Henry Townsend letters

On Monday, RAMM had a visitor called Benjamina Efua Dadzie (@African_italian), an anthropology post-graduate from the Sainsbury Research Unit. Her visit was to help RAMM open up the history of an important donor; Reverend Henry Townsend (1820 – 1885).

Researcher Benjamina Efua Dadzie in the World Cultures store
Researcher Benjamina Efua Dadzie in the World Cultures store

Exeter-born Henry Townsend joined the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1836. He served in the Anglican mission in Sierra Leone and accompanied some of the freed Yoruba back to their homeland in Nigeria. It was there that he had developed a friendship with Shodeke, the Egba ruler of Abeokuta (“refuge among stones“, a city created to house Egba refugees. In fact, Townsend himself was given permission to set up a mission there and dedicated himself to ensuring a friendship between the Egba and the British Crown.

Benjamina’s visit is linked to her research into Townsend’s correspondence. This information is held in the CMS archives at the University of Birmingham. It is hoped that the museum will learn more about Townsend through his personal correspondence. The outcome of Benjamina’s work will feature in the new Africa redisplays.

The value of collections

This was a golden opportunity for Benjamina to come and see the items Townsend had acquired as souvenirs from his time there. This small collection includes a significant carving of the orisha Eshu. This carving was part of a pair that were placed in the ruler’s palace entranceway. They would have acted as a protection against dark forces. Townsend gave the museum these carvings in 1868, however, RAMM only has one of them. The other is owned by a private foundation in New York.

Townsend was lucky to have acquired these two figures, likely through his work in converting locals to Christianity. The male carving of Eshu is currently on display but bears the painted word ‘idol’ along the length of the flute this figure holds. He had also acquired bracelets made from ivory that had been gifted to him by the ruler. It seems he was held in great esteem by those in power.

There is a tall drum that had been acquired during a period of conflict when the King of neighbouring Dahomey attacked Abeokuta. Also a pair of indigo-dyed draw-strung trousers that might have been worn by an Egungun masquerade. Townsend had also purchased the mundane, like leather shoes, a lidded gourd vessel and drums.

We are hoping that his letters will tell us more about this devoted missionary.

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