Born in Exeter in 1820, Henry Townsend became one of the most influential missionaries in Yorubaland, SW Nigeria in the second half of the 19th century.
Townsend showed an early desire to be a missionary. In 1836, at the age of 21, the Church Missionary Society sent him to Sierra Leone as a teacher. Here he became sympathetic towards the situation of the formerly enslaved Yoruba. Many of those formerly enslaved wished to return to their homeland in what is now Nigeria. When they were successful in chartering a boat to get back home, they were welcomed by the new town of Abeokuta. The name Abeokuta means “refuge among rocks”. Shodeke, who was leader of the Egba refugees, offered a particularly warm welcome.
The Church Missionary Society soon realised that they required some continuity of religious support. Henry Townsend wanted to volunteer and arrived in Abeokuta in 1843. As described in a later account, Shodeke and his people “accorded Townsend a festive welcome and their wonder knew no bounds at seeing their first pure white man” (Biobaku, p.31).
During his first period of leave in England, Townsend took back with him a petition to the Queen from the leaders of the town for a British Resident and the means of keeping a direct route to the sea open via the Lagos lagoon. He returned in 1850 with gifts of bibles from the Queen and a corn mill from the Prince Consort. These gifts caused him to be held in high regard.
Dahomey attacks Abeokuta
In 1851, the King of Dahomey attacked Abeokuta with a force of warrior-women. The motive for the invasion was political expansion soon after the Oyo kingdom’s downfall. It was also economic in that the king depended upon the acquisition of people to enslave for trade. They were a major source of income. During this attack, Townsend and other missionaries helped in supplying ammunition to the front line in Abeokuta’s defence. Due to the support of its neighbours, Abeokuta defeated the Dahomey army.
In 1864, Dahomey attacked Abeokuta for a second time. Again the Egba defeated Dahomey with the support of its allies, including the British. Townsend had acquired a few artefacts from this event including a war drum and a cartridge belt.
In 1866, Townsend represented Egba interests to the British authorities in Lagos (Biobaku, p.81). He advocated for the Egba cause wherever it would be heard, whether in Abeokuta itself, in Lagos or in London. His persistency meant that Townsend became a thorn in the side of the British authorities.
Dealing with the Yoruba authorities in the town was difficult because there were so many of them. Apart from the four Obas, each entitled to wear beaded crowns, there were the officiants of the Ogboni society, who acted as magistrates. He persuaded the Egba leaders to elect one amongst themselves as paramount leader. He suggested resuscitating the defunct title of Alake.
The missionaries favoured Ogunbona, the Balogun or battle leader of the Ikija group. Yet the chiefs preferred a weaker ruler and chose Okukenu in 1854. By 1865, Abeokuta had been all but defeated by Ibadan at the end of a five-year- long war. In March of that year, Governor Glover finally went against the advice of Townsend and the pro-Egba missionary faction. He and attacked an Egba force which was restricting access to lucrative markets to the north of Lagos, scattering them in disarray.
Townsend returns to Exeter
Henry Townsend finally returned home to Exeter in 1876 after nearly 40 years close association with one of the most powerful new groupings in the emerging Niger colony. During an earlier period of leave in 1868, he gave a selection of the items he had collected to the new Museum in his home town. They now form an invaluable picture of aspects of Yoruba life in the mid 19th century.
Earlier, he had been instrumental in collecting some items from his adopted home for inclusion in the Great Exhibition of 1851. These were supplied by George Townsend and described as ‘Specimens of cloth, a market basket, iron bracelets, a dress, drum, and other various articles from Abberkutu [also spelt Abbrokuta], a town of 50,000 in the Yoruba country’ in the Official Descriptive & Illustrated Catalogue , p.954.
Townsend finally returned to Exeter for good in 1876, and died a few years later.