(1877) Alexander Crummell, “Address Before the American Geographical Society”

Alexander Crummell, The Greatness of Christ: and Other Sermons (New York: 1882)
Image Ownership: Public Domain

African American intellectual Alexander Crummell was one of the few19th century scholars known and respected widely among European Americans. In an address before the American Geographical Society delivered in Chickering Hall in New York City on May 22, 1877, Crummell demonstrates his appeal to one such audience.

Mr. President: It is a most singular fact that now, in the 19th century, in an age of great practicality, we should be witnessing two remarkable movements, dis¬tinguished in a very marked degree by sentiment. We see, on the one hand, a mighty movement of a great Christian nation to extinguish the sufferings of the sub¬ject Christians of Turkey, to strike the crescent from the minarets of Constantinople, and to rescue St. Sophia from the hands of the Moslem. And, on the other hand, we stand at the commencement of a grand en¬deavor of Christendom to wipe the blood from the bruised brow of Africa, to lift up its vast populations to enlightenment, and to rescue a great continent from the dominion of superstition and barbarism.

Well, sir, it would seem as though the age of chivalry had returned to a busy, plodding, commercial, manu¬facturing era; and that it is likely to give dignity to our age, and grandeur to its motives and its endeavors.

I have called this movement for the benefit of Africa, one distinguished by sentiment, but not by mere senti¬ment, for I regard the objects of this meeting to night as thoroughly practical, deeply human, and entirely worthy of the age.

It is it should be thoroughly human, undertaken with no one sided views and purposes; but carried on in a manner which shall affect all the interests of temporal as well as eternal  a movement which shall regard the objects of our compassion, and likewise the interests of all the participants in this noble scheme, in all the divers phases of our common humanity.

Now, in this project the COMMERCIAL IDEA is, to a greater or less degree, an matter of interest and solicitude. Anal this seems to me perfectly legitimate.  I cannot regard it as in any way discordant with the sentiment which I believe is its main characteristic.  Africa is a land of most magnificent resources.  It abounds everywhere in its tropical regions with woods and dyes, and gums and minerals and oils.

Every adventure of a new traveler results in the discovery of new staples, vast beds of ore of wide expanses of the richest and most fertile soil. And there are yet remaining immense and mysterious regions where noble herds of elephants roam undisturbed, from whence ere long great cargoes of ivory will be brought to civilized lands.

SCIENCE is, without doubt, another special interest which is pressing her claims in connection with this philanthropic movement. Doubtless she is anxious, over anxious, to penetrate the hidden mysteries, both human and material, which for centuries have baffled the skill and scrutiny of the learned, from the time of Herodotus to the recent ventures of Livingstone, Stanley and Cameron. And her claims must be admitted, not only as real, but as perfectly harmonious with the highest moral purposes of this grand scheme. The MUSE OF HISTORY, with rapt gaze and ready pen, sits awaiting the disclosures which tradition, in many a heathen tribe, may furnish concerning the annals of the oldest but least known of all the continents. And then, with equal eagerness, but with sturdy frame and fiery blood, there stands the SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE ready for the start, anxious to enter every hidden nook, and to penetrate every mysterious corner, to clear up every doubtful question, and to make every possible discovery the ingenious mind can reach to.

These, sir, are some of the collateral motives which are more or less related to this movement, both in Europe and America, and which doubtless will claim a place right beside the highest philanthropy or the most zealous rcligionism. And all of these ideas and aspirations are without doubt elements in the strong convictions which have prompted His Majesty the King of the Belgians and his eminent coadjutors to this last grand endeavor for Africa’s deliverance. But the mainspring of their action is, I am convinced, the Christian and humanitarian sentiment, which craves the restoration of a continent, but which is aware that all true and noble sentiment demands the regulative direction and control of reasonable and thoughtful practicality. And I have the deep conviction that this “International” movement has Its foundation in reasonable and thoughtful practicality.

During the last hundred years there have been various efforts put forth by civilized Christian men for the regeneration of Africa. Some have been successful, some unsuccessful. Let me pause here for a few moments, and dwell upon some of these efforts.

There have been not a few attempts of religious bodies, in the carrying out of which there has been the expenditure of vast amounts of treasure and a great sacrifice of life; but which, after all, have proved fruitless in results. I might spend hours here to night in narrating the missions which have been established on the coast of Africa from the 15th century to the present, not a trace of which can now be discovered. In these endeavors there has been no lack of zeal. The courage which has been displayed has been equal to that of martyrs. The talent the mental genius which has been connected with not a few of these attempts has been remarkable; and yet again and again they have been failures. The pestilential nature of the climate will not account for the entire misadventure.

Why, then, it is asked, so much failure? There is this notable reason to be given: men, large bodies of men, have been sent to Africa to save the souls of men, utterly regardless of their temporal needs and requirements.

But there have been as well successful missionary enterprises in Africa, and in every case that I know of success has sprung from the remembrance that the native African is a creature compact of mind, body and soul; and that you cannot benefit him spiritually by a forgetfulness of his temporal and bodily interests. That has been the secret of their success. I have but to refer you to the British possessions on the west coast of Africa as an evidence of this truth. You will doubtless remember that when the English Government in the last century commenced its warfare against the Slave Trade, the policy pursued was to capture the slave trading vessels on the West Coast, and carry them to Sierra Leone. The recaptured African was immediately placed under the care and instruction of Christian missionaries in Freetown and the other settlements; but the English, with that strong practicality which is their national characteristic, endeavored simultaneously with the spiritual improvement they gave these men, women and children, to impart to them a knowledge of handicraft. Carpenters, blacksmiths, boat makers, and men of other trades were brought from England to instruct these poor creatures. Industrial schools were organized; model farms were established; in some cases native African youth were sent to England; and now, at the present day, there is hardly a craft or business in a civilized community which cannot be found skillfully carried on in their West African colonies, from the Gambia to Lagos.

This has been the material basis of success in the missions of the Church of England and the Wesleyan Church in Western Africa. The native pagan has been taught that he must work, and not only support himself, but help to support the missionary. The English Church missionaries, all along the coast and in the interior, commence their missions by practical opera¬tions in all the spheres of action. Their endeavor is not simply to get a soul into heaven; it is to make him a man “in all the correspondence of nature.” The result is that their converts are never allowed to become mere pensioners upon societies.

Civilizing processes accompany all the efforts which are made for evangelization, and mission work along the entire coast and far up the Niger has been a grand success, as well for the material, outward life of the native population as for their inward spiritual regenera¬tion. There have been grand opportunities, too, which have been lost. I have a very great dislike to render blame against England in connection with her African policy. I dislike to make the least reflection upon her; but I do think she is blameworthy, especially with regard to two recent provinces which have been placed within her reach.

Having lived on the west coast of Africa, I have witnessed her grand and beneficent rule; I have seen the spread of her civilization; the uprising, through her zeal and beneficence, of fine communities to civility and refinement. I think she would have crowned the whole by one grand stroke of policy, philanthropy, and governmental rule, under the signally favorable circum¬stances opened before her within the last decade. But she has lost the grandest opportunity she recently had of settling the difficulties of interior Africa, and the work is now left to this” African International Association.”

You all remember that in 1868 Great Britain went, by her armies, into Abyssinia, at eleven degrees north latitude, and conquered that sanguinary kingdom. That was the time when she might have planted there, permanently, at one and the same time, the red cross of Britain and the standard of civilization and Christi¬anity. Believing that nations have moral duties, it seems to me that that was the duty of a Christian nation like England to save that people from barbar¬ism, and to add another nation to the ranks of civiliza¬tion. But, singularly enough, only a brief period after¬ward, that is, in the year I874, Great Britain was forced by the clearest duty to enter, by her armies, on the opposite side of the continent, the kingdom of Ashantee. By a reference to the map you will see that Ashantee is on well nigh the same parallel of latitude. Was not the coincidence and Providence remarkable? And Great Britain, with her wondrous resources, could have established herself permanently in Ashantee as the centre of missions and trade, and thence, advancing her posts and authority, with rule, peace, order and justice, to interior tribes and nations, put an end to the internal distractions of the continent, gone directly across toward Abyssinia, and met the approaching lines, coming from the Indian coast. If England had done this great work she would have found everywhere, in almost every tribe, a grand instrumentality, indigenous to native character, furthering her beneficent efforts. Any people, any agency, whether governmental or mis¬sionary, which brings simple peaceful facilities for trade to the native African, will always be received with gladness.

When I had the honor, a few days ago, to address the American branch of the Association at your rooms, I remarked that the acquisitive principle is to be the main temporal agency in redeeming the native African from barbarism. He is essentially a trader; he has large wants; he is not a stolid, passive, dead creature, as many suppose, albeit he is uncivilized. He has large, undefined wants, a great craving for commodities, things which he has seen, and a curiosity and a desire, springing from imagination, for things which he has not seen. And this, as I take it, is the germ of a marked greatness in the native African in the future.

And here I beg to remark that, whether you are a missionary or merely a civilized man, the first thing in entering Africa is to remember that there are two factors to be regarded in carrying on your work. One is to know what you, the civilized man, can contribute to the work; the other, what is the contribution the native man can make. If the native man cannot give anything, depend upon it he is a dead man! If there is no point of receptivity in his nature nothing can save him! But greed, the acquisitive principle, is the grand characteristic of the native African. Here, then, is the point of vantage in work in Africa. The continent is a bee hive. Every village is a market, and almost every but in a village is a shop. Every head man, or chief, or king, is a merchant; and all his people, down to the very slaves, are hucksters or petty traders. Greed, inordinate, universal greed, pervades every community, small or large. A friend from West Africa, only a few weeks ago, sent me a paper which shows that from Freetown, Sierra Leone, no less than three (3) steamers sailed to England within nine (9) days, carrying goods amounting to more than two thirds of a million of dollars ($7oo,1o5 ). What were these commodities? Palm oil, palm kernels, kernels, cam wood, ebony, ivory, ground nuts, gum, barwood, beeswax, india rubber, copal, bennie seed, cotton, Shea butter, &c., &c.

How were these commodities gathered? In the most difficult manner conceivable. In huts and remote villages, and brought, at great peril, on the backs of native men, twenty, thirty, forty days  journey through dense wildernesses, or else by hundreds of little canoes, through streams and rivers, to traders’ ports.

Bishop Crowther, in 1872, was wrecked on the Niger, and after his arrival at Sierra Leone he published a narrative of his journey overland, from Rabba to Abbeakuta, and thence to Lagos. One remarkable fact arrested my attention: it was, that in that moving from town to town, in this purely pagan district, 40o miles from the coast, he found many native African traders from Sierra Leone, Christian men, pushing their trade in perfect safety among the rude inland people; but meeting together on Sundays for Bible reading, prayer and praise.

Why, then, you ask, if the love of trade is such a strong passion in the breast of native Africans, why does not trade and commerce work out their own remedial processes? From the simple fact that trade everywhere meets with the interruptions of selfish men, who blindly, through excessive greed, overreach themselves. Greed in the native African is too absorbing, one sided, unintelligent a principle. For, ( I ) the native kings are ignorant, heathen then, thoroughly selfish, and ready to fight their neighbors in order to prevent them from sharing the advantages of trade. They have never learned that the greater the freedom of trade the greater the advantages to themselves and. their neighbors. Acting on the opposite principle, they keep up perpetual fights, tribe with tribe, nation with nation; so that, for long periods, trade is brought entirely to an end, and large populations are made sufferers. And next (2) there is the grand disturbing element, the malign and destructive influence of the Moslems. They are the grand marauders in almost every part of Africa, north, east, south, and west.

Everywhere they are the great slave traders. Through the largest tracts of territory, across vast provinces in the interior, their tracks are marked by blood and devastation. I know it is claimed that the Mohammedans are great civilizers in Africa; that their religion serves to supersede the fetichism and the idolatry of pagan tribes, by carrying with them the doctrine of the Divine Unity, and propagating the Koran. And many people are foolish enough to believe this. But the unanimous testimony of travelers and missionaries is that they care more for the sword and the mastery it gives them than for any purposes of civilization. All the good they do is but incidental. While they may furnish a small modicum of enlightenment, they flood the continent everywhere with oceans of disaster, ruin, and bloodshed. What, then, is needed for the restoration of Africa, for the introduction of peaceful trade, elevating missions, progressive civilization?

Africa needs some grand master influences to correct all these evils. She needs a power brought from some quarter which shall give easy access to trade and barter in the interior, and prevent the constant disturbance of petty chiefs. She needs an authoritative force that shall hold in check the disturbing influence of blind, insensate greed, and yet, at the same time, furnish the native ordinary facilities for gratifying his strongest desires. Africa needs, in a word, a grand POLICE FORCE all over the continent restraining violence, keeping open grand avenues of commerce, affording protection to mission¬aries and travelers, protecting weak tribes and nations from powerful marauding chiefs.

The proposal of the King of the Belgians I regard as eminently practical, both with respect to the physi¬cal and the moral needs of the continent. It brings the moral support of the greatest nations of the earth to this grand moral effort. The expeditions which shall be sent from both the east and the west coasts of Africa will carry, doubtless, the flags of their respective nationalities. Already the native chiefs in the interior have learned to respect and know the significance of these banners of great peoples. Those of you who have read the travels of Werne, and Barth, and Krapt, of Richardson and Vogel, know how, far away up the Nile, at Khartoom, and Kardofan, and cities still more remote, the British Consuls, by their national flag, have not only commanded respect, but have given protection to many a European traveler. just this commanding influence, more powerful perhaps than the armed men who will push these posts and expeditions through the country, will be felt through many a tribe and nation, over vast districts; sustaining missions, and accelerat¬ing the movements of traders, travelers, and civilizers, and furthering all the purposes and plans of improvement.

For these reasons, sir, I rejoice in this movement. I have the largest expectations of good and beneficence from its operations. I have the most thorough con¬viction of its need, its wisdom, and its practicality. At the same time I am not sanguine enough to suppose that all its grand results will be immediate, or’ that it can arrive at all its gracious ends void of disaster. In a large scheme like this, obstacles are sure to arise. Difficulties, complications, nay, even death may be ex¬pected. Just such melancholy issues are always to be looked for in every vast and comprehensive scheme of benevolence.

But I feel that this is the grand, final, effective effort, which will usher in the regeneration of that continent. And if it do but succeed, then the dawn of her civiliza¬tion shall be seen at an early period, in all her quarters. Schools for little children shall be filled, their eager, joyous minds craving the enlightenment which comes from letters. Agriculture shall change the wild sur¬face of vast regions of the most fertile lands, with a most marvelous easiness, and turn them into Edens of productiveness and wealth. TRADES and HANDICRAFT shall be introduced among millions of unemployed people, thus replacing comfort and personal property for degradation and barbarism. COMMERCE shall bear the crude, untold wealth of the tropics to foreign lands, and bring back in return the costly fabrics, the im¬proving machines, and the civilizing commodities which impel a people along the lines of superiority and eleva¬tion. ART shall multiply its blandishments,

“To soften the rude and calm the boisterous.”

And far above them all, RELIGION shall exert its re¬generating influence in millions of souls, changing every¬where the face of society; building up families, recon¬structing nations, diffusing the blessings of peace, giving universal freedom to millions of slaves, elevating woman, and erecting the spires of churches on every hill top and through all the valleys of that benighted continent.

It was a remark of the great William Pitt: We may live to behold the nations of Africa engaged in the calm occupations of industry, and in the pursuit of a just and legitimate commerce; we may behold the beams of science and philosophy breaking in upon their land, which at some happier period, in still later times, may blaze with full lustre, and joining their influence to that of pure religion, may illuminate and invigorate the most distant extremities of that immense continent.”

This brilliant vision never met the eyes of the great British statesman, nor any of his contemporaries. It has been postponed to an era far distant from his day and time.. But, sir, only let this grand movement be fully carried out, and I believe that there are people of this present generation who shall witness this noble imagination realized along the whole line of the coast of Africa and throughout all its broad central regions.