HL Deb 12 April 1883 vol 278 cc31-40

in rising to call the attention of the House to the Papers presented by the command of Her Majesty on West Africa, in reference to the conduct of the agents of the Church Missionary Society, and to ask a Question thereupon, said, the case to which he referred occurred some years ago on the River Niger. Among the agents employed by the Society were many coloured people, all of whom had slaves; so that while this country was trying to stop slavery, both on the East and West Coasts of Africa, they had the Church Missionary Society employing, as agents, people who had slaves, and, worse than that, the Papers that had been presented to Parliament showed that those slaves were often cruelly treated by them, as the Superintendent of Police stated he had frequently reproved the missionaries for ill-treating their slaves. There were throe or four agents of the Society implicated in the transaction mentioned in the Papers, and among them were a Mr. Johns and Mr. and Mrs. Williams. Now, what happened to these unfortunate slave women? Why, they were oppressed and tormented, and when they tried to hide themselves, they were brought out and were flogged by the boys, who were instructed in the principles of Christianity, and treated in a manner he would not dare to mention to the House. It appeared that some red pepper was put into the excoriated places caused by the flogging, after which the unfortunate people wore supported or carried to their hovels where they remained in agony all night. While this was going on, the Native women heard their screams, and called out, and said to the Missionaries—"Surely this is not in accordance with your preaching." Upon which Mrs. Williams came forward and said—"She had bought the girls, and had a right to do what she pleased with them." During the night, one of the girls died in consequence of the treatment to which she had been subjected, and after the body had been buried, and the people enjoined to say nothing about it, the order was given to ring the bell for prayers. If it had not been for the murder which was committed, no one would have heard anything of the matter. Now, this transaction happened in 1878, and these agents might have gone on for years torturing these unfortunate slaves but for certain inquiries which took place after the murder was discovered. He did not complain of the course the Government had taken in the matter, for prompt action had been taken by all the Departments concerned. The moment the Government heard of it, they did all they could; the Colonial Minister communicated with the Foreign Minister, and the Foreign Minister communicated with the Admiralty and the Law Officers, and then the Government and the Lord Chancellor interposed. But it was said that the transaction occurred beyond our Consular jurisdiction. However, after considerable difficulty, the people who had committed the wrong were condemned to punishment; but the best thing, in the Consul's opinion, that could have been done would have been to have hang the murderer on the spot, and that would have been a warning to those Missionaries who had so tormented the Natives. The Papers to which he had called attention were full of the Missionaries and their misconduct. This was a serious question, because one could not get up the River Niger, except at one time of the year, and there was, consequently, great difficulty in communicating with these places. Had the Government communicated with the Church Missionary Society, to the effect that they ought not to have had a station such a long way off, and out of the jurisdiction of the Consuls? There ought to be no station outside that jurisdiction. Now, what part of Christianity was it that supported slavery first, and put the slaves to torture afterwards, ending in murder? These things were a mockery of Christianity. But they were proved by the Papers on the Table, and could not be stopped while Natives were employed, who were supposed to teach Christianity. He would like to hear from the right rev. Prelates, whether they knew of these transactions, and what they thought of them. The Papers were before them. He thought nothing would have been known if the attention of the Consul had not been called to the circumstances of the murder. Who, he asked, was responsible for these things? All these facts were known in 1879; but the Church Missionary Society took no notice of them at that time, and it was not until 1880 that the facts came out. They were responsible for what had happened, and no one else, as they sent these agents to those parts—160 miles up the Niger River. They ought to be prevented from sending their agents into these districts, which were very difficult of access to the Agents of the Government. At last, however, the Government sent a small steamer up the Niger; but the witnesses they collected got dysentery and fever. Was that the way to teach Christianity to the Natives? Let their Lordships look at the Papers and say whether Christian teaching was to be found there. The noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies (the Earl of Derby) had talked about bringing in some Bill dealing with these matters; but, however that might be, in his (the Duke of Somerset's) opinion the Church Missionary Society ought to be prevented from sending their agents to places beyond the jurisdiction of the Foreign Office. He wished to know whether there were any means of stopping these missionary operations beyond the Consular jurisdiction and beyond the Foreign Office jurisdiction?


said, he had read the Papers to which the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Somerset) had referred, and he might be allowed to say that, as regards the story contained in them, there was nothing which had fallen from the noble Duke which was at all too strong; it was one of the most horrible stories which ever appeared in print, and was nothing less than a disgrace to humanity. In referring to that view of the case, he could not help, at the same time, expressing the satisfaction he felt at the manner in which two Departments of the State—the Colonial and Foreign Offices—when the matter was brought to their attention took it up, and had justice done. He was quite sure, in consequence, that the British name would be held in reverence in every part of Africa. An unfortunate girl had been done to death under very revolting circumstances. The case was taken up by the British Government, which paved the way for the conviction of the offen- ders. All difficulties which lay in the way of obtaining a proper trial were surmounted; witnesses were brought from very great distances, the number of years that had passed were not allowed to constitute any serious impediment, the money was provided from the British Treasury, and the awful wrong that had been done was, as far as it could be, avenged in a manner which, he was sure, would meet with the cordial approval of their Lordships. But, having said that much on that part of the case, he felt bound to say that anything more unfair, anything more exaggerated, than the description which the noble Duke had given of the connection of the Church Missionary Society with this dreadful crime he had never heard. He wondered what the noble Duke would say if a subordinate of his committed a crime and the origin of it were to be attributed to the noble Duke, in the way in which he had attributed this crime to the Society. In the first place, the noble Duke had asserted that the Church Missionary Society knew of this crime and took no steps in the matter, and that it would never have been heard of had it not been for the British Consul. The noble Duke had not read all the Papers, or he would have seen that it was the Society, and not the Consul, who brought the matter to light. The man who brought the incident to the notice of the public was the Rev. J. B. Wood, the Church Missionary Society's own secretary. It was Mr. Wood who brought it before the notice of the Governor of Lagos. He was a missionary of the Society, and inquired into all the circumstances, and put in writing the information he had collected.


Look at page 46.


said, he should come to page 46. At present he had got no further than page 1, in which the statements he was making appeared. The noble Duke gave them to understand that the Church Missionary Society would have buried this matter, as the poor girl had been buried; but there was no evidence whatever of that. It was true that Bishop Crowther, who had heard of the case, had also made inquiries, and a Court, called a "Merchants" or an Equity Court, but an inefficient one, held an inquiry, and did not punish Mr. Johns; and the Bishop assumed that the Court had come to a right conclusion; but he had no means of ascertaining the facts of the case, and had no other course open to him. It was not, therefore, until Mr. Wood made further inquiries, and reported to the Governor, that justice was done. Neither was it correct to represent these men, Johns and Williams, as missionaries in the employment of the Church Missionary Society. They were two Natives; one of whom was employed as an interpreter, and the other as schoolmaster, to teach the Native children. Those were their occupations. The Church Missionary Society did their best—like the founders of Christianity—in employing agents; but these two men turned out worse than could be expected. Out of the 2,000 or 3,000 agents in the Society's employ, it was not possible but that they should sometimes be mistaken in their estimate of the agent's character. Perhaps, the noble Duke also, in his own experience, had employed men who turned out to be much less trustworthy than he had hoped or expected. The noble Duke had suggested that the agents of the Church Missionary Society owned slaves. So far as the Papers showed, from the Report of the Governor at Lagos, the girl was not a slave; she had been redeemed but he was prepared to admit that she was treated worse than a slave—that, however, was not the point under discussion. Had the noble Duke read anything of the history of the West Coast of Africa? If he had, he would have seen what had been the great civilizing agent on that Coast. Had he read how many thousands of the savages the Church Missionary Society had converted, not only into Christians, but into civilized men? He (Earl Cairns) had recently read an extract from a commercial paper on the West Coast, on the subject of the atrocities, in which it was stated that they felt deeply for the Church Missionary Society, who had done so much for the Christian education of the people. Perhaps the opportunity would be seized on by its enemies to make an attack on that Society, but nothing could be more unjust than that. One of the greatest wonders of this generation was that the Church in that district, which, while it formerly had been dependent on the Society, was now self-supporting, and had itself sent out missionaries into the in- terior. The crime that had been committed was, no doubt, horrible; but he deeply regretted that the noble Duke had, in a manner which he could only characterize as unlike the justice which generally actuated him, taken occasion to make an attack which, in his (Earl Cairns') opinion, was entirely unfounded on the Church Missionary Society.


said, he did not think that anyone could be surprised that the noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) had brought the matter before their Lordships. The noble Duke had spoken with natural and justifiable indignation of those horrible and disgusting acts of cruelty, of the nature of which they were all aware. It was no part of his (the Earl of Derby's) business either to excuse or to accuse those who had the management of the Church Missionary Society, for their defence could be well left to the noble and learned Earl who had just spoken (Earl Cairns); but, if he were to state his own opinion, he should say that he did not see how any further responsibility could be cast on the Society in connection with this business than that of having being unfortunate, and perhaps injudicious, in the selection of their agents. But the criminals were not missionaries properly so-called. One was an interpreter and another a schoolmaster. They were both Natives, and if any blame was to be attached to the Society it was for placing them in a situation where they were able to bring this scandal upon their employers, and where they did not seem to be subjected to any control. With regard to the Question of the noble Duke, he did not think it necessary, nor did his noble Friend who preceded him in Office (the Earl of Kimberley), to give any special notice to the Missionary Body of the transactions, partly because they were fully cognizant of them from the first, and also because the whole of the transactions had acquired such a degree of publicity, and had been so widely noticed, that it would be superfluous to do so. As to Missionary Societies not being permitted to establish stations beyond the reach of British jurisdiction, he was sure the noble Duke, when he recalled what had been done not only in Africa, but in other parts of the world, would recognize the impossibility of imposing a restriction which was opposed to the principle on which this country had always acted with regard both to missionaries and traders. Not only would such a restriction affect missionaries, but the principle involved in it would also be applicable to traders, for they went to all parts of the world beyond the reach of British law. Taking all the facts into consideration, he was of opinion that the disadvantages of the present system were very much overbalanced by the advantages. No one, so far as he could see, could possibly find fault with the manner in which the authorities had acted in this matter, though he allowed that there could be no question but that the proceedings were cumbrous and expensive. When, however, they took into account the remote situation of the place where these things occurred, and also the difficulty of getting together witnesses, it was not wonderful, he thought, that there had been so long a delay; it was rather to him a wonder that the ends of justice had been met, though at much cost of time and money. With reference to the punishments awarded, it could not be said that they were insufficient. One of the offenders was sentenced to 20 years' penal servitude, and the other to 18½ years, because he had already served two years in gaol, awaiting his trial. He might, perhaps, mention that an Order in Council was now being prepared, which they believed would simplify similar proceedings in future, should they unfortunately become necessary. He would only add that the Church Missionary Society, like all such bodies, was dependent on popular support and assistance, and that undoubtedly any scandal of this kind tended to create an unfavourable effect on opinion, and so to diminish its resources. It followed, therefore, that, in the interest of the Society, it behaved them to take all possible care that such a miserable and unfortunate occurrence should not happen again; and that he considered a sufficient security without the interference of the Government.


My Lords, after the able speech of the noble and learned Earl (Earl Cairns), in answer to the noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset), I have very little to say; but, as having been intimately connected with the Church Missionary Society for nearly 50 years, and having taken a special interest in the West African Mission, your Lordships will perhaps allow me to address a few words to you. Knowing the usual fairness of mind of my noble Friend the noble Duke, I am surprised, as well as grieved, at his having been misled into so unjust an accusation with respect to the Church Missionary Society. The Committee of that Society were, I need scarcely say, as much shocked as any of your Lordships on hearing of the terrible cruelties that had been committed at one of the outlying Missionary stations; and it was through one of their agents that the crime was first discovered and reported to the authorities. As a rule, these Native agents of this Society are well-conducted and reliable men; but, like all other Native agents, they require a good deal of constant supervision by Europeans, when they are located amongst their fellow-countrymen who are still unconverted and uncivilized barbarians. If the Society has been guilty of any fault, it has been in not exercising a sufficient superintendence and control over their Native agents, some of whom are stationed at considerable distances from any regular Mission station. It would, I think, be wise on the part of the Society, if, to use a military illustration, they were to call in their pickets, so as to place them nearer to their supports; and, in fact, this is what they are doing. The noble Duke's attack upon the Missionary Society reminds me of an anecdote told me by my friend, Bishop Crowther, the Native Bishop of these infant Churches. The Bishop had read, in Sir Samuel Baker's book, something to this effect—"That Africans were naturally incapable of receiving education; but that he must make one exception—namely, that good an able man, Bishop Crowther, whom, however, he suspected not to be a real African." Thereupon the Bishop invited Sir Samuel to come and stay with him at Lagos. Upon his arrival there, the Bishop first asked him to look at his face, and then say whether he had any doubt as to his being a real negro. The Bishop then asked him to visit Sierra Leone, on his was home, and to inspect the Negro schools there. This, Sir Samuel did, and wrote back to the Bishop, that he had never seen a number of children better educated, or more intelligent, in any part of Europe. Now, I should not ask my noble Friend to take a voyage to Sierra Leone, to ascer- tain for himself what has really been done for Africa, through the missionaries; but I do ask him to test any one of the last Reports of the Society, where he will find recorded, and upon unquestioned authority, a full description of the work carried on.


said, he thought that the singular inferences which had been drawn by the noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) from information brought out by the Society, in the first instance, with regard to these transactions, had been entirely shattered by the arguments of the noble and learned Earl opposite (Earl Cairns) and those of the noble Earl the President of the Church Missionary Society (the Earl of Chichester), who had last addressed their Lordships. He (the Archbishop of Canterbury) wished to say, lest it should go forth that the Church Missionary Society had been apathetic in the matter of slavery, that the Society, after notice given so long ago as 1857, had issued to West Africa in 1879 a most careful Minute, in which it was laid down that any of their agents holding slaves should ipso facto cease to be agents of the Society; and, by the same Minute, documents were required to be signed by the agents stating that they held no slaves. It should also be noted that two Archdeacons had been appointed to superintend the administration of the Missions—one in the Delta, and the other those on the Niger itself; and with regard to those gentlemen and their superintendence, the Society were prepared to take upon themselves any amount of responsibility. Moreover, a steamship had been placed on the Niger to be at the disposal of the Bishop and await his orders, so that he might be able, whenever he wished, to pass as rapidly as possible from one part of the diocese to another. Still further, in 1881, an English secretary was appointed as an adviser of the Bishop, and to co-operate with him; and, at the present moment, the Society were sending out an English medical missionary to support the Bishop and assist in making the service on the Niger as complete as possible. He only mentioned these things lest an impression should be conveyed that the Church Missionary Society had been in the slightest degree remiss. He would add nothing to what had been said as to their entire freedom from responsibility in the perpetration of these atrocities by people happening to be in their employ. He believed, however, that the Society had done all that could be done in the matter in order to prevent its recurrence.