New finds from Henry Townsend letters

by Benjamina Efua Dadzie

I had the pleasure of visiting the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in late February. This was to become familiar with the objects Reverend Henry Townsend donated to RAMM, as part of the work I am doing for my dissertation.

Benjamina Efua DadzieWith my research, I intend to shed light on the mission of Reverend Townsend in West Africa, with particular focus on his experience in Abeokuta. The objects he gathered during his mission are an opportunity to see the relations he had, if any, with the natives of Abeokuta during his time there. Consequently, a full understanding of the contexts of acquisition – and perhaps the biography, of the objects in the Townsend collection cannot occur without pointing a lens at Townsend himself.

Church Missionary Society archive

I visited the Church Missionary Society (CMS) archive at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. There I spent two weeks going through some of Reverend Townsend’s letters to/from the CMS during his time in West Africa. From these documents, I gained insight into what prompted his desire to become a missionary, his personal background before leaving Exeter in October 1836, and what he thought of his experience in West Africa. From the timeline gathered, Townsend spent a total of 39 years in mission, 22 of which were in Abeokuta, and the rest in Freetown, Badagry, and Lagos. During this period, he returned to England several times. It is during one of these trips back to England that he married Sarah Pearse in 1840, with whom he had at least two children by December 1844.

The work of a missionary

From the evidence gathered through his letters, Townsend seems to have been by no means naïve to the challenges of being a missionary in West Africa in mid-1800. Some of these challenges were linguistic, some about the customs of the people he wanted to evangelise. For this reason, he started learning the Yoruba language in 1843, conscious perhaps that knowledge of a language was the gateway to understanding a culture.

Because of the efforts both the church and the British government were making to end the slave trade, Townsend states that Chief Sodeke of Abeokuta, moved by the accounts of his Egba people who escaped enslavement, invited him to establish a mission in Abeokuta. Through Sodeke, he became acquainted with several other people such as Chief Ogunbunna, who Townsend described as a

“a fine man over six feet high & […] of good manner clean & well dressed with pleasing voice”

in one his letters. And it was Ogubunna who gave to Townsend, at his request, the Eshu figure (fig. 1) now on display at the RAMM.

figure of eshu

Figure 1 Wood carving of Yoruba orisha called Eshu


This information came from a pamphlet that I found at the Cadbury Research Library, in which there were six lithographs described by Townsend, and published by his brother George Townsend in Exeter around 1850. Reverend Townsend depicts four figures in the lithograph, of which two are Eshu figures (male and female) and a set of Ibeji (twins). The Eshu displayed at the RAMM is the male figure. This pamphlet was a great find, as it will aid me to understand some of the objects (fig. 2, and 3) in the Townsend collection through his own words.

Reverend Townsend operated in the social and political context of British colonial rule in West Africa. Although his letters do not shine much light on British government activities, apart from the work related to ending the slave trade, it is important to note that his mission fits into a wider narrative of a desire to ‘civilise’ Africa through Christianity and commerce. Nonetheless, he seems to have carved for himself a space in Abeokuta’s history through his missionary work, and I intend to understand that history of encounter.


Figure 2 Small wood Yoruba drum

white metal anklets

Figure 3 white metal anklets, alloys normally associated with devotees of Obatala