|Administrative History||Samuel Adjai Crowther was born in Osogun to a Yoruba family, son of Afala (later Hannah Afala). His birth date is variously given as 1806, c 1807, 1809 and 1812. He was named Adjai (or Ajayi) but took the name Samuel Crowther when he converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1825. He signed himself ‘Adjai’ although Ajayi is the more common form of his name. |
In 1821, Adjai, his mother and two siblings were taken captive when their village came under attack by men who traded in enslaved people. For months he was bartered and passed from one captor to another until, in April 1822, he was taken to a Portuguese slave ship. Within hours of boarding he and his fellow captives were freed from the ship by the crew of HMS Myrmidon which had been patrolling the coast as part of the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron. He was taken to Bathurst, Sierra Leone.
Whilst in Bathurst, he attended classes given by CMS missionaries so beginning an almost lifelong association with the CMS. After his baptism 11 December 1825, he travelled to England to study at Islington Parish School. He returned to Sierra Leone and in 1827 enrolled at the newly established Fourah Bay College; his name appears as the first student on the register. After successfully completing his studies, he was appointed headmaster of a CMS school at Regent’s Town in 1830. In 1842 he went back to England to train at the Church Missionary College, Islington. He was ordained by the Bishop of London in 1843 and in the same year returned to Sierra Leone to take up his first missionary post as a school teacher and catechist (a catechist is someone who teaches the principles of Christianity).
In the mid-1840s, he began working at Abeokuta, Nigeria. In July 1857, working with Rev J. C. Taylor he established the new CMS Niger Mission staffed entirely by African personnel, a first for the Church Mission Society.
With a gift for languages and diplomacy, as well as teaching he acted as interpreter on British Government expeditions to the Niger in 1841, 1854 and 1857. His travels inspired further linguistic study and the publication of primers in Igbo and Nupe and a Nupe grammar and vocabulary. His Yoruba grammar and vocabulary and translation of the Bible into Yoruba helped to establish a standard written form of Yoruba still in use today.
Speaking with and on behalf of his countrymen, Crowther’s voice was heard beyond West Africa, not least in Britain. He met with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. On a visit to England in 1851, he had audiences with Queen Victoria and the British Prime Minister. However, his final years were marred when in 1885, some European missionaries became critical of his leadership. He resigned in 1890 just months before his death in Lagos, 31 December 1891.
In around 1827, he married Asanor (1815-1900) a fellow survivor of the slave ship on which he had been a captive five years earlier; when baptized Asano took the name Susan Thompson. The couple had six children: Susan (1833-1897), Julia (1835-1888), Abigail (b 1844), Dandeson (family records: born 1839; CMS records: born 1844), Josiah (born 1841) and Hettie (1843-1906). The eldest daughters married clergymen: Susan married Rev George Crawley-Nicol (1830-1907); Julia married Rev Charles Thompson (1835-1891) and Abigail married Rev T. B. Macaulay. Hettie married William Lawson (1844-1902). Their eldest son, Dandeson Coates Crowther also attended the Church Missionary College, Islington, and served as a CMS missionary in the Niger Mission.
Awards and honours
In 1864, he was awarded a Doctor in Divinity by Oxford University and consecrated as the first Bishop of the Niger in a ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1880, the Royal Geographical Society presented him with a gold watch in recognition of his travels and research into the Niger.
The legacy of his achievements endures. Addressing a crowd of 10,000 at celebrations to mark 150 years of the gospel in Africa, in July 2009 Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria ‘called for a revival of the spirit of Ajayi Crowther’ (CMS News and Views, 2009).
Sources: the records; J Page, Bishop Crowther: his life and work. London: Church Missionary House, 1892; J Flint, Crowther, Samuel Ajayi (c. 1807-1891), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, 2004; CMS Register of missionaries (clerical, lay and female) and native clergy, 1804-1904; CMS ‘150 years of the Gospel in Nigeria’. CMS ‘news and views’ available online at http://www.CMS-uk.org. 26 July 2009; ‘Yes’ May-August 2007.