LIKE the proverbial cat with nine lives, Samuel Ajai Crowther went through the vicissitudes of life to attain greatness. The first African Bishop of the Anglican Communion, whose time and life is currently being re-enacted in a stage play titled, Ajai, The Boy Slave. The play gives a photographic reminiscence of how the boy-slave from his teen years — when he was taken into slavery — rose to be an icon of the Christian faith, a scholar and a historian.
Staged recently at Agip Hall of the Music Society Of Nigeria (MUSON), Onikan, Lagos, the play written and directed by Wole Oguntokun based on the original concept by Gbemi Shasore ( a descendant of the Crowther family) gives a high quality dramatisation of an African story with cast drawn from Nigeria and Europe.
Captured with several other family members at his teen, when his community, Osogun in Nigeria was raided by the slave merchants, the boy, began the adventure that would later transform his life in a dramatic note. He passed from one master to another before getting to the Portuguese slave traders, who after several weeks of keeping him in the slave market put him alongside about 187 others in a ship en route Portugal. The Portuguese slave ship set off, but was later intercepted on the sea by two British Man O’ War ships positioned to enforce the abolition of slavery already adopted by the United Kingdom. With the interception, the British ships led the slave ship to Sierra Leone where all the slaves on board were set free. By virtue of this, the freed slaves began a new life in the country.
While Sierra Leone, Ajai under the tutelage of missionaries attached to the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) learnt to read and write and as well as developed carpentry skills. He also became a Christian and was baptized Samuel Crowther; a name of his Christian mentor.
In 1826, he was sent to the Islington Parish School, England, and returned a year later to attend Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Upon graduation, he began to teach at the college and married a schoolmistress, Asano who was baptised Susan. Asano had been one of the slaves bound for Portugal alongside Ajai.
In 1841, Ajai was selected by the Anglican Church to accompany James Schön, a missionary on an expedition along the Niger River. The expedition aimed at carrying out the colonial master’s 3C’s policy — Christianity, commerce and civilization — on the Niger River province.
Following the expedition, Crowther was recalled to England where he was trained as a Priest and ordained by the Bishop of London. He returned to Africa in 1843, opening a mission in Abeokuta with Henry Townsend under the supervision of Henry Venn. The relationship with Henry Townsend was a rocky one, lasting all their lives.
Crowther began to translate the Bible into the Yoruba language and also began a compilation of a Yoruba dictionary. A Yoruba version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was to follow as well as a codification of other local languages.
Following the British Niger expeditions of 1854 and 1857, he produced a primer for the Igbo language and another for the Nupe in 1860 as well as a full grammar and dictionary of the Nupe in1864.
SAMUEL Crowther’s life was marked by stand-offs with Church establishment, which had factions that believed native African was incapable of leading an African Church. His pursuance of a truly native church met with resistance form Henry Townsend and those of Townsend’s school of thought. He sought to use his acceleration within the church hierarchy not only as a tool to spread Christianity, but also as one that would set his people free from the shackles of colonialism and ignorance.
Ajai understood that head-on collisions with the colonialists would not achieve the desired results and, so, made himself indispensable to a system that in turn allowed him continue his work in enlightening the natives.
In 1864, he was ordained the first African Bishop of the Anglican Church, and in 1891 suffered a stroke, dying on the last day of that year.
THE well-designed play, which is on tour of European countries features an all-new and first time cast that showcase deep understanding of the Nigerian culture with a mix of Anglo-African music. This background sound rightly depicts the historical context on which the play is set.
Aside from passing on the message of morals, commitment, heroism and patriotism, the emotion-laden play highlights the role of providence in Ajai being able to reconnect with his roots and family members.
Speaking on the production Oguntokun, avers, “the research for the play was massive. I had access to materials form quite a number of sources. It is probably the lengthiest script I have ever written. We had to really trim it down. The first performance, we had was well over two and a half hours. For this performance it is one and a half.”