|Slavery, liberation and the gospel in Africa|
|Written by David Smith|
MEMORY FOR THE SLAVES
A sculture by Clara Sornas, at the former auction square, Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Dr David Smith, a former missionary in West Africa and now on the faculty of the International Christian College in Glasgow, points to some of the lessons we can learn from the faith and missionary zeal of some of Africa’s slaves.
In the year 1792 a large group of former African slaves re-crossed the Atlantic Ocean and came ashore on the coast of West Africa with Bibles in their hands singing, doubtless with deep emotion, ‘The Day of Jubilee is come; Return ye ransomed sinners home.’ This party of liberated slaves was one of a number of such groups who found their way back home to the African continent by a variety of routes. Five years before the landing just described, some 400 men had arrived from Britain in what came to be known as Sierra Leone. This particular return to Africa was the outcome of the British High Court decision in 1772 that ‘every slave who sets foot on English soil ipso facto becomes free’. Not surprisingly, in the following years large numbers of slaves claimed their freedom, so that the ports of London and Liverpool were said to be ‘swarming with poor negroes’. Some of these liberated Africans were to play a significant (and often overlooked) role in the anti-slavery movement. For example, Ottobah Cugoano, who was a Fanti from Ghana, and Olaudah Equiano from Nigeria, published moving and eloquent accounts of their experience and argued for the sending of ex-slaves as missionaries to their continent, believing that the preaching of the gospel would deal the final death blow to slavery and result in the proper development of the African peoples.
Meantime, other slaves found their freedom by different means, including the celebrated group which took control of the slaving ship Amistad on the high seas, eventually obtaining their liberty in the New World. The story of this group has been told in Steven Spielberg’s disturbing movie depicting this slave rebellion which contains a deeply moving account of the manner in which these oppressed people came to discover the story of the Bible while in prison in America. Many liberated Africans were thus able to distinguish between Western civilization and the message of the gospel; indeed, once the latter was understood it frequently became the basis on which the former could be critiqued and resisted. What is more, the missionary passion so remarkably evident among thousands of converted slaves resulted in the appearance of churches along the coast of West Africa which were the products of African missionary work. As Andrew Walls has noted, the first church in tropical Africa in modern times ‘was not a Western missionary creation, but an African one’.
Early in the nineteenth century, a boy was born among the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria and given the name Ajayi. Despite the legal ruling against slavery in England, the battle to eliminate this trade at source continued for many years, so that the boy grew up at a time when European traders continued making huge profits from transporting African people across the Atlantic. Ajayi’s traditional society was devastated by raiding parties and while still in his teens he was captured, sold on by six different owners, before being transported in a Portuguese vessel bound for the Americas. This ship was intercepted by a British naval vessel in 1822 and its enslaved, disoriented passengers were put ashore at Freetown, Sierra Leone, by this time a growing Christian town largely populated by freed slaves.
While in Freetown the young Ajayi heard the message of the gospel and later wrote that he had become convinced ‘of another worse state of slavery, namely that of sin and Satan’. Ajayi became a Christian and was given the baptismal name of Samuel Crowther. He was eventually to become the first ever African bishop of the Anglican communion and returned to his native Yorubaland as a missionary. There, more than twenty years after he had been taken captive, he was reunited with his mother and sister and witnessed them coming to share his faith in Christ.
Samuel Ajayi Crowther became something of a celebrity in Victorian Britain and made a huge contribution to mission in West Africa, especially in the role he played in translating the Bible into Yoruba and in his unusually sensitive approach to missionary dialogue with the Muslim peoples of the region. Sadly this story was to have a tragic end as the aged bishop found himself marginalised and humiliated by a new breed of European missionaries who, in the words of the Harvard and Yale academic, Lamin Sanneh, had their confidence in African ability to lead the church ‘undermined by the racist doctrines of anthropology’. Crowther was humiliated, set aside in favour of a European, and died a broken and disappointed man.
Learning the lessons
What then are the lessons to be learned from this period in Christian history? On the one hand, as historian Elizabeth Isichei points out, the credibility of the Christian message was undoubtedly damaged by its long association with a civilization that promoted and profited from the slave trade. Upwards of 12 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas and it has been argued that this represents a holocaust that overshadows even the terrible events of more recent times to which that word is attached. Slavery, says the Haitian theologian Laennec Hurbon, remains part of the modern world in that neither contemporary racism nor ‘the present under-development of the African continent’ are understandable without it. And while we justifiably celebrate abolition as the triumph of the kind of social justice that resulted from the spread of evangelical Christianity, the fact remains that the institution of modern slavery occurred when Europe claimed to be a Christian continent and it was defended by Christians who believed it could be reconciled with the teaching of the Bible. Even the noble John Newton, whose story is rightly celebrated as a model of the power of saving grace, continued transporting slaves after his conversion and could write of ‘sweet and divine hours’ of communion with God during his last two voyages to Guinea. This historical record continues to be a stumbling block to mission, both within the continent of Africa, and among postmodern young people in the West.
However, what also stands out in this story is the fact that very many Christians in the West developed a prophetic faith in which the gospel was seen as a message of salvation and liberation for all peoples, irrespective of their ethnic background or skin colour. Such prophetic witnesses appeared within Catholicism at the beginning of European expansion around the globe, and in the Protestant tradition in the period covered by this article. What is even more remarkable is that literally thousands of African slaves came to honour and worship Jesus Christ as both a Saviour from sin and despair, and as the true hope of the world. And today, two hundred years after abolition, as Africa continues to struggle with the legacy of this tragic history, the exploding church on the continent, first planted by liberated slaves, provides our broken world with a powerful witness to the One who can heal humankind’s great sickness and lead us to the New Jerusalem.
Sources used in this article may be consulted for further detail regarding the African contribution to the missionary movement. See John Baur, 2000 Years of Christianity in Africa: An African Church History (Nairobi: Paulines Press,1998); Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans,1995); Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Leicester: IVP,1997); Frederick Norris, Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: One World, 2002); Lamin Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (New York: Orbis Books,1983); Andrew F.Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002).