In 1840 three strands of purpose—missionary advance, humanitarian resolve, and slavery abolition—merged into the Niger Expedition, brainchild of Fowell Buxton of the Church Missionary Society and of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade. The British government funded the enterprise, and all England followed the course of the three new state-of-the-art steamships named Albert, Wilberforce, and Soudan. The iron vessels had a novel system of ventilation using chemical filters to “neutralize” the swamp gases thought to produce malaria.

The fleet sailed in early 1841, loaded with sailors, scientists, agriculturists, philanthropists, liberated slaves (as interpreters) and missionaries, J. F. Schon and Samuel Adjai Crowther. They arrived in African waters in mid-August; but on September 4, 1841 the chief medical officer, Dr. McWilliams, logged that “fever of a most malignant character” had broken out and the whole expedition was paralyzed. The sick were loaded onto the Soudan to return to healthier harbors, and the Wilberforce followed her.

The Albert forged up the Niger River alone, but soon the captain and crew were sick. Men threw themselves overboard in their deliriums. The dead were buried on the riverbanks by the missionaries. With no one left to navigate the ship, Dr. McWilliams did his best to control the reeling ship, using a textbook found in the captain’s cabin. But he had to repeatedly leave the bridge to attend the sick and dying. Of the 145 Europeans on board, 130 contracted malaria and many died.

But the mission wasn’t a complete failure. The missionaries returned with valuable recommendations that led to establishing a missionary center in Fourah Bay for training liberated slaves to evangelize West Africa. Within four years its foundation stone was laid on the very spot where 40 years before a factory had stood that engaged in the slave trade. And the rafters of the new roof were made almost entirely from the masts of old slave ships.

Tell the whole world to sing a new song to the LORD!
Tell those who sail the ocean and those who live far away
To join in the praise.
Tell the tribes of the desert and everyone in the mountains
To celebrate and sing.
Let them announce his praises everywhere.
(Isaiah 42:10-12)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Sept. 3.

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