No Ordinary Trial…..

History seems to be littered with failures. For every great and glorious success, there seems to be hundreds of those who went down in flames. In the world of sports, fans in New York may talk of 26 championships in the lifespan of their great Yankees, but noble fans of Chicago seem bitten by despair, hard luck, and inauspicious timing year after year. In the world of politics, one can talk of the dynastic qualities of the Roosevelts, yet may also discuss the repeated defeats of the late, great William Jennings Bryant. In the world of Christian missions, one often discusses the glorious career of William Carey, David Livingstone, and others who blazed a trial across the landscapes of Africa and beyond. There are, however, tales of missions in Africa that do not receive such glowing reports. One such a case is that of the 1841 Niger River Expedition led by Captain H.D. Trotter which was inspired by the British abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton. Buxton, like the expedition, has received his share of criticism and scorn. Andrew Walls describes Buxton as:

“A public man by duty more than liking. An effective, but not brilliant speaker, he never enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of politics and believed that ‘good woodcock shooting is a preferable thing to glory.’ He never held appointive government office and was not regarded as a reliable man either in religion or in politics.”[1]

Walls description is not exactly what one would hope as an obituary, much less an examination of one’s mission. Walls description of the Niger River Expedition is not any kinder. Walls writes, “In mid-August 1841 the expedition entered one of the mouths of the Niger. Early in October the last its ships was limping back, its commander prostrated with fever, the cabins crammed with the sick and dying, the geologist working the engines with the aid of a textbook.”[2] Cursory looks at the statistics of the trip do not help matters any more. On the other hand, descriptions from the camp detailed a chaotic mess with almost no appearance of order. More than 50 men who had come with the expedition would not be coming back. Many of these died of illness, while some including the camp leader William Cook disappeared into jungles and never came back (presumably victims of assault by local natives none too pleased with the stated mission of the project). The financial loss was tremendous as well. This doomed mission had cost some 100,000 pounds.[3] In an article Mark Noll notes that scholarly attention to the mission have used phrases such as “ill-fated,” “brief and disastrous,” and “little or no achievement.”[4]

With reviews like these, one would imagine that even the best publicist or pundit could not spin this adventure into anything more. Yet there is a curious note to all this history. The name of Buxton has been and continues to be given reverence both among his fellow missionaries of the 19th century, and the locals he desperately tried to reach. In the cathedral of St. George there is a bust of Buxton with the title, ‘friend of the Negro.’[5] Luminaries from white uber-missionary David Livingston to the former slave turned African bishop Samuel Crowther mention him as an inspiration. One would be inclined to ask why such a one as this would be given such respect. In order to discern the reasons behind this discrepancy, there are 3 areas deserve a closer look: a look at the wider life of Buxton, his motivation for missions, and a closer examination of his mission.

Buxton was born in 1786 and raised in a typical Anglican home. He underwent an “evangelical conversion” through the ministry of Josiah Pratt, immediately set to work in reforming England through careful policy decisions and passionate attacks on the inequalities of the British system. He devoted his life to three causes which might seem intertwined: penal reform and the lesser use of the death penalty, bettering treatment of non-westerners under British rule, and last the abolition of the slave trade. Buxton’s work in any of these fields is interesting, but it is his work for abolition that is most remembered.

Around the time Buxton was born, it is estimated that 5,500 sailors and 160 ships were involved in the British-American slave trade. This ignoble trade annually brought in almost 6,000,000 pounds to the British economy.[6] At the time that Buxton wrote his widely-accepted and well-received book on the trade, he estimated that there were 500,000 slaves captured in Africa annually and of that group some 200,000 to 250,000 were sold into slavery in the Americas and other places.[7] This trade netted the African traders 25 to 50 pounds per head, and the Western traders almost 350 pounds a head. Buxton further reckoned that the Westerners raked a net profit of 150 pound per slave (a total profit of 30 million pounds if the math holds).[8] On the African end, Buxton figured that the African kings were clearing 1,000,000 pounds annually with no good way to know what exactly the net profit was.[9] Upon careful review of these numbers Buxton wrote that he “must declare my conviction that the trade will never be suppressed… you may throw impediments… you may augment their peril… you may reduce their profit, but enough… will remain to baffle all your efforts.”[10] While many in England would have looked at those numbers, reached similar conclusions, and thrown up their hands in despair, Buxton decided that something must be done, and attempted to submit a modest proposal of what that something could be.

Buxton proposed a three-prong attack on this evil. First, he stated that England (who by the 1830s was actively attempting to condemn and regulate this trade) should sign treaties with the African rulers providing the front-end of this transaction stating that should the rulers stop trading in slaves, England would gladly commence trading on a similar level in other goods. Second, the squadron which England had commissioned to stop the slave trade needed to be strengthened in both supplies and tactics. Third, the setting up of ‘civilized’ areas in Africa to serve as a jumping off point for further work, as well as, a model for the African natives to follow. In doing this Buxton hoped to bring a time of “civilisation, peace, and Christianity” to the African lands. [11] There is a tremendous appeal to secular and political means to accomplish the goal, but as the last quote points out, all of this work was simply a precursor to the spreading of the gospel message in Africa. C.C. Ifemesia states that “in his [Buxton’s] view, it was through the work of the missionary that the old society built on slavery and the slave trade would ultimately be dismantled, and another based on Christianity… would be raised in its place.”[12] Buxton, himself, is famous for the statement in his book that the avenue for growth would only be opened when “missionaries and schoolmasters, the plough and the spade” were joined together for the purpose of eliminating the evils done in Africa and replacing that evil with the good news of the Gospel.

The writings of Buxton met with much approval in London and throughout large clunks of the ‘Western world.’ Yet even before the failure of 1841 and 1842, he had his critics. Colonial Under-secretary James Stephen complained loudly that an expedition like one Buxton advocated would have several unattended, but potentially deadly consequences. First, what Buxton demanded was beyond even the vast resources of the still-growing British Empire. Second, the commute of the traders would be fraught with danger. Buxton and others may negotiate with the Kings themselves, but would face danger from both the commoners who did not understand what was happening, as well as from rivals upset to have been excluded from any transactions. Last, the signing of treaties would out England into “unfamiliar alliances” which could involve England needlessly in many of the local squabbles and fights. Others pointed to the more mundane difficulties involving the complex logistics, bad precedents, and suspicious natives.[13] Unfortunately for the members of the expedition, nearly all of these concerns would prove to be more than conceptual. As soon as they arrived, logistics became a nightmare, treaties were signed and ignored by both parties, locals kidnapped and killed at random, and the British were expected to provide immediate help and support for their new partners. As time has passed, there have been other grievances listed as problematic to the whole adventure. In one of his histories of West Africa, Ogbu Kalu tells the story of the expedition as an example of the all-too human tendency to idealize one’s own beliefs and miss the negative impacts of one’s actions. Kalu states that once the “church is idealized… a dichotomy is created between the institution and the people.” When this happens, “the idealized entry serves as the spiritual ally of the sword-welding state.”[14] This criticism, too, is only too valid, as the later in the century, the British government would use the seeds sown in this caper, to create a British protectorate.

Despite the failures of the mission in both theory, and practice, the legacy of Buxton lived on both in England and in the African plains, he so longed to see ‘saved.’ Buxton would only live a couple of years after the failure of the mission, and many would attribute his early death to his heartbreak at its demise. Yet for the remaining 2 years of his life Buxton would insist that the mission was not the failure attributed to it. Buxton, himself, had written these words in the book that started this mess:

“If we grapple with the evil, we shall either find ourselves in the right road, or grope our way to it; and the very mistakes we now make will serve to direct us alright hereafter… I am not sanguine as to suppose that we can at once, by a single effort, solve the problem which lies before us. The deliverance of Africa will put our patience to no ordinary trial… We must deliberately make up our minds to long and long continued expense, to preserving labors and to severe disappointments… But the question is,- Shall such an experiment be made?” [15]

In recent years C.C. Ifemesia has argued that the mission was closer to success than anyone has ever imagined. On the positive, the trip had netted 3 treaties with local chieftains; the purchase of 500 acres for development; and before the end, that site had 20 acres of cleared and cultivated land, 12 huts suitable for living, and 1 main house to be used as a model home, as well as 300 locals helping out with the work. Ifemesia states that the two major forces which worked against the planting… were the opposition of the indigenous people. And the ill-health of the English people.[16] Along these lines Ifemesia asks not how this mission became a failure, but what would have happened had the British shown a little more gumption in the face of their obstacles.

In a real sense, the failures of this mission serve to highlight an oft overlooked part of Buxton’s plan- the call for Africans to be involved in the mission. Ifemesia points out that the Africans seemed far more interested in the English proposal than the English were. When the first treaty was offered, the African king Obi Ossai of Abo is said to have remarked, “white people… first told us we should sell slaves to them and we sold them; and White People are now telling us not to sell slaves, and we will not sell them again… If White People give up buying, black people will give up selling.”[17] Jehu Hanciles writes that Buxton’s “conviction that the British government, commercial companies, and missionary agencies (using African agency) must work together”[18] serves as Buxton’s continuing legacy particularly as Buxton’s “emphasis underlined the notion that African agency was indispensable for the Christianization of Africa.”[19] Indeed this legacy can be seen in the life of Africa and in the Niger River as well. CMS, the missionary agency that saved him and for whom much of his work was done, was and would continue to be a champion for this ideal. A foot note to this issue would also come in the life of former slave who participated in the mission, Samuel Crowther. Two short years after returning to England on that limping vessel, Crowther would return to the Niger. There he would met his mother and sister for the first time in several years, and there in the Niger, he would baptize his mother as the first of many converts to his new-found faith. This man saved from a life of slavery by the very squadron Buxton aggravated Parliament for, trained in the schools established by Buxton and the CMS, and a member of that failed party would go on to become one of the first native Bishops overseeing these same lands. Though Buxton was long gone from these shadowlands, one cannot help but imagine his smile and whoops of joy at such a sight: Africans saving Africans saving Africa. Perhaps it was truly Buxton who then had the last laugh at his failed and deadly mission.

[1] Walls, Andrew F. “Missions and the Remedy for African Slavery.” Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders in the Modern Missionary Movement. Gerald Anderson, Robert T Coote, Norman H Horner, and James M Phillips, ed. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY; 1983, 11

[2] Walls, 15.

[3]Ifemesia, C.C. “The ‘Civilising Mission of 1841: Aspects of an Episode in Anglo-Nigerian Relations.” The History of Christianity in West Africa. O.U. Kalu, ed. Longman Group Ltd: Hong Kong, 98.

[4] Noll, Mark. “Evangelical Identity, Power, and Culture in the ‘Great’ Nineteenth Century.” Christianity Reborn. The Global Expansion of Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century. Donald Lewis, ed. William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Mich., 47.

[5] Walls, 11.

[6] Hanciles, Jehu. “Back to Africa: White Abolitionists and Black Missionaries.” O.U. Kalu, JW Hofmeyr, and PJ Moritz, ed. Department of Church History, University of Pretoria: Pretoria, 196.

[7] Buxton, Thomas Fowell. The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy. Frank Cass and Company LTD: London, 202.

[8] Buxton, 225.

[9] Buxton, 280.

[10] Buxton, 225.

[11] Ifemesia, 81-82.

[12] 83.

[13] Ifemesia, 86.

[14] Kalu, O.U. “The Shape and Flow.” African Christianity: An African Story. O.U. Kalu, JW Hofmeyr, and PJ Moritz, ed. Department of Church History, University of Pretoria: Pretoria, 14.

[15] Buxton, 526.

[16] Ifemesia, 99.

[17] Ifemesia, 90.

[18] Hanciles, 201.

[19] Hanciles, 205.


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