Samuel Ajayi Crowther – The Story In Brief

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The story of Samuel Ajayi Crowther shows the picture of a slave boy who became the first African Anglican bishop.

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther

Samuel Ajayi Crowther is the first (1st) Black Bishop In The Entire Anglican Communion.

Born 1809 in Osogun (in what is now Iseyin Local Government, Oyo State, Nigeria), Crowther was a Yoruba who also identified with Sierra Leone’s ascendant Creole ethnic group.

Ajayi was 12 years old when he was captured, along with his mother and toddler brother and other family members, along with his entire village, by Muslim Fulani slave raiders in 1821 and sold to Portuguese slave traders. However, before his slave-ship left port, it was boarded by a British Royal Navy ship under the command of Captain Henry Leeke, and Crowther was taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he was released. Ajayi’s mother was a descendant of King Abiodun.

“…on 7th April 1822, when the 13 year old Samuel Ajayi Crowther was rescued from the belly of a slave ship heading for America, he thought all was finished. A year before, around breakfast, together with his mother and two sisters, he was captured by Fulani slave raiders when they attacked his village of Osogun, 140 km inland of Lagos coast.

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He wrote in his autobiography: ‘Men and boys were at first chained together, with a chain of about six fathoms in length, thrust through an iron fetter on the neck of every individual, and fastened at both ends with padlocks’. Later, the little Crowther’s chains and padlocks were removed to his relief only to be yanked from his family and exchanged for a horse.

Crowther felt sick and attempted suicide when he heard that his new owner planned to reap huge profits out of him by taking him south-westward to Little Popo a flourishing, high-paying Portuguese slave market (a major outlet for slaves from the Oyo Empire now known as Aného in Togo).

The owner feared that the little boy’s suicide bid may succeed before the next slave auction so she quickly exchanged him for a bottle of English wine and some tobacco leaves. The Ijebu man who bought him took him south-eastward to Lagos and sold him to the Portuguese slave ship Esperenza Feliz, meaning Free Spirit.

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther

As he lay chained from the neck to the deck, he thought of his father killed during the Fulani invasion of their village, he thought of his mother and sisters whom he would never see them again. He thought of how he was exchanged for a horse, wine and tobacco leaves. He despaired and awaited death as the ship sailed towards America.

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Then HMS Myrmidon captained by Sir Henry Leeke of the Royal Navy’s antislavery squadron engaged the Portuguese slave vessel in a gunfight. Crowther and some other slaves were rescued and taken to the British settlement in Freetown(now in sierra Leone).

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) managing the settlement taught him to read and write, enrolled him in Fourah Bay College and sent him to England to study. He spoke Latin, Greek and Hebrew and many West African languages. (In later years, he would translate the Bible into the Yoruba language, compile a Yoruba dictionary, produced a primer for the Igbo language, another for the Nupe language and produce a full grammar and vocabulary of Nupe.)

Being a fascinating personality, highly educated black man, an ex-slave and an inveterate writer, his public lectures all over Britain drew crowds. He later bagged an honorary doctorate degree at Oxford University.

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In Canterbury Cathedral on the 29th of June 1864 when Ajayi Crowther became the first black Bishop ordained into the Anglican Church, Sir Henry Leeke the captain of the ship who rescued him from slavery in 1822 came over to witness the event. Lady Weeks who taught him the ABC alphabets was also there. It was a tearful reunion.”

Death, Burial, Exhumation, and Reburial

Bishop Crowther died of a stroke, in Lagos state, on the 31 December 1891 and was buried at Ajele Cemetery in Lagos. However, In 1971 the Lagos State Government under Mobolaji Johnson desired to use the site of Ajele Cemetery for new government offices and issued notices to families of the deceased. Seth Kale, Anglican Bishop of Lagos, representing the Anglican community and Crowther’s family delayed exhumation and reburial until 1976 when an elaborate ceremony was held at a new burial site along with a cenotaph at Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos.

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