Akinpelu… Revisiting history of the Yorubas


This year marks the centennial anniversary of the publication of the magisterial work: “The History of the Yorubas” written by Reverend Samuel Johnson, a scion of the famous Johnson family.

The writing of the book was a huge undertaking and for a man without a university education, it was a wonderful accomplishment. After completing its writing in 1897, his brother, The Venerable Henry Johnson, sought the assistance of the Church Mission Society (CMS) in London to publish the work.
According to him, the material “contains much useful information of a kind, that will not be available after a few years owing to the rapid changes now going on in the country”.

Unfortunately, R. N. Cust, the immediate recipient of the manuscript on behalf of the society, was ambivalent about it. In his words,
“It speaks volume in favour of the degree of culture to which Negro missionaries have obtained, when they can compose in so complete and orderly manner such a gigantic work. I look at it with admiration—no native convert of India [sic] could produce such work: unluckily it is so very prolix, and the subject matter so very unimportant both from a secular and religiou’s [sic] point of view, that I know not what to recommend….The SPCK would not look at such work: the book would not sell: the whole subject is painful to me, as I feel for the author.”

Cust, who had “expected a small manuscript for a pamphlet”, acknowledged that he had not attempted to read the voluminous work due to his busy schedule, but what followed shows that the English missionary society, by treating the document as inconsequential to its half a century exertion among the Yoruba, failed to recognize their own moment of success.

The literary world has a lot to thank Kehinde Olabimtan for on the importance of Johnson’s path finding work. His “Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901: Identity, Change and the Making of the Mission Agent” published in 2013 sheds much light on the challenges faced in making Johnson’s book see the light of day.
By 1900, the manuscript was missing. If the CMS reported loss of the original manuscript in the custody of Cust and the emerging climate of European hostility towards the Yoruba in church and state in the closing decade of the nineteenth century are factors to go by, it is only providential that the History eventually saw the light of the day.

Samuel’s brother, Obadiah, who had been privy to the project all along as his editor, observed that “this seemed to [him] and all his friends who heard of it so strange that one could not help thinking that there was more in it than appeared on the surface, especially because of other circumstances connected with the so-called loss of the manuscripts.” The responsibility to reassemble the material devolved on him, following the death of the original author, Rev. Samuel Johnson, in 1901.

In Obadiah’s words:
“[I]t has now fallen to the lot of the editor to rewrite the whole history. anew, from the copious notes and rough copies left behind by the author. But for many years after his death, partly from discouragements by the events, and partly from being appalled by the magnitude of the task, the editor shrank from the undertaking, but circumstances now and again cropped up showing the need of the work, and the necessity for undertaking it besides the almost criminal disgrace of all owing the outcome of his brother’ s many years of labour to be altogether lost.”

Rewriting was not the end of the challenges that faced the publication. The uncertainties of the World War I years added their own troubles, but the publication was eventually undertaken by the local CMS publishing company in Lagos in 1921. By then, the editor too, Obadiah Johnson, had died the previous year. Neither the original author nor the later compiler/editor saw the published work.

The question remains as to why Samuel Johnson wrote the book. In his preface to the work, having denied vain ambition as his motivation, he adduced his exploit to “a purely patriotic motive, that the history of our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion, especially as our old sires are fast dying out”.
In other words, deaths and changing times added ontological dimension to Samuel Johnson’s decision to write the history of his people. And in doing so, he set out to rescue their fading memory.

The second stated reason, complementary to the first, which motivated him to write the history, shows that Samuel Johnson had observed an inimical trend of false elitism among his fellow returnees from Sierra Leone. In his own words:

“Educated natives of Yoruba are well acquainted with the history of England and with that of Rome and Greece, but of the history of their own country they know nothing whatever! This reproach it is one of the author’s object to remove.”

Samuel Johnson was first married to Miss Lydia Okuseinde on the 19th of January 1875 and their first child, Clara, was born in Kudeti on 6th December 1875. They did have a son, Geoffrey Emmanuel born in September 1878, but he died in October 1879. Unfortunately, Lydia died in February 1888 and he would later, on the 20th of June 1895, marry one Miss Martha E. Garber in Christ Church, Lagos. The ceremony was performed by his older brothers, Henry and Nathaniel.

From both his marriages, Samuel was blessed with five daughters who survived him and at least four of them married clergy men. Clara, his first child, married
The Reverend T. A. J. Ogunbiyi on the 23rd of December 1898. Clara’s daughter, Charlotte Adebisi married a son of Bishop Isaac Oluwole, Dr. I. Ladipo Oluwole and she had three children, among whom was the Very Revd T. A. J. Oluwole, a former Provost of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina Lagos. One daughter, Victoria Agbeke married Revd. Samuel Gansallo, a vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Faji, Lagos in May 1902. Another daughter, Adelaide Zenobia married Reverend (later Canon) M. S. Cole, a former vicar of Christ Church Marina, All Saints’ Church, Yaba, and Founder of Oduduwa College, Ile Ife. During his tenure as Vicar of Christ Church, the original building was pulled down and he initiated fund raising efforts for the current edifice. He was vicar when the foundation stone was laid in 1925 by HRH Edward Prince of Wales. He also translated the Koran into Yoruba.

Another daughter, Lucretia married Revd James Adeneye Cole, a vicar of Christ Church Porogun in Ijebu Ode.
It is poignant to note that while the family marks and reflects on the centennial anniversary of the publication of this book and the other events of 1921, it is important too, to point out that April 29th this year marks the super-centennial anniversary of Samuel’s death in Lagos. Indeed, we their descendants have a goodly heritage, an abundance of treasured memories and inspirational legacies.

The History of the Yorubas remains a worthy pathfinder for successive scholarly efforts to document the history of a people. We can’t thank enough the vision of Samuel Johnson in writing the book, and the labour of love of his rewriter/editor, Obadiah Johnson in salvaging it for publication.
*Rt. Rev Akinpelu Johnson is the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Lagos Mainland.

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Akinpelu Johnson
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