some of the misinformation about him circulating in the public space. With this project, I also want to help bring those useful clarifications to light.

For example, the translation of the Bible into Yoruba was not done exclusively in Badagry as visitors to the old mission house (widely known as the first storey building in Nigeria) there are made to believe; the project lasted about 40 years, so it is factually impractical that he spent all that time in one location.

It is important to correct this impression, being that Ota – where the Bishop also spent some time on his frequent journeys to and from Abeokuta – is also making claim to a slice of the translation story. With this project, we will be able to establish in which other locations he dutifully translated the Bible. 

The Bishop and I

Without consciously thinking about it at the time, I have practically been following Bishop Crowther’s footsteps over the past decade.

On my many road trips around Nigeria, I have found myself at many landmarks associated with him: his grave at the Cathedral Church of Christ (CMS/Marina); the Iron of Liberty spot (Lokoja); St Peter’s Anglican Church (Abeokuta); St James Anglical Church (Ota); Ajayi Crowther University (Oyo); Ajayi Crowther Street (Surulere); and the Canterbury Cathedral (United Kingdom).  

In January, I travelled to Bonny Island in Nigeria’s South-South region for the first time. On that visit, I had the honour of visiting the St Stephen’s Cathedral, the third oldest church in Nigeria and the second oldest cathedral in West Africa. I was keen to visit the landmark, because of its association with Bishop Crowther, who first built a church mission station there in April 1865.

Bishop Crowther was consecrated Bishop at the St Paul’s Cathedral by the Archbishop of Canterbury in June 1864. At the request of the then king of Bonny, King William Dappa Pepple I, the Cathedral Church of London re-deployed the freshly minted bishop to the town, which today prides itself as “the cradle of Christianity in the Delta Region”.

While on a tour of the premises, we stopped at a boat house which bears a dug-out canoe said to have been used by Bishop Crowther for his missionary work in the region; inside the cathedral, on an upper floor, we were taken into the chapel named in his memory: modest and quiet, it holds the wooden throne, altar, pulpit and other clerical paraphernalia used by Bishop Crowther while he presided over affairs of the church in the 19th century.

Front view St Stephen’s Cathedral Bonny Island

And rising up toward the ceiling, a memorial stained-glass window of the Bishop looked down on us.

I doubt there is anywhere else in Nigeria that has these many Crowther memorabilia. As we left the premises, my mind began to race back to past journeys I have made around Nigeria and where I had encountered landmarks associated with the Bishop. Some of the churches and buildings built by him or named in his memory still stand to date.

One of the objectives of this documentary project is to visit and document them.  Ultimately, my believe is that this project will bring the many unknown sides of Bishop Crowther to a new generation of Nigerians and Africans, who I believe have much to learn from his exemplary life, courage and selfless service to humanity. 

Donation Goal: N 39, 092, 500/ $95,000/ #72,000,000

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