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Henry Townsend: A visionary leader

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Henry Townsend was one of the European Christian missioners, whose impact on Nigeria and its people cannot be forgotten in a hurry, in terms of establishing skill centres, farm settlements, corn mills and encouraging literacy, especially the writing and reading of Yoruba language.

Born in Exeter in England on December 1, 1815, Townsend came to Badagry, Nigeria, as an Anglican missionary in 1842, from where he moved to Abeokuta.

The African freed slaves in Abeokuta appealed to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Sierra-Leone to send them teachers that would instruct them on Christianity tenets and other issues, which would enable them to be like their contemporaries in America and other places, where Christianity had taken a firm grip. Townsend came with two catechists to Badagry on December 17, 1842.

When he got to Badagry, he found that Thomas Birch Freeman had arrived three months before him. So, he went to Abeokuta on January 2, 1843. From Abeokuta, he later went to Sierra Leone and then to England, where he reported the success of his missionary work.

During his stay in England, he was made a pastor. In 1845, he returned to Abeokuta with other missioners to set up a printing press. In 1859, they began the printing of Iwe-Irohin, a Yoruba language newspaper. The newspaper was the first to be established in the country. From its beginning, it served as a medium to spread the Christian gospel, but as time went on, it began to be used by the colonial masters to spread their policies. The success of the paper, as means of government propaganda, led to the springing up of other privately owned papers.

In 1862, Townsend founded the Ake Orphanage to cater for children whose parents were killed during the various inter-tribal wars of the time, as well as those suffering from sicknesses considered to be a punishment from the gods of the land.

Townsend also established trade centres for pupils to learn skills. The centres served as outlets for the pupils to learn how to package cotton for export and how to repair machines. It became one of the first attempts by the colonialists to make the people shift from subsistence economy to industrialisation, as it encouraged the locals to begin to give up farming for other trades. This policy gave planting of cotton a boost.

Although Townsend played the dual role of being a missioner and a government agent, his policies had a lasting impact on the people, aside from serving as a foundation for others coming behind to build upon.

He died on February 25, 1886. Many roads, including buildings, have been named after him.

Compiled by Omiko Awa


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