Heritage: How a pioneer African nationalist came to visit Havering in 1891

The meeting was held in the parish room on the village green at Havering-atte-Bower. Picture: John W

The meeting was held in the parish room on the village green at Havering-atte-Bower. Picture: John Winfield/Wiki Commons - Credit: Archant

More than a century ago, Havering-atte-Bower received an unexpected visitor from Africa. Prof Ged Martin tells the story

On that November day in 1891, few Havering-atte-Bower villagers would ever have seen a black person.

They were often asked for cash to spread the gospel among the people of Africa. There was to be a missionary meeting in the parish room on Havering’s village green that evening. The surprise was that the visiting speaker was himself an African.

Their vicar, the Reverend Frederic Tugwell, elderly but still spry, welcomed the Reverend James Johnson. His son, the Reverend Herbert Tugwell, was a missionary in Lagos. James Johnson was one of Herbert’s colleagues – hence his decision to call at Havering during his visit to Britain.

How did an African come to have a European surname? Although Britain abolished its slave trade in 1806, Brazil and the USA continued to import slaves from Africa.

For once, British arrogance had a positive side. The Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic, rescuing terrified captives from other countries’ slave ships.

If returned to their homelands, the victims would be enslaved again. Instead, they were settled in Sierra Leone, Britain’s colony for ex-slaves (its capital is called Freetown). There they learned English and many adopted new surnames.

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James Johnson’s parents were Yoruba people, from modern-day Nigeria. Born about 1836, he was educated at Fourah Bay, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) college, West Africa’s first university.

Johnson became a clergyman. Since he spoke Yoruba, the CMS sent him to Lagos, but he had little success as a missionary. Fiercely puritanical, “Holy Johnson” denounced the Yoruba practice of polygamy, and made few converts.

In 1880, he became pastor of the principal Anglican church in Lagos, the Breadfruit Church.

Families like the Johnsons were called Creoles – Africans who’d adopted European lifestyles. The British Empire saw them as intermediaries who would “civilize” Africa: Christianity, cricket and capitalism would turn the continent into a copy of Europe.

But James Johnson had radically subversive views. He wanted Africans to become Christians, because a single religion would overcome tribal divisions.

But he rejected other European values, institutions and products – especially alcohol. His vision was of a continent united in religion, but run by Africans on African lines. James Johnson was a pioneer of the ideology called pan-Africanism, expressed today in the international body the African Union.

Johnson was perhaps too polite to tell the vicar of Havering about tensions among the Nigerian missionaries. Africans like himself objected that young Englishmen from British universities despised African cultures, and lacked respect for their black colleagues.

Was Herbert Tugwell, a Cambridge graduate, one of those?

A crossroads decision loomed for Anglicanism in west Africa. A new bishop for the massive diocese of Western Equatorial Africa would soon be needed, to replace the ageing and saintly Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the first black bishop in the Anglican Communion.

Another Sierra Leonean, Crowther had been rescued by the Royal Navy from a Portuguese slave-ship when he was twelve years old.

Bishop Crowther died a few weeks after James Johnson’s visit to Havering. Johnson had argued strongly for African leadership in the Anglican Church in west Africa. But Whitehall and Canterbury wouldn’t take the risk, and kept control in European hands.

In 1894, Crowther’s successor was appointed: Herbert Tugwell, still a relative newcomer, became the new bishop of Western Equatorial Africa.

James Johnson considered forming a breakaway African church, but in 1900 accepted appointment as Tugwell’s assistant bishop. He died in 1917.

There’s no report of the speeches delivered that night in Havering village. No doubt there were prayers and hymns, and villagers listened awestruck to a learned address from a black gentleman.

Havering-atte-Bower collected £91 for the CMS that year. But its generosity financed a form of religious colonialism, with Europeans deciding what was best for their African charges.

Had he been supported by the Anglican Church, James Johnson might have led a revolution on his own continent, working towards an Africa run by and for Africans.