Freeman, Thomas Birch (A)
Thomas Birch Freeman (December 6, 1809-August 12, 1890) was a missionary of Anglo-African descent who established the Methodist Church on a firm footing in the Gold Coast, and extended its work to Lagos and Badagry, in Nigeria.
He was born in 1809 in Twyford, near Winchester, Hampshire, England. His father was an African freeman called Thomas, and his mother was Amy Birch, an Englishwoman who had had three children by her first husband, John Birch. His father died when he was six, and he lived with his mother in Twyford, where he must have had a reasonably good education, although there is no record of the schools he attended
He was introduced to Methodism as a boy by a shoemaker on whom he and his playmates used to play tricks. Like his father he first worked as a gardener, and was a keen student of botany. He became botanist and head gardener to Sir Robert Harland at Orwell Park, near Ipswich in Suffolk. He had a good knowledge of Latin botanical names, and read avidly. Years later. when he was in West Africa, he corresponded with Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), the first director of Kew Gardens near London, the world’s leading botanical institution, on West African flowers and trees. Freeman also collected information on tropical fauna for Kew Gardens.
His enthusiasm for Methodism displeased his employer, Sir Robert Harland, who told him to choose between his job and the new religion. The Methodist Mission Society in England had just made an appeal for missionaries in Africa, and Thomas felt he had been called by God to go there. He left his job, and, after he had preached a good sermon at a Methodist conference in Leeds, England, in October 1837, was appointed as minister, on a trial basis, at Cape Coast. He had been ordained in Islington Chapel, London, on October 10, 1837. A few days later he married Elizabeth Boot, Sir Robert and Lady Harland’s housekeeper, and sailed with her for Cape Coast on November 5, arriving on January 3, 1838.
But Thomas fell ill and had to be nursed by his wife, who then died suddenly. Thomas recovered from his illness and from the blow of his wife’s death, and started work. He made friends with Captain George Maclean. British governor from 1830-43, who gave him encouragement. He also took advice from those who knew the country. He bought a bigger and healthier house for the Mission, and built the first Methodist Church at Cape Coast, opened on June 10, 1838. He also supervised the building of churches at Anomabu, 5 miles (8km) to the east, and at Dominase, 18 mi (28 km) to the northeast, of Cape Coast. He trained two Fante youths. William de Graft and John Martin, for what was called the “native” ministry, since he himself was regarded as an Englishman. He made friends with several chiefs, and became known as the “white fetish priest”. Since he had arrived on a Wednesday, and was the fourth Methodist missionary, the Africans called him Kwaku Anan.
He recommended to the Methodist Mission in England that boarding schools be established to train teachers and preachers, far from the influence of non-Christian communities. His education curriculum excluded the study the study of local languages and also manual labor for boys. He never learned to speak or write Fante, and this was his greatest shortcoming as a missionary. He started regular missionary meetings on September 3, 1838, with Governor Maclean presiding over the first one. In October 1838 a Methodist Church was established by Freeman in Accra, and a school was started with John Martin as the head. Missions were established along the coast from Dixcove, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Takoradi, to the west, to Winneba, 35 miles (56 km) west of Accra, to the east.
In 1839 Freeman decided to go to Assante to establish a mission there. His motives were suspected by the Asante, however, and he had to wait for nearly seven weeks before the Asantehene, Kwaku Dua I (ruled 1834-67), would see him. He arrived at Kumase on April 1, 1839, and tried to persuade the Asantehene to allow him to build a church and a school. His request was not granted, and he left for Cape Coast on April 15. His Journal of a Visit to Ashanti was published in England in installments in Wesleyan Missionary Notices, and led to the enrollment of more missionaries for the Gold Coast in January 1840.
In 1840 he visited England with William de Graft to try and raise funds for the Gold Coast Mission. He met the Methodist Missionary Committee on June 16, and a resolution was passed to establish a mission in Asante and to send six more missionaries to the Gold Coast. Freeman toured several large towns with de Graft, and succeeded in raising 4,650 pound sterlings out of target sum of 5,000. On November 25 of the same year he married Lucinda Cowan of Bristol, and left for Cape Coast on December 10, arriving on February 1, 1841. Out of 12 Methodist missionaries, 4 died in 1841, and another 3 returned to England for health reasons. Freeman’s wife also died on August 25, 1841.
Freeman had brought gifts from the Mission in England for the Asantehene and his household, the most important item being a four-wheeled carriage which had been shown to Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901). His second visit to Asante met with better luck, since Freeman was accompanied by two nephews of the Asantehene, John Owusu-Ansa (q.v.) and Owusu Kwantabisa, hostages whom Maclean had had educated in England. The party left Cape Coast on November 6, 1841, and reached Kumase on December 13. They were warmly welcomed, and the Asantehene was impressed with the presents and with the care taken of his nephews. Freeman was allowed to start a church but not a school. He left for Cape Coast with gifts for the Mission and himself, leaving a missionary named Brooking in charge of the Asante mission. As during the first visit, the gifts included female slaves, whom Freeman freed and took to Cape Coast.
Freeman was the first Methodist missionary to arrive at Badagry in Nigeria on September 24, 1842, accompanied by William de Graft and his wife. They were permitted to establish a mission there, and had completed a mission house and chapel by the end of November, and William de Graft was put in charge. Freeman and the de Grafts left for Abeokuta at the written invitation of the Alake (ruler), Shodeke. They were well received and preached in the palace courtyard. Freeman presented a Bible to the Alake
Freeman was subsequently invited by King Gezo of Dahomey (ruled 1818-58), the traditional enemy of the Yoruba of Badagry and Abeokuta. Freeman saw this invitation as an opportunity to try to prevent Gezo from attacking Badagry and Abeokuta, which would have destroyed the mission’s work there, but could obtain no assurances. He also hoped to persuade Gezo to stop slavery and human sacrifice. He landed at Ouidah (Whydah) on what is now the coast of Dahomey on January 1, 1843, and a few days later was entertained by the notorious Brazilian slave trader Don Antonio Da Souza (17?-1849), the friend of Gezo, with whom he himself became friendly. He was able to have an audience with Geza at Kana, 8 miles (13 km) from the Dahomeyan capital of Abomey, in March, but was shocked by the human sacrifice, the war lust of the Amazons, who comprised the female warrior regiment of the Dahomeyan kings, and Gezo’s autocratic powers. He told Gezo about his work in Badagry, however, and was asked if he could do something similar in Ouidah. Gezo also said that he wanted an English governor for the fort at Ouidah. Freeman also visited Abomey, and was amazed at the palace, which was full of human skulls and blood-plastered walls. After receiving an invitation to establish a mission at Oudah, he left Dahomey for Cape Coast. According to contemporary Gold Coast sources, one direct result of Freeman’s visit was that Gezo took away from provincial chiefs the right to offer human sacrifice or to execute criminals without the King first hearing their appeals. But the practices of slavery and human sacrifice continued.
Between 1843 and 1854 Freeman tried to extend the work of both the mission in the Gold Coast and what is now Nigeria, and spent enormous sums on travelling and other items. He did not keep proper accounts, and ran a heavy deficit. He went to England on leave after he had received stern warnings from the home Mission about the huge deficits he was running. In London he met the Missionary Committee, who expressed disapproval of his financial administration. He then toured the country and raised 5,500 pounds. He also communicated with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), the English abolitionist, about slavery on the West African coast, and wrote to Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (1799-1869), the British statesman who abolished slavery, then the Colonial Secretary, about means of ending the slave trade. He also met a mulatto from Grenada in the West Indies, Henry Wharton, who decided to go to the Gold Coast with him, and worked there for 28 years.
Upon Freeman’s return to Cape Coast in June 1845 he found several problems awaiting him. The home mission had forbidden him to open any new missions or to increase the staff of the existing ones. The mission in Asante had failed after the appointment of Commander H. Worsley Hill (term of office 1843-50), Hill’s successor. They both visited Dahomey, after which Freeman visited Badagry, returning on foot - a distance of more than 300 miles (480 km) - to Cape Coast. In 1848, again with Governor Winniett, he revisited Kumase in the hope of a treaty being signed to abolish human sacrifice. The mission was, however, unsuccessful. In 1850 Winniett took Freeman to Accra as his honorary secretary when he took possession of the Danish settlements on the Gold Coast which the British government had bought. The two men entered the Danish settlement of Christiansborg together and received the keys of Christiansborg Castle from the Danish authorities.
From 1850-54 Freeman worked hard in his circuit, facing the persecution of Christians and problems created by the fetish priests of the fetish named Naanam Mpow at Mankesim, 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Cape Coast. These latter problems were, however, solved when James Bannerman (q.v.), Lieutenant-Governor of the Gold Coast from 1850-51, tried and imprisoned the culprits.
In 1854, Freeman again visited Dahomey and Abeokuta, and on his return home married and educated African woman who bore him four children. His wife helped him with his work, and he enlarged the Cape Coast church in 1855, and built six new churches in his district in 1856. This was done without authority from London. As a result, the London committee sent out William West to be financial secretary of the Gold Coast mission, and Daniel West to examine and report on the financial administration. The report was adverse, and as a result Freeman wrote to the committee in England to ask to be relieved of his post as chairman and general superintendent of the mission. He left without bitterness, and promised to work for the mission in any capacity. But he had incurred a debt as a result of financial maladministration, and had to pay it. After his resignation, he therefore accepted the post of administrative and civil commandant of the Accra district from Governor Sir Benjamin Pine (term or office 1857-58).
While Civil Commandant, Freeman encouraged the people of Christiansborg to return and rebuild their homes, which had been destroyed when the British had bombarded the town during the poll tax riots of 1854. He also took part in the negotiations which ended the Anlo war of 1866, between the British allied with the people of Ada, on the right (west) bank of the Volta, on the one hand, and the Anlo on the left (east bank), supported by the Akwamu and, later, the Asante, on the other. During this period his popularity with the people enabled him to settled a number of disputes. He was also asked by Governor H. T. Ussher (who held office at intervals between 1867 and 1880) to settle a quarrel between the Fante chiefs on the other hand, and the Dutch and the people of Elmina on the other during the siege of Elmina by the Fante in 1868. His pleas, however, were not accepted by the Fante.
After some years as a government official, he bought a piece of land near Accra, built a house on it, and took to farming. He continued his botanical studies, and wrote regularly to Kew Gardens. He organized a Society for Agriculture in Accra, and engaged in trading with the produce from his farm. He also wrote a novel called Missionary Enterprise No Fiction, and published in anonymously at the Epworth Press in England.
On September 1, 1873 he returned to the service of the Methodist Mission, and worked for another 13 years before retiring. He supervised the building of churches, held religious revival camp meetings, and made the church very popular in Fanteland. The church’s popularity annoyed the non-Christians, and they tried to disrupt services, but Freeman dealt firmly with them. Among other things he had to face opposition from a Muslim sect which came to the Fante area from Lagos, but neutralized its influence by opening a school in the area. He also opened a new chapel at Mankesim, and baptized several converts with the aid of his son, Thomas Birch Freeman Jr., who had also been ordained a Methodist minister. He also dealt with troubles arising among the various Methodist societies and , being a good conciliator, was able to prevent apostasy. After being the principle preacher at the Jubilee of the Gold Coast Methodist Mission, held in 1885, he retired, living in a small house near Accra until his 81 year. His final days were spent in the Methodist Mission House in Accra, when he died on August 12, 1890.
L. H. Ofosu-Appiah
J. F. A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891: The Making of a New Elite, Evanston, 1969.
F. L. Bartels, The Roots of Ghana Methodism, London, 1965.
Allen Birthwhistle, Thomas Birch Freeman: West African Pioneer, London, 1950.
H. W. Debrunner,A History of Christianity in Ghana, Accra, 1967.
Thomas Birch Freeman, “Journal of a Visit to Ashanti,” published in parts in Wesleyan Missionary Notices, 1840-43, Journal of Two Visits to the Kingdom of Ashanti in Western Africa, London, 1843,Journal of Various Visits to The Kingdom of Ashanti, Aku and Dahomi, London, 1844,Missionary Enterprise No Fiction, a novel, 18?.
David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana, 1850-1928, Oxford, 1963.
F. D. Walker, Thomas Birch Freeman, The Son of an African, London, 1929.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One Ethiopia-Ghana, ©1977 by L. H. Ofosu-Appiah, editor-in-chief, Reference Publications Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.