Friday, July 13, 2018

A movie on the life of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther?

Bishop Crowther, 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1809-1891) was a remarkable figure in West African history, whose life bridged the end of the Atlantic slave trade era and the beginning of the period of European partition of the continent. Could his story be the basis of a major film production?

A compelling life story

Captured at age 12 or 13 in what is today Oyo State in southwest Nigeria, separated from his family, and sold into slavery, he was "recaptured" by a British anti-slaving force and eventually found his way back to his homeland and became prominent as a linguist and a member of the Anglican clergy (becoming in 1864 its first African bishop) in what was to become Nigeria. Towards the end of his life, however, this success collided with increasingly racist attitudes associated with the imposition of colonial rule.

This compelling story deserves more attention, and it is easy to imagine it being the subject of a major motion picture production. The idea is in no way new. From some contacts in Nigeria, notably Dr. Tunde Adegbola, and through him, filmmaker Tunde Kelani, I learned some years ago that there is interest in the production such a drama. There is at least one published dramatization of Crowther's life, a play focusing on his difficult later years, written by Prof. Femi Osofisan

Certainly the most dramatic episode in Crowther's life was the unexpected reunion with his mother in 1846, which he himself recounted in these words (as presented in an 1892 biography):
"August 21. The text for this day in the Christian Almanac, is 'Thou art the Helper of the fatherless.' I have never felt the force of this text more than I did this day, as I have to relate that my mother, from whom I was torn away about five-and-twenty years ago, came with my brother in quest of me. When she saw me she trembled. She could not believe her own eyes. We grasped one another, looking at each other with silence and great astonishment, big tears rolling down her emaciated cheeks. A great number of people soon came together. She trembled as she held me by the hand and called me by the familiar names by which I well remember I used to be called by my grandmother, who has since died in slavery. We could not say much, but sat still, and cast now and then an affectionate look at each other--a look which violence and oppression had long checked--an affection which had nearly been extinguished by the long space of twenty-five years. My two sisters who were captured with us, are both with my mother, who takes care of them and her grandchildren in a small town not far from here, called Absika. Thus unsought for--after all search for me had failed--God has brought us together again, and turned our sorrow into joy."
Although a figure of the 19th century, Crowther's life story resonates beyond that period so critical in African history. The theme of separation and reunion is universal and powerful. His encounter with some of the worst aspects of racism, which unfortunately is still a very present problem (it was not until 2014 that the Church of England finally apologized for the treatment he received). Crowther's efforts in the area of Christian-Muslim dialogue reflect an important ongoing process. And his work with African languages, particularly but not limited to his native Yoruba, have an ongoing influence.

Ajayi Crowther, translation, and transcription

Early in his time in what is now Sierra Leone, where he was settled after reacue by the British, Crowther took an interest in languages and linguistics. Aside from his mother tongue and the English he learned in Freetown, he also learned Temne. In the course of his education leading to clerical vocation, he learned Latin and Greek, which later were essential in translating the Bible into Yoruba. He also learned Igbo (and contributed to work on translating the Bible into that language), Hausa, (in the context of a trip to the north), Nupe (for which he also published a grammar and vocabulary), and Igalla (which is closely related to Yoruba).

Character combos for open-e, open-o, & /sh/
in Yoruba. The small line is the "classic" look;
a dot under seems more often used these days.
Apparently much of the early work on writing Yoruba in the Latin alphabet (an older Ajami transcription already exised, likely used mainly by Muslim Yorubas) was begun by missionaries in Freetown working with Yoruba speakers who had been settled there, and Crowther collaborated with them. The system Crowther used to write Yoruba, including marks under e and o to denote open vowel forms of them (the language having a 7-vowel system), presumably built on those early efforts. With some modifications, such as tone markings, that orthography is still in use today, a significant contribution to the written forms of African languages.

When back in what was to become Nigeria, Crowther worked on A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language, (1852), which was apparently the first linguistic work published by an African. His translation of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Bible into Yoruba came later.

Ajayi Crowther's place in African history

Although I had learned some basics about Bishop Crowther in my limited study of and reading on African history over the years (it is relevant to my work, but not my field), I first took an interest in his story due to his role in establishing the Yoruba orthography.² I hadn't realized until later that opinions of his role in Nigerian and West African history varied. In Prof. Osofisan's words (from prefatory notes to his play):
"Crowther has been much vilified by African scholars and historians, who accuse him of having been merely a lackey to the white colonials. His work as a pioneering missionaery who travelled widely and extensively along the River Niger, establishing missions and, above all, putting up a staunch fight against slavery, is hardly even appreciated. Even his works as translator and scholar, who established schools in many parts of the mission, and worked out the first written alphabets and primers for not only Yoruba, but also Igalla and Igbo, is always glossed over."
Maybe it's time - already a few years after the Church of England's apology for what was done to him late in his career - to "rehabilitate" Bishop Crowther's image in history more generally, and to provide the current generation with a new perspective on a complex and influential life and life's work?

A film on the life of Ajayi Crowther

Crowther achieved several firsts, as a clergy in his adopted religion, and as a prominent early linguist specializing in African languages. He engaged with African cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity. He was one of the first students at the famous Fourah Bay College. He personally experienced both slavery and the institutionalized racism of colonialism, but rose above them. He left a legacy that has perhaps been underappreciated.

So, could this story, to which the above sketch does not do full justice, be the basis for a major feature film production? One involving Nigerian and international producers and actors? Could it fully, accurately, and appropriately treat the linguistic aspects of the story?

The market is there for big Africa-themed productions - including ones in which African languages figure prominently. The action film Black Panther is a recent example. The 1997 historical drama Amistad did well. Language, transcription, and translation may seem like a harder sell, but the recent sci-fi film Arrival had linguistics as a central component of the plot.

Ethnic dimensions might need care to navigate. Crowther was obviously a Yoruba figure, but also spent formative years in the Creole community of Freetown, and later traveled and worked widely in what was to become Nigeria. The episode of his capture into slavery is said to have involved "Muslim Fulani" as well as eventually Portuguese slavers - so how to be historically accurate without feeding stereotypes should be a priority.³

The biggest challenges are that there is no script or even script treatment on the subject, and that research on the subject might yield more than one reasonable plot line to tell the story, with the potential for conflict between commercial imperatives (especially the bigger the production) and the importance of historical and linguistic accuracy, and sensitivity to the people groups treated.

So this post is intended to give a little more lift to an idea that merits consideration and, hopefully, action.

1. Femi Osofisan, Ajayi Crowther: The Triumphs and Travails of a Legend, Bookcraft, Ibadan, 2006. The play was first performed in Lagos in 2002.
2. This was about 10-15 years ago when I was focusing on support for African writing systems on computers and the internet.
3. There are currently reports of conflicts in Nigeria between herders, mainly Fulani (Fulɓe), and farmers of other ethnic groups, which have led to fatalities.

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