Missionaries in Pre-Colonial and Early Colonial Nigeria

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Missionaries in Pre-Colonial and Early Colonial Nigeria

In any study of colonial Nigeria, the groundwork accomplished by the missionaries in pre-colonial days must be a central concern. They were instrumental in setting the scene which would meet the colonists when they started arriving. Missionaries were used by the colonial power as an avant garde, to expand into new regions, a fact keenly displayed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart. For many Nigerians, missionaries were the first Europeans with whom they came into contact.

The missionaries first made their presence felt through their work in abolishing the slave trade. As Crowder notes, they took the emphasis away from the ''human products'' of Africa in a bid to use more fully her abundant natural resources. The overall, and idealistic, aim was to promote a more healthy and mutually beneficial trade between Africa and Europe. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton once put forward the argument that ''the only way to save Africa from the evils of the slave trade ... would be call out its own natural resources''(Crowder, The Story of Nigeria, 111). Right from the outset, there was both a commercial and religious context to all missionary work in Nigeria. If anything, it could be argued that initially, the commercial aspect was more pressing than the religious, due the urgent need to find a quick substitute for trading slaves so that the traders would not feel their profit was at stake.

Outcry in England against the horrors of the slave trade reached unprecedented levels. Never before had there been such unanimous public support over a single issue. Cheap pamphlets and tracts were sold in abundance, meaning that the public was fairly well informed in matters such as the cramped and pes...

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...y consulted their oracle. Yet, the underlying forces at work behind the missions, as well as their inextricable links with commercial activities should never be overlooked. From the outset, the missions were seen as ideal vehicles for gaining the trust and confidence of the tribal leaders, before the real monied interest moved in. It could argued that the missions were one part of the wheel of business and economics that starting to turn in Nigeria, while a substitute for slaves was sought. The humanitarian touch they seemed to bring disguised these motives behind a facade of peaceful and beneficent civilisation. It would be naive to assume that the missionaries were innocently unaware of the drastic consequences their opening of the African heartland would bring. In this sense they must, at least in part, be held answerable for the colonial predicament of Nigeria.

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