An unpublished manuscript documents the clash of beliefs between a British colonial officer and an American Baptist missionary, a clash of worldviews that would contribute to the religiously related violence in Nigeria.
Two men had sharply contrasting views of Africans.
One had been a captain in the British army. He was an agnostic, shaped by the prevailing view of social Darwinism. He served a number of posts in the colonial nation of Nigeria, eventually being named Governor-General (1914-19).
The other had been a captain in the American army. He was a Baptist. He was the first white missionary to go to Nigeria, arriving in 1849 and living among the Yoruba people.
The former was Frederick Lugard; the latter was Thomas Jefferson Bowen.
Lugard (1858-1945) saw Africans as far inferior to Europeans.
“In character and temperament the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight, naturally courageous and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity,” he said.
Lugard said that Nigerians lacked the “power of organization.”
The Nigerian “is conspicuously deficient in the management and control. … He has the courage of the fighting animal – an instinct rather than a moral virtue,” the British colonial officer wrote.
Bowen’s experience gave him a diametrically different viewpoint from Lugard.
After living among the Yorubas and learning their language, Bowen (1814-75) wrote, “There are various other indications of the fact that the people are not deficient in intellect.”
He said, “One of these we find in their government and laws. The highest excellence of the best governments among white people consists in constitutional checks or limits to prevent abuses of power. Strange as it may seem, the Central Africans had studied out this balance of power and reduced it to practice, long before our fathers settled in America – before the barons of England had extorted the great charter from King John.”
Bowen observed of their religious practice: “The pure and correct theism, which rises far above the superstitions of the people, is another proof of their mental soundness. Even their idolatry, while it is substantially the same as that of Assyria, Greece and Rome, has not been loaded with such puerile fancies and debasing dogmas as were common at Corinth.”
Additionally, Bowen pointed to the “sober common sense” of the Yoruba based on their proverbs, which he said “are among the most remarkable proverbs in the world.”
While Lugard saw Nigerians as lazy, Bowen said, “The Yorubas and other tribes of Central Africa, are far from being a lazy people. In the farming season, they are always up and off to their work by daylight. Their daily markets are well stocked with all the necessaries of life.”
Nigerian scholar Olufemi Oluniyi’s unpublished manuscript provides a corrective to the misperception that colonial officers and Christian missionaries shared the same racial worldview and worked together, advancing imperialism and economic exploitation.
In fact, Oluniyi notes that Bowen and other Christian missionaries were a progressive force in Nigeria, which the British colonial officers came to oppose.
Christian missionaries, for example, opposed the liquor and gun trade, which profited colonial powers and did nothing to benefit Nigerians.
Missionaries advanced the newspaper industry. “The aim of the publishers was to make the Christian converts of the day more socially aware and responsible. Known for its hard-hitting editorials, the paper was critical of both the British Consul-General in Lagos as well as the British merchants,” Oluniyi wrote.
Muslim leaders in Northern Nigeria observed the benefits of the missionary initiatives that enhanced economic development, education and health care in southern Nigeria. They were supportive of their opposition to the liquor trade and the imbalances in trade.
Consequently, Muslim leaders were not opposed to Christian missionaries. On the contrary, they invited them into their domains.
Opposition to Christian missionaries arose from the British colonial officers themselves.
They “were anti-missionary because they saw missionary presence as counterproductive to the colonial exploitative agenda to which the administrators were committed,” Oluniyi wrote.
It was this anti-missionary perspective that contributed to the British colonial forces sowing the seeds for religious conflict in Nigeria, favoring Islam over meddlesome Christianity.
Colonial rule placed restrictions on Christian movement into Northern Nigeria, which was predominantly Muslim.
These restrictions included (1) a prohibition against preaching in Muslim communities; (2) proscription against working in areas where British rule was unsettled; (3) the requirement that local British consent was needed to obtain property for missionary work; (4) the rule against missionaries living within 440 yards of a Nigerian community; (5) the rule that prohibited single female missionaries from living alone; and (6) a prohibition of Christian missionaries teaching Muslim minors.
Favoring Islam over Christianity afforded great colonial control and helped to set the stage for today’s conflict between Islam and Christianity.
Oluniyi’s manuscript, “Reconciliation in Northern Nigeria: The Public Apology Option,” corrects a well-worn negative myth about missionaries, offers a new way to understand the religious conflict in Nigeria and articulates guidelines for moving beyond conflict to reconciliation.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s note: Named after Thomas Bowen, Bowen University is “the first and largest Baptist University in Africa.” It is owned by the Nigerian Baptist Convention.