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Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901

Identity, Change and the Making of the Mission Agent


Wolfgang-Ulrich Fischer

This study aims to understand how the nineteenth-century African agent of mission appropriated change without losing cultural integrity. Drawing essentially from the contexts that produced the man, from Sierra Leone to the Yoruba country, the study shows Samuel Johnson as embodying the opportunities and ambivalence that progressively accompanied Yoruba contact with Britain in the people’s war-weary century of change. Largely influenced by German missionaries in the British mission environment of Yorubaland, Johnson had confidence in the bright prospect the missionary message held for his people. This propelled him into a struggle to relieve the distressed country from its woes and to preserve the fading memory of its people. In an age of renewed cultural ferment called globalization, could Johnson offer a lesson in how to appropriate change? This is the concern of this volume.


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Chapter 8 Racing against Time


Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They f ly forgotten, as a dream, dies at the opening day. — Isaac Watts Samuel Johnson’s magisterial output in his declining years, The History of the Yorubas, has courted the attention of academics from the early years of Nigeria’s political independence as much as it has immortalized his person. It is an irony of history that the self-ef facing pastor of Ọyọ should, thanks to this publication, be one of the most celebrated Yoruba churchmen among fellow Sierra Leone returnee agents of the mission. Not even the intrepid Africanist, James Johnson, who was more inf luential in Lagos for his nationalist struggle at the turn of the twentieth century, commanded the interest Johnson has evoked in local and international academic circles in the last half a century since Ade Ajayi drew attention to him.1 If this development runs against the temperament of the man, it is still confounding that Samuel, in the words of Robert July, should be the ‘author for the broad panorama of Yoruba history in its social and cultural complexity, its strenuous politics and lusty war-making’.2 It is more so when this outcome of his ef fort is weighed against his own confession that he was not motivated to write the history for the reason of an inordinate desire to appear in print. It is still a paradox that the work came to its final 1 J. F. A. Ajayi, ‘Samuel Johnson – Historian of the Yoruba’, Nigeria...

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