Title: Ajayi Crowther: The Triumphs and Travails of a Legend
Playwright: Professor Femi Osofisan
Publisher: Book Craft, Ibadan
Year of Publication: 2006
Reviewer: Olutayo Irantiola
The life of the first Bishop of West Africa, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, has continued to be relevant after 127 years of his death. In 2014 during the celebration of the 150th year of the ordination of Bishop Crowther, the Archbishop of Canterbury apologized for the ill-treatment of the first African Bishop. The Bishop can be described as the captured boy from Osogun that gained global prominence as a clergy across the West African Region. A New Historicist perspective to his life, written by the renowned Professor of Drama, Femi Osofisan, is equally an addition to the body of literature on him.
For those who had read various historical books written about the Bishop, they would be drawn to many striking features of the Priest that was portrayed by Professor Osofisan. In my little attempt to review this play, many titles crept into my mind such as Expositions through flashbacks, embedding stories in a story. However, I thought it useful to consider the imbroglio that almost overshadowed all the ministerial exploits of the great clergyman from Africa.
The story of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther is one of those characters, akin to the Bible stories, singled out of the thousands of Africans who were on the journey of no return into slavery but by happenstance, they were taken to Sierra Leone. His case was that of a young man that had a great intellectual capacity but would never have attained this heroic heights, if he was not captured.
The text told us of all his stories which was narrated by him, his wife, his son and professional associate-Dandeson, The Queen of England, Eden and Brookes. There was no prominent fact in the life of the Bishop that was omitted in the text skillfully woven by Professor Osofisan. The play actually spanned few days to the end of the life of the protagonist.
The greatest trait about Ajayi Crowther in the play is his loyalty to a fault. He was overtly and covertly loyal and he believed the white missionaries. This resonated throughout the text, for instance “…the white men can’t hate us” Page 19; “The Europeans are better managers than any of us. They are much better educated and their actions and reports will be better confided in, both out here and in England” Page 25; “No matter what they do, or how much they may hurt his esteem, father will always say yes to them” Page 47; “But these white men who have come to Africa, think of the sacrifices they have had to make! What they have had to endure, just to save our people from darkness and perdition and bring us the word of salvation” Page 59; “The CMS is our mother! Our father! Our very source of life” Page 83.
Another side of him, which was considered as a weakness, was his “gushing pity” Page 78. This made Eden say that “Your father (referring to the Bishop) may have the piety but certainly not the administrative competence and toughness that the job demands.” Page 73. However, he justified his action with this words, “Punishment is supposed to reform not destroy.” Page 76.
Other positive traits of Ajayi Crowther mentioned in the book include bravery; resilience; dedication; passion and restlessness; ability to comprehend easily; zeal for education. Others are humility despite the push to take up roles; gratitude to the white men and his ability to relate with the Kings and his empowerment programmes for his people.
With all of these traits, the Bishop was caught between the post-slavery web of three “C’s” as mentioned by Russell on Page 65 namely “Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation”. This is obviously visible in the series of allegations levelled by Goldie’s Royal Niger Company against the catechist in the Niger Delta; their biased reports; the supposed support in getting the culprit tried in the law-court and the purchase of the Preparandi. It was all centered on chasing out the missionaries so that they can monopolize the entire Niger trade.
Another notable style used by the playwright in this sixteen scene play with multiple locations ranging from Odunlami Street, Lagos; Beach; Igbein, Abeokuta; Oke-Okien after Idah; Onitsha; Salisburg Park Gardens, and Windsor Castle, England is the introduction of the next scene from the preceding one. This makes it easy for the reader and audience to easily understand what would happen next.
The language of the text is three in total- English language; Yoruba language and Pidgin. I will like to add that transliteration also played a prominent role in the text; this was copiously used in the story of Orere and her husband. Some of these instances are “spoilt the stomach of Orere; the woman on the road to be his wife; there was no wisdom his friends did not try.” Pages 35-37. However, there were some irregularities in the Yoruba words, some do not have tonal marks; some written in a different font; some in italics.
The denouement of the play, changed a seemingly tragic situation into triumph, is the eventually acceptance of the Bishop that he had done his very best, nonetheless the letter from London that almost destroyed all his efforts in the twilight of his life because of the report of Eden and Brooke. He said, “we may not have gone far, but we’ve gone a good way, and achieved some of those dreams… They have given us the weapon of literacy and Christianity. With these, we are wiping out the scourge of ignorance and the evil superstitions that enveloped our land.” He encouraged African elites who have been meeting at the Breadfruit church to liberate themselves.
The liberation in which Professor Osofisan mentioned in the play remains what we need to move forward in our Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation today in Africa. Once our kindred is free from every form of docility, we would be heading towards self-discovery, self-support and self-development just like other countries of the world that are growing their indigenous technologies.