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The other side of slave trade - Akinpelu Johnson

The other side of slave trade


By Akinpelu Johnson
Sunday Tribune
March 25, 2007

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the first act of parliament sponsored by William Wilberforce in the United Kingdom, which eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade.

The 200th anniversary is significant because it is a landmark in the consciousness of world citizens. It is a date many would want to remember for good because it marked the beginning of the end of a trade that dehumanized humanity. Unfortunately even today, slavery still exists in one form or the other, and while the late Chief Moshood Abiola led a campaign to force the western world to pay reparation to the Africans for their past misdeeds today it will seem that Africans themselves are guilty of the modern slave trade.

Many people have come to see the slave trade as inhuman and an act that made Africans backward. That opinion can be justified particularly when we understand from the various accounts of the trade that the Atlantic Slave Trade was a most brutal form of slavery. Yet, on a day such as this, perhaps I will be forgiven for being subjective when I suggest that to me and for my family, slavery was a blessing in disguise.

My progenitor was taken as a slave and luckily for him, was freed in Sierra-Leone. He took on the name Henry Johnson during his baptism as was the case in those days and lived for some time in Hastings. He was a farmer and in the church of St. Thomas' Hastings he was a leader and a church warden. In 1857, he was sent to Kew Gardens in London where he was trained to be a horticulturist.

The Johnsons have made valuable contributions particularly to the development and growth of the Anglican Church in Nigeria. Mr. Henry Johnson (Erugunjimi) and his wife Sarah and one Mr. Allen, were the first black missionaries to Ibadan, who arrived in the city in 1858 from Sierra-Leone on the invitation of the Revd. David and Anna Hinderer. They were the first white missionaries to Ibadan.

Mr. Henry Johnson died in 1865, while Sarah his wife died on June 23rd 1876 and both were buried in the missionary grave section in St. David's Church Kudeti Ibadan.

The first son of Erugunjimi, Henry Johnson (Jnr) was born in 1840 and he was a tutor at the Grammar School in Sierra- Leone before he went to England in 1865 to train for the ministry. In 1866 he was ordained deacon in London and was made priest the following year by the bishop of London in 1867. He worked in England for two years before returning to Sierra-Leone to work on translations.

He was a prolific translator and he translated most of the New Testament books into Mende Language and was known as 'eloquent' Johnson.

He was very prolific, for having also been trained in Palestine and Egypt, he acted as Arabic translator to the CMS mission, particularly when he was Archdeacon of the Upper Niger. On November 12th 1885, he was awarded an honorary M. A. degree of the University of Cambridge.

One of his younger brothers, Dr. Obadiah Johnson graduated from King's College London in the 1890s and was one of the foremost colonial doctors in the 20th century Lagos. He died in England in 1920. Interestingly, his grand-nephew, (The Very Revd. Akinsope Johnson) my father, graduated from King's College London about sixty years later and about forty years after that, I also graduated from the same college.

Perhaps the most famous of the Johnson brothers is The Revd. Samuel Johnson who wrote the book: The History of the Yorubas. Samuel Johnson and his in-law, The Revd. Charles Philips (later Bishop) were the emissaries used by the British Government in bringing about the end of the Ijaye wars in the late 19th century.

Samuel Johnson's children were all females and they all married clergymen one of whom being the Revd T.A.J Ogunbiyi. Erugunjimi's second son, Nathaniel Johnson (my great grand father), was a school master in Lagos and eventually became the first Nigerian vicar of St. John's Church Aroloya Lagos.

He became Archdeacon of Lagos in 1901 and died in 1921. His transfer from St. John's to St. Paul's Breadfruit Lagos in 1901, was one of the factors that led to the formation of the African Church in Lagos. Incidentally, another Anglican clergyman, The Revd. J. S. Williams, then vicar at St. Judes Church Ebute metta became the first Primate of the African Church.

His daughter married Nathaniel's son, The Rev. Canon H. V. E Johnson who was the third vicar of St. John's Church, Aroloya. In effect therefore, both my great grandfathers inadvertently played prominent roles in Lagos in 1901.

One of the children of H. V. E. Johnson The Very Revd. Sope Johnson, (my father) trained for the priesthood in England, was ordained in London and eventually became the provost of the Cathedral Church of Christ. So, as far as church work is concerned I'm the fifth generation by direct descent as far as missionary work is concerned and the fourth generation in the priesthood.

Without the Slave Trade it would have been difficult for my ancestors to have received the education, exposure and opportunities that came their way the time that it did. It reminds one of the story of Joseph in the Bible, who rose to prominence in a foreign land and who was used by God for His people. Though slavery in any form is inhuman, it is possible sometimes that God brings good out of evil. It is true that the Europeans (even the Church of England was involved) came to take us slaves and treated us badly and thousands died on the voyage across the Atlantic yet, the fact remains that some of the slaves later became great people.

The name 'Erugunjimi' for instance, properly pronounced and understood means 'slavery has favoured me.' It was likely therefore that the name was an appellation either given to or given by Mr. Henry Johnson himself. I therefore align myself with my great great grand father and can categorically say that the Slave Trade was a blessing in disguise to the Johnson family.

Will the tradition of Church work continue? That depends on God who calls, but the future seems assured because though I am yet unmarried, one of my cousins whose great- grandfather (Stephen Adolphus Johnson) was the youngest son of the Erugunjimi, The Revd. Toyosi Johnson is a priest in the Diocese of Abuja and he is married to the daughter of the present primate of the Anglican Church in Nigeria. Therefore the story continues!

---The Venerable Akinpelu Johnson is the archdeacon of Apapa Archdeaconry of the Anglican Diocese of Lagos. He is currently working on a book titled; As for me and my house ... The untold story of a Levitical Dynasty.

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