1. Beginnings, family and training
Thomas John Dennis was born in 1869 and grew up in the County of Sussex on the south coast of England. The area had been largely rural but in the middle of the 19th century railways were constructed from London and new seaside resorts like Eastbourne and St. Leonard’s (which adjoined Hastings) were rapidly built up. The inland villages remained quiet farming communities but the coastal towns provided new markets and employment. The places where the Dennis family lived are marked on the map on page 359.
The Dennis family had been Sussex farmers for generations. They claimed descent from Huguenot refugees who escaped from France when Protestants were persecuted (ND p13). In the 1851 census Tom Dennis’s grandfather, John, then aged 38, was living with his wife Frances, aged 40, and children William (10), Edward (6), John Ellis (4) and twins Martha & Mary (2) in the Post Office in the village of Folkington, six miles from Eastbourne. The ‘Post Office’ was little more than a desk where stamps were sold in a corner of the cottage. John looked after a prize herd of black cattle for his landlord (information from Rosalie Howard). The family had been in Folkington for at least the previous two generations. When Dennis was later in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he described the burial ground there as ‘quite as rough as Folkington churchyard’ (LH p.46). On another occasion he wrote about his father being tired after a day amongst the hills about Folkington (LH 25 May 1901).
further notes on marriages of ancestors (by Rosalie Howard)
Thomas Dennis – Jane Waymarke 26 Sept 1706
Thomas Dennis – Barbara Earle 17 April 1750
William Dennis – Hannah Feers 6 Nov 1775
Edward Dennis – Mille 1811/12 Ml Folkington Churchyard
John Dennis – Frances Ellis Feb 1837 at Hailsham where Frances’s father was a skilled blacksmith. At some point John and Frances may have moved to Hollington between Battle and St Leonard’s as they are buried in the churchyard there.
Dennis’s father’s elder brother, William, born 1840, farmed at Westham. In the 1880s he ran St. Matthew’s nursery (for plants, not children) in St. Leonard’s and described himself as a florist (census 1881,1891).
Dennis’s mother came originally from Sunderland in the North East of England (census 1891). Her father, Hall Robson, had been a master mariner. She had memories of some voyages to distant places made with her father (ND p 13).
Dennis’s parents, Edward Dennis, born 1844, a farmer in Westham, and Margaret Ann Robson married in her home parish of Hollington near St Leonard’s on 8th October 1868. On the marriage certificate Edward’s father was then described as a gardener.
Thomas John Dennis was born on 17 September 1869 at Langney, then in the countryside between the growing town of Eastbourne and the village of Westham. He was their first child.
Soon after Dennis was born the family moved to farm at Bolney House, Cuckfield, near Haywards Heath in Sussex, They did not own the farm but rented it. His father invested heavily in stocking it. At Cuckfield more children were born –
Elizabeth (Lizzie) in ?1871,
Ellen (Nellie) on 20 October 1872 (LH 20 act 1898),
Frances Mary (Fanny) on 15 April 1874,
and Edward (Eddie or Ted) on 23 October 1875.
Dennis would have attended the church elementary school in Cuckfield village. However, the farm suffered several adverse seasons (EH 2 Oct 1922). They could not afford to continue so when Dennis was about eight the family moved.
William (Bill), the next child, was born at Guestling near Hastings.
The family then settled in Silverhill a growing housing development in St Leonard’s near the Robson family at Hollington.
Margaret Ann was born there and baptised in the parish church of St Matthew on l August 1880.
At the time of the 1881 census the family was living at 13 Silver Hill Terrace (68 3G 23). In 1882 a dynamic young clergyman, Francis E Newton, was appointed to St Matthew’s parish. He raised funds to replace the existing church building with a much larger one in 1885. The church had a strong evangelical tradition, which would have been a vital influence on young Dennis and family.
Dennis’s father worked as a gardener in the town, which meant the children, grew up in comparative poverty though this trained the family to endure hardship (ND p 13). However, his mother may have inherited some money because in a letter Dennis wrote to his father fifteen years later he refers to ‘Your little farm and mother’s houses’ (LH 4 June 1896). The farm was probably a market garden growing vegetables. The houses would have been let for income, though members of the family occupied different properties in the area at various times. (Lizzie and her young family were in 9 Wellington Street according to (LH 24 April 1895).
On 17 August 1883 another child, Henry, was born. He was baptised at St Matthew’s on 7th October but died soon afterwards (ND p13). The family was then living in Wellington Street in Silver Hill (Baptismal Register). The 1887 Kelly’s Directory records Dennis’s father as a shopkeeper at 10 Wellington Road, (the names of Wellington Road, Street and Terrace were later changed to Duke Road, Street and Terrace to avoid confusion with similar names in Hastings). In 1891 the Census records the family living at Wellington Terrace – father Edward is a gardener and mother Margaret a grocer. By then Dennis had left home. His younger brothers, Edward and William were apprentice gardeners and Margaret still at school (766 31).
As the eldest in a large family Dennis would have shared the responsibility of caring for his younger brothers and sisters. Their poverty meant that he must make a financial contribution as soon as possible. Dennis had to leave school at an early age though his schoolmaster protested that he was losing his most promising pupil. He had a great desire for knowledge and after leaving school it was his custom to get up before anyone else was astir to continue his studies. In after years he attributed much blessing to the faithful, patient teaching received at a Sunday afternoon Bible class (EH 2 Oct 1922). In particular he referred to a Miss Oaks to whom he owed more than anyone except his parents. ‘Should I ever have been where I am now if it had not been for her prayers and influence? At any rate she was the instrument God used for my conversion and for my dedication to the missionary work’ (LH 5 Sep & 7 Nov 1898).
Dennis also kept abreast of political issues. Newspapers would be read at meals and he spent much time discussing different views with his father (LH 3 Apr 1895). Working together provided further opportunity. He later wrote to his father ‘You carefully educated me in the Silverlands garden’ (LH 2 Sept 1895). Writing home 15 years later Dennis referred to their poor abode ‘with horses and carts and absence of pavements and noisy neighbours’ but went on to say: “Don’t think that I am in the slightest bit ashamed of you or the old house … it will ever be a dear plot to me, hallowed with all kinds of pleasant memories. It was there that I became a child of God, there that I have talked over with you the thousand things that interested us in common” (LH 3 June 1896).
When Dennis was about 16 he left home to live with relatives who had a prosperous fishmongers business in London and considerable prospects were held out to him. It was while in London that he had a deep experience of salvation and yielded his life wholeheartedly to Christ. But he then faced a hard choice. He could not approve certain business practices and after discussion with the owner and with the approval of his parents he returned home (EH 2 Oct 1922 & LH 3 June 1896). Like his father he then worked as a gardener (C/A Tm 5/4 no.77).
However, Dennis must have wondered whether God did not want him to do something more. The Rev C F Childe, who had been principal of the CMS Training College in Islington 1839-1858 had retired to St. Leonard’s in 1884. Childe encouraged Dennis to consider missionary service and became his guide. Dennis spent time with him in study. There was much he could do immediately to prepare himself. While continuing his gardening he taught in Sunday School, helped with the YMCA and did some open air preaching (EH 22 Oct 1922).
Dennis offered to CMS on 17 September 1889, his 20th birthday, with Childe as his first reference (C/A Tm 5/4 number 77). In the Register of Candidates (C/A Tm 5/4 no.77) his address is given as 10 Wellington Street, Silver Hill, St Leonard’s and occupation as gardener. His other referees were Rev F E Newton, the Rector at his home parish and Rev A V U Carden, the newly appointed vicar of St. Andrew’s, Hastings. Dennis was seen by the Candidates Committee on 29th October. Because he had not been able to complete his schooling, he was recommended for training at the CMS Institution in Clapham, London where the less academic were sent. Dennis started there on 5th November (LH 9 Nov 1904).
Six months later the Committee interviewed him again. They were obviously impressed by the ability he had shown and recommended him for their more advanced Training College at Islington, London, run by Rev F Drury (who became principal of Ridley Hall in 1900). There had been a great surge of people offering for missionary service and there were many able students, including Cambridge graduates, at Islington in Dennis’s time. An average of forty a year were being trained (Stock History of CMS vol III p353). Many students took the Oxford and Cambridge Preliminary Theological examination, which had been instituted in 1875. Islington gained more first class honours in this than any other college – 50 between 1884 & 1896 (Stock History of CMS vol III p 703). Dennis worked hard. ‘I never got less than 80% in an Islington exam’ (LH 30 Jan 1895). He gained a first himself in 1893 (Crockford). Three years later he wrote: ‘I came across the results . . . as they were sent to me . . . the other day . . . What a lot we used to think and talk about the marks in those days, as if making marks were the only object in life! I look on things somewhat differently now, but no doubt I should still go in for the top place if I was sitting again’ (LH 9 Sept 1896). It was customary for some students to return during their first furlough and take the Durham BA. Dennis must have looked forward to doing this – though it was to be ten years before he had the opportunity.
Among his fellow students Charlie Hughesden, who was to go to India, became a particular friend. After their Lent term ended in 1892 they walked together from London to Folkestone via Maidstone, Canterbury and Dover (over 80 miles), and then took a train to Dennis’s home at St Leonard’s on Easter Eve (LH 14 Apr 1895).
Dennis was ordained by Bishop Frederick Temple in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Trinity Sunday 1893. There were usually several candidates from Islington at the Trinity ordination and one of them was often given the honour of reading the Gospel. Dennis had hoped to be chosen and was greatly disappointed when someone quite unexpected was picked (LH p88 & 16 July 1895) Dennis then served for some months as an assistant curate in the parish of St. Mary, Islington.
Dennis was assigned to the Niger on 6 June 1893 but it was agreed on 12 Sept 1893 that he should go to Sierra Leone first.
Brothers and Sisters
No fewer than four of Dennis’s younger brothers and sisters were to follow him as missionaries overseas. Some further details of his siblings are given below:
Elizabeth. She was known as Lizzie and married a Mr Charles Lavender. They had children Nellie and Daisy (LH 11 Aug 1896 & 8 Jan 1901).
Ellen. She was known as Nellie and went to Nigeria in 1896. She was invalided home in 1915 and died that year on 19 Dec (LH 26 Jan 1916).
Frances Mary. She was known as Fanny. She went to Nigeria in 1898. She worked for a time with her brother, Tom. She later married a clergyman, Stephen Hensley, Rector of Parkham, near Bideford in Devon. She was to have married his brother Geoffrey but he died of malaria on their wedding eve in Sierra Leone. She wrote books Niger Dawn and A fight for life about her missionary experiences.
Edward. He was known as Eddie and as Ted, and also worked in Nigeria, 1899-1911. He was ordained in 1908 and married a cousin, Winnie, in 1909. He then returned to England and worked in village parishes around Aylsham, Norfolk till his retirement in 1953. He became Vicar of Tuttingham in 1912 and Rector of Banningham in 1922 where there is a memorial window to him in the church.
William. He was known as Bill, married Florence, and carried on his uncle’s nursery business in St Leonard’s.
Margaret Ann. She was known as Meg, married the Rev Will Stephens, a missionary in India and Ceylon. She sailed to wed him there in 1905 (LH 19 & 25 Feb & 30 Mar 1905). He died of malaria at the beginning of 1917 (LH 18 Feb 1917) leaving her with two small children.
In 1895 the business at 10 Wellington Street was ‘not very flourishing’ (LH 7 Jan 1895), but the following year the financial position of the family must have improved. Dennis asked his father to ‘think of moving from the shop to some small private house, Would it not be possible to buy such a house in Silverhill? A house with about 6 rooms and a washhouse with a small garden before and behind is what is wanted . . . I cannot help feeling that Lizzie and Charlie find it exceedingly hard in spite of your help to make both ends meet. I think they would gladly take the shop or if the burden is too much for Lillie let Meggie go and help her . . . from your little farm and mother’s houses you should be able to clear at least £25 a year’ (LH 3 June 1896). The parents did eventually move to a grander house. Dennis wrote to his father in 1898: ‘All that you and mother tell me about house and business arrangements is most welcome, I am sure the change will be for the best, though it will seem strange at first not to come back to the old place which has been home for 16-17 years at least’ (LH 16 Jun 1898). But then the parents seemed to have second thoughts. Dennis wrote three months later: ‘I hope you don’t mean to bury yourself at 9 Wellington Street. If you have finally made up your mind never on any account to go to Clive Vale there will be nothing for it but for Mattie and me to lodge with you at number 9 when we come on furlough’ (LH 5 Sept 1898). However, the move was eventually made that year. They settled at ‘The Acacias’, 18 Clive Avenue, Hastings, where their children and grandchildren would often stay with them. When father, Edward, died of a stroke in June 1905 he was described as a master grocer (information from Rosalie Howard). But all that is in the future.
2. Sierra Leone
Although Dennis was destined for the Niger he spent his first months as a missionary in Sierra Leone. It is necessary to say a little about Sierra Leone and also how the mission was organised.
Sierra Leone was the name given by Portuguese seamen to a rocky promontory on the generally low lying West African coast, which sheltered a fine natural harbour. Some freed slaves from London, Nova Scotia and Jamaica moved there at the end of the 18th century and it was declared a British crown colony in 1808. Their settlement was called Freetown.
When the British Government outlawed the slave trade from Africa to the Americas in 1807 measures were needed to stop it. Naval ships patrolled the African coast to intercept vessels carrying slaves. When a slave ship was arrested the slaves were landed at Freetown to begin a new life. Over 50 years more than 60,000 of these ‘recaptives’ were landed there. Many were from what is now Nigeria.
CMS worked to educate and convert these displaced people who developed their own ‘Creole’ culture. Freetown became known as the ‘Athens of West Africa’. Some of these recaptives played the key role as missionaries to the homelands from which they had been taken. Outstanding among them was Samuel Crowther who took part in expeditions up the Niger in 1841 and 1857 and was made bishop of the Niger territories in 1864.
In 1883 Freetown had 23 African clergy – 16 serving in parishes, 3 as government chaplains, 2 in education and 2 working in the interior. There were 5,000 children in schools and about 20,000 Christians in several denominations (Stock History of CMS vol 3 p.376). The highest educational establishment was Fourah Bay College, founded in Freetown in 1827. It was affiliated to the University of Durham in 1876, so its students, while remaining in Sierra Leone, could take their Licentiate in Theology and if able enough study for a BA. Those graduating were few. There were just 27 BAs gained by 1891 – but the College had a vital role as the only centre for higher education in West Africa (Stock, vol 3 p. 377).
There were some bishops in West Africa at the end of the 19th century but diocesan structures had not yet developed and the main power lay with the Mission organisation. In 1893 CMS had Mission Secretaries serving Sierra Leone, Lagos & Yorubaland, and the Niger, all appointed by the Society in London. They would chair the local Mission Executive Committees – which might be no more than one or two clergy colleagues meeting with the Secretary once a year. The Mission Secretaries and Executives were answerable to the Parent Committee in London. It was the CMS Parent Committee that was ultimately responsible for employment and payment of all mission agents – not just Europeans but Africans and West Indians who might be serving away from their homelands, and not just clergy, catechists and teachers but tradesmen, canoeists, labourers and watchmen. It was the PC that had to sanction all items of expenditure. With poor communications this led to much delay and frustration. It might be several months before those on the spot knew whether something was sanctioned and longer again if the PC had to ask for more information before making a decision. It was difficult for Mission Secretaries to respond to immediate needs and to care for and discipline those employed by the Society.
Bishops owed their appointment largely to the recommendation of the PC who exercised control over their workers and provided the funds for most of the work. As the work of the Society expanded the PC was divided into three sub-groups – Group I for the Far East and North America, Group 2 for India and Persia, Group 3 for Africa and the Middle East. The Rev F Baylis, secretary of Group 3 from 1892 for over 20 years, dealt with Sierra Leone and Nigeria but was responsible for all the other countries in his area as well.
The new recruit
In 1893 the Sierra Leone mission was very short staffed and the situation was made worse by much time having to be spent on court cases to reclaim property occupied by agents who had been dismissed for indiscipline. The Rev W J Humphrey was Mission Secretary and had been principal of Fourah Bay for two years. (Dobinson writing of Humphrey three years later said: ‘The workers slave away, especially Humphrey, the Principal of the College and CMS Secretary, and everything else rolled into one. I, on the Niger, seem to myself a pretty good autocrat, but I am a pigmy to Humphrey’ (HHD pI94). There had been no Vice Principal for 5 years and Humphrey had had little time to spend with the students who had become insubordinate. Rev E Leversuch had been helping Humphrey at the College but his main task was Temne work with the natives of the interior (Leversuch AL 9 Feb 1893). He had been appointed acting Vice Principal in April 93 and then acting Principal (AL 10 Dec 93). Humphrey was on leave in England in August 1893, in contact with both Durham and the PC (A1 P2 1893/84). As a result the PC appointed Dennis temporary acting Vice Principal of Fourah Bay College on 12 September 1893. He sailed for Sierra Leone with Humphrey (AI P2 1893/95) leaving from Liverpool on 27th September in the Matada. He was just 24.
Sailing to Freetown
Dennis’s impressions are recorded in the letters he sent home. ‘I watched the tender at Liverpool until I could no longer make out the figures on board, and then I went to see about getting things a bit straight in the cabin. We found that the accommodation was not very good as there were three berths in our cabin and no room to stow away our luggage. However, we soon made up our minds to make the best of matters. Bustling about in one way or another took my mind from the parting a little and no doubt kept me from feeling as ‘down’ as I might otherwise have done’ (LH p1). Dennis was seasick as well as homesick. Most of the other 32 passengers were not Christians but engaged in trade. Fortunately Mr Humphrey proved ‘very companiable’, but ‘I have often thought about you during the past days and have been cheered and encouraged by feeling that so many friends were remembering us constantly in prayer’ (LH p2).
They reached Freetown, Sierra Leone on 11 October 1893 (AJ P2 1893/95). It was the beginning of culture shock. Their ship was soon surrounded by ‘a fleet of small boats loaded with Blacks of all shapes and sizes and clothed in various costumes. The boatmen of Hastings are not to be compared with those of Sierra Leone for importunity’ (LH p 7). ‘The houses look white from the sea, but when you get into the streets look old and dilapidated. The shops are as unlike English shops as possible, There is no pretence at shop windows, of course, and far more business seems to be done in the streets than in the houses. You cannot go a step without coming across somebody with articles for sale. The language spoken is a kind of English, but it is quite unintelligible to me as a foreign language at present (LH pp5&6). They walked the 2½ miles to the College having to run the last hundred yards as there was a tornado (LH p8). A student was later to tell him they felt this meant his arrival would bring showers of blessing (LH p34). Ten inches of rain fell in the first few days of October.
Dennis was to admire the flowers arranged on his dining room table and some of the trees outside but ‘I have not seen anything here yet worthy of the name of a garden. Even the grounds around Fourah Bay College are exceedingly rough and goats and chickens and geese and ducks run anywhere and everywhere’ (LH p6)
At Fourah Bay College
Rev E Leversuch had been acting Principal of the College. He would continue working there till the end of the year but was then due for leave and wanted to engage in pioneer mission work when he returned. There were 14 students in the College and six sitting the entrance exam. Dennis was soon at work giving lectures. In his first term he had to cover Luke, Romans and 1 Corinthians in the original Greek, the Psalms in English, the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book, and English Church History. After ten days he felt he had been lecturing for years and describes his daily routine
5.30 early coffee
12-1.00 light lunch.
bed 10.00 or 10.30 (LH p22)
The College had been spiritually down but Dennis hoped it would pick up. He was staying with Mr Lucia, a builder from England, and was confident he would get on well with the students ‘I long to live Christ before them always, and to have such a healthy influence as shall tend to make them devoted men of God. I shall depend upon your prayers’ (LH p3).
Every Thursday evening the College had a Missionary Evening when there was a talk about missionary work in West Africa or further afield. The first week Mr J Spencer, a Sierra Leonian on leave from the Niger mission spoke about his experience at Asaba (LH p18}. A few weeks later Dennis himself spoke choosing James Gilmour’s work in Mongolia as his theme. ‘Tonight at prayers I could almost fancy that Jesus Christ was standing in front of me in the chapel. I felt his presence so truly. I want that zeal for souls which James Gilmour possessed’ (LH p33)
Life in Freetown
Humphrey was busy with the bishop and with law suits, so Dennis had much to do at the College. Bur this did not stop involvement in church life in Freetown. ‘I have been invited to preach next Sunday at the Cathedral, but on Humphrey’s advice have declined. I had better see what an African congregation is like before I begin’ (LH p9). His first Sunday he attended Cline Town Church which was very crowded with 150 people but he enjoyed the service (LH p15). He was soon to be preaching in one of the local churches most Sundays and helping with open air evangelism. In addition ‘I am to take regularly a Men’s Class – something between a Bible Class and a (Methodist) Class Meeting. It is held every Sunday morning at 7.00 in the Church’ (LH p14). This started with 16 coming but built up steadily to a regular attendance of nearly 40 (LH pp24, 30, 46, 54). Dennis was delighted when the young men started to visit him to talk about their own spiritual condition and progress (LH p93, 98)
Hardly surprisingly he soon found himself sleepy on Mondays after Sunday’s exertions (LH p33). On top of all this he was asked on 4 November to take over the college accounts (LH p29). The climate too took its toll. ‘The weather even now is so hot that 1 am almost always in perspiration’ (LH 22). Though he kept well, he found he ‘wanted more sleep than I felt to be necessary in England’ (LH p36).
But there were compensations. ‘We can get to the sea in a minute from the College and I enjoy a bathe there very much’. A wall had been constructed to keep out sharks (LH pp18, 76) ‘My apartments in the College are large and lofty and the view from the windows is simply charming – I can see all the vessels come into the harbour’ (LH p18). The ships might bring letters from home as well as carry his, and the family was much in his thoughts despite his busy schedule. He regretted he had had no time to find birthday presents and would like them to send him photos of places in England, especially Hastings and Islington (LH p12). Dennis shared the usual matters of ‘tourist’ interest – he described loads having to be carried on the natives’ heads and Europeans being pushed in self-steering bath chairs or carried along in hammocks (LH p18). But then he confessed ‘Things are so different and so difficult here (LH p10) Looking deeper he was distressed that the non missionary Europeans gave no support to the church and that the worst side of English civilisation has been introduced alongside the best (LH pl7, l0). The Government authorities had put a stop to some soldiers who wanted to hold open air services and give out tracts in the villages (LH p47). When he attended an ‘At Home’ to meet the Governor he described the occasion as not to his taste (LH p57).
It was good that Dennis had plenty of worthwhile work to occupy him in Freetown because plans for his long term future seemed fluid. In the Niger mission he had been considered a possibility for Lokoja. On 13 November 1893 he wrote to say he had started to study Arabic with Mr Leversuch (LH p40). But Spencer had evidently enthused him about Igboland. ‘Mr Spencer, a black man, who wrote the grammar of the Ibo language which was sent to me by someone when it was thought I was going to Onitsha, is on a year’s holiday. He would be a capital teacher’ (LH p10). Then there was also a possibility of Dennis going to the Training Institution in Lagos (LH p35). But for the moment he was retained in Freetown.
Bishop Hill’s party and Alvarez
After Samuel Crowther’s death in 1891, Joseph Sidney Hill was asked to succeed him with the title of Bishop of West Equatorial Africa and responsibility for the Yoruba and Niger Missions. Hill first spent five months touring the area as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commissary. He then returned to London with two African clergy, Charles Phillips and Isaac Oluwale, who would be consecrated with him as his assistants. It was planned that these assistant bishops would exercise their main ministry in Yorubaland so that Hill would be free to concentrate on the Niger. All three spoke at church meetings in England and at the Keswick Convention (This annual event had been started by Canon Battersby, vicar of St Johns, Keswick in 1875 when he invited some friends to join him for 3 days study and fellowship. The Convention that followed had inspiring speakers with Biblical exposition and calls to practical Christian holiness and service overseas). All three were consecrated bishop in St Paul’s Cathedral, London on 29th June 1893. During his time in England Hill had recruited 3 more clergy and two single ladies to help develop the work up the Niger.
This whole party called at Freetown on their way out (A1 P2 1894/2&3). Bishop Phillips and the Rev H Tugwell, Mission Secretary at Lagos arrived first on 28 November and Dennis enjoyed having Tugwell stay with him (LH pp57, 60). Bishop Hill and the rest of the party soon followed. They addressed a missionary rally on December 6th, which Dennis described as a great day in the history of Freetown (LH p64). Perhaps Dennis wished he was going to the Niger with them.
The College term had ended on 4th December. Though this meant the end of lectures the students had exams and did not leave until the 16th (LH p68). Mr T E Alvarez had come out on the same ship as Bishop Hill to serve on the College staff (LH p35). He was appointed Vice Principal but not to be substantive until Dennis had left (A1 P2 1893 115 & LH p50) Alvarez was a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and had been sent out without any missionary training (C/A Tm 5/4 no435). Dennis wrote that Alvarez differed from what he had expected but he was not disappointed (LH p65). Perhaps he had feared he would be academic but not truly Christian. Dennis wrote that he was happier than ever with Alvarez with him (LH p66A).
On 23 December Dennis wrote (LH p77) ‘A little bit of the Committee’s arrangements concerning me leaked out at tea-time tonight. As soon as Alvarez was appointed to Fourah Bay College Bishop Hill asked that I might be sent straight to the Niger, but the committee persuaded him that it would not be fair for him to take me away from Sierra Leone just now when Mr Humphrey was so overdone with work’. As Alvarez was not ordained it was thought he should have some theological training from Dennis and Humphrey. While Alvarez had a good academic background he did not want to be confined to a small college and had an evangelistic outlook. E G Ingham, the Bishop of Sierra Leone, thought Alvarez would be good for pioneering work (A1 P2 1894/56). In April Alvarez was to seize an opportunity to explore the hinterland for six weeks with the new Governor of the colony, Colonel Cardew (A1 P2 189457). They reached Falaba, 240 miles inland, before returning to Freetown.
Christmas 1893 & New Year
For the moment Alvarez was with Dennis at Fourah Bay. Leversuch was not to leave for Port Loko until 28 December when he passed the College housekeeping duties to Dennis (LH pp84&86). The students were away for their Christmas break and Dennis had some time to relax. He wrote home ‘My own private opinion is that there are too many of us here. Life is too easy and willing workers are too many . . . though I am happy in many ways I shall be glad when the command ‘Forward’ comes’ (LH p76). But Dennis was not idle. He had to prepare for the Bishop’s examination for his priesting (LH p70). In Freetown he was getting involved with Scripture Union meetings and thinking about a children’s Band of Hope (LH p66B), Though Dennis was training adults he was concerned for all ages. He wanted to use visual aids so that not everything was verbal and was to write home for pictures of coloured hearts, a large eye and a coin as well as texts in large print (LH p125). He asked for simple books to be sent to help young readers but had a serious purpose and was disappointed if they did not mention God (LH p82).
On Christmas Day, Dennis’s first in Africa, a large group of European missionaries gathered. He wrote (LH p78) ‘I took the Prayer meeting in the College Chapel, and we had a good free and easy time, although some of the old fogies would doubtless have been shocked to hear some of the ladies praying in the presence of gentlemen, and, above all, clergymen! I think we missionaries leave a good many nonsensical ideas behind us in England when we come out, and feel much more like the members of a family than Christians at home. This is the second Christmas I have spent away from home. Shall I ever spend another Christmas at home? But then I think that no place on earth can truly be called the Christian’s home’ (LH p79). The next day after a prayer meeting with a two-hour Bible reading from Canon Taylor Smith the party went up river to Port Loko in a mission boat to picnic on bread and butter and biscuits. All the way back they sang hymns. ‘It was glorious’ (LH p80).
After Christmas there was a Missionary Conference to which all interested in the work were welcome. There was a talk on ‘Why Sierra Leone men do not offer more readily for mission work’ which Dennis found instructive. He met Proctor ‘who went out last year from Islington to the Niger. He is on his way back either to England or the Canary Islands. 5 months out of the 13 spent on the Niger he has had fever, and he looks about as thin and pale as possible. He does not give a cheering account of work on the Niger. I feel sorry for him but God’s will be done. That is what all missionaries here must learn to say’ (LH p81). The conference ended on a spiritual high with people rededicating themselves to the task. Dennis gave his testimony ‘I will tonight commit all that concerns me into God’s keeping power knowing that he is able to keep that which I thus commit unto him’ (LH p84). On Sunday evening Dennis went with Humphrey to a Temne service. (Temne was the language of the original inhabitants of the Freetown area and its hinterland). Humphrey spoke through an interpreter. Dennis wrote: ‘I must say I do not like the idea of speaking through an interpreter, To be obliged to do that at Lokoja will be a great motive with me for mastering the language as soon as possible’. Dennis was spending some of his time studying Arabic as well as preparing lectures for the coming term (LH pp87, 89).
At the end of 1893 Dennis looked back over a year of momentous change, ‘On the last night of 1892 I sat with Lizzie, Charlie and Eddie in Bohemia Wesleyan Chapel (near his home in St Leonard’s). Mr Hawarth preached on ‘the barren fig tree’. What a bitterly cold night it was! How different from the close heat of today and tonight . . . What a lot of things have happened to me during the year now closing, At the beginning of it I was hard at work preparing for the Cambridge and Bishop’s exams and looking forward with various hopes and fears to the future Then there came the term’s work at Islington, the Exams, the walk home with Charlie Hughesden, our short but pleasant holiday together; the Ordination (ever coupled in my mind with a bitter but wholesome disappointment), the work at St Mary’s, Islington, which will remain as a pleasant memory to me as long as I live, the uncertainly and the various changes with regard to my destination, then my looked for rest at home broken off so suddenly by the arrangement with Mr Humphrey, and, finally, Sierra Leone . . . the end of the year is better than the beginning’ (LH p88).
Deaths of Bishop Hill and party
1894 was to bring great trials. Dennis’s future was still uncertain. Humphrey had had a letter from Bishop Hill about Dennis going at once to Lagos Grammar School. Dennis could only say ‘Jesus I rest in Thee and will accept what comes but would like to be settled’ (LH p93). He was much relieved when Bishop Ingham told Tugwell he couldn’t go to Lagos (LH p106).
Bishop Hill and his party had reached Lagos on 13th December, but within weeks they were struck with fever. The Bishop died on 5th January and his wife the next day, the Rev E W Matthias on 17th, Rev J Vernall (not one of the group but Mission Secretary at Lagos for 7 years) on 20th, Rev A E Sealey (one of 10 men who formed Dennis’s year at Clapham (LH p113) on 21st, and Miss Mansbridge on 23rd. Miss Maxwell was ordered home sick. The Rev C E Watney survived but died two years later in June 1895. The Africans called him ‘ogboputalunaozo’ – the one slave left when the master had to sell all the rest (Stock History of the CMS vol 3 p400).
The first news of the disaster reached Sierra Leone by telegram at 9:30 am on 6th January: ‘Bishop and Mrs Hill at rest’. The shock was terrible. Dennis could think of nothing else for the rest of the day. ‘I am scarcely able to realise that one who was here at Freetown just a month ago, in health and strength and full of hope with regard to the future, is now in his grave without even having reached the Niger. It is impossible to understand it, impossible to see the Wisdom or the Love which has dealt this heavy blow. We dare not speak for fear of sinning against our heavenly Father . . . no news of death and disappointment from the mission field has come home to me like this’ (LH p95). Hearts were heavy everywhere. ‘How deeply I feel for those two orphan girls, aged 12 and 10, who are left in England. Those who come to Africa stare death in the face without a doubt. A long life we dare not hope for. To us, more than to most men the words apply, “the night cometh . . . while we have time then let us do good to all men.’ . I enclose a letter from Mr Spencer which will show that Africans share the sorrow of Englishmen. I don’t think Bishop Hill has lived in vain’ (LH p95). (Spencer wrote at the end of the year (AL Spencer 1894) how much he had enjoyed his talks with Principal Humphrey, TJ Dennis and Leversuch and lectures from them.)
Over the next two months further details about the deaths of the Bishop’s party kept arriving and the whole tragedy was never far from Dennis’s thoughts (LH pp 101, 106, 113, 120. 126). He just could not make any sense of it. ‘There is nothing to be said. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. ‘If I had not come out here with Humphrey I should have come out with Bishop Hill’s party, and been amongst that sad company at Lagos’.
Further discouragement would have been given when the Rev Garrick, a Sierra Leonian, who had been working on the Niger Mission came on leave, refusing to return there and demanding a transfer to his home area (A1 P2 1894/76 & AL Garrick 1892).
Thoughts of home
Dennis naturally thought of his family and friends in England. ‘Letters from everywhere are welcome “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country”’ (LH p98). He was heartened by the Annual Letter from Islington College where Mr Drury said numbers were up to 40 and building work in progress (LH p114). Dennis remained very close to his large family and hoped that his brothers and sisters would also respond to the missionary call and was concerned for their spiritual development. ‘I think Nellie cannot do better than stay with Miss Oak until she enters some place for training’ (LH p100). Fanny, who was staying with some Plymouth Brethren, was advised to take from them what was good and leave the rest. ‘I fail to see what difference it makes whether a person is dipped into water or only has it poured upon him. However, I can’t waste my time in such childish trifles. My anxiety is to know that men have received the washing of their hearts and the Baptism of the Holy Ghost (LH p105).
A new term
Term started on 9th January and Dennis was busy with the students (LH p97). He no longer found much time ‘to get up the subjects for the bishop’s exam’ (LH p102). Alvarez was starting games with the students which gave further opportunities to get to know them as well as being ‘good for our health’ (LH pp99&120). Sharing the story of the missionary deaths with the students deepened the bond between them (LH p120). There were ten students whom Alvarez described as slow but eager (?Alvarez 9 Mar).
Dennis continued to help in local churches. One Sunday he shared with the Bishop preaching and leading worship at three services in the Cathedral (LH p114), but he preferred ministry on a more personal level. ‘Somehow it seems easier to talk on spiritual subjects here than in England. There must be, I think, a greater desire on the part of these people to learn the right and a greater readiness to consult with those who may be able to help them. Tonight I preached in Holy Trinity to a congregation of 1,350. I do like preaching to a crowded congregation and yet I feel that private dealing with individuals is of very much more importance’ (LH p119).
The regular letters Dennis wrote to his family from this point until the end of 1894 are missing so we must trace his progress from other sources. Bishop Ingham would have liked Dennis to stay at Fourah Bay as he was ordained, but realised the greater need of the Niger and so determined that Dennis should go there as soon as possible as originally planned (A1 P2 1893/106). The need was obvious even though it was hardly an inviting prospect (AI P2 1894/10). But there was much to be done in Freetown. On 23 April 1894 Leversuch died (A1 P2 1894/58). Humphrey suggested Dennis should replace him (A1 P2 1894/78). Alvarez continued at Fourah Bay but was giving time to continuing Leversuch’s work with Mohammedans (AL Alvarez 1894).
It was about this time that Dennis and Alvarez had mistakenly admitted a student to the college who lacked the basic Greek and Latin that was expected. Durham required such qualification for those embarking on the Licentiate but its local relevance was obviously being questioned. Bishop Ingham was in favour of some change (A1 P2 1894/87).
On Whit Sunday Dennis was priested by Bishop Ingham (A1 P2 1894/77), but then on 6th June 1984 Dennis went down with fever. It was a bad attack. The CMS scholarship exams for the college had to be postponed (A1 P2 1894/87). On the 12th Dennis was ordered to the Canary Islands that he might recover. It was thought he might need to return to England (A1 P2 1894/89&90). Dennis was given three months sick leave, advanced the remainder of his June salary and given a further £12 in case he needed a ticket home. Alvarez advised that if Dennis did go to the Niger mission he should be located at a coastal station where he could easily be put on a ship home if necessary.
Fortunately Dennis’s health improved. On August 3rd he was writing from Las Palmas anxious to know where his station on the Niger would be and asking for the usual furniture grant of £80 (A1 P2 1894/101) Those in Sierra Leone still advised a return to England but the Doctor at Grand Canary said this was not necessary and he could go back to them by the end of August. Despite a brief relapse, a week later Dennis made it to Freetown on 26th August tolerably fit. He resumed work, though was described in October as ‘quite recovered but looking worn’ (?E A Thomas 18 Oct Niger ?87/97).
To the Niger
Meanwhile Herbert Tugwell, the Mission Secretary in Lagos, had been consecrated Bishop of West Equatorial Africa to replace Hill. Tugwell requested that Dennis be allowed to go to Onitsha. He had written on 18th May (A3 P3 1894/69) that ‘Mr Dennis should be free from Sierra Leone in October’. He wanted him to be set apart for the Niger, act as Examining Chaplain, study Arabic and Hausa, and conduct a theological class on the Niger. He believed that his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek would qualify him for good service as a translator. Tugwell wanted Onitsha to be a centre for educational work and also industrial training with English artisans giving instruction in farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, spinning and dying. He didn’t expect Dennis to turn his hand to such practicalities but seemed to want him to do everything else. He wanted him to be in charge of pastoral work and help the mission agents in their reading (?18 Sept 87/97). Africans from Sierra Leone and Yorubaland as well as Ibos were employed by the Society as teachers and catechists with a few being ordained.
Dennis sailed from Sierra Leone on board the Loanda on 5th November 1894 bound for Akassa at one of the mouths of the Niger on the Nigerian coast (A1 P2 1894/97 & LH 9 Nov 1904). CMS had paid him £10 13s and 6d to cover fees of doctors and nurses in the Canaries but asked Dennis to refund £7 13s 10d being the proportion of his salary for the time on board ship.
- Starting in Onitsha
Onitsha, on the East bank of the river Niger 150 miles from the sea was a strategic crossing point. To the South were the swamps of the Niger delta where the river fanned into innumerable channels. To the North there was another swampy area where the Anambra River joined the Niger. On the West bank, opposite Onitsha but a mile upstream, was Asaba. Anyone travelling East-West across the South of Nigeria would pass through these two places.
In the 19th century there were no roads. It was the river that provided the highway. The higher land at Onitsha provided a stopping point for those travelling North-South, while produce from the Onitsha hinterland could be exchanged for supplies brought up river from the coast. Palm oil and palm kernels were the main agricultural exports. Imports included cotton cloth, enamelware, salt, tobacco and gin. Onitsha was destined to develop steadily as a trading centre and have the largest covered market in Africa.
To the North of Onitsha the next significant settlement was Lokoja where the River Benue joined the Niger. Lokoja was seen as the gateway to the savannah belt known as the Soudan.
To the South, Brass and Akassa were coastal ports where the change from seagoing to riverine vessels was made. Other coastal settlements like Bonny and Opobo were engaged in trade up the ‘oil rivers’ so called after the trade in palm oil (not mineral oil), which was used to make soap and margarine as well as for lubrication. The coastal settlements were islands that did not give easy access to the interior. Port Harcourt had yet to be established. There were no proper roads until the 20th century. Enugu did not exist. The discovery of coal in that area lay in the future. Railway construction in the East did not start from Port Harcourt until 1915. Mineral oil was unknown.
Nigeria had not been established as a nation. Lagos had been made a British colony in 1861 to stop the slave trade. The Berlin agreement of 1885 recognised British interests over the coastal strip from Badagry to Calabar, which was then known as the Colony and Protectorate of Lagos. The river Niger was recognised as an international highway- though the Royal Niger Company with its vessels dominated trade. In 1887 the coastal strip west of Lagos was known as the Oil Rivers Protectorate. In 1893 Britain called the area the Niger Coast Protectorate and extended its influence inland in Yoruba county. In 1900 this development was recognised by renaming it the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, transferring its care from the Foreign to the Colonial Office and appointing Sir Ralph Moor as High Commissioner. In the same year the charter of the Royal Niger Company was withdrawn and Northern Nigeria declared a protectorate with Lugard as High Commissioner.
The start of the Mission
Church work had started in Onitsha in 1857 when an expedition went up the Niger and landed on 27th July. The leading missionary was Samuel Crowther – a Yoruba who had been rescued from a slave ship in 1822 and brought up in Sierra Leone where he became a Christian and received his education. He was ordained in 1843 and consecrated Bishop of the Niger Territories in 1864. He died in 1891. Crowther had first visited Onitsha in 1841 when he had been engaged as an interpreter for an expedition up the Niger. This did not lead to immediate missionary work.
In 1857, now ordained, Crowther went up the Niger again. This time two Ibos, who like Crowther had been brought up in Sierra Leone, stayed on in Onitsha. They were the Rev J C Taylor and Mr Simon Jonas. All the pioneering work up the Niger was done by Africans who were better able to withstand the diseases of what came to be called the White Man’s Grave and who had greater facility with the language. Taylor made the first translations of the Bible into Ibo. Dennis reviewing the situation in 1912 wrote (CMR April 1912 p227) ‘The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and some of St Paul’s Epistles were translated by him and published by the BFBS between the years 1860 and 1866. The translation was from the Authorised Version and was extremely literal, betraying besides an inadequate knowledge of English idiom. It did not take sufficient account of the peculiarities of the Onitsha dialect ever to become popular with Onitsha readers, for whom it was primarily intended, nor was it any better adapted to the needs of Bonny and other Ibo stations of the CMS in the Niger Delta’.
Tension between African and European
Mission up the Niger with all its difficulties progressed slowly. However, towards the end of Crowther’s episcopate there was serious tension between the African agents of the CMS and the European missionaries who accused them of indiscipline. It is hardly surprising that some agents in isolated situations with virtually no supervision or support should succumb to moral temptations or neglect their duties, but matters were exacerbated by some Europeans considering themselves a superior race and not wishing to serve under Africans, and Africans feeling compelled to stand for their own dignity. In 1890 the vicar of St James, West Hartlepool, Rev F N Eden, had gone up the Niger as Mission Secretary with his curate, Rev Henry H Dobinson, a young Oxford graduate, and a layman, Philip A Bennett. The report on discipline in the mission produced in January 1891 satisfied neither side. Eden resigned but Dobinson and Bennett stayed on. From this time the Niger Mission based at Onitsha was to be led by Europeans while in the Delta area the Niger Delta Pastorate was led by Africans, starting with Bishop Crowther’s son, Dandeson, who was made archdeacon.
Writing at the end 1893, Dobinson said little progress had been made in the last three years, ‘The mission has never recovered from the fearful shaking it received in 1890 and it will probably be long before it finally does get over so great a time of trial’ (AL Dobinson 1893) But Dobinson went on to write of better prospects with a new and vigorous bishop and a large staff of Europeans now in place, However, just after writing that he received the stunning news of the deaths of Bishop Hill and his party (AL Dobinson 1894) Even when Dennis’s sister, Fanny, reached Onitsha in 1897 she referred to a continuing atmosphere of dissatisfaction and disappointment (ND p 25).
When Bishop Crowther died on 31st December 1891, a European was consecrated to replace him – J S Hill. Hill had arranged for two Africans to be consecrated with him but when Hill died a few months later another European was appointed over them – Herbert Tugwell. After parish work in England Tugwell had offered to CMS and served as Secretary of the Yoruba mission in Lagos since 1890. He was a great traveller and evangelist and blessed with robust health. Recalled to England after Hill’s death he was consecrated in Lambeth Palace on 4th March 1894. Five days later he was sent off at a great farewell meeting in London when many were all too conscious of the tragic death of Bishop Hill and his party three months before. Bishop Bardsley of Carlisle spoke: ‘ Might not the men who have given their lives for Africa have done longer and more useful work in our home parishes? Wherefore this waste? Brethren, let us not take up words from the mouth of Judas Iscariot’ (Stock, History of CMS vol III p401). Fortunately Tugwell was spared to serve in Nigeria till 1921 and died aged 82 in 1936.
Tugwell wanted Dennis to go to Onitsha. After meeting Dennis in Sierra Leone Tugwell reckoned he would be available for the Niger in October 1894 and thought he would be capable of learning Arabic and Hausa and serving as his Examining Chaplain (P3 1894/67). At Onitsha he could take charge of the pastoral work and help the agents in their reading. This would help Dobinson have more time for translation work. Dennis might then move North to Lokoja (P3 1894/l17). When Tugwell had visited the Niger in November 1894 he had confirmed 40 at Onitsha and 42 at Asaba. As there were far more attending services and schools than were baptised and far more baptised than had undergone the further instruction for Confirmation it indicates the size of the pastoral work in the area.
In Onitsha Dobinson was gaining sufficient fluency in Ibo to be able to preach in the language without using an interpreter (PJ 1895/45). Learning the language was not easy. Describing the difficulties, Dobinson wrote, (HHD p45) ‘We have made a little attempt to learn the language by getting various boys to give us words. But they differ so in their ideas, and one boy wi1l give you a lot of words and sentences, and next day your boy tells you they are ‘impossible ones’. No grammar exists in print, and spelling, of course, being only phonetic, each man spells as he pronounces his words. Ibo is short of words, we are told, and so, like many other languages here, has to make out by having the same word for many things, only distinguished by accentuation, e.g. Clothes = Akwa and Bed = Akwa. The difference is this – Bed is a high sounding word and Clothes is low, so we make many awful blunders at times’.
But Dobinson progressed and when Dennis arrived he was leading translation work. Usually this was a case of revising earlier translations and providing material for worship as well as the Scriptures. In October 1891 Dobinson wrote to say he had received paper for printing and was getting type set for a fresh edition of the Ibo Prayer Book which he and Samuel Mba (died in Lagos in 1894 – P3 1895/11) had revised. Dobinson had found a manuscript of Matthew and Mark in Upper Ibo in Lokoja made by the Yoruba clergyman H Johnson (W Canton History of BFBS vol V p316). In 1892 he had been revising Matthew and Mark and translating Luke with Isaac Mba’s help (HCPE II p 778). They would then proceed with John (P3 1892/3). At the end of 1893 Dobinson wrote (AL Dobinson 1893) ‘One great joy I have had this year and that was to see the Gospels in Ibo in the hands of our people here. It is unfortunately true that at Onitsha no great enthusiasm exists for learning to read in the vernacular, owing to the great zeal for learning English. We therefore look to the Ibo translations to be of more value and better appreciated as time goes on, and places are opened that are less accessible to English speaking natives. The translative work is being continued and already the Acts are ready for the Press, while most of St. Paul’s epistles are translated, and the manuscript of Peep of Day is being revised again. He was also progressing with Luke and had been composing hymns. In November 1894 (PJ 1894/?) Dobinson said he had revised Spencer’s Ibo translation of Acts. Spencer had also produced an Ibo First Reader (P3 1895/11). T David Anyaegbunam, one of those dismissed in 1890, was now being paid as a schoolmaster but devoting spare time to translational work and helping Dobinson (P3 1895/11). T D Anyaegbunam had been born in Onitsha and was one of the first converts. In 1883 he had gone with his namesake George Anyaegbunam and several others to the Kippo Hill training centre in Lokoja for 2 years.
At the beginning of 1895 Dobinson was preparing for leave in England where he could see translations through the press. In February 1895 Dobinson wrote saying he hoped BFBS would print Acts and all Paul’s epistles in one volume. He would be bringing Psalms with him. The main work on Psalms & Paul’s epistles had been done by T D Anyaegbunam whom Dobinson wanted re-accepted as a catechist; Dobinson’s task was revision (P 3 1895/84).
Translation was constantly interrupted by pastoral and administrative work and the frequent changes of personnel with leaves, sicknesses and deaths. In August 94 Tugwell proposed Dobinson went on leave early in ’95 while Melville Jones acted as Mission Secretary at Onitsha (PJ 1894/97). He wanted Dobinson relieved of accounts so he could concentrate on translation. Dobinson wrote at the end of 1894, (AL Dobinson 1894) ‘This (translation) work I always hope to get at ‘next month’ when things are a little settled. ‘Next month’ has been pushed off till December but I really have made a start in this last month, and am translating with help the Psalms and revising also translations already made of St. Paul’s Epistles. During the year the Gospels in Ibo have been widely read, and we are now almost out of copies. Under vigorous rousing administered by Bishop Tugwell the study of the vernacular has again been brought prominently forward, and many of the scholars, especially among the new ones, can read the Gospels in Ibo while unable to read the easiest English books’. They were expected to pass 3 standards of Ibo reading books before moving to English. This was hard to maintain in face of the desire for English but experience in the Yoruba mission suggested scholars did better in the long term if they were well grounded in the vernacular first. In the out-station at Ogidi six boys were able to read the Gospels in Ibo within a year of starting school.
The greatest problem with translation was the considerable differences in the Ibo spoken in different areas. There was, of course, no radio or television to encourage standardisation and most people never travelled more than a few miles from their home village. Not only were no Ibo newspapers and books in circulation but the language had never been written down. Ibo society flourished without reading and writing. This meant great variation in the words used and in grammatical structure and spelling. A translation that suited one district would baffle another. Dobinson’s work in Onitsha did not meet the needs of Ibos living further South. His translations might be described as Niger or Upper Ibo as opposed to Delta or Lower Ibo which was regarded as a form of Isuama Ibo (the Ibo used by those trading on the coast). To the East on the Cross River another variant was Ungwana Ibo (these four dialect translations are listed in HCPE II p777). St John’s Gospel had been translated into Lower Ibo by Archdeacon Crowther in 1892 and printed at Bonny (HCPE II p 777). Tugwell records Crowther’s demand for Bible translation in the Delta dialect (P3 1895/6).
The mission site
The CMS PC in London, concerned at the high mortality of those sent to the unhealthy Niger Mission was anxious to improve living accommodation. A new site on rising ground a mile from the original mission compound in Onitsha had been obtained. This was the Ozala – an area of ‘bad bush’ where anything thought to pollute the life of the community had been dumped. Two prefabricated iron houses as well as a church building had been sent out for erection. Getting the heavy materials transhipped at the mouth of the Niger, brought up river and then carried to the Ozala was hard enough, and the erection was still more difficult with lack of skilled men, rope or scaffolding and the fact that spanners had been omitted from the load. Apart from these worries Dobinson was alarmed at the escalating cost and the delays (P3 1894/1,23,100). Bishop Hill had recruited George D Wilson, a 24 year old civil engineer from New Zealand, to help supervise the work. He had gone out in 1892. He wrote (AL Wilson 94 51) that he had spent 1894 almost exclusively erecting houses. He had been concerned about the danger to the native workers who did not know how to make a rope fast and had to handle such heavy metal. When erected the houses were raised 8 feet from the ground on iron pillars giving space for meetings below. Each consisted of one large room with four smaller ones off it, the whole completely surrounded by a ten-foot wide veranda. The outside was corrugated iron sheet and the inside lined with deal boards (HHD p.179 & ND p23). It was intended that one should be for the European men and one for the women.
The Mission staff
When Dennis arrived Rev Henry Dobinson was in charge as Mission Secretary. Bennett had gone on leave. In 1892 they had been joined by two ladies – Edith Warner aged 25 who had had missionary training at the Willows, and Rose Frisby aged 27 who had worked as a clerk. At the end of 1894 two more ladies joined them. Alice Wilson, aged 29, was the older sister of George Wilson the engineer. Louisa Maxwell, aged 42, had trained as a nurse at St Thomas’s hospital and then served as superintendent at the Mildmay Mission in London. She was one of the two survivors of Bishop Hill’s ill-fated party. As an older and well-experienced person she was expected to lead the other women. Ernest A J Thomas, aged 26, also came out in 1894. He had trained at Clapham and was to be based in Lokoja for outreach into the Soudan.
Besides the Europeans there were Sierra Leonians – John Julius Spencer who had been ordained deacon when on leave in Freetown in 1894, the catechist Aaron C Strong, Merriman, John Wright and Hardman. Like the Europeans they had to learn the language. Several Nigerians, like the Anyaegbunams also served as catechists or school teachers. There was a Yoruba printer, Oyedele.
Several churches and schools had been established in the Onitsha area. There was a dispensary and a printing press. The missionaries with the mission agents looked after these, engaged in open air preaching, visited homes and took classes for baptism. There were plans for a Girls’ School to train girls to be housewives and mothers. There were also hopes for a Training Institution for teachers and catechists.
Louisa Maxwell writing her first Annual Letter (AL Maxwell 1994) mentions ‘The constant sacrifices, sometimes of fowls or goats or other animals, sometimes of broken pots or other worthless things, seen as one passes along the road, the firing of guns, the loud crying and dancing at funerals, all these and many other things are a constant reminder that we are living in the midst of the heathen’. She worked with Rose Frisby in the dispensary down at the old compound, 15 minutes walk from ‘our beautiful new houses’. About 50 would attend. They would be given tickets and after a hymn, address and prayer, those with tickets would be treated.
When Dennis sailed from Freetown he did not go straight to Onitsha. Tugwell and Dobinson thought he should spend several weeks on the coast at Brass (P3 1896/11, see also Dennis letter of 6 Dec 94?). He arrived there on 25 November (AL 95). He then travelled by launch up the Niger with Mr Wilson to reached Onitsha on 23 December. (For an account of such a journey see p50 for Fanny’s account of 1897)
No doubt Wilson had told Dennis about the fine new houses he had erected but when they arrived the women were occupying both of them and Dennis had to make do with one of the small old ones (P3 1896/10). He wrote home ‘Oh, the mosquitoes: This house is inhabited too by lizards and rats, which make strange noises in the night. The first night I spent here I thought there was a snake crawling about my bedroom’ (LH Jan 95).
Two days after his arrival Dobinson wrote to London (HHD p 185) ‘The Rev T J Dennis has been at Fourah Bay College for 13 months, and now comes here to take my place in my intended absence next year. He is a good and true man, I hear; and so he seems these two days I have had him with me. I do rejoice to have ordained men out here; they are mostly so much more helpful and decided in lines of work than ‘unordained clergymen’ as I call our European lay agents’. The first assignment given him seems to have been doing the accounts with help from Mr Thomas. Doubtless this familiarised him with much that was happening and there is a reference (P3 1895/11) that Dobinson was transferring Joshua Kodilinye (who figures later in Dennis’s dispute with Bennett) from his printing responsibilities to teaching including language training for the missionaries. George Anyeabunam, an Ibo Catechist was to be transferred as soon as possible from his station at Abutsi (Obosi) to study with Dennis for ordination (P3 1895/11).
Dennis wrote home on New Year’s Day after a Watchnight Service he had found hard to follow. He looked back over the last twelve months (LH 1 Jan 1895): ‘At the beginning of the year I was at Fourah Bay College with the happy missionary party gathered there. Leversuch and Miss Thornewell were with us then. They have now entered into rest. How scattered that party which met at Fourah Bay last Christmas really is . . . no deaths had taken place among Bishop Hill’s Niger party either . . . There is a tumult of thought in my mind as I look back over the changeful past and then peer for a moment into the uncertain future. Eight CMS missionaries departed to be with Christ from the West coast of Africa last year. How many will follow this year? And shall I be amongst the number? . . . “Be ye also ready” is the message for us in view of these facts’.
From January to April 1895 most of Dennis’s time was taken up with language study, It was a daunting prospect. He describes a visit to a church where George Anyaegbunam was preaching: ‘Probably the sermon was good but of that I cannot speak with certainty because I did not understand one word in fifty’ (LH ?Jan 95).
‘I can’t say I have done much today except grind away at the language. I am getting to work in the old Islington stick at it style. I think there is no hope of learning the language otherwise . . . Pray for me that I may be able to master the language. The mosquitoes are very trying. They bite through any part of the garment that is close to the skin . . . I have dragged my table tonight close up to the bedside and have tucked the mosquito curtain right over it. This is the best plan I have tried so far (LH 1 Jan 1895).
Getting to know the outstations
As a European male priest Dennis was considered the most senior person at Onitsha after Dobinson even though he was younger than the other workers and had no local experience. When Dobinson went on leave in May he would be the leader. So Dennis had to be introduced to all the places where work was being done. His first major trek would be from Asaba across the Niger. That was where Spencer, whom he had got to know at Freetown, was based. Dennis was glad to have seen him when he came over to Onitsha for a meeting (LH 1 Jan 1895).
Dennis set out on 7th January (LH 7 Jan 1895). ‘This morning I gave some time to the study of the language and then packed up the few things which I thought necessary for the journey. Mr Dobinson kindly lent me a cork mattress and a small ‘canteen’ containing plates, cups, spoons etc. I took besides a blanket, a complete change of clothes, some tinned provisions and several other things . . . I did not leave my Ibo books behind as I thought I might get odd moments for study . . . I started in the mission canoe for Asaba at 3.30pm and landed at 5.00pm. . . The canoe is very strong and large although dug out of one tree trunk and requires about nine men to paddle it.
‘(Asaba) is a town of about the same size as Onitsha situated just a little further up the river on the opposite bank. Rev J Spencer is in charge of the CMS work there which you will not be surprised to hear is in a flourishing condition. (He) has several helpers including one of our Fourah Bay students named Merriman who came to the Niger in September . . . In addition to the church and school which are both built of mud in thoroughly native fashion and are simple enough to satisfy the strictest low church ideas, a building is in course of erection which is to be used as a very small Training Institution. Great things may result in future from this small commencement.
‘Asaba is one of the principal places of the Royal Niger Company and is also occupied by a strong body of French RC priests and sisters. One of the priests died a fortnight ago of fever. They have very fine buildings, but do not seem to be really making any headway in spite of attempts to draw off the members of Mr Spencer’s congregation by questionable methods.
‘I inspected the various CMS buildings before dinner and also ate kola nut with Mr Akpom the Ibo Schoolmaster. The little Spencer children, who remember me from Sierra Leone, were manifestly pleased to see me again and in fact the welcome all round was most hearty . . . One cannot help feeling at home with Mr and Mrs Spencer. They are so hospitable and kind’.
That night there was a valedictory service for Lazarus Odibo who had been Spencer’s right hand man since his conversion five years previously. He was going to establish a new church at Akwuku. Spencer spoke on Joshua 1:9-10 and Dennis on Isaiah 38:11.
The walk to Akwuku
Next morning, after some delay gathering the necessary carriers, a party of 16 or so set out at 7.45. ‘The first few miles of road lay through a tolerably open country, a good deal of which was under cultivation. Yams are the great food of the Ibo . . . a yam farm is not unlike an English Hop Garden in appearance as the plant is a creeper and the people put long sticks in the ground for it to climb up . . .
‘As the heat increased we were glad to come to a thick forest where the rays of the sun did not penetrate to the path except here and there. The forest extended to within about four miles of Akwuku and we were thus able to travel through the heat of the day without risk. We had to keep our eyes on the ground however as roots of all sorts and sizes crossed the path everywhere and often we met a fallen tree trunk or a column of black ants.
‘Five streams we had to pass. There was a rough native bridge over one of them, which required care in order to cross safely. Over three of the streams we were carried and over one we jumped. I ought to confess however that instead of jumping over this last one I jumped into it wetting feet and legs in consequence . . .
‘I was struck with the great silence everywhere. We ourselves seemed to feel it so that all went on a long way scarcely speaking a word. We found a village named Ugbolo about midway between Asaba and Akwuku and rested there for about an hour in the house of a chief or ‘king’. Mr Spencer had brought his concertina and we sang some hymns in the Ibo language. The king presented us with kola nut according to the usual custom and gave water to all who were thirsty. I had brought some tea with me and contented myself with that. It is not safe to drink water here without filtering it.
‘I was glad when we reached Akwuku at 3 o’clock as the last portion of the path was through long coarse grass which gave no protection from the sun (LH 7 Jan 1895).
A native house
‘Although a piece of ground was given to the CMS and partially cleared when Messrs Dobinson and Spencer went to Akwuku a few weeks ago no buildings have yet been commenced and Lazarus is to live for the present in a house lent him by the old chief. Building is to begin immediately. Mr Spencer, myself and the rest of our party lodged in the house . . . (It) was by no means roomy or lofty and I soon found that the only safe way of getting about in the native houses without getting a sore head was to crawl on the hands and knees or else walk with a decided stoop. I got a number of bumps. . . It is of course built of mud and thatched with leaves . . . The shape is generally more or less square but the roof does not cover the whole space enclosed by the four walls. It slopes towards the inside as well as the outside so that the centre is a small court open to the sky. Round the open court which you get into as soon as you pass through the door there are various recesses with mud seats where the occupants sleep or sit. As a rule the place is not divided into rooms at all and has very few openings in the outer wall for lighting purposes. Cooking may be done in the open court or outside the building.
In the house which we occupied I found a dark corner where there was just room for my bed and where it was quite out of sight. As soon as we were seated the people began to come in. It was easy to see that I was the chief attraction … I was stared at with more interest than a strange animal at the zoo . . . However I was as much interested in the people as they were in me . . . I found that all the men and some of the women tattoo their bodies in various ways . . . the children as a rule wear no clothes, the grown up people wear anything or nothing much as they please. . .
‘There are three different salutations with or without handshaking. They are ‘Nnua’, ‘Ndo’, or ‘Okpa’. They are repeated time after time in the course of a visit and form in fact the chief part of the conversations. I am getting quite skilful at Ibo salutations.
After dinner . . . of fowl, rice and yam, we began to sing some hymns in Ibo . . . In about ten minutes the place was crowded and there was much pushing and scrambling at the door amongst those who could not get in. Then Mr Spencer and Lazarus and another Ibo convert named Jonathan spoke and we had some more hymn singing. The people listened with great attention. Most of them however keeping an eye on me and we were obliged at last to tell them to go away as we were tired and it was getting late. They were evidently not tired. How different this is from England. Where would a house be crowded for three hours to listen to a few strangers singing and preaching the Gospel? But most of these people have never heard before. All that we say is strange and wonderful to them.’
Next morning there was a meeting with the king to ensure that Lazarus would be welcome and to make arrangements for building. Workers from Asaba would help. The king offered some cowrie shell money but was told that the missionaries had come to give and not to get. However the visitors accepted a gift – which happened to be some bad eggs though Dennis said that the natives happily ate bad eggs. The party then visited two other centres where mission teachers might be stationed in future. This involved further meetings, talks and presentations of kola nut.
They got back to their native house ‘about 6 o’clock, tired but very happy as you may imagine after such a real missionary day. We thanked God from the bottom of our hearts for giving us the opportunity of preaching the Gospel to so many hundreds of perishing souls . . . Everywhere we can see evidence of the rude idolatry of these people. The idols are made of wood and mud and bear the most distant resemblance to the human figure. In front of each are various offerings and things connected with its worship. The people believe that some spirit comes and dwells with the idol. They all recognise a Supreme Being who made and governs all things but of course they know nothing about Him and think that he cares very little about them. They therefore confine their attention to evil spirits and the spirits of their ancestors which must be kept from injuring them by offerings of various kinds. The devil is a very real person to them and one greatly to be feared and respected since he has so much power to hurt them’.
The next day the party walked twelve miles to Allah on the Niger where they were received by a Sierra Leonian at the Royal Niger Company’s factory (trading station) there. Lazarus was introduced to the clerk who would keep him supplied with necessities and then went back to Akwuku. The rest of the party crossed the river to Ibokeyi. Dennis spoke to the ‘king’ there and invited questions. The king said that he felt his visitors had truth and would tell his people. He presented them with a goat. They crossed back to Allah where they spent the night and the next day took a canoe to Asaba.
Dennis was enthusiastic (LH 7 Jan 1895). ‘The last few days experience has been a lesson in missionary method’. He praised Spencer who ‘took the lion’s share of the work. He spoke on every occasion himself as well as interpreted for me. He started all the hymns with his concertina, he saw to all the arrangements about food and lodging so that I had not to trouble myself in the least, and he made all the suggestions as to the different visits and what we should do in each case. In fact he took the lead, as it was very proper indeed that he should with all his experience. He is full of zeal and energy and a most pleasant travelling companion. O that we had more like him.’
Back in Onitsha
Dennis returned to Onitsha that afternoon. He resumed his language study. At a meeting of native church members Dobinson, who was due for leave, introduced Dennis as his probable successor. Dobinson planned further visits to outstations for Dennis He needed to be acquainted with them. Finding suitable people to staff them was a major problem.
Two Sundays after Dennis returned to Onitsha (LH 20 Jan 1895) Ernest Thomas took him to Obosi. ‘Started at 6.30am . . . and reached it about 8.00. The walk to and fro was very pleasant’. Dennis tells us the local people were renowned as thieves and the church had suffered from lack of a regular teacher. The building could hold 200 and perhaps 50 were there. ‘The few Christians are however very hearty and have held together in spite of much persecution. I preached at the morning and afternoon services. Thomas took the Sunday School. I carried out my intention of reading the service in Ibo but am unable to tell you how I succeeded’. For preaching, of course, he relied on an interpreter.
The next day Dennis took the Scripture Union meeting in Onitsha He would be taking this over and planned a monthly meeting (LH 21 Jan 1895). On Wednesday he went to Ogidi, eight miles inland, with Dobinson and Hardman (LH 23 Jan 1895). Dobinson wanted to encourage Jacob, the agent there, and encourage the chief to complete the building, as well as show Dennis the work. On Friday Dennis visited a school in Onitsha which George Anyaegbunam, the catechist, had started (LH 25 Jan 1895). ‘There were above 40 little naked heathen children present and some of them seemed to be making good progress. They repeated from memory a very large part of Matthew 5 and sang a verse or two of a children’s hymn and repeated a prayer which they had been taught. They seemed very attentive and eager to learn’. There were also ‘night’ schools that met before dark Dennis described a visit to one: ‘There were 100 present and the noise of the different classes as they tried to learn the letters and words of their language was rather deafening. They were all without doubt in earnest to learn . . . The school is conducted by our schoolmasters and a few others and is a very promising work’ (LH 30 Jan 1895).
Most days Dennis was hard at work trying to learn Ibo though the details of his long-term future were still uncertain. It would be a long haul as Dobinson had only just started preaching in Ibo. ‘I hope that all the rest of my life will be devoted to the preaching of the Gospel. I don’t like to make any plans. I don’t even like to talk of any. But I think that Bishop Tugwell intends that I shall learn the Hausa language to do translation work at Lokoja. All this however is in the dim and distant future. Surely all that has passed since I left Islington College has taught me just to do my best in the present position and trust in God for all the rest (LH 5 Feb 1895). Dennis’s concentration on the language was bearing fruit. He led both Morning Prayer and Holy Communion in Ibo though he preached in English using an interpreter. ‘I taught the children a hymn which I have managed to translate into Ibo. It is a very easy hymn from Golden Bells. They learned it very quickly’ (LH 10 Feb 1895). ‘I begin to feel that I am making some progress with the language. Perhaps (DV) I may be able to preach when I have been here six months. I could almost write a short sermon. (LH 13 Feb 1895). He was no doubt glad to have something to keep his mind from thinking too much of his home and family. ‘This is an awful place for news . . . only two mails in two months’ (LH 16 Feb 1895). He asks his family to send out some picture books which he can then explain to people to help him with his Ibo, ‘Sometimes I feel encouraged, sometimes discouraged. The need of ‘application’ is not so easy here as in Islington College. It seems sometimes almost too good a thing to be hoped for that I should ‘speak like a native’. I think I could make far greater progress if I were out of reach of all English speaking people and were obliged to use only Ibo in my conversation’ (LH 16 Feb 1895).
A fortnight later he had visited Oba, ten miles SE (LH 7 Feb 1895). When he got back he heard news of ‘a massacre of the English people at Brass and Akassa . . . I don’t know what to think quite. We are here at the mercy of the natives really if they should rise up against us. The only danger to the missionaries is that they may be confounded with the Niger company’. A month later he wrote with more details. One of the missionaries, Proctor, had lost all his belongings. There had been some cannibalism after the attack. The hatred of the RNC was universal (LH 7 Mar 1895 & P3 1895/64&76). But Dennis assures his family that he is 200 miles away from the trouble and that it was caused by Ijo people, not Ibos. Where Dennis was the missionaries were generally seen by the native population as people from whom they might gain some advantage and were usually treated very courteously, patiently and hospitably – even though zeal for evangelism might prove an interruption A week later Dennis was enjoying a stay with Spencer at Asaba. After taking the Sunday morning service and Communion they went for a walk. ‘We saw a crowd collected for a feast in front of an idol house. With some difficulty we persuaded them to listen while I spoke to them. I felt perhaps a little like Paul felt at Athens, and was glad of the opportunity. The crowd increased as we stood, but we thought it better not to stay longer. Dennis then took prayers at the Institute with Merriman and six students (LH 16 Feb 1895).
Open air preaching
The Ibo people had a four day week and the mission used to do some open air preaching on Eke day which was less busy. Dennis was anxious to develop this. Instead of just one preaching band going out he wanted to see several and also hoped to get some simple musical instruments from England so they could attract people with their music and singing (LH 22 Feb 1895). Two weeks later he had recruited 60 willing helpers from the church members and had five preaching teams going out to different parts of Onitsha (LH 7 & 12 Mar 1895). There were nine villages in Onitsha so most would receive a visit every European week (AL 1895). If Sunday was an Eke day the groups might go out at 6.45 am before the Morning Service in church while in the afternoon the children would process round the town and then have a church service instead of Sunday School. One hundred children were involved on 24 March. Dennis was in charge as Dobinson was in Ogidi for the opening of their new building, which could seat 200, and the baptism of 12 converts (LH 24 Mar 1895 & AL 1895). The next Eke day Dennis told his family that Joshua Kodilinye acted as his interpreter; Nat, an apprentice carpenter brought his concertina, which proved a great help with the singing; and Johnny Wright was learning the accordion.
If Dennis expected much of others the mission certainly expected much of him. After just 2½ months he writes: ‘I have had a tiring Sunday but happy. Nobody accompanied me to Obosi (4 miles away) so I had to take the whole of both services as well as speak to the children in the afternoon . . . I managed everything but the actual preaching in Ibo. I think I could write out a simple sermon in Ibo already but I don’t like to read a sermon’ (LH 10 Mar 1895). He had already sent home three Ibo hymns he had composed to be printed as well as instructions for text cards (LH 8 Mar 1895)
Dennis hoped his family might send him a food parcel. ‘Our food on the Niger does not vary much. We seldom touch any other meat but fowls and for vegetables we have rice and yam, or for a change, yams and rice. Just at present we have no flour, so instead of bread we use hard cabin biscuits. I can’t yet enjoy palm oil chop, but my appetite continues very good . . . Occasionally we get a little fish and three kinds of beans are grown by the natives all of which are quite as good as broad beans. I miss the plentiful supply of fruit which we could get in Sierra Leone. So far in Onitsha I have tasted scarcely any kind of fresh fruit except bananas’ (LH 15 Mar 1895). The Europeans depended largely on tinned fruit and vegetables but their stores were almost exhausted and they did not expect further supplies until May when the river rose with the rains and more RNC steamers would be coming up from the coast.
Dennis had been arranging to tutor one of the native agents with a view to ordination, G N Anyaegbunam, and been teaching another, possibly T D Anyaegbunam, some Greek (LH 28 Feb 1895). He was impressed by T D Anyaegbunam’s school at Umuaroli in Onitsha where some pupils were already reading the newly printed Ibo Primer and could answer Bible questions readily (LH 20 Mar 1895). On 18th March Dennis wrote to say that the course of study for the planned Training Institution for agents had been settled. They wanted to concentrate on things that would be definitely useful for missionary work (LH 18 Mar 1895).
In April Dennis was writing about his preparation for the first language exam, which he would be taking at the end of the month. ‘You must expect very bad letter writing from me while I am preparing . . . You know what I am like at exam times. When shall I see the end of exams? I expect this time to come off rather badly. I doubt very much if I can pull up alongside of Misses Warner and Frisby with their two years start of me’ (LH 2 Apr 1895). He complained that the people spoke too fast. ‘My weak point is conversation. You know I was never a great talker and this is a hindrance in learning a fresh language’ (LH 11 Apr 1895).
On Easter Sunday Dennis went on his own to Obosi. He took Morning Prayer followed by Communion. ‘I always seem to feel happy amongst the Obosi Christians. They are very hearty’. After the services they went out for open air preaching. Most of the men were busy away at their farms but they were able to speak to a good number of children who listened well. He then took an Evening Service before returning to Onitsha (LH 14 Apr 1895).
Life in Onitsha
On 24 April Dennis wrote about attending a special committee to plan a new church building for Onitsha. They needed to secure a good site and to raise funds. They had £17 in hand and he thought £30 would be sufficient. He then described a visit to the king of Onitsha on another matter. ‘Very early this morning Mr Dobinson and myself in company with three of our leading church people went to see the king. Our object was to get a certain bad custom altered. In some of the interior Ibo towns it is the custom for all unmarried girls to walk about quite naked. Just lately this vile custom has been introduced into Onitsha, re-established by general consent. No unmarried young girl dare appear in the streets with any clothes on. Not only is this very bad in itself and offensive to our Christians but it hinders us in our work as the girls are ashamed for us to see them, so carefully avoid our meetings. The king promises to summon a meeting to get it altered if possible’ (LH 24 Apr l895).
At the end of April Dennis told his family ‘You will rejoice with me that I have passed the first language exam’. This was a great achievement. But Dobinson was going on leave so that after only 4 months in Onitsha Dennis was left in charge. He was just 26. He was the only priest though others in the Niger Mission – European, Sierra Leonian and Native had much longer experience. He wrote that his new responsibility would need much wisdom and much love (LH 30 Apr 1895).
4. Left in charge
On 1st May Dennis wrote: ‘Dobinson left today but the ship on which he started has stuck on a bank in sight of our houses . . . I can scarcely realise yet that (he) has gone and I am left alone to supervise the work’. He was busy with the negotiation for land for the new church and with the Mission accounts (LH 1 May 1895). Administrative and pastoral duties with a little Scripture instruction for native agents took up all his time.
‘Tonight I have bought a small animal called ‘nei’. It seems to belong to the rat or rabbit tribe but is much bigger than a rat and has very course hair. It lives on grass. Tomorrow morning we have our monthly agents meeting so we shall be able to provide them with good stew and palm oil chop (LH 3 May 1895). ‘This has been a busy day and no mistake. Scarcely any time to prepare for tomorrow’s sermon. Our agents assembled today for the monthly meeting. Mr Joshua Williams (an Onitsha Christian) gave us a helpful Bible Reading on Luke 24. Mr Spencer interested us with an account of his last visit to Akwuku and the neighbouring towns and the difficulties and encouragements of the work in Lazarus’s hands’ (LH 4 May l895). Heathen practices still continued. Two slaves were sacrificed at the funeral of a chief in Asaba (PJ 1895/78).
Visitors and Scripture Union
‘I am unable just at present to give any time to the language study . . . I have many visitors . . . of all sorts and many questions’. Besides mission agents he had had calls from local chiefs and also some leading women. He was amused by one lady old enough to be his grandmother addressing him as ‘father’. But he had managed to attend the monthly Scripture Union meeting and been encouraged to find 50 present (LH 6 May 1895).
Business at Oba
‘I am thoroughly tired out tonight as I have been to Oba . . . about 11 miles from Onitsha . . . We arrived about 10.00 am rather wet about the legs in consequence of the dewy state of the roadside herbage and the bad state of the bridge over which we had to pass. We were also ready for breakfast but had to wait until 1 o’clock before we had it. We found about 25 children in the school diligently learning . . . one good-sized lad able to read the Ibo Gospels. The others had leant the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, portions of Dr Watt’s Catechism, and some of the Hundred Texts. The news of our arrival soon spread and by 11.30 we had all those who usually attend service (40-50) gathered about the veranda. First I spoke and then, after a hymn, Mr J Williams. They were most attentive . . . After breakfast (we) had a talk with 5 persons who are desirous of baptism . . . I was well pleased with their answers. I think we must have the church there repaired thoroughly and then have the baptisms at the opening’. There followed two further visits in the village where testimony was given but they had to refuse further invitations so they could get back before dark. The church people presented a fowl (LH 8 May 1895).
‘I scarcely know whether I am on my head or my feet with the continuous rush of business. I shall settle down presently and I rather enjoy the rush somehow’. He asked his family to find people who would donate bells – seven about one foot across were needed for the different churches so people would know when it was time for a service, a meeting or school (LH 9 May 1895). He received letters from Dobinson with ‘various instructions for me which he forgot in the hurry of departure. One thing which has taken a great burden off my shoulders is the proposal that Mr Hardman should take in hand all business connected with the various new buildings . . . we shall very soon have about seven buildings running at the same time’ (LH 10 May 1895). His relief was short-lived. Before the end of the month another letter came from Dobinson to say it was absolutely necessary that Hardman join Proctor in Brass immediately (LH 27 May 1895). Just securing a site was time-consuming. ‘I was amused today to hear from Mr G Anyaegbunam that three of those who were discussing with us yesterday about the piece of ground which we want and who were loud in their objections, came to him after he had gone to bed to say that they would be our friends and help persuade the others if we could agree with them a suitable bribe. Of course, we did not agree’ (LE 11 May 1895), However, four days later all the chiefs gave their consent amicably (LH 15 May 1895).
Romanism, Drink and (sexual) Immorality were regarded as the three great evils. ‘Today at our Communicants Class I dropped the subject which I had intended to take and gave a warning against the Romanists instead. I have felt strongly on this subject during the last few weeks and spoke strongly on it this morning. The Romanists here are exactly like Romanists elsewhere. Their objects and their methods are just the same all the world over, and it is no use to ignore their presence in our midst. They seek to win our children to their schools, they visit the houses of our converts, they try to bribe the most able of our teachers. If they find us thinking to occupy a new place they rush to be in front of us and where they see a promising work going on they give presents to the chiefs in order to prevent them attending church. They appear to have heaps of funds whereas we are always cramped in our movements for want of them’ (LH 24 May 1895).
However, Dennis determined to press forward despite lack of resources. On the night of 4th June he stayed at Ogidi. The next day ‘after breakfast we determined to pay a visit to a large town called Umuoji which is about 3 miles from Ogidi. The people of this town are certainly cannibals and much feared by neighbouring towns. Some years ago a few of the Onitsha Christians summoned courage to go there and preach, but were so frightened at the attitude of the people that they decided never to go there again, and no preacher of the Gospel has visited Umuoji since. We were fortunate securing an Umuoji man as a guide and so were taken straight to the chief man whose name is Okaka. Many people gathered when they heard of our coming and we had a good attentive audience. They asked us to come again whenever we could . . . One thing I noticed was that several of them had necklaces of human teeth. I suppose these teeth belonged originally to their victims. We visited another part of the town after leaving the king’s quarter but the rain came on too soon to be pleasant and we had a wet journey back to Ogidi . . . After meeting those recently baptised we had a visit from two older men, one of whom has given up all his idols but one little stick called ‘ofo’. This he refuses so far to give up. The other has given up all his idols but retains two wives. So you see there is but one thing which these two men in common with thousands of others lack and this is the willingness to give up all for Christ’ (LH 5 June 1895, cf Mark 10:21) Jacob Akubeze, the agent at Ogidi, ‘regarded polygamy and the custom of taking titles as the two main hindrances to the spread of the Gospel. Every chief has a title by which he is always saluted and for which he pays a large sum of money. Various heathen ceremonies are so mixed up with the taking and keeping of these titles that to renounce heathenism is to renounce the title’ (AL 1895).
Concern for the labourers
‘This afternoon we gathered all the labourers employed on our different buildings one hour before paying time and had a special service for them. They number more than eighty and are nearly all heathen so the opportunity was a great one. I am hopeful that many will attend the (Sunday) service tomorrow morning (LH 8 June 1898). Most of them did so and four joined the next Baptism Class. The labourers’ Gospel Meeting before their payout became a weekly event and they were soon able to join in hymns (LH 5 July 1895). Within six weeks half the 35 strong Baptism Class, which Dennis often addressed, were drawn from the labourers (16 July 1895).
Concern for himself
On 3rd June Dennis reported that they had run out of butter, jam and treacle so he tried frying bread in palm oil and found it fairly good. ‘I am not complaining . . . our present trials afford us more amusement than anything else’ (LH 3 June 1895). Five days later he received news of Watney’s death in Lokoja. Watney had been in Dennis’s set at Islington. Dennis recalled that all of Bishop Hill’s party sent off from Freetown less than two years previously had now died, except Louisa Maxwell ‘Either Miss Maxwell or myself must be the next one. O may God make me ready to answer gladly whenever I hear my name. Lord prepare me to meet thee’. Then, perhaps realising his family may be disturbed by such sentiments he added: ‘We all continue well’ (LH 9 June 1895). But death was not easily dismissed. Two days later he wrote again: ‘I am the only European male missionary left in the Ibo country and the only fully ordained missionary on the Niger River. May God preserve me in health. If I were to die . . . I don’t know what would happen . . . But I hope. God reigns. Jesus is near.’ Then his mood lightens. ‘I am very glad to have the four ladies so near at this time . . . Their presence alone is a great help . . . Miss Maxwell is a mother to the party being considerably older than the other three. Certainly I should have no hesitation in going to her for advice in any trouble just as I might go to mother at home. I had better not say anything about the other three ladies or you will be getting suspicious. I know you pretty well. But don’t be surprised at anything you hear’. They were also hopeful of a better diet as vegetable marrows, cucumbers, French beans and tomatoes were coming along in their garden’ (LH 11 June 1895). But two weeks later they ran out of condensed milk (LH 27 June 1895).
Dennis saw the training of mission workers as a key task. He wrote in July ‘I have been busy during part of the day with teaching some of our agents. I am really giving a good deal of time day by day to this kind of work and am helping several of our people in their studies. I feel that I could usefully occupy my time in it. The need is great’ (LH 27 June 1895)
Keeping accounts proved a major preoccupation. Besides finance for buildings and salaries for agents there were a large number of labourers employed. On 29 June he wrote about paying 100 workmen who wanted ‘paper’ money – that is vouchers that could be exchanged for goods at the RNC trading station (LH 29 June 1895). After a whole day devoted to accounts he lamented: ‘I wish that I had learnt book-keeping while at Islington College. It would have been very useful’ (LH 1 July 1895). After setting out early in the morning with a preaching band to walk six miles to Nkpor, speaking there and getting a positive response, he got back to Onitsha at 2,00pm and immediately got down to his accounts. That evening he complained of feeling tired (LH 2 July 1895). It was not just the physical exertion but his mind must have been torn. The Nkpor people were eager to have a teacher sent to live in their village. They spoke of giving up their idols if they had one. But the Mission lacked resources. The harvest was great but the labourers few. Dennis could not devote himself wholly to prayer and evangelism but must maintain his book-keeping.
The scope of the work
Mission seemed to involve all sorts of things. He told his family. ‘Miss Maxwell suggested today that by the end of the year I ought to consider myself fully qualified to settle any question of any sort whatsoever that might arise in connection with the work. However, I do feel that more than human wisdom is needed and I am continually seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit (LH 4 July 1895). Besides maintaining the work at Onitsha and addressing classes there, in the course of ten days he might be across the river in Asaba to assess the work and preach, figuring how an agent might be placed in Umuoji where there was lack of good water and ‘what we were offered looked like cocoa’, engaging in primary evangelism at Nkpor, and seeing Proctor who had come up from Brass in a new CMS launch that was proving unsatisfactory (LH 12,16,20,22 July 1895).
Health and sickness
The family were naturally concerned how Dennis was coping. When Mr Wilson visited them in St Leonard’s they were not reassured. Dennis wrote: ‘I am perfectly well . . . Don’t harbour any fears for me. Be quite sure that when I die you will be at once informed by telegram. When I am sick I will always try to let you think that I am a little worse than I really am in order that you may be satisfied’ (LH 24 July 1895). Ten days later he went down with fever for a week (LH 6 Aug 1895). However, the Sierra Leonian Rev A C Strong who had done 12 years on the Niger returned from leave and could be given responsibility for Onitsha Waterside.
Seeking full commitment
Preaching sometimes seemed fruitless. ‘We went up to Ogbe-Oli market (in Onitsha) to preach, but the people were so intent upon their buying and selling that we had the greatest difficulty in making them stand and listen. This represents truly the state of the people of Onitsha. It is not the strength of the idolatry but the utter indifference of the people to everything except their bodies that troubles me’ (LH 3 Oct 1895). He was disheartened when he heard some Onitsha church members took part in a second burial ceremony. He would have to find out who they were and speak with them, ‘These are the things which temper our joy in the work. Heathenism is so strong and the Christians are so weak. Pray yet more earnestly for us’ (LH 1 Oct 1895) ‘What I am looking earnestly for, but so far have failed to see, is the conversion of some of the heathen as a result of our continued preaching. I am utterly dissatisfied with the results of all our work in Onitsha up to the present. We make great efforts but seem to accomplish next to nothing. I don’t believe there has been a single real conversion in our church since I came . . . I wonder why’. At the end of the year Dennis wrote: ‘It is not hard to get listeners, and there is little or no opposition, but the impression left on one’s mind again and again is that they are all ‘wayside’ hearers (Mark 44). The great question which all seem to be asking is ‘What shall we eat and what shall we drink?’ (The missionaries introduced ‘What shall we wear?’) All the care is the body. Many of the Onitsha people are backsliders. All have heard the Gospel messages over and over again. It is not a new thing to them, and they are ready to give a careless, laughing consent to everything we say. The town is full of idols and charms, but idolatry is not strong. The people who worship the idols laugh at themselves for their folly, and often treat their gods with much contempt. Polygamy is what keeps some back . . . It is the lack of definite results – the absence of conversions which tries our faith and drives us to our knees’ (AL 1895).
The church was still far from self-supporting. Christians had to learn to give of their substance. They were raising funds for a new church building and Dennis prayed that the collections might be a spur to a new beginning (LH 15 Aug 1895). Donations in cash and kind from heathen as well as converts were to give some encouragement (6,13,21 Aug, 1 Sept). Meanwhile the evangelism went on. 3 days in bed with fever were immediately followed by preaching to 100 Anam people who had come to the Waterside market before trading began and a visit to Asaba when it took 2½ hours to cross the river in flood (LH 10,11,15 Sept 1895).
At the end of September Hardman visited from Brass and Dennis took him out. ‘In the afternoon (we) went to Ogidi. We were overtaken by rain half way and arrived at our destination wet through. I took a change of clothes however . . . after this a good dinner made me feel comfortable. We had some hymn singing before going to bed. The bed was hard and there were mosquitoes but I was tired and soon fell into a sound sleep. I don’t think Hardman who was on the floor enjoyed himself as well. He complained of the mosquitoes, rats and my snoring. Sunday morning was too wet to allow of our going out open air preaching as we had intended so we had to wait at home for the 9.30am service. There was a funeral going on at a neighbouring village from which most of the church attendants come. This as usual interfered greatly with the attendance at church. The rain was another thing against us, and then some who came regularly were sick. Notwithstanding these three things the building was nearly full, the singing was hearty, the responding good, and the interest in the sermon pleasing’. They then met people in the house where they were lodging. One of the 12 preparing for baptism asked Dennis to speak with his heathen wife who feared persecution which he had already suffered. They then had breakfast and as the rain had cleared walked on to preach in Ogbunike (LH 30 Sept 1895). Dennis longed to spend an extended period in such a place to master the language. ‘I wish I had the chance of going to some outstation for 3 months or so. I could then easily pass the 2nd Language Exam and would make up my mind never to preach to an Igbo congregation in the English language. Patience. When Mr Dobinson gets back I shall have a chance if God spares me’ (LH 26 Sept 1895).
Bishop Tugwell visits and future plans
On 7th October Dennis was busy superintending gardening operations and then had the monthly committee meeting in the middle of which ‘the Bishop suddenly turned up. We adjourned the committee . . . I have spent most of the evening talking with him. He looks fairly well and is very cheerful. You may know that he is intending to get married to one of the CMS ladies in Lagos’ (LH 7 Oct 1895). It was great for Dennis to have the Bishop to share his burdens. ‘He is so kind and unassuming and yet thoroughly businesslike and practical. His great experience too makes him a valuable counsellor to one fresh to the work like myself’ (LH 10 Oct 1895). ‘The Bishop talked my possible future over with me. He seems to have always had the impression that I was exceedingly anxious to go to Lokoja with a view to working in the Soudan and he seems also to have lost sight of the fact that I was sent to the West Coast of Africa for the special work . . . of training native agents. I told him that I should like nothing better than to settle down to work in the Ibo country. He is altogether in favour of my doing this and so also is Mr Dobinson to whom I have written on the same subject . . . If all falls out as I hope I shall be stationed at Onitsha . . . The various agents who are training under me will live in the different houses round the compound so there will be no need for a special building’ (LH 16 Oct 1895) Those studying could help maintain work in local churches. They could also join in evangelistic outreach in the hinterland under Dennis’s direction.
‘The bishop thinks that I ought to go on furlough directly Mr Dobinson returns and I shall hope to do this if I can prepare myself for the 2nd Language Exam before this time. After Christmas I must throw up all study except the language and make my pupils my teachers for a month or two. If it can be arranged I should like to go to Durham to take my BA while I am in England . . . I believe 3 terms of 8 weeks each would have to be spent at the university … I feel that to have the degree would be an advantage and the study necessary beforehand will make me all the more able to teach others . . . God’s will be done’ (LH 16 Oct 1895).
In the meantime Dennis was to travel with the Bishop to Lokoja. He refers to one of the projects on which he has been working: ‘We are just preparing a new hymn book. The old one contains 76 hymns and the new one will contain 140 or more including many favourites from Sankey. Miss Warner has kindly consented to be editor as I shall be away during the next week or two and the work is important’ (LH 14 Oct 1895).
Dennis left with the Bishop on 21st October. They spent 3 days and 2 nights with a lot of mosquitoes in a small launch going 150 miles up the Niger to Lokoja. It was a trading station of growing importance for the RNC. CMS had had a training centre there but sickness had taken its toll and the Mission seemed to be in decline. J J Williams was in charge of the church. They visited the graveyard to see the tombs of Robinson and Brooke and the mound where Watney had been buried more recently. The first was 31, the other two just 27. ‘I don’t know that my feelings were very bright as I looked upon the graves of those 3 young missionaries who came out so full of strength and zeal and hope such, a short time ago . . . I could scarcely realise as I looked upon the mound of earth over Watney that underneath was lying all that is left of the body of the man I saw strong and well six months ago. I don’t know what the bishop’s feelings were. He said nothing and I said nothing’ (LH 23 Oct 1895).
The Bishop and Dennis borrowed a tent from the RNC Constabulary to climb a nearby hill and camp on it. They enjoyed the experience of being away from it all. ‘The bishop is just as full as he can be of his approaching marriage and the lady who is to be his wife. He is more like a boy of 20 than a bishop of 40 in this respect and cannot speak too highly or too often of Miss White. That he is ‘over head and ears’ in love is beyond question. He keeps apologising for boring me with the subject but tells me I shall be passing through similar experiences myself some day. I cannot help hoping it may be so that I may find a lady as excellent in every way as Miss White’ (LH 25 Oct 1895).
The Bishop then went on to Bida leaving Dennis in Lokoja where he examined eleven candidates for baptism. One lady Dennis did not judge ready but he was interested in one man who had been greatly influenced by Watney. He met two members of the congregation who had been carried away as slaves, rescued by a British ship and taken to Freetown where they had become Christians, and then found their way back home (LH 28 Oct 1895).
He also visited Gbebe where he baptised four candidates. He noted that all except the very young wore clothes. He thought it might be Mohammedan influence. ‘I doubt however whether the moral state of the place can be judged of by the amount of clothes worn by its inhabitants, although it must be better for people to be decently clothed’. He realised the isolation of the agents in such places and their need for prayer.
Dennis then returned to Onitsha with the Bishop – taking a canoe which worked out at half the price of the RNC launch. They had to give a bag of salt to each of the seven paddlers and a further 3 for the use of the boat (LH 5 Nov 1895).
Messrs Hardman, Thomas and Oyedele and Misses Maxwell and Wilson passed the 1st Language Exam (PJ 1896/1).
Dennis then visited Akwuku with the Bishop. White men were still objects of curiosity and followed by crowds. They examined 40 children Lazarus was teaching. They sang hymns, recited the Creed, Lord’s Prayer and Commandments and answered questions. Several could read the Igbo Gospels. This was a great achievement as the village had been suffering shortage of food; heathenism was still strong with human sacrifices offered twice since January; the RCs had been trying to entice people away with bribes and the members had suffered from thieves. But Lazarus was ‘as full of love and joy as ever (LH 7 Nov 1895 &: AL 1895).
On the 8th November ‘at 8 o’clock . . . the new church at Akwuku which has been built by the money of the Asaba Christians and the labour of the Akwuku people was opened by the bishop. It is a plain building of mud, the roof being thatched with koko leaves. There are no crosses or candlesticks, nothing whatever in the way of church furniture . . . the building was crowded inside and out with people who sit much closer than is possible in England because they are not troubled with clothes which take up so much room in the churches at home. Lazarus’s schoolboys formed the choir. They were not in surplices but sang very well notwithstanding. The consecration service was very simple with plenty of hymn singing . . . We had to sit throughout as the crush was too great to admit of kneeling or standing up’. This was followed by breakfast. They then went 3 miles to Onitsha-Olona where two Asaba students had been temporarily stationed. After examining the children and giving a talk the bishop, although tired, was persuaded to go on to Atuma (LH 8 Nov 1895). The next day they walked the 19 miles back to Asaba. They had planned to start at 2.00am and do it by moonlight but were delayed by heavy rain (LH 9 Nov 1895).
Developments in Onitsha & Oba
Dennis was disappointed to find the agents had not kept their weekly prayer meeting going during his absence (LH 12 Nov 1895) but there were other causes for rejoicing. On 22nd November the Bishop opened the Girls School. Edith Warner and Alice Wilson were in charge of nine girls but more were expected (LH 22 Nov 1895). The next day the Bishop opened the new Immanuel Church at Ijawa, Onitsha. Edith Warner played a small harmonium which had been carried down for the occasion. The Umuaroli and Umuasele school children formed the choir and there was good singing of hymns that were familiar from open air preaching. 830 were crammed into the building by the end of the service. Dennis then went to Oba. It was difficult getting across the stream and dark when he arrived but he was able to show slides on the life of Jesus to a crowd of 150. Such pictures would require careful explanation. Leversuch (AL Leversuch 1893) found natives in Sierra Leone thought his magic lantern was calling up spirits from Hades. On Sunday 24th there were 60 at the 6.00am prayers and a similar number at the 8.30 am Morning Service when the first 3 converts and 2 infant children of a convert and a catechist were baptised (the Bishop had considered two other adults not yet ready) (LH 25 Nov 1895). The next Sunday in Onitsha the Sunday Schools marched through the town and attracted between five and six hundred children into the new Immanuel church where Joshua Kodilinye addressed them (LH 1 Dec 1895).
As the end of the year approached the missionaries, Sierra Leonian as well as European, got down to their Annual Letters which they had to write to the PC (LH 26 Nov 1895). Dennis’s first such Letter gave a businesslike summary of the situation at the various churches in Onitsha and the surrounding area. It was noteworthy for having little about himself and his fellow Europeans and much about his Nigerian colleagues and the outreach into Iboland. For instance, he commended Joshua Kodilinyi who had 40 pupils making rapid progress in his day school at Umuaroli – ‘They can read anything that has yet been printed in Ibo and are beginning English’ – and the zeal of Lazarus at Akwuku which had not been quenched by his many trials. On the translation front he reported that two small Ibo reading books had been drawn up and printed during the year (AL 1895).
On 5th December the Bishop left with Hardman who had been sick (LH 26 Nov 1895) and seemed unlikely to return. Dennis wrote: ‘I have found the bishop a great help. All being well (the bishop) expects to return in March with his wife and Rev HH Dobinson’ (LH 5 Dec 1895). The Bishop on his part thought that Dennis’s work in training agents was much appreciated and showing results. The Mission needed an accountant so that Dobinson and Dennis were not distracted (P3 1895/148). He later wrote to the PC from London saying Dennis had much influence (P3 1896/16). He would like him located to Asaba to help with the Training Institution there (P3 1896/23). The bishop’s other concern was a ‘jinricksha’ for the ladies. Edith Warner was carried to the day school in a hammock in the heat of the day.
On 17 December the Bennetts returned from leave but Mrs Bennett had had a week of fever and was far from well (LH 17 Dec 1895). On 23 December Dennis wrote to say he was very busy with the accounts (LH 23 Dec 1895). On Christmas Eve they had a Christmas tree (German traditional religion) with presents as a treat for the girls in the Girls School. Unfortunately the presents Dennis had asked his family to send from England had not arrived (LH 24 Dec 1895). On Christmas Day there was a large congregation in church with good singing under Edith Warner’s direction. They even managed two carols. 78 stayed for Communion. In the evening 8 Europeans and 18 African agents sat down to a turkey dinner – but there was no plum pudding. Dennis hoped to be home for the next Christmas (LH 25 Dec 1895). Two days later there was a treat for 150 children from Immanuel Church, Umuaroli. The ladies presented the children with clothes and they all sang Ibo hymns to English tunes (LH 27 Dec 1895).
New Year 1896 – taking ladies to the outstations
Dennis was concerned to involve the ladies in outreach beyond Onitsha. After the watchnight Service he did not undress to sleep as he was to be up by 4.00 am At 5.30am he set off with ‘Misses Warner and Maxwell, Joshua Kodilinyi and his wife, Ephraim and a girl to wait on the ladies. Directly the canoe was afloat we found we were too heavily laden and had to land one of the crew and one of our Christian women who intended to accompany us to Asaba. At Asaba we put Joshua and Ephraim ashore that they might go by land and take on board in their place Mr Spencer. Some of our luggage too was taken off the canoe and put on the heads of carriers, and thus lightened we started our voyage up river. We had planned to reach Illah factory which is about 12 miles from Akwuku about mid-day and so get to Akwuku before dark. Like many other plans in this country our plan was not carried out. It was dark before we reached Illah and our march through the forest between Illah and Akwuku was a night march.
‘Though long, the canoe journey was interesting. We had breakfast picnic fashion on a sandbank. We were continually running aground on other sandbanks so that sometimes the men had to get out and pull or push the canoe off. One sandbank the ladies decided to walk across instead of going round it in the canoe and getting into a corner they had at last to be carried across a shallow place by two of the canoe men during which process Miss Warner’s bearer let her drop in the water. We saw a number of hippopotami playing in the water, some quite close. I almost lost my bag overboard with magic lantern, slides, kerosene, Bible etc but Miss Warner managed to get it before it sank.
‘We had some tea at Illah before commencing our night march and were met here by Lazarus and some of the Akwuku school children who helped to carry our belongings. We had brought the hammock and this the ladies made use of in turn during part of the journey but in spite of this help they were thoroughly tired out when we reached Akwuku.
‘We found Lazarus’s house not convenient for all and so gave it up entirely to the ladies, all the rest of us making ourselves as comfortable as circumstances allowed in the church. One advantage of the church was its airy nature, The walls are about four foot high and there is a space of two feet all round between it and the roof. Although there are places for doors and windows these luxuries are not indulged in. The floor of beaten mud was rather hard but in about 5 minutes I was in happy forgetfulness of all my surroundings and did not wake until 8 o’clock.
‘I was amused on waking to find the low wall surmounted all round by a double row of heads, all intelligently gazing at the white man. However I am used to being stared at and performed my toilet in as unconcerned away as if I had been in my own room at 10 Wellington Street . . .
Breakfast over we had a short meeting with the crowd of sight-seers who were too busy looking at the ladies to profit much by what was said . . . ‘They then walked on to Onitsha-Olonu where more crowds gathered to view the ladies. ‘Perhaps it was well that the ladies did not hear the language well enough to understand everything that was said.’
They returned to Akwuku before dark and gave a magic lantern show to an immense crowd. The next day they returned to Onitsha (LH 3 Jan 1896). During their absence a RNC steamer had come up from Akassa but left some of their loads that had been shipped from England behind. Dennis wished the Mission had a launch of its own so they would not be at the RNC’s mercy (LH 8 Jan 1896).
Letter to the PC
He took up his complaint in a letter to the PC from Onitsha on 11th January (P3 1896/35). It was the dry season. Communications were difficult as the river was low and there were few steamers. Supplies were stranded at Akassa at the mouth of the river. The mission needed its own launch. This was to be one of his recurring refrains. He was even to submit plans for a shallow draught vessel. He reported on his visit to Akwuku with the ladies. He asked for £36 to employ two language teachers. The native agents had their own work so could only spare 2 or 3 hours per week. (Personal contact was essential as there were no written textbooks let alone cassette tapes). He had sent TD Anyaegbunam temporarily to be schoolmaster at Asaba This meant Anyaegbunam could help Spencer in translation work but would not be available for Dennis.
A Wife is a Good Thing
In his next letter to his father Dennis dreamed of a wife. ‘Wouldn’t I like to sit down and have a chat with you as in old times we used to chat together. There are so many things that I cannot put on paper. I feel lonely sometimes. The ladies are very kind and they are pleasant enough company, but oh, for someone to whom I can open my heart and from whom I can be sure of the sympathy for which I sometimes long. I know I ought to be satisfied with Jesus, and so I will be, yet is it wrong to desire an earthly friend? . . It is not good for a missionary to be alone any more than it is good for another man to be alone. A wife is a ‘good thing’ for him as for all other men. Please don’t think this is to prepare the way for an announcement of an engagement between me and anyone else, nothing of the sort. Expect me home in a few months time as free as when I came out . . . (LH 12 Jan 1896). Nonetheless the family may have thought romance was in the air and written back accordingly. On 30 April Dennis wrote to say that the ladies were older than he; that he had no intention of engagement and would let them know first if anything was happening (LH 30 Apr 1896).
On 14th January he walked 9 miles to Nsugbe. After preaching in one part its chiefs met in private and then said they were anxious a Mission agent should come and live with them. They showed a piece of ground. Dennis then repeated the exercise in another part of Nsugbe. He told the people he would not forget them and that the Mission would help when it could, but they needed to get the chiefs of all the different parts to agree. He returned home by canoe (LH 14 Jan 1896).
Ministry at a personal level
Dennis wrote: ‘We have a large class which goes by the name of ‘Confirmation Class’. It consists of persons who have been baptised but are not yet confirmed. Many of them have no desire to be confirmed but there are some who are really candidates for confirmation and these I am gathering into a separate class which I intend to take myself. I shall see each person separately and shall try to find out who are converted and who are not converted . . . I feel with fresh force that the work of God in Onitsha as in other places will be deepened and extended not by preaching from the pulpit, but by talking and praying with individuals. One by one they will be gathered into the kingdom . . . I am determined this year to get at individuals and have straight talks with them. (LH 15 Jan 1896). When he interviewed some of the confirmation candidates he was distressed at their ignorance and humbled by how little they had taken in from preaching (LH 18 Jan 1896) Dennis was also planning to get to Morning Prayers at the Onitsha Waterside at 6.00 am during the week and to set up a palm leaf booth there for Sunday afternoon services so that people would not have to trek up to the Ozala (LH 15 Jan 1896). He reported that this led to a larger Sunday afternoon congregation (LH 1 Feb 1896). Bishop Tugwell had spoken in November about the need for Christians married by native custom to have a church wedding. As a result six couples were married on 7th February. Such pastoral concerns, the constant round of Baptism, Confirmation and Scripture Union meetings and the ever present accounts meant no time for language study but Dennis hoped to get through the 2nd Exam in July (LH 24 Jan, 7&11 Feb 1896).
Rose Frisby and Alice Wilson hoped to go on leave in April and return in December. Rose was hoping to marry George Wilson who was on leave sick and was anxiously waiting the PCs permission. In fact this had not been sanctioned as George had not completed his three-year probation, (P3 1894/41) and a medical board had judged him unfit for the Niger on 7th January – but communications were slow. The plan was that Edith Warner and Louisa Maxwell would go on leave when the other two ladies returned. Dennis himself was due for leave but hoped his sister, Nellie, would come out before he left (LH 11 Feb 1896). He wondered playfully whether his family would then buy a wife for him He was distressed that his brother William had not settled as either a grocer or a soldier. He wished he had responded to the missionary call (LH 21 Feb 1896).
After much work Dennis completed the balance sheet and celebrated with a canoe trip up the Anambra with the ladies (LH 17&22 Feb 1896). He wrote to the PC (P3 1896/42) with details of expenditure. The estimates for 1896 were £4,081. Now that more cash was circulating the Mission needed a safe. Previously much had been done by barter and the Mission bought stocks of salt and tobacco from the Royal Niger Company for this purpose. Fanny Dennis wrote later (ND p.29) that the only currency available for market purchases of food was cowrie shells and leaves of tobacco. ‘120 cowrie shells represented one (old) penny. Quite a number of small eatables could be bought for five cowries. Tobacco was worth more. It was brought in great crates up the river in the rainy season, and one crate was carried on the heads of four men from the waterside, packed very tightly indeed in heads which consisted of four leaves about two feet long, and twisted together at the top to make one head. It was separated into leaves for small purchases. A head of tobacco was a days wage for a man’.
Part of the fabric of heathen society were the ‘Mo’ (spirits) – men dressed in frightening masks representing dead ancestors who with their retinue would visit and punish those whose behaviour threatened the life of the community. Women and children were not supposed even to see such ‘visitors’. For many of the young men it was now more of a game though the previous year Dennis had written that ‘fear of Mo and superstition’ were hindering the Gospel (LH 23 Feb 1895). He now described a direct confrontation. Going to Immanuel Church he ‘found a number of young men marching about dressed up fantastically with paint and chalk and feathers and charms. To my surprise two young boys who are working for us at Ozala and have been showing great promise in Umuaroli School were amongst them, besides five others who are coming to a Baptism Class which has been formed there by Joshua. I went and spoke to two of these young men and thus roused the indignation of all the others. They were afraid to do anything else at the time except shout and gesticulate, but as soon as the dancing and marching out were over the ‘mo’ was called out and a law passed that if any man should allow his children to come to school or church at Umuaroli or should attend himself he would be fined five goats. Joshua is downcast about it but tomorrow morning we are going to see the chiefs of Umuaroli to try to come to some understanding’. Next day the inevitable palaver took place but nothing was settled immediately. Dennis felt sorry for the children who were doing well at school and hoped the old heathen chiefs would not long be obstinate. Dennis thought the elders just wanted money from the white man to eat and drink (LH 24 Feb 1896), Three months later Dennis reported a visit to the king ‘who is not well disposed to us at present and appears to be doing his best to stop the work at Umuaroli which is near his house (LH 5 Jun 1896). Two years were to pass before Dennis could write that the Onitsha king and chiefs were acting to restrain the Mo from interfering with women attending church (LH 19 July 1898).
Young Men’s Christian Association
Two weeks later Dennis discovered that some of the young men – heathen, Romanist and CMS had formed a United Club for the purpose of their own amusement. He went to see them. As a result his own members withdrew and he determined to form a YMCA as an alternative. Further meetings were arranged to get this established (LH 10&16 Mar 1896). Such upsets doubtless added to his general exhaustion and he was laid low with fever for three days (LH 14 Mar 1896).
5. Completing his first tour
Handing over to Dobinson
On 22 March 1896 Dobinson arrived with the Bishop and Nott who were travelling on to Lokoja. Dennis could hand over the responsibilities of Mission Secretary. He could have gone on leave but was anxious to pass his 2nd language exam (AL 1896). ‘A chapter in my life closes today . . . so far as I know I shall be able to carry out my plans for language study’ (LH 22 Mar 1896). ‘I took the Confirmation Class this morning perhaps for the last time although it goes against the grain a bit. Never mind. It will be best in the long run. I feel I have come to an end of another chapter in my life’s history and to me an instructive chapter. I wonder what will come in the chapter just opening. God holds the key of all unknown and I am glad’ (LH 25 Mar 1896). He had another dose of fever but maintained it was all right so long as the heart, liver and internal organs had the strength to stand it (LH 27 Mar 1896).
Dobinson wrote to PC (P3 1896/54) that all was well though the need for more men was great. There were 16 pupils in the girl’s school. Dennis had thrown himself heartily into pastoral work in Onitsha and in developing the out-stations. But this meant he had had little time for language study. Now Dennis was to be set free for language work and do the accounts and nothing else . . . ‘My hard-working colleague has worked like a horse at outside organisation and the accounts and has done exceedingly well. I am most grateful for such a steady helper and coadjutor’ (HHD p.197).
Dennis went to Obosi through the rain to preach on Sunday but during the week he was free of pastoral responsibility. He wrote: ‘Accounts and language, language and accounts, nothing fresh to tell you’ (LH 5&8 Apr 1896). However he did perform the wedding of a pupil in the Girls School to Thomas Obi, a CMS Schoolteacher. ‘I know the questions and answers quite well now. When my turn comes I shall not make such a fool of myself as the men usually do’ (LH 21 April 1896).
Dobinson wrote again on 9th April about leave arrangements (P3 1896/58). Misses Frisby and Wilson should go on leave after the end of May. They were still awaiting the ‘jinrickisha’. His main concern was that Dennis should have the opportunity for further study. He wanted him to be set free from other work to concentrate on the language for the next 3 months and take the second exam in July before going on leave, Dennis would then like to have an extended leave when he could attend the university of Durham and gain a BA. Dobinson believed this would be time well spent as Dennis felt called to the work of training native agents. Dennis himself spelt this out in a letter to the PC (P3 1896/23) and said he had the Bishop’s approval. This proposal was accepted.
Meanwhile Dennis’s sister, Nellie, who had herself offered for missionary service wrote from Hastings to the PC acknowledging her location to the Niger (P3 1896/48). Dennis was overjoyed at the thought of greeting her before his leave (LH 24 Mar 1896).
Trouble at Akwuku
On 20th April there was news that a soldier had been killed at Akwuku. The place was in a disturbed state and Lazarus had left temporarily (LH 20 April 1896). This time there was no need for Dennis to respond. Dobinson and Bennett went to investigate and came back three days later to say that all was quiet though Lazarus too frightened to return (LH 23 April 1896). Dennis then wrote to say: ‘My home-coming may be delayed. I will tell you why. The work at Akwuku and Onitsha-Olona needs strengthening very much. Mr Spencer has offered to go forward and take charge there himself if somebody can be found to take his place at Asaba . . . I have felt moved to offer to stay another year if necessary. It is bad to put a man in charge of such an important station the moment he arrives in the Mission . . . I am quite well at present . . . I am not in the least homesick and should like to have a few months with Nellie before coming home’ (LH 24 Apr 1896).
On 27 April Spencer came over to sit his ordination exam (LH 27 Apr 1896).
Violence in Onitsha
In April ‘there was a quarrel between the (Onitsha) villages of Umuaroli and Ogbe-ikporo over some land. Bows and arrows were used and also machetes and spears and several persons were wounded’. On 6th May Dennis wrote to say that ‘one of the Umuaroli men who was wounded . . . with an arrow has died though not from the effects of the wound. However the Umuaroli people chose to consider the Ogbe-ikporo people as the murderers of the dead man and claim a person from Ogbe-ikporo to be hanged for the alleged murder. As the Ogbe-ikporo people refused to give up the man who was demanded a night raid was made on their village by the Umuaroli and everything either destroyed or carried off. No persons were killed but all business is suspended and the town is in great confusion. Mr Dobinson is trying his best to get things settled peacefully but as there seems to be no right except might in Onitsha the help of the (RN)Company may have to be sought by the injured Ogbe-Ikporo people’ (LH 6 May 1896).
Change of plan
On 15 May the Bishop arrived back from Lokoja by canoe (LH 15 May 1896). Two days later Dennis wrote home: ‘it has been decided that I go home. You must understand that this is not on account of my health’. Dennis explained that Merriman, a Sierra Leonian agent, who was helping at Asaba had to return home because of his wife’s health which meant that Spencer must stay at Asaba and try to maintain Akwuku and Onitsha-Olona from there. He thought he might come to England in August (LH 17 May 1896).
The Niger Executive Committee including Bishop Tugwell, Dobinson & Dennis met 18-22 May (PJ 1896/84). TD Anyaegbunam had accepted his re-employment by the Mission though the bishop was not prepared to ordain him because of his previous disconnection. Dobinson hoped to appoint him clerk to the Secretary so he could give time to translation work but this did not prove possible, as Mr Merriman had to leave because his wife was sick. It was proposed that George N Anyaegbunam be ordained and he was asked to furnish the papers required by the PC. It was hoped the Ibo Hymn Book could be printed in England when Dennis was on leave.
On Sunday 24 May the Bishop confirmed 42 candidates, some of whom had come from Asaba and Obosi. In the afternoon the Bishop baptised in Obosi, Dobinson baptised 17 in Onitsha and Dennis took the Sunday school. The next Sunday Spencer would be ordained priest and Bennett and Williams deacon. Dennis recalled Spencer being made deacon in Freetown two years before and himself in London the year before that. ‘It’s not so long ago after all, yet it seems a very long time’ (LH 24 May 1896). But Dennis was not in church for Spencer’s priesting. He went down with fever for a week. ‘No doubt the bishop is right and I want rest. (LH 30 May – 3 Jun 1896).
In June the Bishop made Dobinson Archdeacon (P3 1896/74). There was news that Smith who had come out to Lagos in December had died. A storm had taken the roof off Nott’s house in Lokoja and spoilt his books and possessions. Rose Frisby and Alice Wilson set off for England (LH 21 Jun 1896). Louisa Maxwell told the PC she was sorry they had not agreed to Miss Frisby’s marriage (P3 1896/77). Rose resigned when she reached home. In mid July Dennis was expecting to leave for England. He would be sad to miss Nellie’s arrival (LH 14 July 1896). He was thinking about studying for the Durham degree. He felt he was weak in Greek and Latin. Childe was now too old to assist but his Islington tutor, Mr Geldart had just retired to Hastings and should be able to help (LH 21 June 1896).
On 6th August, Nellie and another new missionary, Mary Helen (Lena) Holbrook, a dressmaker aged 28, arrived. They had both trained at Highbury. They had had a record passage of only three weeks and five days. Dennis wrote: ‘I went to Obosi in the canoe and fetched them up to Onitsha. It was dark before we got to the Ozala. There was a queer feeling about me as our canoe came alongside the Prince Alexander. Perhaps I felt a little bit like crying at the thought of meeting Nellie after three years. She was the first person I met after I stepped aboard . . . She is ready for the work to which the Master has called her. How wonderfully He has worked. We all had dinner together and made quite a large party of missionaries . . . the Christians are so interested in the coming of my sister. They share most truly in my joy. One enthusiastic little woman patted me on the back, danced round me, shook hands vigorously and almost hugged me all in honour of Nellie’s arrival. Visitors have been coming all day today and all who have been asked to guess which of the two ladies is my sister have without exception hit upon Nellie. Nellie was to be based in Onitsha while Lena would go to Obosi with the Bennetts (LH Aug 1 1896). Other new arrivals were the Revs Ernest Hill, aged 25, and John MacIntyre, aged 23, who had both trained at Islington and were going to Lokoja (p3 1896/106). There was also hope of an ordained doctor coming to Asaba but he drowned while bathing in England (LH 7 Sept 1896).
The Language Exams
Meanwhile Dobinson, Spencer and Strong had conducted the language exams. The Bennetts and John Wright, a Sierra Leonian, had passed the first. Dennis, Edith Warner and the printer, Oyedele, the second. No one had done brilliantly. Their marks were 77½, 74½, and 73½. ‘Nervousness or something kept me from doing justice to myself . . . Now according to CMS regulations I am free to marry if I “shall judge the same to serve better to godliness” as I have done three years in the field and passed the second language exam . . . I have determined to preach no more to an Ibo congregation through an interpreter’ (LH 7 Aug 1896 & P3 1896/106). ‘I have dispensed altogether with the services of an interpreter. Preaching is hard work but I am truly thankful to God that I have at length the privilege of preaching the Gospel to the people in their own tongue’ (AL 1896).
Dennis stays on to work at Asaba
In his letter home about Nellie’s arrival and his exam success Dennis announced his decision to postpone his leave. ‘The (Parent) Committee has sanctioned my going to Durham and have extended my furlough 4 months to enable me to do so. But I have felt it to be my duty to offer to stay on and take charge of Asaba until the end of the year. There is nobody else to do it. The (Niger) Finance Committee have agreed to my proposal, provided the consent of the (RNC) doctor at Asaba can be gained . . . I am sorry to appear so undecided in my movements, but it is simply the great need of workers that holds me’ (LH 7 Aug 1896). The next day Dennis went to Asaba and got the OK from the doctor (PJ 1896/111). Nellie ‘tells me I am not much thinner than when I left England though paler and older looking (LH 8 Aug 1896). Dobinson wrote to the PC (P3 1896/110) that another European was urgently needed at Onitsha to assist the Secretary. A clergyman was also needed to work with Mr Spencer at the Training Institute in Asaba. He believed there were recruits in the Training College in Islington willing to come to the Niger to help meet the need in the meantime Dennis had offered to postpone his leave. Dr Craster reckoned he was sufficiently fit to survive so his offer had been accepted. This, of course, meant Dennis could not start his BA programme.
Dennis looked forward to handing the accounts over to Dobinson (LH 10 Aug 1896) but was still having to do some work on them in mid September (LH 14 Sep 1896). On 14th August he went over to Asaba to meet the dozen young men in the Training Institution that Merriman had started and give them some lectures. He could use English, as they understood it. Merriman had gone for a month to Onitsha-Olona (LH 14 Aug & 5 Sept 1896). Dennis had to return to Onitsha as he was going to live in the Spencers’ house. It would be some weeks before they moved and then there were various repairs and the cementing of floors to be done on it when they moved out (28 Aug & 8 Sept 1896).
Two days later Dennis preached his first sermon in Ibo. He ‘didn’t get on very well I haven’t mastered it yet. Practice is what I want’ (LH 16 Aug 1896). The next day he had a Scripture Union meeting. ‘There was a good attendance. I spoke again in the language and felt happier than I felt yesterday. I have asked one of my teachers to act now as critic. He notes all mistakes that I make and we afterwards go over them together. This is very helpful. I have started to teach at Umuaroli. There are nine boys here who can read the Gospels and I am going to take them in the Acts of the Apostles. We have just got the Psalms, Acts, Romans – Colossians in Ibo. (This was the revised translation by Dobinson and T D Anyaegbunam – HCPE II p 778) Mr Dobinson saw them through the press when he was in England. One thing we want to do in the coming three years is to get all the Bible translated into Ibo. It will mean a good deal of work but we ought to be able to get it done’ (LH 17 Aug 1896).
Through August Dennis continued teaching at Umuaroli and working at the language. N O Nzekwu was one of his helpers. He also helped other agents in their studies (LH 21&24 Aug 1896). He persevered with his preaching. ‘This morning I preached at Immanuel. My subject was the same as that I took last Sunday at Umuaroli but I had to work hard. I cannot say half the things I should like to say because words fail me just when I want them. It will be long before I speak like a native’ (LH 30 Aug 1896). But Dennis was impatient to get to Asaba. ‘I am about tired of having no definite work in hand’ (LH 8 Sep 1896).
Dennis made several visits to Asaba during September and surprised them by preaching in Ibo on the 13th when 3 adults and 4 children where baptised (LH 13 Sept 1896). He was not able to move there permanently until October. ‘My establishment consists of six boys now. I must refuse to have any more. There are two or three others who spend about half their time here and would doubtless like to be taken on’ (LH 13 Oct 1896). Nellie visited and ‘helped me in household arrangements. I wish she could be here always,’ (LH 14 Oct 1896). A new neighbourhood brought new challenges – ‘A cow died nearby and the stench was overpowering. I gave some men tobacco to carry it further off (LH 21 Oct 1896).
In his letters Dennis gives details of successive days. Monday was an Eke day and he enjoyed open air preaching. He had his first Scripture Union meeting with 40 present mostly students and school boys who can read their Bibles. They planned to meet the second Monday of each month (LH 12 Oct 1896). On Tuesday he took prayers at 6.00 am, lectured in the Training Institute at 8.30am, taught schoolboys Scripture at 10.00am and did some visiting in the afternoon (LH 13 Oct 1896). On Wednesday after 6.00am prayers there was a Confirmation Class at 6.30 and Dennis then visited members who were absent until 9.30. At 10.00am he was teaching in the school. After that he was receiving visitors and reading until another meeting at 4.00pm (LH 4 Oct 1896).
As ever Dennis wanted to see development. He reported that ‘we have now’ started a Sunday service in one of the villages and are carrying two small schools in different parts of the town. We hope that this may prove the beginning of a very real extension work in this large heathen town (LH 15 Oct 1896) where there was much dancing and feasting and three day festival in honour of the devil (AL 1896). I am in very good spirits tonight as I write these words. Today being Eke I went preaching in the morning with the church people. We formed as usual two strong bands and confined our attention to one of the five large villages of which Asaba is composed. We had good audiences. Afterwards as it was still early I returned to part of the same village where we are keeping schools. There I sat and listened to a hymn which the children have learned and then talked with the people who had gathered in good numbers. At 4 o’clock this afternoon I again went out with some of the students, the schoolmasters and others. We preached in three places to large gatherings. The day was very favourable for preaching as the people were all sitting about doing nothing and ready to gather round directly they heard the sound of singing (LH 24 Oct 1896). The next day he reported that the newly arranged Sunday School went well and all but one were present at the men’s Bible Class (LH 25 Oct 1896). The following Sunday there were good congregations in church and as it was an Eke day they went out preaching and were able to form 3 bands (LH 1 Nov 1896). He was wondering whether after his leave he might continue with pastoral and evangelistic work at Asaba while a new recruit might teach at the Training Institute (LH 27 Oct 1896). Asaba was also a major centre for the RNC and would be for the new Government. Dennis mentions a visit to the judge and doctor and finding an engineer, Gutteridge, who had come to look at well machinery, down with fever (LH 26 Oct 1896).
Back in Onitsha
While Dennis laboured in Asaba Nellie had settled well in Onitsha. After one month Dennis could write ‘Nellie is quite at home with the ladies now. I notice that she and Miss Warner call each other by their Christian names’ (LH 7 Sept 1896). Dobinson had received a safe and a set of tin pigeon holes to assist with administration (P3 1896/131), but he was disappointed that the PC would not accept the Niger Executive’s desire to see T D Anyaegbunam, who played a key role in translation work, fully reinstated (P4 1897/4).
Dennis made a four-day visit to Akwuku, Onitsha-Olonu and Ugbolo. He saw Joseph Obingbo who was now in charge at Akwuku, examined the school children there and spoke to the people. He felt a stronger, more experienced man was really needed. There were several boys who could read the Ibo Gospels and people who would be ready for baptism by Christmas. He spent time at Onitsha-Olonu which he thought would be a good place for a European and preached at Ugbolo. It was the first time he had made such a trip alone. The people did not understand his Ibo very well and he had to use Joseph and William Monu to help explain (LH 6 Nov 1896).
Church Building Plans for Asaba
In the Asaba church Dennis would superintend relaying the floor with cement mud mix and ‘hope that in spite of my want of experience to get a good level floor so that the benches may be able to stand upon their four legs and not be moving about like see-saws to the great discomfort of the congregation. We want too 35 more forms or benches and shall then be able to seat nearly 500 people. At present we find it hard to seat 300 . . . we are getting window shutters made too . . . Mr Thomas has paid for a lectern. I hope before Christmas to have the church in decent order though I promise you there shall be nothing ritualistic in its appearance. Part of our plan is to build a school house in each of the villages in Asaba . . . in each of these . . . we shall carry on a daily school and a weekly service . . . Each of the buildings will cost about £3 and will hold more than 100 people One is already being put up, the money having been raised by the Christians of Asaba some time ago. Another is to be put up before the end of the month (DV) and for this we plan to have a special collection’. Dennis hoped that people in England could help provide clocks, bells, pictures and texts (LH 7 Nov 1896).
As Dennis was expecting to go home on leave in the New Year with Louisa Maxwell and Edith Warner (PJ 1896:124,128) and letters might take six or seven weeks he stopped writing home. In his Annual Letter written at the end of the year he spoke of the joy of welcoming his sister Nellie. Apart from her companionship, which mitigated the postponement of his leave, there was deep satisfaction that another in the family had responded to the missionary call. He felt that progress depended on partnership between Africans and Europeans. The native agents ‘lack training and experience for vigorous aggressive work but do well if they can work with Europeans’ (AL 1896)
In just two years on the Niger Dennis had made great progress in getting to know the people and their language, acted as Mission Secretary, played a leading role in developing outreach and taken great pains in ministry to individuals. He had survived fevers and the future of his missionary work seemed clear. He could go on leave knowing he had done more than asked of him and that the Niger was in Dobinson’s experienced hands.
- First leave & Marriage
Dennis left for England on 14 January 1897 with Louisa Maxwell, Edith Warner and Mrs Bennett leaving Philip Bennett at Obosi (P4 1897/30). He had been away from England for nearly 3½ years. Besides the reunion with his family and a chance to rest there was work to be done seeing translations through the press. On 2nd March Dennis wrote to the PC from St Leonard’s that SPCK should print portions of the Prayer Book and the Hymn Book in Ibo (P4 1897). This took longer than he thought. Three months later he wrote expressing disappointment at the delay (P4 1897 /65)
Back in Onitsha Dobinson wrote on 8 February that Nellie Dennis and Lena Holbrook were now teaching 21 girls in the school (P4 1897/34). But then tragedy struck. On 13th April Bennett wrote to report the sickness and death of Dobinson (P4 1897/59). This was a terrible loss. Dobinson had long experience on the Niger and had gained fluency in the language. He was a fine Christian character and doing a vital work as Mission Secretary. There was no one with his experience and stature to take over. Fanny Dennis was to write of the sadness that could still be felt when she arrived in Onitsha some months later (ND p23). His grave there, which the missionaries might pass daily, served as a constant reminder (ND p28).
The PC sent Dr Battersby, son of the founder of the Keswick Convention, out to the Niger for a few months to give much needed support. A missionary to take care of the accounts, Mr Webber, was also recruited.
On 6 July the London committee appointed Dennis Acting Secretary of the Niger Mission. Dennis wrote from Hastings on 10 July accepting the post but saying he would be ready to hand over and move to Asaba when someone else was appointed (P4 1897/70). Being Secretary would seriously curtail his translation work. It would also involve him in building work. Bishop Tugwell had written in March that a new house would be needed for Dennis at Asaba (P4 1897). But there were immediate needs at Onitsha. Dennis wrote from St Leonard’s on 21 June (P4 1897/65) saying that the ladies at Onitsha needed more accommodation. A separate mud walled house would not cost more than £150 and would be cheaper than extending their present house. The mission house at Asaba was not fit for a European. A suitable one for two Europeans with accommodation for two visitors with raised floor, native fashion walls and an iron roof for collecting rainwater could be built for £450-500. The PC accepted Dennis’s suggestion for Asaba but preferred to extend the existing house for the ladies in Onitsha. Dennis wrote later to add that his estimate for the house at Asaba included the cost of clearing the ground, outbuildings and water tanks (P4 1897/70).
Bishop Tugwell wrote to the PC from Oxshott, England on 20th July to say he needed a competent man to go out to supervise the building of the accommodation and also the erection of another church in Onitsha. He suggested Mr G Hensley who was then in training (P4 1897/71).
On 15th July Fanny introduced Dennis to Mattie Silman at the Dismissal Service at the CMS headquarters in Salisbury Square (LH 4 Oct 1897 & 1-5 July 1898). There was immediate attraction. Matilda Phoebe Silman was born in the same year as Dennis – 1869 – the eldest of four children. She had trained as a kindergarten teacher and received a call to the mission field while teaching in Reading, being greatly helped by the Rev Hubert Brooke, in whose church she worshipped (TADF p20). Mattie had prepared at the CMS Training Centre for women that had settled at 65 Highbury Hill, London in 1892. At Highbury Mattie had become friends with two fellow students – Dennis’s sisters Nellie and Fanny. Dennis and Mattie both attended the annual Keswick Convention. They walked together on Skiddaw mountain and on 23rd July he proposed to her by Lodore waterfalls (LH 23 Jul 1898). The next day he wrote from there to the PC that he had become engaged to Miss M Silman who had recently been appointed to Lagos Girls School. He would like to be married before he returned (P4 1897/72). London agreed to this but did not accept his application for another outfit grant.
Dennis and Mattie were married by Bishop Tugwell a few weeks after their engagement at her home parish of St. John’s Boscombe, Bournemouth on 14th September 1897 (registers p13 number 25). The vicar, Rev Sydney A Selwyn, gave them the verse ‘My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (LH 13 Oct 1897).
They must have wondered how Mattie would fit into the Onitsha situation. Dennis wrote to London to ask about the authority of Louisa Maxwell over the ladies in the outstations (P4 1897/72). She seems to have built her own female kingdom to rival the Mission Executive Committee constituted by the male clergy. London replied that as head of the ladies she might place some to work under superintendents but retained authority on personal matters. Bennett later put a similar query (P4 1898/72). A new recruit, Sidney Smith aged 24 who had just been made deacon, would be going out to the Asaba Training Institution. Dennis asked for a grant for school material and elementary theological books he could use there. He was allowed £11 for books and a blackboard.
Meanwhile in Onitsha the Executive had met to confirm the appointment of T D Anyaegbunam as translator and language teacher for two years at a salary of £30 per annum and given him books to the value of £3. Philip Bennett, Nellie Dennis and Lena Holbrook had asked for leave in December but they were asked to wait until the summer of 1898. London ruled that the first tour should be 18 months and subsequent ones 2 years with leaves of 6 months – but sickness might cut short a tour and shortage of personnel require a longer stay.
- Return to Onitsha with Mattie
Dennis returned to Nigeria in September with his new wife. His sister Fanny was also going with them and she describes their departure in her book Niger Dawn (ND p 11f) ‘A crowd gathered on a departure platform of Euston Station, London, to say farewell to a small party of missionaries leaving for Liverpool to set sail next morning in the SS Bathurst for the River Niger. In the crowd were members of our families, and friends and fellow students. The students hurried to the end of the platform and as our train steamed slowly out of the station the sweet strains of the hymn ‘God be with you till we meet again; keep love’s banner floating o’er you; smite death’s threatening wave before you; God be with you will we meet again’ brought to our hearts the assurance of God’s loving Presence with us all the way. Our party consisted of two newly ordained clergymen, Geoffrey Hensley and Sidney Smith; Edith Warner returning to the Niger after her second furlough; Tom Dennis: his bride Mattie, and myself. The seventh member of our party was Miss Maxwell, whom we would meet on board . . . (Tom) and Mattie, who had been an accepted CMS educational missionary, had been married only a few days, and they were serenely happy in each other’s company’.
They sailed on 25th September (LH 25 Sept 1897) Dennis noted how different this voyage was from the one he had made with Humphrey four years before. He was married and with old friends and going to a place he knew. ‘Fanny is the only one of our ladies who is proof against the sea. Miss Maxwell, Miss Warner and Mattie have not moved more than was absolutely necessary during the whole of today (the 2nd since sailing) and have eaten scarcely anything. Mattie is groaning and sighing in her bunk at this moment and wishing we were at Onitsha’. He took the Sunday Morning Service and Sidney Smith preached. All the passengers who were well attended. ‘Fanny is wonderfully proud of her seamanship and wants very much to see everybody else sick in order that she may boast the more. Sidney Smith and I however are in excellent health and have no intention of gratifying her at present’ (LH 26 Sept 1897). ‘I am enjoying this voyage very much. It is such a joy to have Mattie to look after. She is not ill enough to be cross and has just as good a colour as ever’ (LH 27 Sept 1897).
Fanny writing for the public rather than her parents did not mention sea-sickness: ‘The SS Bathurst was a cargo liner of 5,000 tons belonging to the Elder Dempster Company, built for the West African trade The great majority of passengers were engaged in Commerce on the west Coast . . . The accommodation for ladies was very limited. The West Coast was considered the white man’s grave, and white women were just as well away . . . My bottle of quinine was put in a conspicuous place in the cabin, to share the breakfast table each day, and from that date I took five grains daily all the time I was in West Africa. So, the fight against the great and constant enemy malaria was entered upon. Our days were happily occupied – language study was carried on with zest. Tom and Edith were our instructors, both being familiar with the Ibo speech. There was but little help from lesson books . . . for the most part it was an unwritten language’ (ND pp.14&15).
Dennis felt his Ibo pupils could do better. ‘They don’t get on very fast. I am afraid they don’t regard the learning of the language in quite as serious a light as they ought’ (LH 30 Sept 1897). But a week later he wrote that they were beginning to ‘feel their feet’ and had learnt about 100 words (LH 5 Oct 1897) Mattie soon recovered from her sickness. She ‘can’t get enough to satisfy’ her now. Her one cry is ‘I am hungry.’ (LH 1 Oct 1897). They were enjoying talking on the deck ‘lover fashion’ and recalling how everything had worked out so wonderfully and easily since their meeting just three months before (LH 4 Oct 1897). Dennis also noted that Fanny ‘finds a great deal of pleasure and I trust profit in Mr Hensley’s company. If he were coming onto the Niger anything might happen’ (LH 5 Oct 1897).
Stopping in Freetown Tom, Mattie and Fanny were able to spend a night at Fourah Bay College with the Humphreys. Geoffrey Hensley was asked to stay there rather than continue to Nigeria in order to replace a missionary who had died up country (SD p 16). So the Niger lost a clergyman who had previously trained as an engineer who could have helped with building work. Tom was recognised by many who were warm in their greetings and preached the next day at Bishop Crowther Memorial Church to a crowded congregation. ‘It was the Morning Prayer of the English Prayer Book with familiar hymns’ (ND p 18).
Dennis got news from Dr Battersby that Nellie and Lena Holbrook were in good health. He was able to visit friends of John Carney and Johnny Wright and hand over bundles he had carried for them. He was encouraged that ‘The Scripture Union work begun by Alvarez and myself has developed into a great and really important agency for good. There are branches in all parts of the Colony with hundreds of members. A young man who used to attend the SU meetings which I had for the soldiers is now set apart for SU and colportage work with a salary paid partly by CSSM and partly by BFBS. They have sold 2,000 Bibles during this present year’ (LH 11 Oct 1897).
Dennis wrote to the PC from the ship. He wanted Mr Strong to leave as soon as possible. Spencer should replace him. There should be two Europeans at Asaba – one for the station and one for the Training Institution. Smith should take up the training work in Onitsha. The ideal would be a two story brick house at Asaba but that would cost more than £600 (P4 1897/107).
Bishop Tugwell and Ernest Thomas were returning to Nigeria on the Dahomey (LH 3 Oct 1897). When both ships were at Accra Dennis was able to consult with the Bishop. They did not want Spencer moved from the Training Institution, so more English recruits were needed for Onitsha. With Bennett and Strong going on leave from Onitsha Dennis would like Smith priested. Mr Dodds from Brass should be asked to supervise the building of the new house at Asaba. He learned that Proctor from Brass and Nott had gone on leave. Dennis would try to get a sawyer from Lagos and a builder from Abeokuta. The bishop would get them a typewriter for Onitsha as Mattie thought she could manage it (P4 1897 107 & LH 12 Oct 1897).
On Sunday 17th the Bishop, now on the Bathurst, preached at the morning Service and at 3.00pm the ship anchored off Lagos where he left them (LH 17 Oct 1897). Fanny described the process: ‘early all our fellow passengers who had companied with us from Liverpool and were still on board, left the ship at Lagos . . . The passengers had to tranship to a branch steamer via the ‘mammy-chair’, Which was a half tub in which they took turns to sit, and were lifted up into the air by a crane, and swung over into a small boat which was rowed to the branch steamer, for the journey over the bar choked with sand, into the lagoon dividing the quay from the bar . . . we stayed here only long enough for the passengers to land; for all the heavy cargo was taken on to the Niger Delta, to be transhipped back again to Lagos on branch steamers’ (ND p 20).
‘The next day we dropped anchor at Forcados, one of the mouths of the Niger. When we came out on deck in the morning we could see only a wet drizzly mist everywhere. We were not far from the water’s edge and, as we got used to the mist, mangrove trees hid the land from us. A forbidding black swamp could be seen between the trees, and frequently a long narrow canoe, paddled by several natives, darted out into the open. A long jetty, made of trunks of mangrove trees roped together, stacked with cargo; mostly casks of palm oil and palm kernels, could be discerned, and Kroo boys actively engaged with the heavy task of loading and unloading steamers. A small flat-bottomed stern wheeler belonging to the Niger Company was standing by the Bathurst, waiting to take us and our belongings up the Niger, but there was absolutely no sign of a river, just one vast mantle of hot mist and mangrove swamp and sea.
By launch up the Niger
‘We said goodbye to the old Captain who had for many years been coming and going to this desolate region. He had never ventured up the Niger, and expressed his deep dislike of all he knew of it, and especially of the entering into its unknown horrors of white women like us . . . The deck of the launch was scattered with our stores and baggage’ (ND p 20f).
The only passengers going up the river were the Mission group with Ernest Thomas and Dr Craster of the RNC. Mattie was getting badly bitten by mosquitoes on her hands and ankles but managed to type a letter Dennis dictated (LH 19&20 Oct 1897). Fanny described the voyage: ‘An African was at the wheel, and was responsible for the rest of our voyage. He steamed closer to the wharf and secured us there for the night. With the help of Kroo boys space sufficient was found for our deck chairs and camp beds; as we were to picnic and sleep on deck until we reached our destination, which was Onitsha, 150 miles up the unseen river. At 6 p.m. when darkness fell, the activities of the wharf ceased, hurricane lanterns were lighted and innumerable small reptiles and flying insects awoke to life. The combined sounds of croaking frogs, piercing notes of crickets, swishing wings of preying mantis, singing of mosquitoes in my ears; as they sought an unprotected place in my flesh to inject their poison and rob me of much needed blood, and all the other sounds of tropical night, pass description. As I lay on my camp bed with the mosquito net tucked carefully around me I thought certainly I should not sleep, but the lap of the water on the hull of our launch made a continual lullaby, and the sweet peace of God’s Presence drew me very quickly into the calm of His beloved sleep, and the next thing I knew was that a new day had come and we were moving on the river’.
‘It was very exciting to see that our launch was threading its way past mangrove swamps, in the waste of the delta, and as the day went on we gradually found ourselves within sight of both banks of the river. And this was the Niger! Occasionally a frail canoe shot out from the dark forbidding jungle, otherwise there was no sight of human life, and all the first day we saw no villages. Each night our boat was anchored until daybreak. The next day there were no mangroves. They grow only where the river is affected by the tides, and while the banks were still swampy, here and there were villages with houses built on wooden piles, and as we passed the people came to look at us. During the rainy season, which is roughly from June to October, the river rises twenty-five feet and falls very rapidly (this variation is now reduced by dams upstream). About Christmas time the sand-banks are a great trouble in the river. The best time for travelling is in the late rains, but our captain took no risks, preferring not to travel in the darkness. On the third day the river banks were getting perceptible and the trees and vegetation were very lovely. Early on the fourth day the banks became high’.
‘Quite early there was a bright light to be seen and to us new missionaries it was thrilling to hear that our seniors believed it to be from a mirror on the Mission House at Onitsha. We knew there was as great eagerness for us there as we for them. The sunset was most glorious as we reached Onitsha, and what a boisterous welcome we received! Planks were put across from the launch to the river bank, and we were literally in the arms of the crowd. Hundreds of people, surely all the Christians of Onitsha who could get down to the waterside, were there. With what acclamations of joy Nneayi (Maxwell) and Edith were received, and what a tumultuous welcome Tom and his bride got, and we two new missionaries were not left out in the cold! My own dear sister Nellie, who had been out a year, was foremost among the waiting crowd . . . The sunset does not last long and we were soon being carried on the exultant wave of joy the two miles up to the Mission Compound, but not before ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’ was sung by the crowd’ (ND pp.22-23). Besides Nellie, Alice Wilson, Bennett, Mr Webber the new accountant and Rev Ernest Hill, who was based in Basa, were in Onitsha that night. Thomas stayed on the launch as he was continuing upstream to Lokoja (LH 22 Oct 1897).
Back in Onitsha
The next day was fully occupied receiving visitors and unpacking, The packers had been careless and half the items seemed to be broken, There was no chance to talk business with Bennett, Dennis wrote: ‘We went this afternoon and looked at Archdeacon Dobinson’s grave. It has a neat wooden railing round it at present. Perhaps you can imagine a little my feelings as we stood at the graveside. In so many ways I have been reminded of him since my return. Already I have realised to some extent the magnitude of the work which lies before me’. But that evening they had some good hymn singing. ‘I am so glad that Mattie can play and sing well’ (LH 23 Oct 1897).
There were many people to see and matters to sort out. Bennett felt unwell and was anxious to go home rather than wait for the bishop’s visit. He went back to Obosi to pack. Smith and Webber would move to the old CMS compound in Onitsha and look after themselves there. Spencer was disappointed that Sydney Smith was not going to Asaba. The ladies wanted to have a separate establishment with a cook and store of their own. All this would mean Mattie would have a lighter domestic load. She was suffering greatly from the mosquitoes. Her feet and legs were too sore for her to think of writing or anything but they discovered that eucalyptus oil gave some relief. Dennis visited the YMCA which was now meeting three times a week and planning a house. Many people were applying for work but he could refer them to Webber. George Anyaegbunam had a house full of boys he was training. Dennis was encouraged by greetings from so many of the Christians. Those from the Waterside presented a sheep, two fowls, yams, bananas and plantains. Four days after arriving Dennis took Sidney Smith, Mattie, Nellie and Fanny over to Asaba where he wanted to look at the ground on which the house for Europeans would be built (LH 25-28 Oct & 27 Nov 1897)
Dennis (or was it his wife?) found the houses looking dilapidated. He wrote to London requesting paint and also more printing paper (P4 1897/114). Buildings were to be a problem. Tugwell felt that large sums had been wasted through lack of skilled supervision. Dodds could not be spared. A European carpenter was needed for Onitsha (P4 1897/117). When Dennis preached on 31 October he was glad that the people understood. He held language exams two days later. Alice Wilson passed the 2nd, Nellie and Lena Holbrook the 1st (P4 1898/28). Alice and Lena would go to Obosi (LH 31 Oct & 2 Nov 1897). Edith Warner and Nellie would concentrate on the Girls School; Louisa Maxwell and Fanny on the dispensary. Dennis and Sidney Smith would visit the outstations to preach (P4 1898/?5).
Church building at Asaba
On 3rd November Dennis was down with fever for 3 days but Mattie played for the waterside service and started to superintend the Sunday school on the 7th. Then it was her turn to be down (LH 3-8 No, 1897). When Mattie recovered Dennis and Sidney went over to Asaba. There had been a dispute about land for the new church but then Lazarus offered a better piece that belonged to his own family. In addition to gifts from many sources the Asaba Christians were giving their labour for its erection – 2 days each for cutting posts and rafters, for putting mats on the roof, and for making the mud floor and seats. It was encouraging that the members giving had tripled over the year. He visited Akwuku and saw 10 baptism candidates and also Onitsha-olona but was disappointed by lack of progress. He then went to Atuma. There the people were anxious to have a teacher but there was none available. He badly needed more men for the Asaba side. Sidney declared that Dennis was more than half a native judging by the quantity of food he ate and the relish with which Dennis consumed what he could not stomach (LH 1 & 18 Nov 1987).
The Onitsha hinterland
On 19th November Dennis took Mattie to Obosi to stay with the ladies. After a meeting with church members to discuss financial support he went on alone to Nkpor, Ogidi and Ogbunike. At Ogidi he was encouraged by 18 baptised Christians and 8 candidates for baptism but at Ogbunike Joshua Kodilinyi was facing much opposition. Dennis was tired when he got back to Obosi but preached at the Sunday service there next day. On Monday he sent Mattie back to Onitsha by hammock while he walked to Oba where there was no agent at that time and then visited Ojioto where no progress had been possible. Back at Obosi he found there had been thefts of timber from the sawyer’s house. A search discovered wood in 15 houses including a chief’s. Pagans had attacked Christians. Dennis had a meeting with the king and chiefs but got no satisfaction. He went down to Obosi wharf and appealed to the RNC to take action. Back in Onitsha he heard reports of fighting between Ogidi and Umuoji when a man had been shot in the forehead (LH 24 Nov 1897)
Such troubles did not sap the determination to move forward. Walter Okorafo reported on a visit he had made to Awka. ‘Awka is a large town 40-50 miles (sic) to the north-east of Onitsha which I hope may be occupied some day by CMS. The people are blacksmiths and travel all over the Niger territories. In every town their little sheds can be found. They are a peaceable people as it is to their interest not to get embroiled in any quarrel. To establish a station there would be an important step towards the evangelisation of lboland. I hope that either the bishop or myself may be able to visit Awka before Christmas with a view to seeing what can be done. The people are quite willing to receive a visit from us and hear our message’ (LH 24 Nov 1897).
On 30th November Bishop Tugwell and Ernest Hill stayed overnight on their way to Lokoja. There were now more than 120 English people there – chiefly Government agents – and only one missionary. The bishop had been in Brass where he said the industrial school was going well with boys learning blacksmithing, carpentry and printing. He commended Mattie on her domestic arrangements and said she should start a cookery school. They now shared their house ‘with a cook and nine other boys of all ages and sizes over whom Mattie has unbounded influence . . . she certainly knows how to manage boys and they like her and will do anything for her without the slightest grumbling’. Besides welcoming visitors Mattie would often have to cater for large numbers as when the agents had their monthly meeting. The bishop wrote to the PC that Dennis was not looking well and seemed overworked. In fact he went down again with fever but ‘Mattie was a treasure’ and waited on him hand and foot. More encouraging was the news that Geoffrey Hensley, who had been left in Sierra Leone, was being promised for Asaba and should arrive in February (LH 10 Dec 1397 & P4 1898/7&13).
Dennis to slow down?
Dennis tended to tackle things with great energy but might then exhaust himself and go down with fever. Some advised him to slow down. ‘It is amusing but also touching to hear the advice from one and another to go softly. There seems to be a feeling of misapprehension all round that I am in danger of overdoing it and so breaking down altogether. (The death of Dobinson was all too recent). One kind friend suggested that I should sit in the house at the Ozala and direct operations thus, another told me I ought to have a clerk. I have been persuaded by Rev J Spencer to give up an itineration on the other side of the river and I may perhaps abstain from all itineration this Christmas time’ (LH 16 Dec 1897).
Dennis was taken up with practical administration. He had to write to London about the employment of mission servants, the compound headman, the labourers who also carried messages for the outstations, the six canoe men and the necessity of reliable people to guard the ladies (P4 1898/27). All the new arrivals had had fever. He was still awaiting a builder who could direct the housing. A new roof was needed for one of the Onitsha houses. Although corrugated iron was more expensive than thatch it would last and meant rain water could be collected. He would like cement channels round all the houses draining into large underground cisterns. He did not get a grant for this but eventually got money for 14 large iron water tanks for Ozala, Obosi and Asaba (P4 1898/82). He also enclosed a sketch for a 36 ft long low draught steel barge for safe travel between Onitsha and Asaba. This would avoid the risk of the native canoes and enable loads to be carried (P4 1898/28).
8. The second Onitsha tour
Much of Dennis’s time was taken up with administration and pastoral care but he was still concerned to extend the mission’s influence and continue the work of translation. In December 1897 the first baptism took place in the new Immanuel Church, Onitsha. Previous baptisms had been in the river, But the main significance was that the candidate was a local chief (LH 10 Dec 1897). On 14th December Mattie examined the waterside school while Dennis examined the Girls School (LH 16 Dec 1897). The next day there was a prize giving at the Girls School with a number of parents and friends coming to hear the girls recite and sing and see prizes distributed to those who had done best. The following day there was a treat for the Umuaroli children in the CMS compound. 65 attended and after a feast each was presented with a garment made by friends in England. Dennis told his family that he would need another 400 garments at least, mostly boys. He then interviewed baptism candidates. Two days later he visited the Confirmation Class (LH 16&17 Dec 1897).
The next day Dennis and Mattie were in Asaba. Spencer warned that an attack was being planned on the RNC. People from Benin were probably behind it. British Government forces had sacked Benin earlier in 1897 to try to end the practice of large scale human sacrifice. At 10.30pm Dennis was woken up by the Commandant of the RNC Constabulary, Captain Day, who said an attack on Europeans in Asaba was threatened. Sentries were stationed near the house who would blow a warning bugle when it happened. He was then to take Mattie, Mrs Spencer and the children to the judge’s house. The Captain would come with soldiers to escort them. ‘This was rather exciting and Mattie and I decided to dress and prepare for anything that might happen. Nothing did happen however and after an hour or so I fell asleep and slept till morning’. It was later learned that the Asaba people had refused to take part in the attack. As it was now Sunday Dennis rook the services as usual (LH 18 Dec 1897).
Despite being urged to take things easier Dennis was still getting out and about. Two days later he and Mattie made a five hour canoe journey to Osomali on the Asaba side of the river where CMS had worked some time previously and 13 had been baptised before 1888. However, the Sierra Leonian agent had then retired sick and the work been abandoned. Now it had been restarted and there were 40 children in a school, several able to read the Ibo Scriptures after five months. ‘They know the main facts of the life of Christ, have learnt several hymns, the Creed, the Lords Prayer and Ten Commandments by heart, and are struggling to master various reading sheets’ A church was being built and members were contributing £12 a year towards the maintenance of two teachers. Dennis and Mattie were given a house to stay in but it was not very clean. ‘As in all Ibo towns the sanitary arrangements are very primitive. Nonetheless he reported Mattie as saying later she had never been as happy. Being married and on the mission field put such hardships in perspective (LH 21&22 Dec 1897).
Christmas in Onitsha
Back in Onitsha Dennis listened to accounts of others who had been visiting outstations. On Christmas Eve they gave all their house boys a feast. On Christmas Day Dennis celebrated Communion in English for 8 Europeans and 3 natives and then preached at the Ibo service at 9.00 before taking a wedding. There were baptisms at Immanuel and Umuaroli. In the afternoon Alice Wilson and Lena Holbrook joined them from Obosi. Two of the villages were still quarrelling and the RNC constabulary had been in. The Christians were keeping out of the dispute (LH 24-25 Dec 1897).
British Government development
On 27th December gunboats filled with soldiers passed on their way upriver to Lokoja. Dennis wrote: ‘It seems clear that the (British) Government will take over the administration of the River next year and I for one shall rejoice. I wonder whether any other (missionary) societies may commence work when the River is thrown open. There is plenty of room. This part of Africa will never be evangelised if it is left to the CMS to do it. It would take a thousand years at the present rate of progress and extent of reinforcements (LH 27 Dec 1897). Dennis had underestimated the extent to which the Ibos would evangelise themselves. Dennis again wrote about the need for government on 7th March. Some Umuoji people had murdered, mutilated and partly eaten an Ogidi woman and the rest refused to hand them over to Ogidi people to be hanged. ‘What is wanted is a strong just government over the whole country to punish (such) crimes . . . and to protect the weak. Might is right in Ibo country and murder and robbery are the order of the day. Of course the only remedy that cuts at the root of the wickedness and lawlessness that abound on every hand is the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . but we are “feeble, faint and few”‘ (LH 7 Mar 1898).
The next day the bishop arrived and also the RNC doctor, Craster. Alice Wilson had been suffering with her throat for a year and the doctor diagnosed a form of consumption and said she must leave without delay. Dennis was sorry to lose her as she had proved a hard and earnest worker. She left on 1st January. It meant withdrawing Europeans from Obosi (LH 28 Dec 1897 & 1 Jan 1898). Dennis himself wrote to the PC that she had been ordered home sick. She went to Tenerife and then back to New Zealand. Dennis feared that Louisa Maxwell might break down. He reminded the PC that Lena Holbrook and Nellie were due leave in July (P4 1898/14).
At the end of 1897 Dennis wrote in his Annual Letter that double the number of Europeans was needed on the Niger as the work tended to break down when people went on leave. Europeans were needed both to train the natives and to work with them. However, the work went on and some of the natives were showing real enthusiasm. Average attendances at Immanuel and Umuaroli schools in Onitsha were 60 and 50 respectively. Some of the ‘boys were married men with children but very eager to learn. Many able to read had joined the Scripture Union and attended its fortnightly meetings. One young man walked daily to Nkpor, four miles away, to teach people there what he had learned and with the help of others from Immanuel was holding Sunday services there. They were now putting up a building. Three young men from Umuaroli were going seven miles every day to Oze to witness there. There had been 25 baptisms at Immanuel and 15 at Umuaroli. All were able to read except for one old chief. A small number had faced persecution from relatives. Two had been turned out of their homes. One man had had his books burned by his wife. The old chief had been robbed (AL 1897). Dennis told his father. ‘Such a large portion of my time seems taken up with talking. People of all sorts come to me’ (LH 29 Dec 1897)
(Statistics for the Niger Mission at this time are to be found in P4 1898/42)
Mission in Asaba
After an agents meeting Dennis left the bishop with Mattie and went to Asaba for a week’s mission The town was divided into 25 districts with 3 members assigned to visit each. There were 54 communicants on Sunday. Then each day after an early prayer meeting together the visitors went out. The heathen were invited to a special service each evening when five well known natives would speak – two CMS agents, two students at the Training Institution and Enoch who was one of the numerous Asaba kings and a clever blacksmith whom the Asaba church was paying £12 a year as a kind of ‘Scripture Reader’ or ‘City Missionary’ (LH 1&2 Jan 1898). People had little farming to do at this time of year and the moonlit nights were good for meetings. Large crowds attended. The first night was a bit rowdy but then they got better organised. The regular worshippers sat among the heathen rather than in their Sunday places. The speakers – there were three each night – stood in the middle of the building. The children who had caused a disturbance ‘were all packed together on the floor at the east end and six of the Christians kept guard over them with long sticks. This was not by Dennis’s instruction but it worked well. There were hymns and prayers but the people sat throughout. The meetings closed at 9.00pm. ‘When the people are told that the time has come for them to go home they set up a shout which lasts until they are clear of the building (LH 4 Jan 1898). ‘I noticed several times during the evening one of the kings who was afraid to come inside but sat in the shadow just outside the side door of the building where he could hear every word. I thought of Nicodemus. There are many like Nicodemus in Asaba’ (LH 6 Jan 1898).
Back in Onitsha
When Dennis returned to Onitsha he was able to spend several days talking over the situation with the bishop (LH 10&11 Jan 1898). He learned that the ladies had been to Ogidi while the bishop and Webber had visited Sidney Smith, who had had a severe fever, in Obosi (LH 5 Jan 1 1898). It was agreed that Mattie should concentrate on the Waterside school. This had 90 children and she soon had everything ‘in capital order’. Strong who had been at the Waterside was returning to Sierra Leone because of failing eyesight. He left in April (P4 1898/82). Nellie and Lena Holbrook would live at Obosi. All were busy with day and Sunday schools, baptism and confirmation classes. Dennis reckoned there were now 20 schools in the Mission and over 600 children. He hoped his family and friends could supply garments for them. The YMCA at their home church of St Matthew’s might raise funds for materials. The Onitsha Scripture Union was growing. There were 90 at the meeting on 24 January and 115 on 7th February. Dennis hoped that they would be able to support two evangelists instead of one this year. They would need to collect 25 shillings a month (LH 12 Jan – 7 Feb 1898 & P4 1898/41).
Buildings were a major concern in discussion with the bishop. An all round man was needed who could make bricks, build and draw plans. The bishop himself supervised the erection of some outbuildings (P4 1898/48). Dennis realised he needed ridging, nails and gutters for the new corrugated iron sheets he had ordered earlier, (Perhaps he had been dreaming too much of his steel barge – (P4 1898/41) ‘The bishop and I have been to the waterside to measure out some ground which the RNC are granting us for the new church we are planning to build there. We want to build a sort of cathedral to seat more than 1,000 persons’. The bishop was also thinking of a chapel for the Ozala. We will ‘have quite a colony there when we get the Hospital, Training Institution, Industrial School and all the other projects floating through our brains’. However, lack of manpower and resources meant little could be done immediately. Dennis heard from the PC that they had decided first tours in West Africa should be just 18 months. This meant Nellie and Lena were due for leave (LH 15 Feb 1898).
First Native Clergyman
The Bishop ordained George Anyaegbunam deacon on 13th February. Over 500 were present at the service and there was good order for 2½ hours – a great improvement on the uproar when the church was opened 3 years previously. Anyaegbunam and his wife would look after a hostel for girls and boys. ‘The heathen were greatly interested in Anyaegbunam’s ordination. They all salute him as ‘Uko Cuku’ (priest of God) and they seem to think that what took place corresponded in some degree to the ceremonies which are performed when a man ‘takes a title’ or in other words becomes a chief’. After a title taking everyone would be invited to a large feast. There was disappointment at the end of the ordination service when only a few were allowed to stay for Holy Communion (LH 15 Feb 1898). Some of Dennis’s letters covering this period seem to be missing. But Fanny wrote an account of the ordination for friends (CMS Acc 89 25 Feb 1898 kept with Dennis’s letters) ‘The congregations of the other churches assembled at Immanuel . . . the place was packed inside and around the doors and windows before the service began. . . the Christians had dressed in their best . . . heathen in . . . solitary cloth or nothing. The bishop wore his red convocation robes’. Dennis was chaplain and presented the candidate. Spencer, Strong and Smith assisted. The service had been translated into Ibo. It was dreadfully hot but nobody minded. Two heathen chiefs who were given prominent seats were indignant when excluded from the Holy Communion ‘feast’. Fanny went on to say that some men had been excommunicated for marrying a heathen or taking a second wife. She commented: ‘a wife is rarely more than a slave even among the Christians. They cannot conceive of a woman being on an equality with a man and the women do not seem to wish to be different’. On Dennis and Mattie she wrote ‘The natives see a very happy home life out here and they like to come to my brother’s house’. But Fanny herself suffered bouts of homesickness. ‘Sometimes I want the dear ones very badly and the longing to see the home faces is almost unbearable, but Jesus is always such a refuge and He does satisfy’.
In the same letter Fanny wrote about the birth of twins being regarded as an abomination and such babies being thrown away. ‘The other day two little tiny babies were brought to us. They were only a few hours old and the mother had run away from them in her fear. They were being carried out in a mat to be put in the bush when a Christian woman told one of the agents who got possession of them and brought them to us. Two bonny little girls they were of whom any mother might be proud. The king was appealed to but he refused to listen to anything about them saying that they were a curse and we could do as we liked with them . . . So we kept them for one night and then delivered them over to the care of a Christian woman but both died within two weeks. How could they live without a mother’s care?’
On 16th February the bishop celebrated being married for two years by inviting all Onitsha and Obosi Christians who had been married in church to a feast. The eighty who came were all given presents of soap and candles (LH 16 Feb 1898). The next day Dennis was examining candidates for confirmation. Nine were accepted but one couple had to get married first. He would do it in the next 2 or 3 days (LH 17 Feb 1898). It was a pity they had missed the feast. After all the pressures of meeting people in Onitsha Dennis and Mattie escaped to Obosi for a couple of days peace. ‘On the way back Mattie gave me a singing lesson. I intend to get a course of lessons from her so that when we come home on furlough we may sing Ibo duets together at missionary meetings’ (LH 19&20 Feb 1898).
The bishop went to Ogbunike where he had ‘a lively discussion . . . with some of the chiefs who demanded that they should be paid for allowing their children to come to school. Of course the bishop told them plainly that nothing of the sort would be done and they ultimately departed in a great rage vowing and declaring that their children should never again set foot inside the Mission House that they would tie them up to prevent them from coming etc etc. One angry father shook his fist in the face of his Christian son and told him that he would sell him for a slave and with the money buy a wife for his heathen brother. The school boys many of whom are candidates for baptism, remained to a late hour with the bishop and Joshua (Kodilinyi) and expressed their fixed determination to remain steadfast’ (LH 20 Feb 1898).
Dennis wrote to London about the lack of material, furniture and system in the schools. Mattie was sorting things out, had drawn up rules, taught management and appointed pupil teachers and monitors. £30 was needed to provide accommodation for pupil teachers and monitors (really junior pupil teachers) (P4 1898/117) whom he would supervise. He listed books and materials required for the Onitsha district schools costing £60 excluding maps and Bibles. As there were no reliable clocks a large bell was needed which could be heard throughout the town so schools could run punctually (P4 1898/118). This would cost £25. (Later, one was to be offered free from England though freight might cost £10 (P4 1901/331). There were 9 well established schools with 400 pupils and 6 other schools where nothing but Ibo was taught (P4 1898/49). The Executive affirmed the rule laid down by Tugwell and Dobinson in 1894 that in school Scripture should be taught in the vernacular. After an exam in this had been passed other studies might be done in English. He was planning that Mr Hensley should go to Asaba. (He was the ordained engineer originally destined for the Niger who had had to fill a gap in Sierra Leone.
Translation work and the Scripture Union
On 1st March 1898 Dennis wrote to say. ‘I have commenced translational work again with Mr T D Anaegbunam. He has just finished the NT alone and we are revising now from the Epistle to the Hebrews onwards so that it may be ready for printing. It requires much thought, and you may well pray that the Holy Spirit may enable us to do to God’s glory this all important work of translating the Scriptures into the Ibo language. I wish I had more time to give to it’. But Dennis was busy then with Executive Committee minutes and the next day formed a new Confirmation Class. When he discovered only half a dozen of them could read he decided to divide the time between teaching reading and teaching the catechism (LH 1-2 Mar 1898). He had 18 boys living in the house – some of them pupil teachers or monitors – supposedly employed in domestic work and he needed to keep them busy (LH 3 Mar 1898). Mattie was often at her wits end with the pupil teachers and monitors as the majority hadn’t the slightest idea how to teach. But Mattie was thrilled at the increasing SU collections – the latest 33 shillings, up from under 19 the last time. ‘Immanuel was at the head of the list with 13 shillings in cash, cowries, tobacco and pineapples. Some of the Umuaroli boys brought us firewood and this earnt some pence for the collection. There was good cause to be thankful for the willing spirit shown (LH 7 Mar 1898). There was another record collection on 4th April. 14 shillings was in cowries. As there were 195 cowries to the penny this needed considerable counting and carrying (LH 4 Apr 1898). On 21st March no less than 100 SU members had gone to Oze to preach (LH 21 Mar 1898). Bennett, who was on leave, arranged for BFBS to produce an interim edition of Gospels and Acts (P4 1898/72). On 30th March he told BFBS editorial sub committee that the Gospels were not sufficiently idiomatic. More work on them would be needed. Dennis was now working on translation and revision with TD Anyaegbunam as Dobinson had done previously. While a few complete New Testaments might be printed for the workers it would be better to print Acts to Revelation and then add the Gospels when they had been revised. Bennett’s personal view was that the version should be called Onitsha Ibo though he realised Dobinson had established a precedent in calling it Niger Ibo (BFBS edit sub com minutes vol 25 pp177.8).
Lack of staff for outstations
On 9th March Dennis had a discouraging letter from the PC to say that Hensley was detained in Freetown indefinitely as Humphrey was sick and that he could expect no more reinforcements. He worried that ‘the work in our outstations is a galloping consumption. Oba and Onitsha-Olona are abandoned, Ogidi and Ogbunike are gasping for breath’ (LH 9 Mar 1898) It was terribly frustrating when there were so many openings to be seized. Louisa Maxwell and Edith Warner had treated two wounded natives from Nkwelle at the dispensary and given them lodging for a fortnight. They then visited Nkwelle with them to preach the Gospel and were well received. They wished it could be followed up (LH 19 Mar 1898). Spencer visited with a delegation from Atuma. They had built a church but had no one to come and teach them (LH 3 Apr 1898). Dennis wrote to the PC (P4 1898/63) regretting that Hensley was detained in Sierra Leone. The need for a European resident in Asaba was urgent. The site for the house had been cleared but a builder was awaited. On 27 April another delegation from Asaba asked that 3 men in the Training Institution be released to work in local churches. Dennis agreed with this idea but said they must await the decision of the Executive Committee in June (LH 27 Apr 1898).
Joshua Kodilinye reported from Ogbunike that ‘one boy who refused to take part in building an idol house was thrown into the hole where they were treading mud for the house and covered with mud from head to foot. He was then told that if he continued to refuse after the mud was rubbed on him the idol might be expected to kill him. Thank God his faith stood the test’ (LH 11 Mar 1898). Three days later Dennis was amused at the gross exaggeration of an English press report about Ibuzo where “hundreds of people are sacrificed every year”. It was true there had been occasional sacrifices but on a much smaller scale that in Benin (LH 14 Mar 1898).
At Obosi girls who married had to have ‘some abominable heathen ceremony’ performed on them when they went to the house of their husband. ‘Any children born before this ceremony’ are put in earthenware pots and thrown into the bush to die’. There was one place where you could see hundreds. Christians refused to undergo this ceremony so there was always a disturbance when a child was born. Mother and child would usually hide away in another town. One such woman was in the CMS compound in Onitsha. Felicia, who was Fanny’s domestic help, had been kidnapped by her father-in-law. Her husband had smashed all the family idols but the Christians managed to get her back (LH 19 Mar 1898).
In April Dennis wrote about some women living at the Waterside who had had to leave their own villages because they were suspected of witchcraft. One was believed to be able to turn herself into a hippopotamus or crocodile at will. When a hippopotamus overturned a canoe and bit a crew member the woman was attacked. She had to take refuge in the CMS compound. Dennis then managed to get her to a safe place at Obosi wharf (LH 9 Apr 1898). You could not argue with such beliefs. There was further trouble on 4th June when some twins were born. ‘We must let the mother live on the Mission premises till the babies are weaned. Then we can have the children and do what we like with them. It is quite certain their relations will give them a wide berth (LH 4 Jun 1898).
The rains had begun and Dennis wrote: we have been much plagued with insects during the last night or two- Such swarms come in the moment the lamps are lighted and get into and upon everything and everybody. Dinner is certainly eaten under difficulties when all kinds of flying things, most of which can bite, settle and crawl all over one, drop into the soup and the drinking water . . . I am perfectly well used to them, but poor Mattie feels the ‘creatures’ as she calls them to be the plague of her life’ (LH 19 Mar 1898). Mattie has just informed me with an expression of horror which must be seen to be appreciated that there is a cockroach a mile long (!) crawling on my back. We are rather overstocked with cockroaches just now and I am sorry to say that a smaller but even more unpleasant visitor has somehow found its way into our establishment. I mean the insect sometimes vulgarly called the “B-flat”‘ (LH 20 Apr 1898).
But life and work continued. On Friday nights Mattie was teaching English at the YMCA. Mattie: ‘How do you do, Thomas?” “I don’t do nothing, Ma”. (LH 19 Mar 1898) Dennis had started to teach reading in the Sunday School was giving advanced lessons to one of the agents, NO Nzekwu, three evenings a week (LH 30 Mar 1898). He had to pay the labourers wages when Webber was visiting Brass to do their accounts there (LH 8 Mar & 1 Apr & 4 May 1898). There were also visits to outstations every week or two. On 21st March he had been at Oze with the SU. On 9 April he went to Nkpor with Rev George Anyaegbunam to see 11 boys who wanted to be baptised. They also met the parents to explain what was involved and challenge them to respond themselves. The adults agreed to their children being baptised but would not commit themselves. Dennis presented each candidate with a small piece of cotton cloth which they were to wear on Sundays and special occasions. They left Onitsha at 5.30am and were back by 10.00am (LH 9 April 1898). Amongst all such activities Dennis occasionally refers to helping with translation work (LH 14 Apr 1898)
Mattie was sick for three days but recovered (LH 31 Mar 1898). A sign that Mattie and I are in fair health is that we have excellent appetites. We easily manage a moderate plump fowl between us at each meal besides the usual quantity of soup, pudding, vegetables and fruit. It is only fair to Mattie to say that she has a good half of everything. It is fortunate that neither of us tire of yam and fowl for breakfast (usually taken about 9.0 a.m.) and fowl and yam for dinner. Sidney Smith hates fowls and is in consequence largely dependent upon tinned meats which are not so wholesome’ (LH 4 Apr & 27 May 1898).
Dr Clayton arrives
On Easter Sunday Dennis had 70 for communion at Christ Church and 30 at Immanuel. Two days later the new missionary, Dr Arthur Clayton, aged 25, arrived. Dennis’s first impression of him was favourable (LH 10&12 Apr 1898). Clayton planned to turn the disused school in the churchyard into a dispensary which would be larger than the present building. The bishop hoped a hospital could be established as a memorial to Dobinson (LH 14 Apr 1898). Louisa Maxwell, Fanny, and later Sarah Hickmott, helped Clayton when they were not engaged in language study and other duties, but Dennis feared the Doctor would be overworked (20 Apr 1898). On 25th April Clayton was in bed with a high fever. He proved a bad patient and they had to send for Dr Craster to come over from Asaba (LH 25 Apr 1898). On 30th they gave him a cold bath as his temperature was up again but two days later he began a slow improvement and they no longer had to sit up with him (LH 30 Apr & 2 May 1898). However, within a week he was bad again (LH 8 May 1898).
On Sunday 17th April Dennis was at Obosi for baptisms and a wedding. These meant two hours in church so he cancelled Morning Prayer. ‘It is very much harder to speak in Ibo than in English. I suppose it is because I have not yet begun to think in Ibo’ (LH 17 Apr 1898). Mattie was bad with fever on the 21st. Dennis gave up his other duties to concentrate on caring for her. Fortunately she was much better the next day (LH 21-22 Apr 1898). On the 30th there was disturbing news from Sierra Leone. It was thought that Humphrey had been killed by rebels. ‘The same thing might happen to anyone of us here on the Niger any day’ (LH 30 Apr 1898). On the 4th May his death was confirmed. I am very sorry for Mrs Humphrey. The news of Humphrey’s murder has recalled all the past 4½ years to my mind. How full those years have been of disaster and death here in West Africa’. More cheerful news was that James Wilson and his wife had returned to Brass in better health after a break in Sierra Leone. (He was an older man who had previously been in the Congo – not to be confused with George Wilson – LH 4 May 1898).
On 7th May two to three hundred RNC soldiers with a dozen European officers arrived at Obosi wharf from Lokoja intending to sort out the troubles at Ojioto and Umuoji. Dennis had been saying that strong government was necessary but the size of the force seemed to have shocked him. ‘I don’t know what to think of these expeditions. Force is no remedy’ (LH 4 May 1898). However, a week later he wrote that the RNC had settled matters at Oba, Ojiotu and Umuoji with little trouble (LH 11 May 1898). While external force might not change inner character such a massive show of force curbed the immediate violence. The RNC also arrested Ezioba, the head of the largest Onitsha village who had been making trouble and took him to Lokoja. Dennis thought the king of Onitsha wanted him removed but did not think the king was much better. He was drunk when he went to meet him (LH 16 May 1898).
On 12th May Lena Holbrook and Nellie passed their 2nd language exam (LH 12 May 1898 & P4 1898/99). They would now go on leave. Dennis hoped that Bennett would be back in July. Rather to brother Eddie’s disappointment he had been put on the short Islington course rather than the long one after his preliminary training at Clapham. But Dennis said he could be ordained in Nigeria later if he did well (LH 20 May 1898).
Ogidi & Ogbunike
On 22nd May Dennis and Mattie went to Ogidi. They did not sleep as well as they had hoped that Saturday night. ‘A thunderstorm came on about midnight and the roof of the house leaked badly. It was not altogether a pleasant experience yet we got a good deal of amusement out of it and it will be something to talk about when we come home on furlough’. On the Sunday morning they had Morning Service and then Communion at Ogidi, not getting their breakfast until noon. They then walked to Ogbunike, rested for an hour and had a service of baptism for two youths. At a previous baptism some of the candidates were forcibly dragged out of the church by angry relatives. This time it was quieter. They got back to Ogidi by dark but with headaches. They had hardly gone to sleep that night when they were woken. A boat was leaving from Onitsha. Nellie and Lena would be taking it. Anxious to bid them farewell they got up and set out. There was no moon but they had two lanterns. There was a heavy dew and they were wet through when they reached Onitsha at 3.30am. They then discovered there was no room on the boat for the two missionaries. (LH 22-23 May 1898). Mattie was sick for three days at the end of the week and Dennis cancelled a visit to Obosi to look after her. Nellie and Lena finally got away on the Empire on 6th June. ‘The parting has been a wrench. Perhaps there was a touch of homesickness in our hearts’ (LH 6 & 8 Jun 1898).
On 2nd June Dr Clayton was active again and took special children’s services with Rev Wilson-Hill. Some made a decision for Christ (LH 2 Jun 1898). At the agents meeting time was spent praying for the Holy Spirit (LH 4 Jun 1898). Dennis had a talk with the boys who helped in their house. Seven of them were among those who had stayed behind after the children’s mission meetings (LH 5 Jun 1898). On the 12th Dr Clayton addressed the Waterside Sunday School (LH 12 June 1898). There was more prayer for the Holy Spirit and changed lives on the 15th (LH 15 Jun 1898). On the 19th Dennis got back in time from a visit to Obosi to join an ‘after meeting’ at the Waterside. He found Dr Clayton, Mattie and Fanny in different parts of the schoolroom talking to individuals who were anxious about their souls’ (LE 19 Jun 1898).
Mrs Anyaegbunam’s death
The Rev George Anyaegbunam’s wife fell sick and died three days later. Dennis went to their home. ‘The grief manifested was painful to see. We are praying for poor Mr A. It is a severe trial of faith’. There was a very large attendance at her funeral next day. Spencer and the students from Asaba came over. Most of the Obosi Christians were there. George managed to address the crowd waiting with the coffin outside the church but afterwards broke down utterly. Spencer preached a short, appropriate sermon. They had three little girls, the youngest less than two months old. Crowds of sympathisers visited the following days (LH 10,13,14,16 Jun 1898 & AL 1898). This tragedy was followed by the moral breakdown of the Asaba schoolmaster, Samuel Perry (LH16 Jun 1898).
Dennis wrote to London in June about the amount of work and lack of workers. He reported Mrs Anyaegbunam’s death. There were 13 students in the Training Institution; 30 boarders and 8 day pupils in the Girls School. Clothing was needed for the girls as their heathen parents did not consider this necessary. Most of the girls would go on to marry men already linked with the CMS. They were usually unbaptised when admitted and then baptised during their training (P4 1890/26). The ladies were revising the Ibo proofs of Peep of Day. The development of the medical mission was raised and also the possibility of a ‘creche’ – a home for abandoned infants (P4 1898/117&118). Dennis had written earlier about a visit he made to Osomali with the suggestion that an outstation be established there (P4 1898/69). At least Webber returned from Brass on the 28th June so Dennis no longer had to look after the accounts (LH 28 Jun 1898).
At the beginning of July Dennis reported the deaths from fever of two Europeans with the RNC, Rhodes and Hatton. The RNC were building a trading station at the Waterside which he feared would be bad for morals (LH 1,7,8 Jul 1898). There was a lucrative trade in gin. On the 8th July Dr Clayton ordered Dennis and Mattie to Obosi for a fortnight’s break as ‘he considers me not quite up to the mark’ (9 July 1898) This was a romantic time for them as they were approaching the first anniversary of their meeting in Salisbury Square and their lightning romance and engagement in Keswick. They went through it all again in their minds (LH 15 & 23 Jul 1898). They were still very much in love. Dennis mentions seeing some beautiful flowers on a journey and picking them to take back to his wife (LH 19 Jul 1898)
Need for practical help
On 13th July Dennis heard from the PC that Hensley would be permanently in Sierra Leone following Humphrey’s death, but they hoped to send Ernest Wise, a young man of 24. There was also a Grace Bennett, a nurse and Bible Woman aged 30, who had been with Fanny at Highbury who would come to the Niger. She would be located to Brass. But Hensley was a trained engineer and what Dennis wanted was a man with practical as well as spiritual gifts. ‘I wish I knew of some builder or first class carpenter who would offer to the CMS for Industrial Mission Work in Onitsha. His work would be to superintend the erection of buildings and at the same time to instruct certain apprentices who would be placed with him . . . he must be a thorough Missionary Christian as well as a thorough mechanic’ (LH 13 July 1898).
Memories of the Keswick Convention inspired Dennis to hold a ‘Keswick’ at Onitsha. There were three meetings – the last for wives only at which Mattie spoke. ‘God was with us . . . and it was a heart searching time for many of us. I for one am convicted of sin and have been led to cry for mercy’ (LH 26 Jul 1898). Following this Dennis and Mattie resolved to keep the ‘Morning Watch’ – getting up earlier to ‘spend the first hour of each day in prayer to God and reading His Word. Three weeks later they wrote: ‘We . . . are much better for it. It is easier for me now than formerly to be in the fear of God all the day long’ (LH 27 Jul, 6 & 18 Aug 1898). Dennis and Mattie longed to be set free for missionary work in an outstation if someone else could be found to be the Mission Secretary in Onitsha, but Dennis ended his letter saying ‘God’s will be done’ (LH 27 Jul 1898). Dennis wrote to London on 4th August asking the PC to relieve him of the Acting Secretary post (P4 1898/120). He wanted to concentrate on evangelistic and translational work at the outstations. He felt PC did not take his requests seriously and thought a Secretary should be appointed who would also be Archdeacon.
Dennis learned that Sarah Hickmott, aged 32 and trained at Highbury would be located to Onitsha and Grace Bennett to Brass but the Niger Mission was weak compared with the RCs who had 9 Europeans in Asaba alone (LH 6&14 Aug 1898). Dennis wrote home: ‘Will you make our Translation work a special subject of prayer? How much may depend upon the way in which the Scriptures are translated’ (LH 17 Aug 1898). Despite the many demands on Dennis translation work was continuing with the help of TD Anyaegbunam. They had translated Thessalonians to Revelation and were revising the rest (HCPE II p.779). Dennis hoped to bring the completely revised Ibo NT when he came on leave (P4 1898/119). There was now news of the 500 Gospels asked for in October. Copies of Psalms, Acts and Romans would also be needed.
Bishop Tugwell writing from Abeokuta supported Dennis’s suggestions for a new Secretary and commended his work with the pupil teachers (P4 1898/123). Dr Clayton also wrote from Onitsha saying Dennis was overworked (P4 1898/127). For the medical work TD Anyaegbunam was being used as an interpreter.
Awkuzu and Ogbunike
Awkuzu people, having settled their palaver with the RNC had requested a mission teacher (LH 17 July 1898). Dennis determined to visit them as he thought this place 19 miles to the NE of Onitsha might be a stepping point to Awka. In the latter part of August he went to Ogbunike where there had been some more persecution. ‘Four boys have been obliged to come to Onitsha for a time as they are beaten so unmercifully by their heathen relations. Two other boys have, I am sorry to say, been flogged into renouncing Christianity . . . I am puzzled as what to do for the best’ (LH 6 Aug 1898). Dennis stayed at Ogbunike overnight and then set out with 10 Obosi Christians, 7 Ogbunike boys, 6 or 7 carriers and Joshua Kodilinye (LH 24 Jul 1898). When they reached Awkuzu drums summoned the people and good crowds gathered to hear them morning and evening. Dennis met the chiefs and explained that they had nothing to do with the RNC. He was shown a meeting house the people had built and presented with a goat, yams and corn. He was asked to take a boy back with him for training but declined as it had to be made clear that Christ wanted men and not just boys. They spent the night in Awkuzu and preached in other quarters. The accordion was a great attraction. There was then a general meeting. The chiefs conferred and then announced ‘Awkuzu agrees to the word of God’. Dennis replied that a group of Obosi Christians would come for one or two weeks to explain things further. Writing home Dennis said he was impressed by the Awkuzu people’s farming. It was well organised with fine avenues of palms. He described it as quite English.
The party then returned to Ogbunike where Mattie had come to wait for him. Dennis spent the weekend there and spoke to those who were persecuting the converts. ‘On our way back to the mission house we came across a large tortoise which I thought would interest the ladies. The tortoise is the sacred animal of Ogbunike and some natives who met us were very much horrified to see me carrying one away until I assured them that I had no intention of killing it but only wished to show it to my wife. I invited them to come and see for themselves what I did with it. After the ladies had seen it I let it go into the bush, and then one of the onlookers beckoned me and asked me whether it was because I loved my wife that I had brought the tortoise for her to see. When 1 replied in the affirmative there was great amusement. They evidently could not understand my thinking of taking anything home simply to show my wife’. On their return to Onitsha there was news that the bishop hoped to visit at the end of the year and to ordain Smith and Proctor on 27 November (LH 24 Aug 1898).
On 5th September Mr & Mrs Bennett, Messrs Aitken and Wise, and Miss Hickmott arrived at the Onitsha Waterside at 5.00pm. This made the largest missionary party yet, 13, though Aitken would be going on to Lokoja and Webber would accompany him to check the accounts there (LH 5 Sep 1898).
Asaba and Romanists
On the 7th Dennis took the Bennetts and Ernest Wise to Asaba. The Bennetts had brought bicycles with them ‘which will be very useful in Asaba as the roads are fairly good’ (LH 7&9 Sep 1898). Dennis returned to Onitsha and a few days later got a note from Bennett saying the Romanists were disturbed at his arrival.’ About a fortnight ago one of the Asaba Christians by name Jacob was taken ill and was, in the absence of Spencer (away visiting his brother in Calabar whom he had not seen for 15 years (LH 31 Jul 1898), promptly visited by the Romanists. They gave him medicine and a rosary and tried hard to persuade him to be baptised afresh. Lazarus Odiboasa heard of their intrigues and at once went to see Jacob and strengthen his faith. The RC priest and some others were there when he arrived talking with Jacob, so Lazarus sat and waited to see what would happen. It appeared that they had come with the full intention of baptising Jacob, but could not get him to consent. The presence of Lazarus disconcerted their plans for the time, so they took their departure, but only to return after dark and secretly baptise the man. Jacob died the next morning and was buried near to his house by Lazarus. Afterwards the RCs disinterred the corpse and buried it afresh according to the rights of their church. Can you imagine a missionary of the Gospel doing a thing of this sort! With thousands of heathen all around these Christian? missionaries must spend their time and strength trying to make a proselyte of a dying man who is far more likely to have a place in the kingdom of God than they have’ (LH 12 Sep 1898). Two months later Dennis learned that as CMS had not been able to station a full agent at Osomare the members there had all moved to the Romanists. He wrote rather sadly: ‘What value can be attached to the religion of those who fail to see any important difference between our teaching and that of the Romanists or else sacrifice principles for worldly advantage’ (LH 3 Nov 1898).
Onitsha and the interior
On the Onitsha side ‘the Immanuel boys have had a little persecution again, being robbed of books etc etc for refusing to help repair an idol house’ (LH 8 Sep 1898). Dennis wrote about five men from Arochuku in the Waterside congregation. Aro was ‘a very noted town and dreaded by all the rest of the Ibo people as the head of a formidable confederacy styled Abam or Ada . . . the men told me very much about their country and said they would send men to lead me whenever I was ready to start’ . Mattie added that when Dennis asked what accommodation there would be for her if she came they replied ‘We too have wives and they do not sleep in the bush’ (LH 11&12 Sept 1898). There was so much that might be done. But baptisms at Nkpor had to be postponed as George Anyaegbunam was still suffering from a bad foot. ‘How terribly the work has been hindered this year by the sickness of the native agents and their wives and children’ (LH 8 Sept 1898). Dennis wrote to the PC about the urgent need for schoolmasters. He wanted to be relieved of schoolwork. His wife was having to do more (P4 1898/132). She was now managing the Onitsha Waterside school since the disconnection of the head (P4 1899/26).
On the 13th September Dennis wrote ‘Just a year ago Mattie and I were married. We have not yet repented of the rash step we took. Mattie has turned out to be exactly what I hoped . . . tomorrow we intend to read over the Marriage Service together and thus keep the Anniversary. The celebrations included Mattie wearing her wedding dress and a dinner with Irish potatoes baked in a bonfire (LH 13&14 Sep 1898).
Converts might be attacked if they refused to maintain traditional customs on which the heathen felt the well-being of their communities depended. On 17th September Dennis and Wise went to Oze to discuss the situation with their chiefs. They agreed to an edict of toleration but not to give up their idols. There were seven genuine inquirers but one of them had three wives (LH 17 Sep 1898). Three weeks later the chief man in Oze requested baptism in two months time. Why the delay? He wanted to take a title first which involved some idolatry. There were also two young men who wanted to ‘do as young men do’ before making such commitment. ‘When would they learn to seek the kingdom?’ (LH 8 Oct 1898).
Meeting with Ogidi chiefs
On 24 September Mattie wrote about going with Dennis to Ogidi where he wanted to meet with the king and chiefs to know their response to missionary work, make it clear that the mission was not linked with the RNC, and suggest an end to persecution of believers. ‘The king is a tall dignified sort of man with a quiet grave face. Three chiefs occupy the form with the king, while the remainder are seated on mats on the floor. Three of them wore ragged dirty . . . caps which must have been in use for 40 – 50 years, a little cloth round the waist, a necklace and sometimes bracelets completes the clothing of the Ogidi House of Lords. The usual kola has been presented to us and we have eaten a little for the sake of politeness. They all look so keen and interested and are marking our every movement. At present they are examining the pattern of my shoes . . . We salute the king and the chiefs and they return the salute. Now we commence. ‘Why have we come to your country? . . . We explain that our country is a large one and that white people travel all over the world – many of them for the purpose of trading such as the RNC – but we do not come to trade – we are sent by God – we explain that the king of Ogidi sometimes sends messengers to another town, the messenger may be a poor man but that does not make any difference to the message – it is the message of the king. Now God has sent us with a message, you can’t despise that message, you must listen to it and then decide . . . Some of you have never given a thought to it . . . This message is good both for you and your country’ (LH 24 Sep 1898).
Dennis himself wrote: ‘I find that it generally takes me about an hour to explain to those whom I am addressing for the first time who we are and what our business is. I regard this foundation laying as a necessary preliminary to the delivery of our messages, because almost everywhere we are confounded with the (RN)Company’ (LH 14 Oct 1898).
Dennis mentions the way people have been persecuted. The king and five or six chiefs go out to consult. Meanwhile we think over plans for a small band of Obosi Christians to take turns holding week-long missions in different villages. The king and chiefs return. The salutations are again gone through. The king says the piece of cord which they wear round their legs they cannot give up as it is a sign of their rank. As regards their children they send them to our CMS school but they cannot say why it is that they do not go now. They are quite willing to receive any medicine as a token of brotherly kindness . . . If any of their number or any of the people wish to join the Christians they are at liberty to do so but if they still wish to go on in the same old way no one will hinder them. They do not feel prepared to give up polygamy but at the same time are willing to attend our church on Sunday to learn. Dennis and Mattie felt this was a step forward (LH 24 Sep 1898). However, a few days later there is a report that 70 Ogidi young men have left the town as they refuse to conform to the custom of cutting their faces (LH 29 Sep 1898).
When Spencer had visited Calabar he had contacted the Church of Scotland Mission there. Dennis hoped to develop links with them and had invited Dr Rattray to visit. However, on 1st October he heard there was no immediate prospect of this as Rattray’s wife was sick and one of their Europeans had died. The next day an Awka blacksmith of gigantic size spoke to Dennis after a service to warn him against visiting Arochuku whose natives were ‘people of the devil’. Dennis thought he might be upset that he was not visiting Awka. Dennis told him that they were called to visit everywhere (LH 1&2 Oct 1898). While he was visiting Asaba the following day the native council called to greet Bennett. They were not Christians though the father of Lazarus was their president. They had passed a law forbidding Sunday markets and intended to build a council chamber and invite the mission to speak to them on Sundays (LH 3 Oct 1898).
Unrest in the West
On 11th October Bennett warned of serious trouble brewing in Asaba. The next day there were two gunboats there. The Romanist mission at Illa had been destroyed. Bennett thought some Benin people were behind the violence. Work at Akwuku and Onitsha-olonu must be temporarily suspended. There was no hope of settling the matter peacefully. The insurgents had to be taught a lesson (LH 11&12 Sep 1898).
Three processes were under way. First, the approach to colonial rule with the British government working more actively to bring criminals to justice and maintain order. Second, more contacts between previously isolated communities as trade developed. Third, the missionary effort to rescue people from heathen beliefs and practices and teach a new loyalty to Jesus Christ. Each affected the others and Dennis had to respond to all the crises arising in a changing society.
9. Sickness and translation
From November 1898 the last year of Dennis’s second tour was to be marked by a breakdown in health and then a major effort to concentrate on translation work despite so many other calls on his time.
Tugwells and Macketts arrive
On 14th October Dennis was very tired after much walking and then had some fever (LH 14 Oct 1898). He was relieved that the Arochuku men failed to turn up on 20th as they had said, for the Bishop and his wife and Webber arrived from Lokoja. On the 23rd Dr Clayton ordered Dennis to rest and he sat with Mattie in the church (LH 20&23 Oct 1898). The next day there was a preliminary Mission Executive meeting. Dennis was relieved that Spencer would come to the Waterside at Christmas to replace Strong. Wise would carry on at Asaba (LH 24 Oct 1898). On 1st November Frederick and Elizabeth Mackett arrived. They had married at the end of 1897. Frederick was 31 and had worked in the Zambesi Industrial Mission for 3 years. When the Bennetts joined them there were 4 European couples at dinner (LH 1-4 Nov 1898). ‘Mrs Tugwell and Mrs Bennett both had full reports of the progress of their respective babies by the last mail and were therefore able to entertain us this evening. Both babies are prodigies and destined to become men of renown.’ Mackett would start building houses and workshops in the Ozala for himself and the apprentices. Bennett proposed a creche for abandoned babies. Joshua Kodilinyi would be transferred to Obosi where the members would pay half his salary.
Dennis was then off sick with diarrhoea for four days. The doctor said he must go to Sierra Leone. Dennis lamented: ‘I am in a poor way physically and in just as bad a way spiritually’. ‘Poor old Mat(tie)! She had a good cry after she got to bed last night. She would much rather be ill herself than that there should be anything wrong with me’.
Fortunately Mrs Mackett was an excellent cook and able to take over the kitchen’ (LH 5,7,10 Nov 1898). However, Lazarus Odiboasa resigned after being reproved. Mattie wrote that Tom had had great faith in him and stood up for him and was very upset. He felt we should give people a helping hand rather than trample on them (LH 10,15 Nov 1898). On 13th November Dennis wrote that the missionaries had all been singing from their new hymn book in the evening. He wanted 12 copies of the Salvation Army hymn book words edition and one with music (LH 13 Nov 1898). But a few days later he was either struggling at meetings or lying flat with neuralgia (LH 17 Nov 1898). On 23rd November Dennis felt a little better and thought a trip to Brass would be sufficient to restore him (LH 23 Nov 1898). He had set the priests exam. The ordination took place on the 27th. Dennis presented the candidates – Smith and Proctor – and Bennett preached. Most of the service was in English. There were 90 at Holy Communion afterwards.
On the Asaba side the RNC soldiers were still trying to establish law and order (LH 18 & 30 1898). The Bennetts would go to Obosi as soon as possible. Webber’s furlough would be postponed. Clayton and Smith would go with the Dennis and Mattie to Brass and Louisa Maxwell would go on leave (LH 25&29 Nov 1898). Bishop Tugwell wrote to the PC that Dennis had been unwell. He had been much pressed. He was sending him and his wife to Brass for a change (P4 1899/1). Among Dennis’s problems was the resignation of the printer. He did not think a suitable African replacement could be found. They needed a European like the Presbyterians had at Calabar (P4 1899/18). Ten days later the Bishop wrote again saying Dennis had undertaken too much pastoral work to the neglect of his translational work. The Bishop wanted a strong man of culture and experience, preferably from a university, to be Mission Secretary. This would then release Dennis to take charge of educational work and carry on with translation at Asaba. It would be good to have a bishop resident in Onitsha. Miss Maxwell was also looking worn (P4 1899/3).
At the Executive it was agreed Bennett should be principal of the Training Institution at Asaba, assisted by Ernest Wise. Asaba was suggested for the proposed ‘creche’. Babies might be abandoned if they were twins, if born between betrothal and marriage, (P4 1900/27) or if they cut their upper teeth first. Some mothers died in childbirth. The government might give some assistance as in Bonny. There might be some opposition from the interior towns but this should be met with tact. Native evangelists might be trained in one year with an annual summer(sic) school. It would be a simple vernacular training for aggressive (sic) evangelism. The PC should be invited to send out a man, preferably married, to run it under Dennis’s direction. More mission servants should be recruited. Two hammock men were required for the ladies and two for Mr Mackett at the Industrial School. Dennis felt part of his weakness was due to the amount of walking he had had to do (P4 1899/18). He had been unwell for six weeks. The Executive felt that if his and Mattie’s health did not improve at Brass they should go to Sierra Leone or England. While in Brass they should look for a good gig canoe that might be purchased. A Translational Committee was appointed. Tugwell urged the importance of revising the Gospels and agreeing the rules for spelling and the position of pronouns. TD Anyaegbunam was to be set free for this. He should devote 4 hours to it daily. Dennis thought the OT might be translated by the end of 1899 (P4 1899/26). Only Mark should be printed at this stage as the other Gospels needed more work (P4 1899/12). Dennis suggested a mission. Rev SA Selwyn, vicar of Boscombe, should be asked to come out and conduct it.
To Brass to recuperate
Having decided to go to Brass Dennis then had to wait for a steamer. There was a wait because spaces where taken by soldiers. Many of the Europeans were in poor health but ‘Mattie mercifully well in spite of the extra work. She is a capital housekeeper and keeps the boys well in hand. There is not another woman on the Niger who can hold a candle to her’. They finally got away on the 5th December but Dr Clayton stayed behind to look after Edith Warner who was sick (LH 5 Dec 1898).
‘There is little accommodation on board. I don’t think Mattie has learnt yet to be thankful for small mercies. She doesn’t feel that a cabin eight feet square with all kinds of crannies for curious eyes to peep through, and swarming with huge spiders, cockroaches etc, and choked up with our luggage, with a thousand other inconveniences . . . is the most desirable bedroom on the face of the earth. The crew are sleeping above us and below us, before us and behind us, to the right of us and the left of us and when the steamer is going the throb of the engines sets everything in the cabin dancing and we are all nid-nodding at one another in a most absurd fashion. The cabin is so hot and stuffy that there is a very real danger of our melting away entirely’. To cheer them further they heard that the RNC agent at Asaba who had been out just six months had died after a day of fever (LH 5 Dec 1898).
After two days they reached Akassa in the morning and took the Florence on to Brass arriving at 1.00pm to find that all were well there. The ladies were in the house where Dennis had spent a miserable fortnight on his way to Onitsha in 1894. It had now been made more comfortable. Dennis and Mattie were to stay with Proctor in a house known as St Barnabas beach that had been a trading factory and was large and roomy with accommodation and workshops (LH 7 Dec 1898). Mattie was able to chat with friends she had made at Highbury and they could walk round the point and ‘paddle in the sea like children’. They had daily prayer and Bible study and on Sunday Dennis preached in the church. They could shop at the factory though its chief trade was in gin which was a curse (8-12 Dec 1898). Brass also received telegrams twice a week giving summaries of the news. Copies were sent to all the factories and the mission house so people were much more up with current events than in Onitsha. However, it was now Mattie’s turn to be sick. She cried with disappointment and frustration. It took more than a week to get over it. When the worst was past Dennis was able to enjoy a long walk with Smith along the 15 mile stretch of firm and level coastal sand. If he lived there he thought he would have a bicycle (LH 15-23 Dec 1898). By Christmas Eve Mattie was able to walk with him. They were sent some beef from the factory. It was Dennis’s 6th Christmas in Africa. He preached to a crowded church which included whites from the consulate and factories. The next day there were native sports. ‘Mattie and I bathed in the sea in the afternoon but Mattie was so terribly afraid of the water and suspicious of my playing some trick on her’ (LH 24-26 Dec 1898). At the end of the year they were ready to get back to Onitsha. Dennis was anxious to be there as the bishop had now moved to Lagos. But the RNC agent in Akassa said there were no steamers going upriver till the end of January. The only hope was to get a seagoing ship to Lagos and another back to Burutu and a launch up river from there (LH 30 Dec 1898).
Review of 1898
In his Annual letter for 1898 Dennis regretted that he had had no time for official visits to Lokoja and Brass. He had only gone to Brass on Doctors orders to rest.
He reviewed the work at Onitsha (AL 1898). Dr Clayton was looking after the medical work and the patients being preached to. The work of the Girls Training School was continuing and education was being provided for native agents and pupil teachers. The Industrial work had suffered through lack of an instructor but the Macketts arrival in November meant a new beginning. Carpentry, brick making and sawing were being taught but a good printer was still needed. Only a few Bible portions and small reading books had been printed during the year. The translation work had gone on steadily despite all the other pressures. The New Testament revision was completed and Dennis hoped to have the Old Testament finished by the end of 1899. A two day Convention for all Agents had been held and proved a success.
In Onitsha at Christ Church, Waterside, his wife, Mattie, was helping with the day school and Sunday School while sister, Fanny, had a catechumen’s class. At Immanuel in the town Rev GN Anyaegbunam was in charge and 14 members had been confirmed in May.
In the outstations the situation at Ogidi was negative. At Ogbunike numbers were small but the situation was all right. Nkpor and Ole were being run by young men from Immanuel and Umuaroli. Lena Holbrook and Nellie Dennis had lived at Obosi until going on leave in May.
At Asaba Europeans were desperately needed. The work in the outstations of Akwukwu and Onitsha-Olonu had had to be abandoned. In the Training Institute three of the 13 students had had to be expelled for immorality and two had left.
Back to Onitsha
On 10th January Dennis and Mattie were on the Loanda bound for Lagos. There they transferred to the Lagoon which was waiting off-shore. Two days later they were on board the Kwarra going to Forcados. When they arrived they found that nothing was going to Onitsha immediately so they stayed on board for two days though much troubled by the noise of unloading until she sailed on to nearby Burutu. Burutu was just a few hundred square yards of hard land surrounded on all sides by mangrove swamps. They discovered that among other cargo some 12,000 tons of gunpowder had been stored there. They were glad to hear Ibo spoken again as many of the houseboys were from Onitsha and Asaba. They also learned that the penny post had been extended to the Niger which would be a great boon for them. They eventually got a launch going up river to Onitsha eight days after leaving Brass. But the break had been worth it. Mattie wrote that Dennis was his old self again (LH 10-18 Jan 1899).
Back in Onitsha Dennis planned a visit to Awka. He would have liked to join the party himself but realised he needed to conserve his energy and attend to matters locally. He established a weekly Bible reading and social evening that went round the men’s houses. Mackett had started brick making – up to 500 a day – and it was hoped to build a new church of brick. But Dr Clayton had ordered him to Asaba for some rest. Mattie left with the Awka party on 27th (LH 24-27 Jan 1899). On 3rd February Dennis went by canoe to Nneyi to meet the itinerators. They had travelled by moonlight when possible and all looked tired and dirty (LH 3 Feb 1899).
Mrs Bennett’s health was a cause for concern. Fanny was staying with her in Obosi (LH 28 Jan & 3 Feb 1899). On 10th February Lena Holbrook and Nellie arrived back from leave with a new missionary, Eleanor Philcox, aged 32, who had also trained at Highbury (LH 10 Feb 1899). Male converts in Ogidi and Ogtbunike had a problem finding suitable wives. Parents were reluctant to let their daughters have Christian training (LH 12 Feb 1899). Mackett was busy erecting a new building for the Girls School (LH 18 Feb 1899). Dennis was interviewing candidates for eight apprentice places to learn carpentry, sawing, painting and brickmaking. He was also seeing candidates for baptism (LH 21 Feb 1899). He had been to Nkpor with a party of a hundred to preach and been ‘much pleased with the addresses of our “Scripture Union Helpers” as the young men supported by the SU funds are called’ (LH 20 Feb 1899). He gave these youngsters a weekly class as Mattie did the “Medical Helpers” (LH 22 Feb &15 Mar 1899). Dennis was also getting on with translation work. ‘I am spending some time every day revising the closing books of the New Testament. When all is finished I shall send it to Salisbury Square so that arrangements may be made with the Bible Society before I come home if possible (LH 22 Feb 1899).
Dennis travelled in a hammock for the first time on 11th February (LH 11 Feb 1899). A fortnight later he wrote about a ride to Ogidi. ‘I find hammock riding much easier than walking though the peace of mind of the occupant of the hammock is regulated to a great extent by the strength and skill of the bearers. I should not call my bearers today either strong or skilful, and they dropped me once, fortunately without any injury to myself. As we were coming along we met a large number of Onitsha women returning from market in Ogidi. Some of the remarks passed upon us by these women were amusing. Many when they first caught sight of us took us for corpses, and then ascertaining that we were alive, decided that we must be sick. The idea of persons in perfect health riding was more than they could grasp. One woman asked another in all seriousness whether we had feet’ (LH 25 Feb 1899). When Dennis, Mattie and Nellie went to Ogidi again a fortnight later the three took it in turns to use two hammocks (LH 11 Mar 1899).
Dennis wrote from Onitsha to the PC in February (P4 1899/50&51). He wanted a qualified English schoolmaster recruited to run a secondary school in the town. When the proposed Government of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was established it could be asked for a grant. The school would provide clerks and interpreters as well as candidates for the Asaba Institution. Most could be day pupils but provision might be made for a dozen boarders. The request for a secondary school was to be a recurring theme but the PC resisted it. Eleanor Philcox was needed at the Waterside which was booming. Nellie Dennis was at the Girls School. Fanny Dennis would help with the Creche at Obosi. Bennett who was there reckoned that as many as 250 babies were abandoned in the district every year (P4 1899/53).
Dennis seemed to be managing more time for this. On 7th March: ‘I spent nearly all the morning with TD Anyaegbunam translating 2 Peter’. The next day he addressed the Confirmation Class at Umuaroli and then worked with Anyaegbunam for the rest of the morning. A week later he notes: ‘translation work this morning’ (LH 7,8,16 Mar 1899). The following week he was again at translation after a Confirmation Class. ‘Slow and sure might be our motto for this work. We certainly don’t make rapid progress, but I trust that a fairly good translation will be the result. The work is certainly a means of blessing to me’ (LH 24 Mar 1899). In March in England BFBS was printing Mark’s Gospel and needed someone to read the proofs. Rev F Baylis of the PC said no one there could do it and the work would have to be sent out to Dennis (BFBS ECS 26 p.99) On 27 April Dennis sent the proofs back to BFBS for printing. He would be thankful to have the copies soon. He hoped to have the whole of the NT including parts already revised complete by the following month so that he could see them through the press when he came on leave at the end of the year (BFBS ECS 27p 18).
Dennis was encouraged that ‘at the SU committee (in Onitsha) we decided to employ a 4th agent at eight shillings per month. We are becoming, you see, quite an important local Church Missionary Association (LH 7 Mar 1899). Two days later he was talking to the church committee in Asaba about self support, almsgiving and mission to the heathen (LH 7&9 Mar 1899). But Europeans were needed to work with the local people if the work was to expand. Dennis wrote again to the PC making a plea for more recruits and saying he felt the PC lacked confidence in the Niger Executive (P4 1899/77).
Slavery and twins
Louisa Maxwell accompanied Dennis to Asaba to ‘register as free at the court the slave woman who had twins in Ozala just before Nellie went on furlough last year. Now that this woman has been redeemed from slavery there is no reason why both she and her surviving infant should not be baptised’ (LH 9 Mar 1899). By 14th March there were 7 babies at the Obosi ‘creche’ which meant they would have to refuse others until they got more help (LH 14 Mar 1899). With no breast milk substitutes care of the babies was almost impossible. On 10th April Dennis recorded that despite their efforts another had died (LH 10 Apr 1899). Gabriel the surviving twin died on 21 April (LH 21 Apr 1899). On 23rd April Dennis thought the creche would have to be closed when Mrs Bennett went on leave and the surviving babies brought to the Girls School (LH 23 Apr 1899). On 25th April Mrs Spencer managed with great difficulty and some danger to herself to rescue a twin child at Akwuku which had already been put in a pot for disposal (LH 25 Apr 1899).
On 20th March a team of 100 went to preach at Oze and at Nkwele where an injured man had been treated at Ozala. They had a good reception from three of the villages but antagonism at the fourth because of a palava with Onitsha people and the RNC. Rev George Anyaegbunam explained that the Mission was something different but they did not respond (LH 20 Mar 1899). A week later Dennis was wondering why there had been no baptisms at Nkpor and Oze despite much preaching. Why were they seeing no results? (LH 26 Mar 1899). In his preaching in different churches Dennis tended to stick with a particular topic – e.g. new covenant, new birth, the second coming – for a month or two and keep speaking about it (LH 16 Apr 1899). With missions in the more established churches he was concerned to arrange ‘after meetings’ and follow up visiting so there could be more personal challenge, counsel and prayer (LH 18&19 Apr 1899). On 12th April all the Onitsha Christians were gathered at Christ Church to celebrate the CMS centenary. There were similar gatherings at Asaba and Obosi (12 Apr 1899). But this was followed in Onitsha by a week of Mission with more lay involvement. As it was the time of full moon there was light for evening activities. Christ Church was divided into 10 sections and Immanuel 15 with 4-5 Christians in each. At 6.00am all met together for half an hours prayer and devotion in the two churches. Then they went out visiting. In the evenings the bells would be rung and the churches lit for special services. The challenge was to follow these up (LH 17-19,21 Apr 1899). At the end of the week there were good congregations on the Sunday (LH 23 Apr 1899). The church members were also being mobilised for a new building. Once a fortnight for several months all were called out to tread mud for making bricks (LH 20 Apr 1899).
On 20th April Wilson Hill arrived bringing two dogs, a bicycle, and a grammaphone(sic) ‘which has been affording us a capital evening’s entertainment’ (LH 20 Apr 1899).
Dennis wrote that much of his life seemed to consist in talking out matters with different persons. Aitken appeared from Lokoja for a rest and doubtless had much to discuss (LH 1 Apr 1899). If it wasn’t the missionaries’ own problems it was native business. ‘I don’t put down in my journal the numberless palavas which take up so many hours of my time and so much of my strength (LH 15 Apr 1899). On 23rd March Dennis was up the Anambra river with Mackett looking for trees that would be suitable for felling for timber (LH 23 Mar 1899).
In May Dennis 1899 wrote no letters home for two weeks. ‘I have been hard at work the whole time making a desperate effort to get the Ibo NT ready for Miss Maxwell to take home and see through the press; but I shall be obliged after all to send it after her as I cannot possibly get it finished until the end of June. Translation and revision work cannot be slurred over. Nothing that I know needs so much painstaking. How I wish I could be completely set free from all other work until the next furlough, so as to devote myself to the translation of the Old Testament! However by the hearty co-operation of some of the Native Agents I trust to be able to bring the Old Testament with me when I come, although it will not be as thoroughly translated as it would be if there was more time to give to it. You may well pray earnestly for us in this work, the importance of which cannot be over-estimated’ (LH 8 May 1899). In the same letter there was encouraging news from the Asaba side. Thirty people had given up idols in Ugbolo, Akwuku and Onitsha-Olonu. But as things developed so more assistance was needed. In Onitsha Mackett wanted a helper for the industrial work (LH 8 May 1899). On 10th May Fanny passed the 2nd Language Exam and left the next day with Louisa Maxwell. Ernest Wise was starting a new term at the Asaba Institution and hoped to be ordained on Whit Sunday (LH 10&11 May 1899 & P4 1899/86). On 13th May Dennis was revising Hebrews (LH 13 May 1899).
Dennis wrote to the PC that the Bennetts were sick and Mr Bennett had said he couldn’t be secretary when Dennis took the leave sanctioned for November (P4 1899/82). A month later Tugwell wrote from Lagos endorsing Dennis’s plea for a Secretary to replace him (P4 1899/94A). In May there was an informal conference of the male missionaries. It was suggested evangelists be trained for the Ibo hinterland. A married clergyman who knew Ibo should be placed in a town some distance from Onitsha (P4 1899 /112). The Executive should include all missionaries who had done 18 months and passed the first language exam. The training of agents should start with a year in the vernacular concentrating largely on scripture before anything more advanced. There was need to curb the excesses in the way some agents dressed but at the same time Europeans must respect Africans (P4 1899/117). Dennis reiterated his plea for a secondary school. An English head with a married West Indian assistant would be desirable (P4 1899/118).
At the beginning of June Dennis had to spend three days in Obosi investigating charges against two Native Agents accused of involvement with heathen practices. He regretted the time that had to be given to it. He finally decided not to disconnect them but remove them to another station (LH 6&8 Jun 1899). He wrote to the PC about the matter and also to report all the babies in the Creche had died and there were negotiations over land at Ozala (P4 1899/99 & LH 14 May 1899).
On 15 July Sidney Smith passed the 2nd Language Exam. Dennis heard that the British Government intended to take over the Niger from the RNC on 1st October and would make Asaba their Headquarters. Dennis welcomed this development. He had feared the country might be flooded with cheap gin but had heard that the government intended to increase the duty on it (LH 15 Jul 1899).
In July Dennis learned that his brother Ted and a Mr J N Cheetham were being allocated to the Niger. He felt Ted needed to work under a senior person to start with and again asked who would take his place as Secretary when he went on leave (P4 1899/111).
As Mission Secretary Dennis needed to look at the work based on Lokoja. On 26 July he was waiting for a steamer to take him up river while Sidney Smith needed one going down to Burutu for the first leg of his journey to England (LH 26 July 1899). Dennis wrote; ‘I am spending as much time as I can with TD Anyaegbunam over the translation of the scriptures but it is slow work. I did not anticipate spending so much time over it. I hoped to have all the New Testament complete for Sidney Smith to take home. Now it seems likely I shall have to bring it when I come. I am rapidly getting all the Old Testament in hand, as some six natives are hard at work upon it, but all will need a large amount of revising. My time will be fully occupied if I am to get it all ready for the press’. He had heard six new missionaries were going to Uganda. ‘If we could only get six more men in this part of the Niger the Ibo country would quickly be evangelised . . . We have natives who with European leaders would make excellent evangelists, alone they are of very little use’ (LH 27 Jul 1899). A week later Dennis was still waiting for a steamer. He wished the Niger Mission had two launches of its own like the Scots Presbyterians. They finally left on 4th August but the boat spent the first night at Asaba (LH 2&4 Aug 1899).
Dennis reached Lokoja with Mattie and Wise after three days on the launch. ‘The mission house is conveniently placed to get all the noise, all the smoke and all the smell from the town whose sanitary arrangements are most primitive. There are many soldiers at Lokoja now because the imperial troops as well as the RNC’s forces have their headquarters there’ (LH 7 Aug 1899 & P4 1899/138). The country around Lokoja was much more sparsely populated then Iboland. They trekked for three hours over stony ground and shallow water to reach Akabe where Wilson Hill was stationed. They stayed there for a fortnight including some time spent camping on the top of Ate, a nearby hill, where they enjoyed the magnificent views and fresh air and also a pint measure of peanuts they had bought for a penny . . . They thought Ate might be a good spot for a sanatorium. Mattie was the first English lady to be seen in the area (LH 7-22 Aug 1899). Wilson Hill had made them very welcome. Dennis felt he needed a companion at Akabe otherwise there was danger of mental or physical breakdown. When they moved on to Kpata they took him with them for the change. They stayed with Mr and Mrs Obadiah Thomas. He was the longest serving Agent on the Niger having started in 1873 but he had seen little response to the Gospel (LH 24-25 Aug 1899).
The party returned to Lokoja before Sunday 27 August so Dennis could preach in English at the services. The Rev Williams usually had a Nupe service at 8.00am, English at 9.30am, Sunday School at 2.00pm, and then a Nupe evening service at 4.00 followed by open air preaching at 5.00. The day Dennis was there to help he also had baptisms at 7.00am and a marriage at noon. One of those baptised brought his jujus to the church and spoke of his conversion. There were only 3 other Europeans at the English service. There were then a few days wait for a steamer to take the party back to Onitsha. Ernest Wise and Mattie used the time to examine pupil teachers. Dennis learned that telegraph lines had been brought from Jebba to Lokoja and were to be extended to Asaba and Burutu. Soon when people were going on furlough they would be able to telegraph home the day of departure from Onitsha (LH 27&29 Aug 1899).
Back to Onitsha
Then on 1st September Dennis went down with fever followed the next day by Mattie. It was the first time they had both been stricken together. Sanderson, the RNC doctor at Lokoja, attended them. On 8th September they were carried on to the largest steamer in hammocks but had good accommodation and reached Obosi wharf two days later. There they were greeted with the ‘astounding’ news of Fanny’s engagement to Geoffrey Hensley who was in Sierra Leone. The Bennetts had gone to Brass on 20th August and the Macketts had followed them on 7th September after Frederick had had fever for a month. Sir Ralph Moor, the Consul General of the Niger Coast Protectorate, had been up to Asaba and left a note for Dennis whom he hoped to meet. Moor was getting a body of soldiers down from Lokoja in order to penetrate the Ibo country at least as far as the famous town of Arochukwu. (LH 10 Sept 1899). Dennis wrote to the PC about building work, leave arrangements and the printing of Bibles. A builder was needed at Onitsha to assist Mr Mackett with new houses and a church. The supervision of work and training of apprentices on both sides of the river was too much for one man. Having the right person would save on costs. He asked permission to purchase a circular saw which would soon pay for itself. Dennis felt he ought to go on leave in October but who would then be Secretary? Bennett had said he would not do it. Wise was due to go on leave in February and should devote his time to language study. Dennis would bring home the revised New Testament which he hoped BFBS would print. He also hoped they could print the Old Testament which he would soon have ready (P4 1899/143).
The Bennetts returned from Brass on 26th September with news that the Macketts would soon be following. Dennis spoke with Bennett about his taking over as Mission Secretary but he was not willing. Dennis wrote home that unless the PC refused Wise would have to act as Secretary when he went on leave about 9th November until Smith relieved him when he returned in February (LH 1 Oct 1899). Dennis wrote to the PC that it seemed there was no alternative to Ernest Wise holding the fort but he regretted their failure to send anyone. He could not delay his own leave as he had had another week of fever. There were problems with the agents. Many were falling away because there was no one to supervise them. Dennis had been putting as much time as possible into translation. Should he have left the translation to devote more attention to the agents? Was more drastic discipline required? Bennett considered Dennis’s policy fraught with ultimate disaster and failure (P4 1899/146). But for the long term it was necessary to get the Bible translated and printed as soon as possible.
Dennis wrote home: ‘I am spending at least 4 hours of every day” with TD Anyaegbunam revising the epistles of Paul in the Ibo. This task I hope (DV) to finish by the end of the present month. Nearly all the Old Testament has been translated, but I must leave it for Miss Warner, Rev J Spencer and Mr TD Anyaegbunam to revise if possible before Miss Warner leaves for furlough in February. I shall have a tremendous amount of copying out to do when I get home, and shall need to devote all the morning hours of each day to it. I wonder whether it can be arranged for me to have the exclusive use of one room in the ‘Ozala’ (his parents’ new house in Clive Avenue, Hastings) until 12 o’clock each morning? I shall ask the committee . . . to excuse me from all preachings and meetings that I may give the whole of my attention to seeing the Scriptures through the press’ (LH 1 Oct 1899).
With Wise coming to Onitsha to act as Secretary the Asaba Training Institute had to close. It could reopen later with students chosen chiefly from the pupil teachers. Those finishing would go to work in Brass, Onitsha Waterside, Onitsha Immanuel, Obosi, and Ogbunike with Ogidi. They would face many temptations. Dennis had a ‘good straight talk’ with each of them. They started at the beginning of October. Most had fiancées in the Girls School but would have to wait several years for marriage. He prayed that ‘youthful lusts’ would not prove too strong. ‘The past year or two have opened my eyes to the fearful temptations to which young unmarried native men are exposed. It certainly is a miracle of grace that any of them keep themselves pure’ (LH 1&8 Oct 1899).
In October Edith Warner and Nellie started ‘rescue work’ among ‘fallen’ women who were wanting to lead a new life (LH 8 Oct 1899). Dennis told the PC there was no extra cost involved as those rescued could earn their keep doing laundry. (In addition to the Europeans’ clothing there might also have been the garments the girls had been sent to wear). The main concern was that the school girls should not be led astray by those who had ‘fallen’. The Girls School was growing. Several of the girls had married. New buildings had been put up (AL 1899). A furniture grant for Ernest Wise was requested. The dispute over the land at Ozala continued (P4 1899/?).
The end of the second tour
Dennis’s letters home now ceased as he prepared for leave. The PC decided to ask Proctor in Brass to be Secretary. Proctor wrote from there in November acknowledging this. He knew that Bennett had refused and Dennis had suggested Wise. But he himself could not do it from Brass. He would try to persuade Bennett to change his mind and do it. Failing that Bennett would have to relieve him at Brass so he could go to Onitsha (P4 1899/162). In the event Bennett was persuaded to act as Secretary (P4 1899/169).
Before the end of the year two of the ladies Eleanor Philcox and Sarah Hickmott died. Miss Philcox had been out only nine months. In his Annual Letter Dennis said this was a real blow as she was very active and well fitted. ‘It is impossible to understand now why so promising a worker should be so soon removed’ (AL 1899).
Fanny described Eleanor as ‘a dear girl’. She was a London certificated teacher who had arrived with Nellie and Lena when they returned from leave the previous autumn (ND p47). Recalling the deaths she wrote: ‘At the end of the rains the heat seemed more trying than usual and there was much sickness. In December to our deep grief Eleanor died. She had worked very hard in establishing the elementary schools at the Waterside, and had been most successful, working with Lena very happily; and in ten months from her arrival she was called to lay down her work and enter into her Rest. Sarah (Hickmott), the Doctor’s (Clayton’s) most efficient helper during our furlough, collapsed after nursing Eleanor through her fever to the end; and in a few days she was laid to rest by her side in the old churchyard’ (ND p49). For the small band of workers the emotional strain must have been terrible.
On 1st November Tugwell wrote to BFBS to say that Dennis was on his way home and the agreed printing of Ibo Scriptures could be deferred until he had arrived and was able to check everything (BFBS ECS 27 p 114)
After his return to England, Dennis wrote his Annual Letter ending with a report on translation (AL 1899) ‘Translation of Scriptures into the Ibo language has taken up a great deal of my time during the year, and I am indebted to the members of the Translation and Revision Committee and to several other fellow workers for valuable help rendered me in this highly important and difficult work. The result of our united efforts is that we are now asking BFBS to print for us the whole of the New Testament thoroughly revised, and a tentative version of the Old Testament in Ibo. Thus a deeply felt need will we trust shortly be met. It was just five years since Dennis had arrived at Onitsha not knowing any of the language. That he had been able to do so much translation when coping with so many other pressures and responsibilities was remarkable.
- On leave and printing the
Niger Ibo New Testament
Dennis returned to England in December 1899 bringing his revised New Testament for printing by BFBS. His leave was extended till the end of August 1900 so he might finish reading the proofs. It was also hoped the OT could soon be printed (BFBS ECS 27 p.114, AL 1900, P4 1900/97). Dennis met Canon Girdlestone, BFBS Editorial Superintendent, to discuss difficulties over the choice of certain words and accepted some of Girdlestone’s suggestions. BFBS resolved to print 2,000 copies of the New Testament (BFBS ECS 27 p114). On 3rd March BFBS sent Dennis the text of Mark for proof reading (BFBS Ed Cor. out 9 p.854).
At this time Mattie bore their first child, Godfrey, but sadly he died after a few weeks on 17th June (P4 1900/97 & LH 17 June 1901).
The leave was also occupied with continuing concerns about the situation on the Niger. Dennis wrote from Hastings on 5th January about his dispute with Bennett. The main issue seems to have been the discipline of certain agents – particularly Joshua Kodilinye who had helped Dennis with the language when he first went out. The matter needed to be settled and it would be best if Bennett came home as soon as Smith went back to the Niger so Dennis could meet Bennett in England before he returned himself (P4 1900/7).
In January Miss Squires died of fever in Brass after being out less than a month (AL 1900)
In February Dennis had a special meeting with the PC Group 3 Committee in London (P4 1900/18). They liked the idea of training young evangelists. They also saw the need for more districts. Besides having missionaries at Onitsha and Asaba they might station Europeans at Ogidi and Onitsha-Olona. Dr Clayton had written from Onitsha that he did not feel there were enough patients for a hospital in the town but that people were ready to hear the Gospel without medical help (P4 1900/18). PC agreed that there should be a meeting with Bennett before Dennis returned. To facilitate the management of the Niger Mission it was suggested that each year there should be sub conferences in Brass, Lokoja and Onitsha and one full conference. They agreed a secondary school was desirable but were not prepared to provide extra money and staff. They suggested it should be in Asaba and linked with the Training Institute. Wise could look after it. The Secretary would write to Sir R Moor, the British Governor of the newly established Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, about Government plans for education.
Meanwhile back on the Niger Ted Dennis had gone to Obosi where he was doing well, Nellie Dennis had been ordered to rest and Fanny Dennis was expected shortly. There had been a case of cannibalism at Oba. The Executive Committee had decided to close the Asaba Institution because of its unsatisfactory tone (P4 1900/27&47&59). Ernest Wise was anxious to be priested before he came on leave. He had become engaged to Nellie Dennis and wanted her leave brought forward six months so they might marry in February/March 1901. Nellie had passed her 2nd language exam and he hoped to do the same before leaving (P4 1900/47).
Bennett wrote to PC from Onitsha in February and March to say two agents had resigned. There was general unsettlement with the younger ones wondering whether they might get government jobs. The dispute over the land at Ozala continued. The Government would not admit the CMS claim to the land adjoining Ozala. It might be best to sell some of the Ozala houses to the government who obviously wanted to develop the area and build elsewhere (P4 1900/59&67). Bennett felt Bishop Tugwell ought to be in Onitsha rather than risking his life in the Soudan (P4 1900/60).
Dennis wrote to PC from North Wootton, England, to stress that reinforcements were needed on the Niger. If someone was sent as Secretary, that person would need an assistant to look after Onitsha district while he was visiting Lokoja and Brass. Dennis would willingly be the assistant (P4 & 10 Mar 1901).
In Onitsha there was more sickness. Wise was very bad in March and died at Warri in April. Mrs Bennett was poorly and Mr Bennett hoped they could come home before August (P4 1900/66&67). Fanny gives more details. Referring back to the recent deaths of Eleanor and Sarah, she writes (ND p.49): ‘For a few weeks things were easier and in this time we all rejoiced in the engagement of Nellie and Ernest Wise. He was due on furlough, and they had dreams of their marriage taking place at Onitsha and going home for their honeymoon. But before permission could be received from the Home Committee he was prostrated with fever, which took a very obstinate form and continued for weeks. The River was getting very low; and the launches were having great difficulty in avoiding the sandbanks which abounded. The only hope was to get Ernest away to sea; and when a launch called on her way down river he was wrapped in blankets and taken down to the Waterside in a hammock. He was barely conscious, and as I walked with Nellie by the hammock I feared greatly for her happiness. The launch left very quickly; Mr Webber the Mission Accountant, whose furlough was due, took charge of him, and we went back to the Ozala with sad hearts. Nellie was very brave and quiet and we were all bearing them both up before the Throne of Grace. After a few days Mr Webber returned with the sad news that Ernest’s tired spirit had been given rest, and he had entered the Heavenly Home.
His body had been laid to rest at Warri in the Delta, by the side of one of Bishop Hill’s party, who while on the way to his station had died, as Ernest had done, in the Delta. So ended an engagement of a few weeks, the joy of which we had all entered into, and for a long time we went softly as we shared in the grief. I think we women all wept over the engagement ring which arrived after Ernest’s death, with the many letters of congratulation from relatives of both sides’.
Shortly afterwards two doctors from the London School for the Investigation of Tropical Diseases who were researching malaria visited Onitsha and were able to conduct tests on Fanny and others who were then down with fever. But the struggle was to continue. In Sierra Leone, less than a year later, Fanny’s own fiancé, Geoffrey Hensley, was to die the day before they were due to marry (ND p53).
The dispute with Bennett
The dispute between Bennett and Dennis would soon come to a head. Each had been writing to London. Dennis writing from Bournemouth said he expected Joshua Kodilinye to be condemned but that he would not be given a fair hearing. He and Bennett could no longer serve together on the Niger. One of them would have to go and he thought Bennett would not return after leave (P4 1900/ 46&54).
Bennett wrote to the PC saying that he understood Obosi customs which Dennis in Onitsha did not and Dennis was five years his junior in the mission. Kodilinye had let his child be named in a heathen way and allowed relatives to undergo heathen marriage rites. He had also rebuked a convert for cutting off his ‘title’ ankle cord. He protested at the way disloyal agents had been retained (P4 1900/60,61,74).
When Bennett came home on leave he and Dennis argued their case with the Group 3 Committee. The outcome was that Bennett resigned. He felt the PC might have taken his side if they had consulted others on the Niger and not just listened to Dennis. Perhaps the fact that Mrs Bennett was too sick to return counted against him (P4 1900/74,76,81). It may not be possible to determine where the truth lay. Should Dennis have taken a harder line? Were people making false allegations against Kodilinye to discredit him? Where do you draw the line between a custom incompatible with Christian faith and one that though not Christian may be permitted? The Bennetts went to East Africa where they continued doing missionary work.
A secondary school?
Back in Onitsha the situation must have been hard. Wise was much missed. Smith thought Nellie Dennis and Lena should proceed on leave following the upset of his death following the others (P4 1900/77). However Smith, to whom Bennett had handed over the Secretaryship, had been encouraged by Cheetham who was proving a good companion and accountant. He had taken over from Mr Webber who had left in May (AL 1900).
Sir Ralph Moor visited CMS in London. He wanted to have a secondary school in Nigeria, possibly in Asaba his present HQ, rather than having to send people to Sierra Leone. However he had a low opinion of mission schools and wanted instruction in English, not Ibo. The CMS should give up their claim to the land they thought they had received from the Royal Niger Company and ask the government for another site. They would be given special consideration but have to pay the going rate (P4 1900/84).
Dennis wrote two letters from Hastings in July. The Mission lacked the staff to undertake both the forward movement and a secondary school. Which was the PC’s first priority? He needed a builder to go out with him for two months and suggested a Mr Tanner. This would save money in the end. The Royal Niger Company had long realised that it was more economical to pay higher wages for a skilled European. He wanted definite instructions on how the Secretary should carry out his work. None were given. He asked whether his wife could travel with him on visits to Brass and Lokoja which might take 4 to 6 weeks. In view of the many deaths should there be more frequent leaves? (That matter was referred to the medical committee). He needed more paper for Old Testament translation work. This was agreed (P4 1900/85).
Smith writing from Onitsha stressed again the need for an experienced builder or carpenter for the industrial work. The rescue work was going all right but Miss Maxwell was a cause of friction. The ladies should be directly under the Executive committee. Younger agents were seeking government employment and the work at Ogbunike and Ogidi had died. He would like a horse allowance for his frequent journeys (P4 1900/93&105).
Dennis & Mattie left for the Niger on 5 Sept 1900 on SS Olenda. He hadn’t managed to correct all the New Testament proofs as he had hoped but felt that Edith Warner who was on leave could complete the work. He hoped a supply of New Testaments could be sent to Onitsha by the end of the year – 50 copies to be bound in leather to be saleable at a good price (BM 19.9.1900 & 31.10.1900).
- Third Onitsha tour
Back to Onitsha
Dennis and Mattie reached Forcados on 25th September 1900 and transhipped to the Lagoon for Burutu. Two new missionaries had arrived during their leave. George Basden, aged 27, had, like Dennis, got a 1st class in the Preliminary Theological exam at Islington and been made deacon by the Bishop of London. Mary Bird was a 32 year old Salvationist. At Burutu there was a letter to say that Fanny, Eddie and Mary were all in bed with fever while Nellie, the writer, had almost broken her neck falling from a horse on the way to Obosi. Dennis and Mattie then travelled upriver on the Rattler reaching Onitsha waterside at midnight on 27th when they found that all were now better.
On Sunday morning 30th Dennis preached at Christ Church, Onitsha for the first time since 29th October the previous year and in the afternoon went to the Waterside to speak at the English service which Smith had recently introduced. He wrote that the Macketts had been active. Dennis and Mattie were impressed by the Industrial School (P4 1900/116) ‘New cool rooms have been built under our house making it twice as convenient and comfortable. The garden in front has been nicely laid out and a kitchen garden started at the side where beans, vegetable marrows, cucumbers, onions, lettuce and tomatoes are flourishing. Flowers and creepers have been planted round the house . . . and an avenue of trees has been planted between the Ozala and the compound which will make that very hot walk quite cool and shady in 2 or 3 years to come’.
A fortnight later Dennis wrote that they had enjoyed several dishes of kidney beans and tomatoes while they had a turkey, 5 ducks and a number of fowls in the farmyard. The Macketts left for leave on the 1st October. Dennis described them as ‘genuine people’ and wanted his parents to invite them to stay with them for a few days at Clive Vale (LH 2&13 Oct 1900). The Niger Company had opened a canteen (shop) at Onitsha where ‘almost anything’ could be bought. Another company had established a rival trading station which was proving a formidable rival but sadly gin had become cheaper. Dennis thought they might have to ban gin drinkers and gin traders from Communion like the Wesleyans on the Gold Coast and the Presbyterians at Calabar (LH 4 Oct 1900). A sheep or cow was now butchered once a week at the Waterside so they had a limited supply of fresh meat (LH 13 Oct 1900). Living conditions were improving.
Dennis was anxious to get on with the translation work but ‘I have been considerably upset today (2 October) by the disappearance of the greater part of the Old Testament manuscript which I left with Ernest Wise. I have sought high and low for it, but so far in vain. If I cannot find it many weeks of extra work will be necessary’ (LH 2 Oct 1900). A week later he wrote: ‘I have made a start this morning with the Old Testament translation but was interrupted a good deal by visitors. I shall have to make a rule not to see any visitors during certain hours, otherwise progress will be impossible . . . I mentioned I had lost the greater part of the Old Testament manuscript . . . I found to my great relief that Mr Spencer had it. This evening I have been occupied with one of the everlasting marriage palavers’ (LH 8 Oct 1900). Most of the next morning was spent with TD Anyaegbunam revising Genesis (LH 9 Oct 1900). This was resumed the following morning after a conference with Smith and Cheetham (LH 10 Oct 1900). They were still busy with Genesis a fortnight later (LH 24 Oct 1900).
Dennis wrote to order 4 Moule’s Earth Closets at 3 guineas each and to appeal for Tanner or Bradshaw to be sent out to the Industrial School. One of the agents, Stephen Cukuka, a widower, had taken a heathen girl of bad character into his home despite warnings. He has been suspended pending the decision of the PC They wanted to dismiss him but doubted whether they had that power. Mr AC Onyeabo was appointed in his place (LH 5 Oct 1900 & P4 1900/117). Fanny Dennis was given a medical certificate saying she required leave in England for 3 months. After that she should be able to stand Sierra Leone and be fit to marry (P4 1900/119).
On 2nd October Dennis, Mattie and Basden went down from the Ozala to the old CMS compound for dinner and talked over future plans. ‘Cheetham will (DV) commence the new Boys Boarding School in the compound and Sidney Smith will go to Obosi with Eddie and some 8 or 10 young natives to make a start with the ‘Forward Movement’. Dennis later thought Obosi would not be a suitable base and that Ogidi would be better though a house needed to be built there first. If only there are no further breakdowns we can . . . make . . . some real progress,’ (LH 2&11 Oct 1900). Dennis wrote to the PC three weeks later to say that Cheetham and Blackett, who was expected from the West Indies, would start a boys’ boarding school with instruction in English. No new building would be needed. But London vetoed this and insisted Cheetham must study for the Ibo language exam. Ted Dennis would continue at Obosi. Basden would study Ibo and help at Onitsha. Smith would go to Ogidi when the house there was ready. Seven evangelists were appointed. This was approved. Ted Dennis, Spencer and Cheetham would be due leave next June (P4 1900/121).
On 11th October Dennis went to Asaba where he met the Acting High Commissioner, Major Galway, and several other government officials (LH 11 Oct 1900).
On 11th October Dennis wrote that James Wilson had been invalided home from Brass. He had hoped to get Salmon from Brass to teach apprentices but this was not now possible (LH 11 Oct 1900). On the 13th Lena Holbrook and Mary Bird left. Mary had to be carried in a hammock (LH 13 Oct 1900). On the 18th Nellie and Fanny went off. Fanny was going to marry Geoffrey but sad that she would not be seeing Onitsha again. Dennis did not hear that the PC had actually sanctioned the marriage until 14 November (LH 14 Nov 1900). Nellie was thankful that she would have a chance to visit Ernest’s grave at Warri on the way (LH 18 & 29 Oct 1900). On 19th October Dennis was delighted to hear from Baylis that Thomas Alvarez, his former colleague in Sierra Leone would be coming to the Niger as Mission Secretary. He would be most welcome (LH 29 Oct 1900). He wrote to the PC to say how he rejoiced at the news and to promise him every support. But more help was needed. At Onitsha they were facing increasing inconvenience from the lack of an industrial agent – a skilled tradesman who could look after the Industrial School and building work (P4 1900/127).
On 10th October Dennis and Basden went by hammock to Obosi where Ted was stationed and Dennis preached on the evils of gin at Obosi and Oba. Eddie reported that some days were set aside as ‘gin feasts’ when people would drink themselves insensible. Meanwhile Sidney Smith and Moore (the RNC doctor at Asaba) went on horseback to Ogidi where they were pleased with the site for the proposed new house. Mattie stayed to look after things at Onitsha (LH 20 & 21 Oct & 9 Nov 1900).
‘I have taken pains today to find out the nicknames given by the Onitsha natives to the various members of our family working here. My name is ‘Ngbidigi’ but another much used name is ‘Ozojili ogwe’. Mattie was at first called ‘Gbahasi’ but her present name is ‘Ugba’. Nellie is ‘Nwa-eze bu ona’, Fanny is ‘Canary’, Eddie is ‘Eze-ifele’ (LH 30 Oct 1900). Ted was also known as the little Mr Dennis – Nke obele (LH 9 Oct 1900).
Developments in Onitsha
On 7th November a new king was appointed in Onitsha. He was Samuel Okosi, a lapsed CMS communicant who had then made links with the Romanists. He could read and write (LH 7 Nov 1900). On 10th Dennis wrote that revellers had caused trouble outside Umuaroli church. Many were government employees who had Sundays off and used their earnings to drink gin (LH 10 Nov 1900). On 16th the new recruit, Mr Blackett, arrived. Dennis said he had already created a good impression. Blackett told him that three more West Indian schoolmasters were going to Fourah Bay College (LH 16 Nov 1900). Dennis asked the PC whether Mr Blackett counted as a Sierra Leonian for his conditions of employment. Dennis felt his experience in Jamaica qualified him to be ranked a Catechist rather than a Schoolmaster. Blackett was 28 and wanted leave after three years to return home to get a wife. He was allowed a furniture grant (P4 1900/136 & 1901/3). Dennis reckoned he was an able man and he would be paid £60 a year (P4 1901/35). Blackett was soon examining pupil teachers with Cheetham (LH16 Dec 1900). Dennis had a weekly ‘At Home’ meeting at the Waterside. On 30th November he was continuing a series of talks there on the ‘Second Coming’ (LH 30 Nov 1900). On 5th December he recorded that some Onitsha Christians had visited some twins recently born in Obosi and taken a present for the mother. This was their own idea (LH 5 Dec 1900). Deep-seated attitudes were being changed.
References in letters home suggest Dennis was regularly making more time for revising the Old Testament translation (e.g. LH 2 Oct 1900). On 27th November he heard from Edith Warner that she had completed the correction of the New Testament proof sheets in England so there was a good chance of their getting the printed New Testament before the end of the year. ‘We want it badly’ (LH 27 Nov 1900).
On 28th November Dennis told the PC that Sir Ralph Moor had written. The Governor was glad to hear of the proposed boys boarding school and had inquired whether technical education would be included (P4 1900/136). Dennis was to write to the PC again in January expressing his disappointment over the refusal to sanction the school. “I am surprised and sorry to hear that the Committee have suddenly changed their minds about starting a Boarding School at Onitsha” (LH 5 Jan 1901). The Government had promised a capitation grant. Dennis would have expected Ibos to be able to read the Scriptures in the vernacular first but not boys from Lokoja or Brass (P4 1901/7). Bishop Tugwell, like Dennis, was eager to see a secondary school established. He feared they would lose people to the Romanists (P4 1901/38). Sir Ralph Moor regretted that the Mission was not willing to meet the Government halfway on the secondary school issue (P4 1901/47).
Dennis visited Obosi on 6th December where the Christians were giving up Thursdays to work on a new church building (LH 6 Dec 1900). He was there again ten days later and preached on the Second Coming. He confessed in a letter home that he tired more quickly than he did five years previously (LH 16 Dec 1900). From Obosi he visited Oba and Ojioto which meant crossing the deep Idi Mili stream twice and walking 18 miles (LH 20 Dec 1900). Ted, Dennis and Basden had been itinerating from Asaba. They reckoned they had covered 150 miles and been within 40 miles of Benin. Spencer was anxious to get an agent posted to at least one of the towns they had visited. At Onitsha-olona two people had publicly burnt their idols. In revenge their neighbours had pulled down their houses and plundered all their goods (LH 21 Dec 1900). When Spencer visited the town he was able to persuade people to rebuild their houses and restore what had been stolen (LH 29 Dec 1900). On 22nd December the Empire went upriver past Onitsha with 1,200 troops who had been in Ashanti. They were now planning an expedition towards Bida (LH 22 Dec 1900).
Mattie had been training a special choir for the Christmas festival for some time (LH 17 Dec 1900). Minnie Warner had been sick and been visited by Dr Moore (LH 20&23 Dec 1900) but was recovering by the time her sister arrived back from England on Christmas Eve looking very well. Edith had brought some fowls from England and it would be interesting to see how they survived (LH 24&26 Dec 1900). On Christmas Day there were crowded services in the churches and then all the Europeans except Minnie were able to enjoy a dinner together with roast turkey and two roast ducks. They were joined by George Anyaegbunam and Blackett. They sang until about 9.30pm. Mattie recalled the happy Christmas she had spent the previous year at Bournemouth (LH 25&26 1900). On 27th December 200 children were invited to the Ozala to be feasted and entertained. Smith, Cheetham and Basden organised games. In the middle of this Sir Ralph Moor arrived. Dennis wrote: “I have not seen him before. He came to talk about the proposed boarding school. He is very strong on Industrial Work and Education and will stand ready to help us when we have once made a good start. He advises us to get a ‘press’ and ‘puddler’ for our brickmaking (like the Romanists) instead of making bricks by hand” (LH 27 Dec 1900).
Reviewing the year in his Annual letter (AL 1900) Dennis wrote: ‘A native translator has been at work all the year upon the Old Testament, the Revd SR Smith and myself guiding him and working with him as far as opportunity allowed. We already possess manuscripts of all the Old Testament books but a very thorough revision is necessary before they will be ready for the press.’
He went on to say that the Scripture Union continued to support three young natives who were now being included in Smith’s band of evangelists. The Ogidi branch of the Scripture Union was doing its best to support ‘our own missionary’.
Gin drinking was becoming a greater evil than formerly. This had been a long-standing problem. Although most of the spirits were German the British Government benefited from the tax revenue and was not eager to end the trade. There was now more money circulating and also more non-natives in the area. The Mission had started a Sunday afternoon service for English speaking foreigners.
The year began with a week’s mission at Waterside. Dennis slept there as meetings started each morning at 5.45 (LH 6 Jan 1901). He was glad that people were praying briefly and to the point. In the 45 minute session they were able to include 3 hymns, a talk from Dennis and 7-8 prayers (LH 10 Jan 1901).
On 8th January Miss Warner was ordered home by Dr Moore as Dennis expected (LH 8 Jan 1901). The next day he wrote to London about the need for reinforcements. Ted Dennis and Cheetham were due on leave in June. Smith could not abandon the forward movement and the native evangelists. One man on his own could not look after the Secretariat, the Waterside, Obosi, the accounts and the training of agents (P4 1901/7).
The use of horses for transport had not proved a success. “Mr Smith’s horse died this afternoon to the great joy doubtless of those who are feasting on its flesh. Horse keeping does not pay in this country. We have not yet had a horse that has not pined away and died . . . Miss Maxwell’s horse still hangs on but it does not look robust” (LH 17 Jan 1901).
Itineration from Asaba
On 18th January Dennis went to Ugbolo by hammock. Eleven people had been baptised there the previous year and many were throwing away their idols. This was thanks to the work of Charles Mbanugo, an Asaba Christian who looked after the rest house established there in 1897. A small church had been built – the pulpit and seats were made entirely of mud (LH 18 Jan 1901).
The next day Dennis went on to Akwuku where a new teacher’s house and church had been built (LH 19 Jan 1901). There was a good crowd at the Sunday service followed by open air preaching. Afterwards Dennis spoke with a man with two wives both of whom had been baptised – but he did not want to part from either of them (LH 20 Jan 1901).
On the 21st Dennis was in Onitsha Olona where their preaching had not yet borne fruit. The inhabitants had recently captured a woman on a vengeance raid against another town. They were threatening to sell her as a slave unless her own people made reparation. From there Dennis went to Atuma whose recently appointed teacher had had to return sick to Asaba. The chief pleaded that the mission should not abandon them, promising to lodge and board a teacher for three months.
The Atuma people did not recognise Dennis. “One man when I reminded him of a visit I had paid to his house said I was a young man then but now looked like an old man” (LH 21 Jan 1901). The next day Dennis was back at Akwuku examining candidates for baptism. He visited a chief who was a greater supporter of Christianity but unfortunately had 20 wives. He said he wished the Gospel had come when he was young and unencumbered (LH 22 Jan 1901). Dennis returned to Asaba through Ugbolo (LH 23 Jan 1901).
Visit to Lokoja
On 8th February Dennis left for a visit to Lokoja having to share a berth with a man suffering fever and diarrhoea – an unfortunate combination (LH 7&8 Feb 1901). On the 10th, just 3 miles short of Lokoja, they ran out of fuel. They finished the journey by canoe – taking 3 hours to get a doctor for the sick man. Dennis stayed with Messrs Bargery, Ball and Vischer in the Mission House. He heard that the Bishop was 5 days canoe journey up the Benue at Loko.
The sick man died the next day and Dennis took the funeral with half a dozen Europeans and several natives present. He visited the school children and all three Native Agents but could not see much progress (LH 11 Feb 1901).
On 15th February Dennis called on the Resident of Lokoja (the equivalent of the District Commissioner in the south). A hundred freed and escaped slaves, mostly children, had been gathered in the town. The Resident wanted CMS to start a school for them with the Government paying a shilling to two and six a month for each child depending on age. He hoped the mission might also be able to provide girls and boys hostels for them. Dennis hoped the mission might co-operate but was in despair about reinforcements. Bishop Tugwell later gave authority to establish a hostel but then the Government decided to run homes for the children itself like those in Cairo (LH 15 Feb 1901 & P4 1900/51).
The next day Dennis had to bury the Niger Company’s carpenter who had died suddenly and also hold a memorial service for a schoolgirl drowned or carried away by a crocodile the previous week. On Sunday the church was filled for the Nupe service at 7.30am. 50-60 Africans and foreigners attended an English service at 9.00am. Revd Thomas preached at both. Dennis preached to a congregation of 50 at an English service in the evening but did not attend the other afternoon ones (LH 17 Feb 1901).
On Monday Dennis left for Onitsha by canoe. – a miserable journey taking three days. The crew was a Nupe man with his wife and son who spoke neither English nor Ibo. The son had sores and was lazy. The wife fell overboard at one point. Progress was slow. They had to spend the nights on sandbanks. Dennis had a mosquito tent and bedding with him (LH 18, 19, 20, 21 Feb 1901).
Back in Onitsha Dennis found Todd hard at work with his apprentices and the Waterside Christians carrying bricks for a new church. An old member Sophia Mba had died. The heathen relatives insisted on burying her so the Christians had to give way to avoid bloodshed. There had been fighting between Nkpor and Ogidi, around Sidney’s house, which would continue for over a week. Eddie and George Basden were busy with language study for their exam on 28th (LH 21 Feb and 5&12 Mar 1901).
On Sunday Tom and Mattie were at Immanuel for the morning service. The banns were called for the first time for G N Anyaebunam’s second marriage. In the afternoon Dennis took the service at Waterside (LH 24 Feb 1901).
On Monday Dennis tried to make a fresh start with the Old Testament revision but the next day was taken up with a confirmation class, several hours interviewing candidates, and then a palaver (LH 25 & 26 Feb 1901).
Hensley’s death and sad anniversaries
On 24th February Todd had had news of Dennis’s sister, Fanny, and three other ladies sailing from England to Sierra Leone to get married (LH 24 Feb 1901). On 2nd March Dennis had a letter from Fanny with the news that Hensley had died on the eve of their wedding. “Poor Fanny . . . it is another of those tragedies which are everyday occurrences on the West coast. I must have been attending that sick man on the way to Lokoja just when Fanny was watching Hensley and was conducting the funeral at Lokoja at the very time when Hensley’s body was buried. A queer coincidence . . . The bishop (who had just arrived from Lokoja) was much shocked to hear of Hensley’s death. We have been thinking so much of poor Fanny all day . . . how terribly she has suffered. I can scarcely realise that the sad news is true.” (LH 2 Mar 1901)
Fanny returned to England and informed the Parent Committee she was willing to serve in either Sierra Leone or on the Niger. She was to be sent back to Onitsha (P4 1901/41, LH 27 May 1901).
Meanwhile Dennis pressed on with his work despite remembering it was just a year since Ernest Wise had preached his last sermon in Onitsha (LH 10 Mar 1901). It was coming up to the anniversary of their late son, Godfrey, “who would have been running about now had God spared him to us” (LH 15 Mar 1901).
He was asked to take the funeral of a Niger Company man who had travelled with him on his recent trip to Lokoja (LH 12 Mar 1901). A European working at one of the Waterside factories died – no one seemed to realise how sick he had been (LH 14 Mar 1901). But the work had to continue and at least GN Anyaegbunam’s wedding had gone well (LH 13 Mar 1901).
“Waterside day and spent as usual. Mattie was again unable to accompany me. Her household duties are heavy. Three young men lodgers want a deal of attention, to say nothing of the small army of apprentices, pupil teachers, and boys who throng the Ozala. We muster over 20 at prayers in the evening and half as many more in the morning when those who sleep away gather for the daily work. Including those in the ladies house, the Hospital and the Girls School, I reckon that not far short of a hundred persons sleep every night in the Ozala.
I examined a young married native of Ogbunike who is anxious to join Mr Smith’s band of evangelists. If he is accepted he will make the eighth to join. I expect to interview another at Obosi, tomorrow. These young men will need careful training but they are good material to work upon and should in time become as able as they are zealous. Unfortunately itinerating is difficult just now on account of the disturbed state of the country.” (LH 8 Mar 1901)
“Spencer came over from Asaba. He tells us there is trouble again at Onitsha-Olona and Akwukwu. It is another twin palaver. A Christian woman of Onitsha-Olona gave birth on Thursday to twins. The people of her village raised such an outcry and looked so threatening that the CMS agent removed her and her babies to his house. A crowd speedily gathered and began to pull down the compound fence so the woman and children were packed off to Akwukwu. The people of Akwukwu objected just as strongly as those of Onitsha-Olona to having the twins amongst them and made a tremendous uproar all day on Sunday. At last removal to Asaba being out of the question the woman decided to go home to her house at Onitsha-Olona and brave the rage of the people, trusting that nobody would venture to murder the children without her consent . . . fancy a woman in that condition and with two new born infants being dragged from place to place this way.” (LH 12 Mar 1901)
“I am sorry to say that the twins . . . were taken by force from the mother and murdered contrary to Mr Spencer’s expectation. The neighbours, not content with killing the children so hardly dealt with the parents that they have been compelled to flee to Asaba . . . I’m afraid these distant parts are getting into a very lawless state indeed. The Government will need to take strong measures.” (LH 13 Mar 1901)
A visit to Ogidi
Dennis went to see Sidney Smith in Ogidi on the 14th March. “I walked both ways, so am a little tired tonight. However, it was an enjoyable little change. Sidney Smith has quite a farmyard already and is intending to cultivate the ground round his house. I wish he were a bit further from the fighting. The paths and bush about his house seemed to swarm with armed men. I believe only one man was hit today though many shots were fired.” (LH 14 Mar 1901). Three days later Todd was in Ogidi looking for suitable trees for his sawyers (LH 17 Mar 1901). Two weeks later Dennis had some alarming news: “It seems that Sidney Smith and his party had a narrow escape from being killed and eaten on their recent journey. I have not heard details yet . . . the towns through which they passed are in a frightfully unsettled state, fighting and quarrelling with one another. I am afraid it will be difficult to do much just now in the way of itineration.” (LH 4 Apr 1901)
Onitsha itself was more settled. As the country’s trade and government developed the number of non indigenes in the town increased. Dennis wrote to London about an Accra man who wanted his daughter at the Onitsha Girls School but to be taught in English and wear a certain dress. He was prepared to pay any fee. As he had to be refused he went to the Romans. Dennis foresaw more such cases. He proposed the priesting of Basden when the Bishop next visited (P4 1901/35).
The Waterside School was blown down in a storm and some of the new bricks were spoiled (LH 17 Mar 1901).
Bishop Tugwell wanted Spencer to accompany Eddie to England and do four months deputation (LH 17 Mar 01). Spencer could take the revised and enlarged Ibo Grammar for printing and also the MSS of Genesis and Exodus (P4 1901/46 – MSS of Genesis in Upper Ibo by Dennis & others received 16th July, BH 24.7.1901 HCPE p778). The Grammar would require another week’s work with Spencer to get ready (LH 17 Mar 01). But it was hard to find time for translation when Dennis had to oversee Lokoja and the Delta as well as the developing work from Onitsha and Asaba. Writing to London Dennis suggested that if the newly consecrated assistant bishop, James Johnson, moved to Brass as a centre for looking after the Delta churches then Brass should be transferred to the Niger Delta Pastorate and the missionaries there moved to Onitsha. Another house would be needed in Onitsha when the Macketts returned. More evangelists had been trained and needed to be paid (P4 1901/46).
At Lokoja a tornado had damaged roofs and Dennis had to ask the PC for money for repairs (P4 1901/46). Mr Aitken there had received the iron safe requested from England but been unable to open it so was having to send it back (P4 1901/45).
Much Christian instruction depended on a basic level of literacy. Dennis wrote: “I took the Wednesday class this morning. I am working again on a plan which was made years ago and afterwards dropped, viz to spend part of the hour teaching reading. Most of the class members are unable to read and are consequently ignorant of the word of God”. (LH 20 Mar 1901)
“I have been able to get on a bit with the Old Testament today. It is very little time that I can give to that important work nowadays. I don’t think I am lazy and yet almost all my time and strength seem taken up with the various duties connected with the Secretariat. Add to these duties the oversight of the Waterside congregation . . .” (LH 25 Mar 1901)
Two days later he was writing of two sisters he had had to bury who had died of dysentery and of another woman who had been buried in the Ozala that relatives insisted on exhuming for burial at home. The stench was horrible (LH 27 Mar 1901). He decided he had to spend the best part of a subsequent day superintending very necessary sanitary improvements in the Ozala (LH 1 Apr 1901).
Meanwhile Mattie was spending much of her time training the Pupil Teachers – managing a great deal and maintaining her health amidst all the rush and bustle (LH 8 Apr 1901).
At last Dennis found a long morning to complete the revision of the Ibo grammar with Spencer. “It ought to be a great help to future missionaries though it is still very rudimentary. The book is, of course, Mr Spencer’s work, my part being simply to go through the manuscript with him in the way of revision.” (LH 11 Apr 1901)
Marriage and Twins at Obosi
“At the morning service (at Obosi) I baptised a young woman who is a native of Nnewi. After that I married her to one of the Oba Christians to whom she has been engaged for some months. My sermon was on marriage, a very necessary subject in which to instruct the Native Christians. Some of them seem quite unable to understand why a man cannot have as many wives as he can pay for, others think that a heathen man or woman is just as good for a mate as a Christian, while others still fail to distinguish between fornication and marriage. 33 then had communion.
At the 2.30 evening service I baptised 3 babies, 2 of whom were twins. This is the first time that I have baptised twins, and I am pretty certain that twins have never been baptised at Obosi before. A very short time ago they would have been treated as those twin babies in Onitsha-Olona . . . it is undoubtedly much easier to be a Christian now in Obosi.”
Onitsha churches – natives and non natives
“We heard this morning that they had an exciting time in the service at Christ Church Onitsha yesterday through a snake dropping from the roof into the midst of the choir boys.
“I hear that the latest move of the Romanists at Onitsha is to announce that they are prepared to teach any trade to boys of Onitsha town or Waterside. Applicants must be able to read and write a little, which means of course that they will at least have been at some time connected with one of our schools. I have no doubt that this is a bait to catch our boys.” (LH 15 Apr 1901)
“There is discord amongst the Waterside Christians. You know that the Waterside population is a very mixed one, the great majority not being natives at Onitsha and many of them being freed or escaped slaves.” Furthermore the Waterside has grown so rapidly during the past few years that I believe, if a census were taken, the population would be found to exceed that of Onitsha Town. The DC has recently appointed a ‘Native Council’ for Onitsha Town and Waterside combined, to meet on certain days and settle palavers. Some of the members of the Council are ‘foreigners’ and the free born natives of Onitsha have petitioned the Commissioners that these men’s names should be taken off and the names of Onitsha men substituted. This action is deeply resented by the foreign element and as our congregation is a fairly representative one and the ‘free borns’ helped their heathen compatriots in the petition you can see how the Christians are affected. I found a letter waiting for me when I got here this morning to inform me that ‘foreign’ Christians would wait upon me in a body the day after tomorrow to put their grievances before me.” (LH 17 Apr 1901)
After this meeting Dennis consulted Revd GN Anyaegbunam as he was not sure how to proceed. He would see the native Christians at Immanuel on Sunday and hoped to be able to arrange a conference where the two factions could come together (LH 19 Apr 1901).
On Sunday Dennis was surprised that none of the ‘foreign’ elements in the Waterside congregation appeared for worship. He walked down to the river afterwards to find some of them and give them a piece of his mind. He felt they were being childish but wondered whether he had made things worse or better. Dennis and Revd Anyaegbunam spent much time praying over the issue (LH 21 Apr 1901).
The next day Dennis had a meeting with the ‘native’ Christians which he felt was constructive (LH 22 Apr 1901). He subsequently learned that the ‘foreign’ church members had been absent on Sunday because of pressure from non-members (LH 24 Apr 1901).
A few days later the split was finally healed: “It is just midnight and we have concluded a ‘round table conference’ between 5 of the leading ‘foreign’ church members and about the same number of ‘natives’. I took the chair and Mr Spencer was also present. . . Suffice it to say that God has answered prayer. The threatened ‘split’ will not take place, but on the contrary we shall be more united than before . . . The past few days have been a trying time. God be praised for the frustration of the enemy’s designs” (LH 25 Apr 1901). For the following Sundays Dennis’s sermons were on the theme of love (LH 17 May 1901).
While all this was going on other issues were taking up Dennis’s time. One of the carpenters apprentices had been caught stealing. Dennis had to hold an investigation which resulted in two people having to be dismissed (LH 17&18 Apr 1901). The Onitsha community was still “very barbarian” despite over 40 years of mission activity. “An old law relating to the dress of women was revived and is now being strictly enforced so that now all girls and unmarried women are obliged to go about in a state of nudity.” (LH 22 Apr 1901)
However, alongside these anxieties Dennis could think about their mission vegetable plot and also plans for extending the work.
Dennis wrote to London asking for a supply of Suttons seeds (P4 1901/54). Apparently Suttons, the seed merchants, presented the Mission with a selection of vegetable and flower seeds every year asking only that the might hear something of the results. Fanny, writing later from Idumuji said they were allowed to make their own selection and had enjoyed green peas, beans, radishes and tomatoes (ND p109). Dennis was also writing to the PC with a proposal for starting the training of 6 schoolmasters under Basden and Blackett (P4 1901/57). Spencer was able to leave for England on 21st May (LH 21 May 1901).
The new Government was trying to establish local organisation. “It seems to be a by no means easy matter for the Government to choose out a Native Council for Onitsha. They have had several meetings with the chiefs and other leading Onitsha men, but have not settled anything. Did I tell you that we have to pay a duty of 10% on almost everything that comes to us from England? . . . It has made a difference of £10 to me already. The opening up of the River has already resulted in a great increase in the price of food so that we pay half as much again as we used to pay for fowls and yams.” (LH 20 May 1901)
A Native Council was eventually chosen. The Clerk was a Romanist. One member belonged to the Anglicans. The rest were heathen Onitsha chiefs except for one man representing the large ‘foreign’ population of the Waterside. “It will be interesting to see how the chiefs shape in their new role of ‘Justices of the Peace’ and ‘County Council’. They have been warned that the Government will not allow twin murders, persecution of witchcraft, slave trading, and other customs which they have received from their fathers.” (LH 21 May 1901)
Four months later Dennis heard that “it has at last been decided to make Onitsha the HQ of the Government in Southern Nigeria. In other words it will be the capital, and (in the near future) an important town.” (LH 20 Sept 1901)
Mission and Government
At this time there was some interesting correspondence between Dennis and the Government District Commissioner in Asaba over the work in Ogidi. The Commissioner, RA Roberts, said Smith should be recalled from Ogidi as the place was inimicable for a white man and Government permission to break new ground had not been obtained. No mission must be established without Government permission. Dennis pointed out in reply that Ogidi had been occupied by CMS agents since 1894 (P4 1900/55). In the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria the Government saw part of its role as protecting the Muslims from Christian evangelists. Fortunately the missions arrived first in the South and could ask what right the colonial power had to dictate religious policy. A few weeks later the Commissioner wrote to Dennis again stating that owing to disturbances at Ogidi it would be well for the CMS to refrain from work there. Dennis replied that the disturbances had in no way affected CMS workers or property; that the people were not unfriendly to the white man, that Mr Smith could easily withdraw to Onitsha if necessary, and that the mission accepted responsibility for continuing work in Ogidi (P4 1901/60). Fortunately the Commissioner could not accuse the Mission of causing a disturbance. The real danger to a white man was disease not the natives. Dennis obviously felt sufficiently experienced to take a firm line and made it clear that the missionaries’ concern was for the spread of the Gospel rather than personal safety.
But the presence of the Government did being the Mission advantages. New roads and telegraph lines were being constructed to aid communications. Centres of pagan resistance were being defeated. Benin was overcome and the ‘long ju-ju’ at Aro Chuku destroyed (ND p55 see also ‘Journey to the Cross River’ pp191ff). This opened the country for the spread of the Gospel. The Government had also started a regular passenger service on the river which was better and cheaper than that of the Royal Niger Company (P4 1900/76).