By chance I found a historic publication on Yorùbá culture in a second hand bookshop. The origin of its text is still mysterious to me, but it is digitally accessible in the public domain on Google Books. It was published in 1870 in the German cities of Stuttgart and Calw. Printed on 146 pages, written in German language, it is entitled “Missions-Bilder. Achtes Heft. Sierra Leone und Yoruba” (Engl.: Mission-Images. Eighth Issue. Sierra Leone and Yoruba). Full of illustrations it is a historic coffee-table book on Yorùbá culture, many of the 87 etchings spread across one whole page. This issue is part of a series of ethnographic books that started in 1864, each one is dedicated to a missionary in another "previously unknown" part of the world. This genre was very popular in the 19th century. Travel reports brought back messages from the periphery into the European "center". With technical innovations the mass production of illustrated books could be carried out at a reasonable price. The detailed images played a vital role in the success of those books and led to a popular support for the missionary effort. David Livingstone’s illustrated “Missionary Travels” (1857) set a standard, his title for sure influenced the “Missions-Bilder”.
The name of the author is not mentioned at all in this “Missions-Bilder” publication. Many passages are told from the perspective of a European who witnessed the described situations in Africa and was moved emotionally by his or her experiences (“we burst out into tears”). The time span of the incidents runs from around 1820 to 1870. It tells a brief history of trans-Atlantic slavery, its British abolition, the colonization of West Africa from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) point of view, the Muslim Jihad, and focuses on Yorùbáland and its diaspora. In Sierra Leone the intercepted slave ships, most of them on their way to Cuba and Brazil, were forced to unload by the British. The liberated slaves were then educated by the missionaries. There would have been more ethnic groups to mention in Sierra Leone, but the book is exclusively written about Yorùbá culture. With the first generation of returnees and black Christian priests, the book’s narration moves to Yorùbáland and introduces us to cities like Abeokuta, Ibadan and Lagos, wars between different “tribes”, daily life, lots of politics and the idol worshippers, the Olorisha.
Most of these 87 etchings are signed by “J.Johnston”. They were originally published in books directly related to the CMS in the years before 1870 (see the periodicals “Church Missionary Gleaner” or "Church Missionary Intelligencer"). Detailed book illustrations at that time were often based on photographs, traveler’s sketches and verbal descriptions. J.Johnston created images from Yorùbáland, Sierra Leone, Guinea, New Zealand, Nepal, India, China, Australia and East Africa. Very likely he has never been to these places and his artistic work is completely based on materials and descriptions he received from the missionaries. The images already went through various filters, before they were finished by the artist, who was certainly trained in classical iconography, and later complemented the text. Having all this "representation" and "misrepresentation" in mind, I still found the Olorisha's portraits and the picturesque, romantic landscapes fascinating. Those are among the oldest Western book illustrations about Yorùbáland.
I compared this issue of “Missions-Bilder” to various books on Yorùbáland and Sierra Leone that were available in 1870, but could not prove that it is just a translation. The 19th century publications on Yorùbáland by the CMS are in public domain and fully available digitally today. I include a link list at the bottom of this page. I did not find this enormous amount of beautiful images in any other book, just some of them here and there. It could be a unique and well-done German summary of English books available at that time. The author in his German text even describes the illustration of the city of Ilé Ifẹ̀ (see below) and corrects it (“this illustration looks like…but it is not like this”). The images must have been already finished and known to the author, when he was writing the text. Some Germans were among the early missionaries, maybe it was written by one of the well-known pastors from that time.
In the publication “Charles A.Gollmer. His Life and Missionary Labours in West Africa”, published by his eldest son in 1889, some of the “Missions-Bilder” images have also been used. This made me think that “Missions-Bilder” might have been written by Gollmer himself. He was a German missionary who worked with Crowther on the Yorùbá language translation of the bible. “Missions-Bilder” was published some years before Gollmer died, he was already retired and back in London. In his biography a letter from him is cited: “Arrival of Yoruba books. In March 1858 I completed the translation of Dr. Earth's 'Bible Stories' into the Yoruba language. A new copy was made and sent, which Dr. Barth had printed at Stuttgart, at the expense of the Publication Society of Calw; and now the first box of four hundred copies has safely reached me.” This means that Gollmer himself had direct contact to the publishing house of the “Missions-Bilder” in Germany twelve years before, through “Dr. Barth”, probably Heinrich Barth, the explorer of Africa. Very likely Gollmer or one of his German colleagues was involved in the publication of “Missions-Bilder”, I think. In the publication “Seventeen years in the Yoruba country: memorials of Anna Hinderer” some of the images have also been used. Anna Hinderer was the wife of another German missionary from that time.
Today we are aware that most of the historic 19th century travel books - like “Missions-Bilder” - were written from a white, male, colonial and Christian perspective on the "Other". The book starts its first chapter with the stereotypical title "Africa's curse". The missionaries, inspired by their belief, went to Africa to end the misery of slavery, educate the liberated slaves according to their own cultural values and spread their religion. Through the incredible archive of the Christ Missionary Society we have access to written testimonies from people who experienced enslavement in Africa. Around 30% of all the letters, reports and journals, that are found in this archive from Sierra Leone were written by Africans. 47 from 86 authors from the Yorùbá Mission (in Yorùbáland) were Africans. 60% of the journals there were written by African agents of the missions. They were encouraged to write daily journals, which are a rich source for uncovering facts about the life of former slaves (see the articles of Richard Anderson). In other official documents from the early colonies you can hardly hear an African voice in “direct speech”, the Church Missionary Society was different. Education and empowerment was directly linked to Christianity. Olorisha could not be part of the new, modern society that was established through the British colonization. All this is part of the history of what is known as Yorùbá culture worldwide today. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) also published the first Yorùbá-English dictionary over one hundred years ago – and this is still the only dictionary you can buy in Nigeria today! See our blogpost on dictionary reviews. These stories might be old, but relevant.
This book’s language from 1870 is antiquated today. My translations into English stay close to the original text, but hardly reproduce the 19th century language characteristics. I just wanted to give some impressions from the book for the English speaking readers, don’t cite me with these translations. I do not further interpret the historic text.
Translated passages from the Yorùbá issue of "Missions-Bilder"
The beginning is a historical analysis of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A passage tells us about the “emancipados” in Cuba, slaves who reached the colonies as freed men and women.
“Yes, thank God, the abolition of slavery helped to put an end to this business on the West African coast, as it is to be hoped. But as long as slavery still existed in the United States, Brazil, and the Spanish colonies, the slave trade was much too profitable, in spite of all the dangers connected with it, and was continued in secrecy. Moreover, the treaties concluded by England were, for a long time, very inadequate, against the unfairness of some of its allies. E.g. it was not allowed to destroy the barracks erected on the coast for the purpose of slavery; [...] Another drawback was that the court’s judges worked not only on English soil in Sierra Leone, but also in Havana, Suriname and Rio de Janeiro, and the slaves, who were set free, came under the authority of those countries. It was especially Spain, which proved to be treacherous. Although it was compensated by England for the financial loss and received a sum of 4,800,000 SI, although it solemnly vouched for the freedom of the "emancipados", the shameful trade went unhindered under the eyes of the highest authorities of Cuba, and the “emancipados” were treated worse than slaves. [...] According to the provisions of the law, these "emancipados" should be housed for five years as apprentices in a well-known family, in order to be taught in Christianity and prepared for the full enjoyment of freedom. Instead, however, the government renounced these "free Africans" to anyone who paid the fixed price of 135 Spanish Thalers for their five-year service. If the “emancipado” had surrendered this apprenticeship, he was put aside by the authority, who had nothing to do with him, except to lend him to the same or another family for the same price. This continued as long as the "liberated" was still to be used.” (p.10f)
The author tells us personal stories about the life in Sierra Leone and expresses his compassion with the suffering slaves.
“When the poor newcomers then lay exhausted on the floor, some of our men recognized their relatives and friends, and a general exclamation arose: "O Massa! My sister! My brother! My countryman! He lives in the same city!" etc. The poor creatures did not know what’s going on, when they were redeemed from the stifling space of the slave ship and saw the faces of those who they had long believed to be dead. It was beyond all description. We all could not hold back our tears.” (p.53)
He explains how a captured ship on his way to South America, full of slaves, was unloaded at the harbor in Freetown.
“And what kind of ships are there at anchor? They were brought in by the cruisers and condemned by the court. All slaves should now be set on land. Thousands of earlier freed slaves have gathered in the hope of finding among the newcomers a friend or brother, a mother or sister, from whose side they had once been taken. A loud shout of joy sounds as the boats approach the shores. But they go too slowly for many, they cannot hold back the longing of love. Many of them swim from the land towards the boats; others jump out of the boats into the sea; greetings and embraces, above the depths of the ocean. As soon as the boats touch the land, the individual groups mix together so lively, that it resembles a handful of fighting troops, rather than the reunion of long-separated friends. Soon, groups of different nations and tribes have been formed. One gathers around more respected persons, who tell their people of the misery, the amazement and joy, from the condition of the tribe at home, the well-being of friends, the fate of the enemies.” (p.61f)
There is a detailed image showing an Egúngún procession. The freed Yorùbá slaves were able to establish the Orisha societies in the African diaspora of Sierra Leone.
“…and indulged secretly in fetish service and immorality. Individual outbursts of the most intense paganism once more ventured into the daylight. Among these were the parades of the Egunguns, who often came into a village in a group of six or seven, and those alleged spirits of deceased ancestors were terrifying to the people. An appearance of this kind, as the following illustration shows us, took place in Freetown in 1852, missionary Beale tells us about it with the following words: ‘When the Egungun came to my door, I let him into my court. He had a height of about seven feet; but when I grabbed his head, it became clear that I had only caught a handful of red cloth stuffed with cotton-wool rags. Four strong boys with big sticks were threatening me to get away from him. In a short amount of time a great crowd of Africans had gathered around us; but for a time nobody dared to help me, even my own servants. At last a brave woman from my congregation shouted, ‘They will do harm to Massa!’ And she pushed her way through the crowd, holding the man with all her power, and pushed the others away. But I tore off his mask, and presented him to the people in his natural form. When the people saw that the Egungun was not just a human being, but also known to many among them, they shouted, the pagans in mockery, the Christians in grateful joy, upon which his defenders retreated, and left him alone in my hands.’ More and more the darkness of paganism had to yield to the influence which the gospel had on the population.” (p.56f)
Then a very general chapter introduces the reader to the Yoruba people and religion.
"Among all the black inhabitants of Sierra Leone, the Yoruba tribes (Yariba, Oku) were noticeably characterized by their spiritual and moral abilities. They have a fine and keen mind, and many of their proverbs show a surprising knowledge of the human condition. [...] Their children are playful, and they find great pleasure in confusing one another with rhetorical questions. [...] Important progress in civilization, by the way, has, in spite of its spiritual vitality, not affected the Yoruba, they are unaffected by European influence; and in religious relation they are as their neighboring tribes a striking proof that the natural man does not hear of the Spirit of God. They have an idea of higher being called Olorun, which, as they believe, is the creator of all things; they often express their good wishes through a "God bless you" or a similar saying, but they assume that God cares little or not at all about what is happening on earth. Therefore, they do not pay him worship and offer him no sacrifices; they serve only those deities, to whom he has conferred his power." (p.68f)
Ifá, Ṣàngó and Orò are mentioned as some of the Yorùbá deities. A female river Orisha gets human sacrifices.
“One of those is Ifa, the God of the palmnut, to whom they attribute the power of healing, and where they seek help in case of illness. They also worship the God of thunder and lightning. To reconcile him, men, women, and children in thunderstorms, in the most dreadful storm, rush out of their homes into the pouring rain. Woe to him who dares not to appear when there is sacrifice to the angry Shango! Woe also to the woman who is seen when Oro, the war god, is worshiped! But these are not yet all the objects of their worship; [...] Large trees, red sandstones, iron, cowries (small shells used as money), anthills, all of them get their part; sometimes, especially before he travels, the Yoruba also reveres his own forehead or foot. His idols are of clay, wood, or metal, and several of them are usually placed in a special division of the house, where every morning and evening a kind of worship is offered to them. Of course, this cannot be a spiritual worship. ‘Make me rich, make me well, give me children, take revenge on my enemies,’ are the only pleas to be heard. [...]
Human sacrifices are far less frequent here than in Badagry; in some cases, however, such occur. In the case of a continual drought, for example, a poor slave is taken, decorated like for a feast, and thrown into the river, to appease the water goddess, and serve her servants, the crocodiles, as a meal." (p.71f)
The custom of the 5-day week of Orisha worship is also described.
"Every fifth day is used by the priests and the pious men to the special ministry of the various deities, but the great mass of people seem not to take part in it. One of the ceremonies that takes place on these sacred days is the fetching of water for the gods from a nearby spring. On this occasion, priests and priestesses are observed in a long procession, balancing calabashes on their heads, in deepest silence. Some of the water is poured out as a drink offering to the idols, and the rest is kept for use in the house. These days are called Osse days (silent days), a name that the Christian Yorubas in Sierra Leone have now transferred to Sunday.” (p.71f)
The first wave of diaspora Yorùbá, educated and baptized in Sierra Leone, moved back to Abeokuta in Yorùbáland, where Orisha worship was part of the daily life.
“On the other hand, the immigrants found themselves surprised by the prosperity of Abeokuta. (The next picture shows us a street breakfast in Abeokuta, how people usually buy it before they go to their daily work.) But could it satisfy the hunger and the thirst of the soul that longs for everlasting goods? At first, the Christians among those from Sierra Leone felt the lack of regular instruction and proper worship; it did not take much time before they began to feel the difficulty of their situation. There was nothing but dark paganism around them, and the noise of idolatrous processions could he heard daily in the streets. Their early self-confidence gradually changed into a painful feeling of being orphaned, and they seized every opportunity to make urgent and touching requests to Sierra Leone, so that their early teachers would soon send them a missionary to Abeokuta.” (p.81)
The first black priests followed soon after, Samuel Ajayi Crowther preached the gospel in Yorùbá language for the first time.
“It was a solemn moment, when in January 1844, the first black ordained preacher of West Africa, appeared in the midst of hundreds, who had been saved from the slavery of body and soul, to give them, in their mother tongue, the inexplicable wealth of Jesus Christ, and to invite them to the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yoruba, Ibo, and the natives of Calabar, had gathered in crowds to hear him: they had heard the gospel only in the language of their liberators, and with them too they had been fond of it, but it sounded quite different, when it came to them, for the first time, in the tone of their dear Yoruba language. ‘Though it was my own well-known mother tongue,’ writes Crowther, ‘I felt like a child who just starts to learn how to speak upon this occasion. The great task which had been entrusted to me, the place where I found the assembly that surrounded me, was so new and wonderful to me that it seemed to me like a dream. The Lord joined me.’ The assembly was deeply moved, and when Crowther spoke at the end of the blessing, hundreds of voices shouted ‘Ke oshe!’ (So be it!) through the church.” (p.86)
Crowther then baptized and saved his mother from Orisha worship.
“The most interesting of the first candidates for baptism was Afala, Crowther's old mother. From the moment she had found the lost son, she had no longer wanted to part from him. With pain, however, he perceived that she thought her son’s return only happened due to the influence of his deceased father in the invisible world. Little by little, however, her heart opened to the truth, and with joyful anxiety the son watched her progress.” (p.98)
The Olorisha tried to fight back the Christians.
“Thus, with thorough individual teachings a general development went hand in hand, especially a marked decrease of belief in the idols. On the other hand, we can see in the picture the faithful son, carrying away the idols of his still pagan mother, to deliver them to the missionary. He speaks comforting words and asks the old lady if she might perhaps try to separate herself from it overnight? She consents, and the next morning the son's happy face proclaims that from now on she wants to serve the living God. Full of desire, a sick person, who was left by his relatives, because he will not sacrifice to the Ifa any more, asks to baptize him and give him the name of Jesus. But, of course, the fury of the enemies was awakened to the same extent as the work of God grew. The priests and priestesses of the various gods noted that when it continues like that, their influence and profit would soon come to an end; The goat and poultry traders feared that their sale would be reduced by the diminished number of sacrifices; the slave merchants of the Mohammedans were well aware that their trades could not exist alongside Christianity. But the most grievous of all was that some of the emigrants of Sierra Leone, who had either never accepted or abandoned Christianity, wished to see their Christian countrymen returning to idolatry, so that their change would not put be considered bad for their own instability. From the slave traders on the coast, this disgust and hatred was comprehensively encouraged.” (p.101f)
Irving arrives in Yorùbáland, Crowther translates in a meeting with the king, among the chiefs were also Muslims, at the so-called town-hall of Ake, which had 100.000 inhabitants at that time, according to the author.
“We stopped at the ‘Oboni’ or town hall of Ake, a long, low building with a straw roof resting on clumsy pillars. There the chief, Sagbua, had already taken his seat, and on both sides sat a number of chieftains and elders. In the open space in front of the house stood in a short distance a row of low trees, and in the shadow of them a number of chairs. [...] After a few minutes had passed, Ake's exclamator came out to command silence. On his head he wore a black monkey's fur, whose long hair protruded in all directions, decorated with silver rings. From his shoulders came a multitude of blue and red striped cotton ribbons, fastened with a white piece of clothing around his loins; He wore short trousers. In one hand he held a suspicious-looking ax, and in the other a strangely-shaped clasp, which was beaten with a short staff. After giving silence, he crouched down on the ground, repeating his call as often as the conversation or noise seemed to make it necessary. His signs were just as well understood as in England the hammer of the President or in Germany his bell. [...] Like Forbes, so were Foote and Irving joyfully amazed at the lovely prosperity of the mission. What they saw and heard of it surpassed all their previously cherished expectations. The decency and earnest attention of the 300 converts of the Ake congregation, the Yoruba songs sung to European melodies, the flowering schools - all aroused their desire. On the whole, the mission now counted 600 Christians, all of which were accepted only after careful examination.” (p.114f)
The society was split up in Christians and Olorisha, fights arouse.
“It was mainly the women who turned to the new doctrine; against them a storm broke loose. The parents could drive a virgin out into the hurricane, so that the lightning god Shango killed her outside of the house. Another one was not only beaten half to death, but also bound, so that she could not eat. The priest's daughter had pity on her and sought to help her, then her father fell over her and beat her to the blood (see figure). Under all suffering, however, she said that now she would remain faithful to God; she now knew how angry the devil was. The father swore her death, if she did not worship the idols; but she resisted him under all the worse treatment. At night, one of the faithful members crept to her to bring her food. Open persecution in Ibadan soon came to an end, but in the families it went on in silence. Underneath, however, the congregation grew and under the banner of Christ we fought to persevere. But not Hinderer alone carried the banner of the cross deeper and deeper into the enemy's territory. As he traveled from Ibadan his horse was often frightened by the skulls lying around on the road, as he even saw the fires still burning, where two prisoners had just been roasted, and the Abeokuta missionaries also sought to preach the Gospel.” (p.124ff)
There are also more quiet descriptions of the landscape and villages of Yorùbáland, as seen by the travelling author, like his view on Ilé Ifẹ̀.
"Northwest of Ago Oja, thirty hours north of Abeokuta, lies the town of Ife. If you look onto our illustration, it could almost be thought of as an African burial place, and yet there is so much life in it. Especially on the market square it is lively. It forms a large space surrounded by trees and is crowded with small, open huts. People of all sorts, men, women, girls, travelers recently arrived in caravans, peasants from their fields, artisans from their workshops, are coming together about half an hour before sunset - to buy, sell and chat. There you hear a loud chatter, when buyers and sellers discuss with each other, laughing or arguing. If there is no moonlight, when the night falls, every woman lights her little lamp, and the market-place flits with countless little stars. But the beautiful, fertile land around town has almost become a desert due to the wars." (p.130f)
Most of the book “Missions-Bilder. Achtes Heft. Sierra Leone und Yoruba” focuses on the politics and the interests from different parties involved in the colonization of what is known as Nigeria today. You can browse through many more images from this book or read the other books in English language online. It is an important part of the history of the Yorùbá people, culture and spirituality - from the Christian missionary point of view. It helps to understand some of the widespread misconceptions on Orisha traditions that exist today. Here a small link list to some of those publications, which are digitalized today and accessible online. On some platforms you can even download them as pdf.
I recommend reading some academic articles and one book:
Jacob K. Olupọna: The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective. Numen, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 240-273
Olatunji Ojo: 'Heepa' (Hail) Òrìşà: The Òrìşà Factor in the Birth of Yoruba Identity. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 39, (2009), pp. 30-59
Richard Anderson: Uncovering testimonies of slavery and the slave trade in missionary sources. Slavery & Abolition, 2016.
Leila Koivunen: Visualizing Africa in Nineteenth-Century British Travel Accounts. Routledge, 2008.
Links to 19th century Yorùbá books
Do your own research and dive into the Christian history of Yorùbáland with some of the 19th century Church Missionary Society books on Yorùbáland that are available free online. Here some examples to start with, most of the illustrations are in the CMS Gleaner and the Intelligencer.
Missions-Bilder. Sierra Leone und Yoruba, 1870. (this is the German book with a summary of the Yorùbá illustrations)
Abbeokuta: oder, Sonnenaufgang zwischen den Wendekreisen : eine Schilderung der Mission im Lande Yoruba; aus dem Englischen, bis auf die Gegenwart fortgesesst und wesentlich erweitert durch die Einleitung: Die Morgenröthe des tropischen Afrika von W. Hoffmann, 1859.
The Church Missionary Gleaner, 1856-1858 (example of an issue with Yorùbá images)
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