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Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther was a Nigerian linguist and the first African Anglican bishop in Africa. He was the most widely known African Christian of the nineteenth century as his life spanned the greater part of it: he was born in its first decade and died in its last.

Early Life

Ajayi (also Ajai or Adjai) Crowther was born in Osogun (in the present-day Iseyin LGA, Oyo State) in 1809. He was a Yoruba man who also identified with the Creole ethnic group of Sierra Leone. In later years, it was told that a diviner had indicated that Ajayi was not to enter any of the cults of the Orisha (the Yoruba divinities) because he was to be a servant of Olorun (the God of heaven). He grew up in dangerous times: both the breakup of the old Yoruba Empire of Oyo and the effect of the great Islamic jihads (which led to the establishment of a new Fulani empire to the north) meant chaos for the Yoruba states. Warfare and raiding were endemic at this time.

Slavery and Liberation
In 1821, at the age of twelve, Crowther was captured along with his mother, toddler brother and several other family members and sold into captivity when Osogun was raided by Muslim slavers from neighbouring tribes (known as the army of the Mohammedan Foulah). He was passed from one master to another six times before ending up at a major slave market where he was sold to Portuguese slave traders. He contemplated killing himself rather than getting sold into the hands of white men: he tried to strangle himself with his waistband but his courage failed him when he held the noose in his hand.
After several weeks, he and one hundred and eighty-seven fellow slaves were loaded on a ship bound for Portugal. The ship set sail but was intercepted off the coast of Lagos by two British Man o' War ships positioned on the waters primarily to enforce the abolition of slavery. The master and slave-drivers were placed in irons and the Africans were set free but were not returned to Lagos; they were taken instead to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Schooling and Early Career
While there, Crowther was cared for by the Anglican Church Missionary Society. While in Freetown, Crowther became interested in languages. He was taught English and exhibited significant aptitude in his studies and made good progress under the care of the Mission schoolmaster. At the end of his first day at school, he begged a halfpenny to buy an alphabet card. He eventually became a school monitor, a position for which he earned seven pence-halfpenny a month. He was baptised on December 11, 1825 by the Reverend John Raben, taking the name of Samuel Crowther. 
In 1826, he was taken to England to attend the school of St Mary's Church in Islington, London. He returned to Freetown in 1827 and enrolled at the newly-opened Fourah Bay College, an Anglican missionary school, where his interest in languages led to his studying Latin, Greek and Temne (one of Sierra Leone’s most widely spoken languages). He also added carpentry to his traditional weaving and agricultural skills. After completing his studies, he began teaching at Fourah Bay which eventually became the first institution to offer university-level education in tropical Africa.
A girl, who was also on the Portuguese slave ship that originally brought Crowther to Sierra Leone, was taught with him in the same house. They grew up together and she also converted to Christianity (she was formerly a Muslim), replacing her native name Asano with Susanna. They grew fond of each other, and after a happy period of courtship, they were married.
In 1830, Crowther was sent to take care of a school in Regent's Town, and his wife accompanied him and served as a schoolmistress. Two years later they were promoted to more important duties in Wellington. They finally returned to Fourah Bay following the appointment of the Reverend GA Kissling (who later became Archdeacon of New Zealand) as the new principal. Several students who came under Crowther’s training during this period were later ordained and appointed as government chaplains for important stations on the coast.
Crowther’s natural aptitude for languages gave him a unique advantage in dealings with the chiefs and headmen of the various districts. As a result, he was selected to accompany the missionary James Frederick Schön on his Niger expedition which began on July 1, 1841 - a journey for which he learned to speak Hausa. The goal of the expedition was to spread commerce and Christianity, teach agricultural techniques and help end the slave trade. Following the expedition, Crowther was recalled to England where he was trained as a minister. 
During this voyage, he had busied himself with his translations, and had prepared a grammar and vocabulary of the Yoruba tongue, which was later useful in spreading the Gospel among his own people. He came to the Highbury Missionary College on Upper Street, Islington, which was then under the care of Reverend CF Childe.
Following his studies, he was ordained on June 11, 1843 by Charles James Blomfield (the Bishop of London at the time) and became the first of several African clergymen. He returned to Africa later that year and opened a mission in Abeokuta (in present-day Ogun State) with Henry Townsend, an English missionary. Crowther’s first sermon at home was in English and took place on December 3 of that year.

The Yoruba Mission
In 1843, Crowther’s book Yoruba Vocabulary, which he started working on during the Niger expedition, was published; it included an account of the language’s grammatical structure and is believed to be the first of its kind written by a native speaker of an African language. A Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer followed later.
After the British Niger Expeditions of 1854 and 1857, Crowther produced a primer for Igbo in 1857, another for the Nupe language in 1860 and a full grammar and vocabulary account of Nupe in 1864.
Meanwhile, the new connection between Sierra Leone and Yorubaland had convinced the Church Mission Society (CMS) of the timeliness of a mission to the Yoruba. There had been no opportunity to train that African mission force foreseen by Schön and Crowther in their report on the Niger Expedition, but at least in Crowther there was one ordained Yoruba missionary available. Thus, after an initial reconnaissance carried out by Henry Townsend, a mission party went to Abeokuta. It was headed by Townsend, Crowther and CA Gollmer, a German missionary. They were accompanied by a large group of Sierra Leoneans from the liberated Yoruba community, including carpenters and builders who also worked as teachers and catechists. The mission intended to demonstrate a whole new way of life of which the church, the school and the well-built house were all a part. The Sierra Leonean trader-immigrants who had first brought Abeokuta to the attention of the mission became the nucleus of the new Christian community.
Crowther came to London in 1851 to present the cause of Abeokuta. He saw government ministers; he had an interview with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; he spoke at meetings all over the country, invariably to great effect. This grave, eloquent, well-informed black clergyman was the most impressive tribute to the effectiveness of the missionary movement that most British people had seen. Henry Venn, the CMS secretary who organised the visit, expressed the belief that it was Crowther who finally moved the government to action.
The missionaries' day-to-day activities lay in spreading the Gospel and nourishing the infant church. Crowther was reunited with the mother and sister from whom he had been separated twenty-five years earlier, and they were among the first in Abeokuta to be baptised.
In Sierra Leone, the church had used English in its worship activities. The new mission was able to in Yoruba, with the advantage of native speakers (in Crowther and his family, as well as most of the auxiliaries) and his book which assisted the Europeans. Townsend, an excellent practical linguist, even edited a Yoruba newspaper.
During this time Crowther worked on his translation of the Bible into Yoruba, a significant work as it was the first time the Bible had been translated into an African language by a native speaker. Early missionary translations naturally relied heavily on native speakers as informants and guides; but in no earlier case had a native speaker been the key proponent of such a project.
Crowther insisted that the translation should indicate tone – a departure from tradition. In vocabulary and style, he sought to promote colloquial speech by listening to the elders and noting significant words that emerged in his discussions with Muslims or specialists in Yoruba traditional religion. Over the years, he noted words, proverbs and various forms of speech; one of his hardest blows was the loss of the notes of eleven years of such observations and some manuscript translations when his house burned down in 1862.
The modern Written Yoruba was the product of the missionary committee’s work, with Crowther interacting with his European colleagues on matters of orthography. Henry Venn, the honorary secretary of CMS at the time, engaged some of the best linguistic expertise available in Europe: not only Schön and Professor Samuel Lee, the society's regular linguistic adviser, but also the great German philologist Karl Richard Lepsius. The outcome can be seen in the longevity of the Yoruba version of the Bible and in the development of a rich Yoruba literature.

Linguistic Legacy
Crowther contributed immensely to general language study and translation. He wrote the first book in Igbo (Isoama-Igbo: A Primer), which was published in 1857. He begged Schön, now serving an English parish, to complete his Hausa dictionary, sending one of his missionaries to study Hausa with Schön. Most of his Sierra Leone staff, unlike people of his own generation, were not native speakers of the languages of the areas in which they served. The great Sierra Leone language laboratory was closing down; English and the common language, Krio, took over from the languages of the liberated.

As Crowther began to ascend the ranks of the Anglican Church, white reverends – including many within the CMS hierarchy – vehemently opposed the idea of a black man becoming a bishop. Nevertheless, on St Peter's Day in 1864, Crowther was ordained as the first African bishop of the Anglican Church. That same year, he was also given a doctorate of divinity by the University of Oxford.
Crowther's attention was directed more and more towards languages other than Yoruba, but he continued to supervise the translation of the Yoruba Bible (Bibeli Mimọ), which was completed in the mid-1880s, a few years before his death.

In 1891, Crowther suffered a stroke and died on December 31 at the age of 82. His grandson Herbert Macaulay became one of the first Nigerian nationalists and played an important role in ending British colonial rule in Nigeria.


  1. Page, Jesse (c. 1892). Samuel Crowther: The Slave Boy Who Became Bishop of the Niger. London: S. W. Partridge & Co., c. 189 ,m 2.
  2. P. E. H. Hair (1967). The Early Study of Nigerian Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, p. 82
  3. Ascension Church, Opebi
  4. Nigerian Dictionary
  5. Dictionary of African Christian Biography
  6. Wikipedia
  7. Anglican History

Picture sources: Wikipedia and UCLA Division of Social Sciences