Reverend Henry Townsend (1820 – 1885)

Discover the story behind the objects in one of RAMMs founding collections. The collector, Henry Townsend, was a pioneering missionary working in West Africa in the 19th Century.

Townsend's collection of artefacts

Reverend Henry TownsendHenry Townsend worked for the Church Missionary Society in West Africa between 1836 and 1876.  He first worked in Sierra Leone, before establishing missions in Yorubaland at Badagry and Abeokuta.

Townsend was born in Exeter, and brought African objects back to donate to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.  There are 33 objects in the collection, all from various locations in West Africa.

Many of the objects were given as gifts; we know that Townsend requested some of them specifically.  Missionaries often brought back ‘exotic’ objects.  These could be viewed as trophies – demonstrating the victory of Christianity over ‘heathen’ customs.  They could also be used for the scientific study of ‘primitive’ culture.

Collections can be used to explore relationships between giver and collector.  They are often less biased than archival records and offer an alternative interpretation.  This collection reveals how Townsend was viewed by the locals he worked with as well as how he viewed them.  They also offer insight into contemporary political dynamics, locally and further afield.

Research was carried out into the Townsend collection by Benjamina Efua Dadzie in 2015. Townsend’s history and collection information will be brought to this page in 2019.

Training as a missionary

Townsend was trained as a missionary in Islington in 1836.  He then undertook the 5-week journey to Sierra Leone, where he worked as a schoolmaster and minister.  He married his wife in 1840 while temporarily back in England.

In 1843, Townsend travelled to Abeokuta to find out whether it would be possible to establish a mission there.  He was welcomed by the local chief, Sodeke, and was offered land on which to build a mission.

To establish his own mission, Townsend first needed to be ordained in England.  He became a deacon in 1844 and returned to Nigeria the next year, with the intention of beginning work in Abeokuta.

The situation in Abeokuta had changed by the time Townsend returned and it wasn’t possible to move forward with plans for the mission at Abeokuta.  Instead, a temporary mission was established at a nearby port called Badagry, in 1845.

Abeokuta mission was finally built in 1846 and this is where Townsend stayed for the next 30 years.  He established the first local newspaper, Iwe Irohin, and became popular with local chiefs.  Objects were gifted to him by locals as a sign of their affection for him.  Sometimes these objects were also a symbol of the acceptance of Christianity over traditional beliefs.

Townsend displayed some of these objects at the Great Exhibition of 1851, a Victorian showcase of objects and people from across the Empire.  This display would have promoted missionary work in West Africa and the Church Missionary Society in general.

The objects in the collection at RAMM, were donated in 1868 before the museum was opened.  Some of them were probably shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851; others may only have been collected later.   It is likely that Townsend had a much larger collection, but chose to donate a part of it to his local museum, RAMM.

Church Missionary Society in West Africa

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) was founded by the Church of England in 1799.  They felt it was their duty to ‘civilise’ non-Western cultures by introducing them to Christianity.

Victorians believed that their civilised state was superior to those in non-Western countries.  They felt that they could encourage civilisation by introducing Christianity and commerce to populations in the British Colonies.  They wanted to help locals to achieve a better quality of life.  Many missionary societies were established as part of this aim, including the CMS.

The CMS were involved in working towards the abolition of slavery, and the British Government declared slave trade illegal in 1807.  Motives for abolition were mixed, having both moral and economic arguments.

In West Africa, the CMS had established missions in the ‘Liberated African’ colonies of Sierra Leone.  They supervised the rebuilding of deserted villages, taught in local schools, provided medical aid and preached Christianity.

Townsend was key in bringing CMS missions to Nigeria, first in Badagry and then Abeokuta.  He understood that the success of a mission was related to the flourishing of the settlement it was in.  Abeokuta was an ideal location because it was on significant trade routes and a melting pot of cultures.

The CMS had to compete with other missionary societies within West Africa, and promote their own work to attract funding.  This was done through the circulation of newsletters, hosting events and displaying missionary ‘trophies’ of conversion.  These trophies would have included similar objects to those collected by Townsend and now in RAMM’s collection.  They symbolised the abandonment of ‘heathen’ religious practices in favour of Christianity.  The Eshu figure in the Townsend Collection can be interpreted in this way. One can read more about the pair of palace entrance carvings, which were presented to Townsend by the Oba Ogunbuna of Abeokuta here.