Mary Henrietta Kingsley listened with rapt attention as the
aging Benga pastor described what his people once were: a powerful and proud
nation among the many peoples of Equatorial West Africa. It was 1895, and the famed British traveler
was visiting the island of Corisco, gathering scientific data on indigenous
fish species, and also recording interesting details on the local cultures and
people she encountered. Pastor Ibia
described to Kingsley how the Benga entered into trade with
Europeans—exchanging ivory and slaves for European goods. They had fallen into the trap of receiving
goods on credit, and becoming indebted to the European traders. Rum was destroying their culture, and men no
longer valued hard work or the glories of war; the incentives were gone, and
men had become “indolent.” Ibia added that the Benga had “taken to bad
habits...such as infant marriage.” This practice was unknown a mere forty years
earlier, but now, “old men buy girl children, both as wives for themselves and
for their infant sons.”
While Ibia was glad that the “old
warlike, bloodthirsty Benga spirit was broken,”
he lamented that the ancient Benga values of ‘manhood’ had been compromised by
the effects of the white man’s influence.
Throughout his forty-five years of Christian ministry, he sought a
return to godly manhood through industry, education, and Christian values. Ibia recognized, early on, that to build up
his people, he needed to affirm the rights of women, to recognize their
giftedness in ministry, and to honor their worth and investment in the
well-being of the community.
Ibia fought this war for Benga
manhood on two fronts-- standing against patriarchal Benga customs which held
women in fear, subjection and oppression, and standing against the missionary
which kept ecclesial control in the hands of missionaries, who were reticent to
grant autonomy and authority to African church leaders. Ibia capitalized on the growing wave of
woman’s work, both in the US and in his scattered local churches, to bring
social reform and spiritual renewal to his people. In many ways, it was the emphasis on women’s
ministry (much supported and promoted by Pastor Ibia) which brought
transformation among the Benga men, and spiritual growth among the Benga
for Women of Corisco
Seventy years prior to Kingsley’s visit
with Ibia, and thirty years before missionaries first brought the gospel to
Corisco, Captain Thomas Boteler visited the island. As he sailed up the Atlantic coast of
equatorial Africa in the 1820s, Boteler recorded his encounters with local
people in his travelogue, which was published in 1835. Boteler was a keen observer of the people and
customs, though he relied on a local informer, a young African man who served
on the ship, to interpret and explain the local customs:
women of Corisco are also kept in precisely the same degraded state as those on
the Gaboon and I am inclined to believe that, in savage life, where might
constitutes right so much more than it does in civilized countries, the weaker
vessel always goes to the wall, and forms, as it were, a link between freedom
He continued, “At Corisco, a female is purchased for a wife from her parents;
and if her husband, after taking her to his house, finds, even after keeping
her some days, that she falls short of his expectations, as to her ability to
perform the various duties allotted to her, he returns her forthwith to her
parents, demanding at the same time restitution of the goods which he
paid. If this is refused, he immediately
sells her for a slave, to reimburse himself in part for his loss: for the value
of a free woman, as a wife, is far greater than that of a female slave; and the
difference consequently constitutes the loss.”
This was the
world into which Ibia J’Ikenge was born,
and one that he would ultimately challenge as the first Christian pastor among
the Benga people of Corisco in Equatorial Africa.
The Corisco mission was established on
the island in 1850. Two couples, the
Mackeys and the Simpsons, spent their first weeks at the Gaboon Mission,
in order to “acclimate” to the African climate.
Just before their transition to Corisco, Mrs. Mackey died, and was
buried at the Gaboon Mission cemetery.
Within a year, the Simpsons were lost at sea in a powerful storm,
leaving the widower, Rev. James L. Mackey, alone in the fledgling work. Over
the next decade, several other couples and single missionaries joined the
Corisco Mission and were soon accompanied in their work by three local
Christians who served as evangelists and schoolteachers. From the beginning, they worked to establish
schools for local children, hoping to invest in the next generation of leaders
who would be “a blessing to their tribes” and would eventually reach “numerous
and widely spread tribes [who] could be reached and effectually influenced only
by a Christian native agency”.
They saw the educational operations of the mission as important to the eventual
evangelization of that vast region of Equatorial Africa. The missionaries also hoped that the
education of girls and young women would transform the “social conditions” of
Some fifty years after Boteler’s description, the women of Corisco were still
being treated by their husbands and fathers as property. In 1874, a young woman lamented to missionary
Louise Reutlinger: “We are bought with bars of iron, and ruled with iron…pray
Mission’s First Convert
Ibia J’Ikenge was a teenager when the
Presbyterian missionaries first arrived on the island of Corisco and is
considered to be their first convert. He had initial contact with Christians as a young
boy while employed on the distant island of Fernando Po. “Here...I first heard
the gospel and the fear of hell got hold of me.
Afterward I went home to Corisco, and understood the word more perfectly
from the missionaries there.”
Missionaries noted that Ibia was a bright student, well-behaved and fully
He received an education at the mission school established by Rev. and Mrs.
Mackay and later prepared for ministry under the tutelage of Rev. Clemens. Ibia was the “first” in many such spiritual
and cultural transitions, often meeting conflict with both his community and
with the mission leaders as he pioneered Christian leadership among the Benga
people and their neighbors.
In the 1858 Report of the Board,
Corisco missionaries reported the loss of at least one missionary and the
departure (due to sickness) of several others.
They add that these absences would have rendered it impossible to carry
on the various departments of labor at these stations, if it had not been for
the marked efficiency of three native young men,
who were called into more active labor by
They also reported a Christian marriage among the Corisco believers. Though their names are not given, it is
clearly Ibia and his bride Hika:
One of the older and more
advanced pupils of the [girls’] school has recently been united in marriage to
the native Christian man who has charge of the school at Alongo. This is the first Christian marriage ever
ratified among the inhabitants of the island, and it is fervently hoped that it
may be the beginning of a better state of things among them.
was no more than sixteen years of age at the time of her marriage. Within a year, there were at least five more
Christian marriages involving girls educated at the mission school. Missionaries saw this as an indication of a
strong tendency among the people to conform to habits of civilization,
especially when it is remembered how strongly the sentiment in favour of
polygamy was formerly entrenched in their hearts. The marriage of Ibia and Hika seemed to be a
stable and strong one. Forty-five years
later, in an article on the ramifications of polygamy, missionary Robert Hamill
Nassau paid homage to Ibia’s relationship with his wife, as a contrast to the
typical marriage: “It is man’s idea here that woman is inferior, and must be in
every way subservient. I know scarcely
any of our male church-members who are thoroughly civilized on this matter”.
Nassau lamented that even native ministers model this type of relationship,
with the exception of the late Ibia, whom he considered to be a notably
civilized man: “I know none of our native elders who accord their wives
is first mentioned by name in the Annual Report of the Board for 1858. That year, he was listed as a native teacher. Subsequent annual reports list him as native assistant,
and native helper;
by early 1861, he is officially listed as a licentiate
preacher. As one reads the mission reports, it becomes
evident that such “promotions” came slowly, and usually at times when
missionaries had no other recourse but to elevate a local leader to a position
of authority due to loss of missionary personnel to death and illness.
Within six months of Ibia’s
placement as preacher at the Ilobi out-station, there were fifty persons
attending services on the Sabbath and seven were expressing interest in
Despite the laudatory remarks on Ibia’s ministry, and the responsibility given
him when missionary leaders were absent, the 1863 mission report states that “none of the native brethren, as yet, appear
to be called to the pastoral office, nor does the time seem to have come
for organizing the native communicants into separate churches at the different
stations. The firm planting of the gospel amongst the people greatly depends on
the establishment of such pastoral charges; in every missionary field this is a
matter of the greatest moment; but many
things have to be considered before measures are taken for this purpose”. It should be noted that one of the greatest
barriers to training local pastors was the missionaries’ own lack of
organization and availability in regard to theological instruction. In the early decades of the mission, according
to Dr. Robert Hamill Nassau, no formal arrangements were made; there was no
regular curriculum; no stated school; no designated teacher. Each missionary, from among the employees of
his station, or the school assistants, found someone whom he adopted as a protégé, and to whom he gave special
instruction. The training was irregular,
as to time, because of the missionary’s many other duties.
missionaries would return to the field, or when new recruits arrived, they were
put in positions of authority, and the “native pastors” seemed to be subjugated
to them. In May 1864, new missionary
George Paull wrote in his journal having visited Alongo and meeting Ibia, who
was in charge of the school there, in the absence of the missionaries. Ibia served as interpreter when Rev. Paull
was preaching to the Benga people living near Alongo.
the early 1860s, missionaries noted a positive trend in female attendance:
large portion of those received to the communion of the church the last year
were adult females, who had had no connection with the [mission] schools, and
who had had no opportunities of religious instruction except those derived from
public preaching on the Sabbath. This is
an unusual event in the history of African missions, especially in the earlier
stages of their history, and may be regarded as a most encouraging fact in
relation to the future prosperity of this particular mission.
The same report also noted that female
education was now valued by the local people:
earlier stage of the mission, it was found very difficult to get any female
pupils at all. The habits, prejudices,
and superstitious notions of the people were all opposed to the moral and
intellectual elevation of the female sex.
But this opposition is yielding to the influence of religious principle,
and husbands and parents alike are becoming desirous of the education of their
daughters and wives.
Charity L. Sneed, who was supported
by the Presbyterian Women as both Bible reader and women’s ministry worker
among the Benga people, described the local women as “very, very ignorant and
Sneed had arrived at Corisco thirteen years earlier, in 1859, and had
established relationships with the women of the island. She describes her ministry among them:
It has been my custom
for some time to visit the women in their different towns. I at first tried to get them to come every
afternoon to the mission-house and let me teach them, but they did not continue
this long, giving many excuses for not coming.
I now go to them. Some are glad
to see me and try to learn their letters, others will not try, as they say they
cannot see. I also read to them from one
of the Gospels and a hymn-book in the Benga language. Generally they are very quiet until I have
finished, then they say, ‘You must come often, we like to hear, but are too
tired to walk to you after we come from our gardens. We have so many things to do.’
difficulties of working in a culture where women were treated poorly, the Rev.
Cornelius DeHeer noted in his 1873 report for the Corisco mission that the
“work among the degraded women has been a most important and promising feature
in our work”.
Influence of Trade
In 1864, missionary J.L. Mackey
described the negative influence of foreign traders on the men of Corisco in
terms of greed, the prevalence of rum, and the lure of easy credit that led to
financial bondage. Mackey stated that
the mission hoped to establish a trade school, to train men for labor (such as
building furniture), and to help them earn a living independent of foreign
Mackey also described the “anarchy” common to the tribes of the coast (Corisco,
…throw off their
allegiance to patriarchical [sic]
control, to which they formerly, in some degree, submitted; and every man deems
it best to do what seems right in his own eyes, which often happens to appear
very wrong in the eyes of others… In this tribe, and some others around us, who
have made some little start in civilization, there were formerly cunning and
artful men, who, through superstitious
influences and fetiches [sic]
could exercise some control over the people, but these things are becoming
antiquated, and there is no suitable governmental power to take their place.
In 1867, while Ibia was still a licentiate preacher, he was stationed at
the Mbangwi out-station, and overseeing the scattered preaching outposts. He
had, by this time, established a small industrial school, for the purpose of
teaching men woodworking skills, and reported that there were “thirteen
learners, consisting of ten boys, two men, and one girl”. Ibia also reported progress in the level of
morality, industry and marital equity, in that some of the local men are now
planting gardens of groundnuts (peanuts) and corn. One man, in contrast to
local customs, worked with his wife in making a garden, and “in the open street
he carried cassada
stick for planting”. Nassau, who summarized Ibia’s report, noted
that this is a matter of “reason triumphing over pride”. One Christian man had made a conscious
decision to end his betrothal to a young girl who would have been his second
wife. Other men were showing resistance
to the practice of “trust”—a form of credit given to African traders that quickly
entrapped them in debt.
Missionary John Menaul described his
visit to “Ibia’s Place” praising the improved methods of constructing bamboo
houses, erecting fences around their houses, and planting different kinds of
crops. While Ibia hoped that the industrial
school would be self-sustaining, he asked the mission for help in procuring
machinery to make boards of native lumber, a condenser to help in processing
cane sugar, and a machine to grate a local tuber, called mevonda, into starch.
The mission educational program for girls gave added training to girls in the
skills of housekeeping, sewing, ironing and hospitality. This was seen as a way to help them towards
“civilization,” and also potential employment.
Dr. Robert Hamill
Nassau, in his History of the Presbytery
of Corisco, notes that Ibia was ordained on April 5th 1870. This was the first ordination of a native
pastor in the Gaboon and Corisco mission, yet Nassau implies that Ibia’s
promotion was primarily due to the need to preserve the Presbytery, which was
otherwise reduced to one member. Published reports of the event also indicate
mission reticence in ordaining Ibia:
OF A NATIVE AFRICAN.—The Presbytery of Corisco ordained Mr. Ibia, on the 5th
of April, as a minister of the Gospel.
In the absence of any other missionaries, he has now sole charge of the
work on the island of Corisco—a work altogether too great for him; indeed, one
that heretofore required the services of two missionaries from this country.
Shortly after Ibia’s ordination, Dr.
Nassau visited the mission at Corisco.
He stayed for the week at the home of the pastoral couple, and “did not
cease to be struck with respect for Mrs. Ibia’s lady-like entertainment of
[him], and her often delicate appreciation of the rites of hospitality”.
Nassau also remarked that some of the church women were now clothed with
garments made by their own hands, “contrasted with the naked skins of others in
the public meetings.” —this
seems to indicate that Ibia’s congregation accepted women in either state,
seemingly without reproach or shame.
Missionaries and travelers to
Corisco through the 1870s continued to remark on the ill-treatment and
oppression of women and girls by the men of their community. Among the evidences of this control were the
practice of child marriage, polygamy, and the Ukuku men’s secret society (which
kept women and girls in fear and subjection) against which Ibia fought head-on. One could argue that Ibia merely appropriated
and maintained the views of the white missionaries, as seems apparent in
various missionary reports; yet, his own writings indicate a genuine pastoral
attentiveness to the concerns of women, and a belief that by improving the
quality of life of the women of the community, he was bettering the quality of
the community itself. This often put him
at odds with the men of Corisco. His 1870 report to the Board describes the
early beginnings of women-initiated church ministries, notably a weekly prayer
meeting. Ibia saw this as evidence in
their “interest in better things”, noting that “it is very pleasing to see them
dropping foolish customs one by one, and reducing their knowledge to practice. It is true these things are not godliness, but they help men to lead godly lives better.”
the same report, Ibia mentioned the increased attendance at Sunday services and
Sabbath School, including that two of the Sabbath School teachers were women,
adding, “It appears at present on the island that the females take more
interest in the things of God than the men.” This increase in women’s activity and
ministry in the local church coincided with the new emphasis on “Woman’s Work”
in the Presbyterian churches in the U.S.
Women were now forming their own mission boards to promote ministries
overseas, which focused specifically on women.
This was a great boon for Pastor Ibia, who received empathy,
encouragement and support (prayer and financial) for the continued work at
Corisco, at a time when unbelievers were fighting against the spread of the
gospel, and its transforming work among the women.
Missionary Isabella Nassau drew
reader attention to Ibia and his wife, Hika, by sharing two letters they had
sent her, regarding the progress of the women’s ministry at Corisco. In the first letter to Miss Nassau, which
was published in the November 1872 issue of Woman’s
Work for Woman,
The women receive much opposition from the
men. The Bible woman got very ill
treatment from one Nga-lo. This man
Nga-lo thinks that the Bible woman is spoiling all women, and one of his own in
particular. I do not believe that the
men will accomplish much by their opposition.
The Lord reigns. He will make
their wrath to praise him, and restrain the remainder. Tell the Christian ladies to pray more and
more for the women of Africa. We feel
the influence of their prayers here.
Among some of our wants here is a lady to teach the women. My wife salutes you, and hopes you are
well. I am your friend in Christ, Ibia.
Two months later,
Ibia added the following report which indicates the continued tension between
men and women:
women are making a good and hopeful progress both in religion and in
civilization. If things continue
progressing as they do now, there is much hope.
We have now seven women in the inquirers’ class, five having professed Christianity,
for longer than sixteen months. There is much good news, but we have no time to
say all that I like to say. The interest
among the women is not confined to Corisco alone, but other places are not so
fortunate as to have teachers. All
polygamists are angry with what is doing [sic]
for women, but it is evident they cannot stop the course of events.
Ibia then adds
his wife’s comments, reporting the progress of the sewing school and the
women’s prayer meetings on Corisco. The
couple had moved to another mission outpost, and was making periodic visits to
their former home and station. The
letter is signed, “We are your friends,
HIKA IBIA, IBIA
J’IKENGE”. The mere act of signing his name below hers is a silent tribute to Ibia’s
respect for, and deference to, his wife.
The 1873 Annual Report of the Gaboon
and Corisco mission noted that, “in the absence of the missionaries [DeHeers,
Reutlinger], the native minister, Mr. Ibia, kept up some of the preaching
services and other work with good encouragement”. The report also describes a rise in spiritual
interest among the people: “This increase in interest seems especially to
manifest itself among the women, who are becoming more and more inclined to
civilization. Of nine adults who were
baptized last communion, four were women”. Ibia adds to this report,
We are not anxious, however, for numbers only,
we are concerned about having real converts.
We have now three candidates for the ministry. A chapel was built by the freewill offerings
of the people, traders included. It is
not yet completed, but worship is held in it’… The stand the Christians take
against that murderous imposture Ukuku and other superstitions is gratifying to
Missionary Robert Hamill Nassau
describes Ibia’s critique, and even defiance, of local religious and social
customs of his people. The first was the
male secret society, called Ukuku. Nassau states that the object of the society
the government, especially, of women, and the
settlement of tribal disputes. Knowing
their commands simply as men would
not be obeyed, the members shrouded themselves with secrecy and oaths, and a
claim that the society’s decrees were dictated by a spirit, Ukuku. Denial of this belief, or exposure of its
secrets, was followed by instant death.
The Ukuku Society
was required of all local men, and while Christians would sever their
membership with the society, they would not divulge its secrets. Women and children were terrified by the
coming of Ukuku,
and would hide or shield their eyes at its coming. Ibia had once been a part of this society,
and made an ill-advised effort to expose its falsity. According to Nassau, the incident nearly cost
him his life, and it was spared only through the intervention of the
missionaries and Ibia’s family. Though
they did not kill him, the Society put a curse on Ibia by concocting “fetich
charms which would destroy the life of his child, and…would curse the ground on
which he trod so that it should sicken his feet.”
Nassau notes that Ibia’s infant son, in fact, died not long afterwards, and
that he developed a painful ulcer on one foot, which lasted more than a
year. While Nassau saw these as
startling coincidences, ‘Ibia recognized his afflictions as a trial of his
faith permitted by God” Ukuku
proved to be a periodic threat to the missionaries and native ministers for at
least the first two decades of the Corisco Presbytery. The Society could pressure whole communities
to boycott their targeted “enemy,” refusing to sell them food, give them access
to water, or to interact with the community. Ukuku occasionally interrupted
mission schools, church services and other Christian activities, according to
The second custom that Ibia
challenged was the practice of polygamy and the “marriage-market”. Rich polygamists would buy up young girls for
themselves or their infant sons.
Marriage was necessary in this culture, and celibacy was virtually
unheard of. The Christian young men were
unable to find available wives, due to the “dowry” required. For a time, the mission paid the dowry of
young Christian schoolgirls and would then be their “guardian.” The young Christian men could choose a wife
from these girls, if she consented.
Nassau noted that that Ibia “obtained his wife in this way,”
but that her parents demanded more money.
Because of this, Ibia advised the mission to “give away no more wives,
but to require the Christian young men to repay, from their wages, the “dowry”
that the mission had given. The system
worked for several years, but was eventually abandoned by the mission. By that time, the church had established a
rule that Christian parents must not “sell” their daughter in marriage.
Ibia wrote a treatise for his own
people, Benga Customs, which was
published in his native Benga language in 1874, in the United States, under the
direction of Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau.
Many years after Ibia’s death, his old colleague, Myongo, shared a
translated copy of this book with missionary Jean Kenyon Mackenzie, who then
featured it in an article submitted to The
Atlantic Monthly magazine:
people do say, ‘A woman and a man are two different tribes.’ This is not so,
woman and the man are but of one nation…Let the woman know everything, that
which the man knows only; that which she herself does not want to learn; and
let her eat that which the man eats, also except herself refuse. Let them not be kept in ignorance anymore,
let them not be deprived of good things; and, I know and they shall ask me that
I should shew them the nobility of a woman.
I will also ask them that they should shew me of a man.
correspondence in 1878 indicated a deep rift between Ibia and his missionary
colleagues on Corisco. In early January
of that year, missionary Louise Reutlinger wrote to Dr. Lowrie: “The mission has released us entirely from
our work on Corisco committing it into Mr. Ibia’s hands, whom we trust will be
faithful to his charge.” Rev. Cornelius DeHeer had been serving on
Corisco Island for twenty-three years, and had known Ibia as a young man, in
his earliest years as a believer. DeHeer
had buried his first wife and baby son on the island,
and now served with his second wife, Reubina.
Mrs. Louise Reutlinger had come with her young husband eleven years
and had also buried her spouse and a baby son. The three missionaries had invested a great
deal in the early years of the Corisco church, and had been deeply wounded by
their rejection by the Corisco church members, and asked to be released from
that mission post.
Their colleague at Gaboon, Rev. Albert Bushnell, describes the situation: “It
is so sad, that they leave Corisco under circumstances so bad—no
love or sympathy between them and the people, and no expectation of return
there.” Ibia was then officially appointed to take
charge of the mission, and one of the theological students was licensed to
assist him in the work at nearby Benita station on the mainland. Rev. Bushnell squarely blamed Ibia for
“getting rid of Mr. DeHeer and company,”
and noted Ibia’s “same old evil spirit” in writing a letter to the newly
arrived Rev. Murphy of his concerns. Bushnell attributed this to Ibia’s “ambition”
for the “entire control of the Corisco part of the mission.” That year, the mission sent no missionaries
to Corisco or Benita, but assigned them to Gaboon (Libreville) and the interior
missions. A letter from Rev. Samuel Murphy to Dr.
Lowrie, later that year, finally revealed the underlying issue of the conflict
between Ibia and the missionaries:
Mr. Ibia was here recently to see me, and I feel
much more encouraged about him. Possibly
he has been misunderstood in some matters, but I think since your valuable and
plain letter to him, he sees the folly of antagonism. Certainly, he does not deserve that treatment which it was necessary to give
natives fifteen or twenty years ago.
These people are not the same now.
There has been progress and he ask [sic]missionaries should keep this in
Many years later, Dr. Robert Hamill
Nassau published an article, entitled “Ibia—A West-African Pastor,” in which he
describes the incident between DeHeer and Ibia:
Mr. De Heer had preached
an earnest sermon, urging the Bengas to more active work, rebuking them for
seeming to depend on white aid, and closing by saying, ‘What will you do if I
should go away?’ Just what he intended
by that I do not know. But, Mr. Ibiya [sic]in his prompt, bold, and somewhat
curt manner, took it as ‘a dare’ and replied: ‘Go away, and we Bengas will take
care of ourselves!’ Not long after, in
1877, Mr. De Heer did remove to Benita, and Mr. Ibiya was appointed in charge
of the Corisco church and school, and carried them on successfully.
Adding to this conflict was the
subsequent arrival of Mr. Schorsch, a former missionary whom the Presbyterian
Board had dismissed several years earlier due to his spiritual and mental
decline. Corisco church leaders had invited Mr.
Schorsch to live among them as an independent missionary, which resulted in
dissension and division in the Corisco church.
Soon after his arrival, however, Schorsch began “making war” on Ibia,
further dividing the Corisco church.
Ibia, in a letter to missionary Rev. Samuel Murphy, requested the
intervention of the Mission in the case, and urged that the church give Mr.
Schorsch no help: “His schismatic efforts will succeed only when he is helped
from abroad.” Ibia did not see himself as independent from
the Presbyterian Board, but called on them for help and support during this
crisis, as evident in his numerous letters to missionaries and to Dr. Lowrie.
By July of that year, Ibia was fully
engaged in the business of church discipline.
In his letter to Dr. Lowrie, he noted that that a few of the members
were involved in the (Schorsch) schism, for which he excommunicated five and
suspended four. His efforts to “fix” the
church were delayed because of the absence of the gentlemen. His next letter to Lowrie, three months
later, reported that Schorsch was now being abandoned by his adherents. Some in
the community saw him as the Antichrist, others made him a laughingstock.
Ibia reports that the Corisco church “is in a bad state”—of six men in good
standing, there were now only two. For
lack of a quorum, there was no session or communion that quarter. Ibia laments that “even Elder Etiani who has
examplified [sic] Christianity for
seventeen or eighteen years has returned home.
The other two are in Mr. Schorsch’s schism and guilty of other things.” By November 1878, missionary Dr. Robert H.
Nassau noted that Ibia was fully cooperative with the mission. The Schorsch schism seemed to have exposed
underlying tensions between local church leaders and missionaries. Nassau made reference to Dr. Lowrie’s earlier
letter to the mission which addressed this subject; Nassau agreed with all
Lowrie had to say about “our
relationship to the native brethren,”
though he still objected to the “past actions and doings” of both Ntâkâ Truman
(Gaboon) and Ibia (Corisco). Neither had
caused suffering for Nassau, “but to Mr. DeHeer Ibia has been most insulting.”
Ibia, himself, admitted that the schism freed him from the “troubles of ungodly
church members [sic] in the future.”
In 1879, Ibia kept a detailed
journal of his ministry itineration to various towns on the mainland, including
those that were asking for missionaries and schools. Among the common issues and questions posed
to him were those related to the subject of marital relationships. On one occasion, during his visit to the
The female church
members called me to a private interview.
They wished to know whether in the present condition of the country it
was not kind of necessity for them to marry polygamists after the death of
their husbands, as they have no liberty to choose for themselves. I told them we must not yield to custom but
fight against it, trusting in God for victory over custom. One of their number has yielded voluntarily
to this: she can get free if she likes.
Session took no action on her case hoping she might reflect and take a
response is remarkably free of judgment or control, and shows abundant grace
towards women making these difficult decisions.
Nearly three years after the Corisco
schism, Ibia wrote a frank letter to Dr. Lowrie, describing the underlying
causes from the perspective of the local people: “The principal [cause] was the
anger of the people and of many churchmembers [sic] toward myself and
foreign missionaries, which sought revenge by the queer way of going back to
heathenism and neglect of Christian duties.” Ibia added that “the great drawback of the
Corisco Church is want of male members.
We have only six male members [;] one living on Corisco, the rest on the
mainland. The one on Corisco is of no
use to the Church as so are the majority of the five on the mainland”
As the Corisco church progressed
under Ibia’s leadership, he noted continual improvement and promise among the
women, and consistent apathy on the part of the men. In a letter sent to Dr. Lowrie in early 1883,
Ibia cites the observations of his colleague, Mr. Frank Myongo:
Mr. Myongo says he has
noticed two things here that he never saw before, that when he goes to towns
for meetings all the people attend and the activity of female members[sic]. Female members are the crown of
this. Our contributions are largely from
them. Nine members [,] eight of them
women [,] were received…
Ibia made great
effort to ensure that local families supported the costs of their children’s education,
rather than depending on mission support.
In the same letter, Ibia states that three boys were refused “because
their fathers said they would give clothes only and the mission should give
food. Their excuse was they were not
able to furnish food, that their wives have much to do. These very men spend their time in idleness,
drunkenness and can always have money enough for polygamous and other
heathenish purposes. They are excommunicated persons and one of them is one of
the best educated in our missions.” Ibia then goes on, at great length, to
discourage the Presbyterian Board mission from supporting Corisco boys’
educational expenses, as the people of Equatorial Africa bury “several hundreds
of dollars yearly” with the dead, as part of their “heathenish institutions.” He furthered asserted that “[p]eople in this
country are poor through indolence and practigality [sic].” Ibia continued to rid
the church of “rotten members” and credited this with the increased activity of
the church and higher contributions than in previous years.
In early 1883, new missionaries Rev.
Adolphus Good, Rev. William Gault, and Rev. Graham Campbell were sent by the
“older missionaries” to address a problem with elder Petiye and to install Ibia
as the pastor of the Elongo church
on the island of Corisco: “the installation was a very enjoyable service, the
interest of which has heightened by the thought that this was the first service
of the kind ever held on the field.” Campbell also commented on the momentous
occasion, which seemed to heal and reconcile the church and mission:
Mr. Ibia’s installation was a very interesting service as we
remembered the labors of those who had formerly been on Corisco—some of them
called Home to their reward, some still praying and indirectly working for the
salvation of this people, it seemed to me that more than our little band were
present but more than all we felt that we had the Spirit’s presence and that
not only our own hearts were strengthened and encouraged, but that this church
and pastor were made stronger for the Lord’s work through this union.
noted that few of the members of that church were “consistent” and many members
had fallen away.
Through 1883 and 1884, Ibia reported
the increase of female inquirers and participants in the church, and the
growing financial contributions, adding that “[s]ome of the female members are
persecuted by their heathen and apostate husbands.” Ibia lamented that the church lacked
“devoted men” who could instruct inquirers and share in leadership: “If we only
have these and permanent Christians and not mere temporary professors the
salvation of Africa is sure, in spite of rum, and polygamy and indolence.” By late 1884, there were only eight male members
in the Elongo church, “and the influence of the six older ones is not
altogether Christian.” By contrast, “[t]he bulk of the female
members seem to be decidedly on the side of Christ, drawing their sex to Him.” Ibia felt strongly that polygamy would “send
more men to hell than any other iniquity, in this country.”
He knew that that what the church most needed was godly men, but he would not
tolerate ungodliness in the church, preferring to discipline and excommunicate
wayward members than increase the percentage of men through accommodation and
After decades of pastoring the
church and overseeing the educational ministries, Ibia continued to express in
his reports his intent to balance academic work with training in manual skills,
for increased productivity, industriousness and division of labor in his
I have not abandoned the
idea, and I never will abandon it, of training boys and girls to be
self-supporting, by teaching them something useful. Our boys are much praised at the expense of
the padres. When any parent brings a boy
to me they always say, ‘I want you to make my boy a strong man.’ Idle men are now despised by the women, and
working men praised by them. No man that
will turn to farming now will no more be laughed to scorn.
The 1891 Report to the Board is of
particular concern, as the Corisco church and schools were now facing
opposition and rivalry from Spanish Catholic missionary priests and nuns. Ibia urged the Presbytery to organize two
churches within the field “so that the scattered flock may be suitably cared
He reported that the Catholics now had three sisters sent to instruct the
girls, and that they were “using all
possible means to induce the members of our own church to send their children
to the school just opened.” Apparently, the Corisco mission school for
girls had been closed for want of a qualified teacher. The remaining school, now for both sexes, had
a roll of twenty boys and six girls.
Because of the growing threat of the new Catholic mission school Ibia
made an earnest plea that the Corisco mission girls’ school be reopened.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable
descriptions of Ibia came from Mary Henrietta Kingsley, the British author and
traveler, who gives a rare glimpse of the character and personality of Ibia and
his wife in her famed book, Travels in
West Africa. Miss Kingsley had visited the Gaboon Mission, and had been
lent a boat and crew, courtesy of Robert H Nassau; among the crew was a young
man from Corisco, Eveke, son of Rev. Ibia, “the sole representative of the
America Presbyterian mission now on Corisco Island.” Upon landing in Corisco, young Eveke
introduced Kingsley to his mother, whom she describes as “a pretty,
bright-looking lady who it is hard to believe old enough to be Eveke’s mother.” Hika was likely in her mid-fifties by this
time, and is surrounded by “a lot of strapping young women who came forward
with her, and the grandmother of other strapping young women mixed up among
them.” “Mrs. Ibea” then offers hospitality to
Kingsley, insisting “in the kindliest way possible” that Kingsley take her own
Kingsley spends a great deal of time with the family, taking tea with Mrs. Ibea
and asking questions about the local people, their history, and their customs.
Days later, Kingsley finally meets
Ibia, himself, after his return from an evangelistic mission. She describes him as “a splendidly built,
square-shouldered man, a pure Benga, of the finest type, full of energy and enthusiasm.”
When he discloses his age, and that of his wife, Kingsley jokes, “I still think
he stuck a good ten years on.” Kingsley and Ibia have long conversations
about the various local tribes, and their migrations and histories. He tells her that there are now 2,000 of his
Benga tribe left, “and that those that are now representing it are far
inferior, physically, to those he remembers as having seen as old men, when he
was a boy.”
Death and legacy
Ibia died on
February 28, 1901, and was estimated to be in his late sixties. Dr. Robert Hamill Nassau, who began his
missionary career in 1861, met the young Ibia, “already a man of mark,” who was
married with two children and already a licentiate in the Presbytery. After forty years of serving with Ibia, Nassau
recognized that Ibia’s earlier conflicts with the mission arose from his
appropriate desire to see his people independent and self-reliant, not
dependent on the white man’s trade (and its related immorality), and not
subjugated to the perpetual leadership of white missionaries. Once having received Christ, Ibia spoke out
against the injustice and immorality of prevailing social and religious
customs, drawing the wrath and vengeance of his own people. He later gave the same energy and dedication
in decrying the practices and teachings of the Catholic Church, which was
battling with him over souls and territory on the island of Corisco.
His book, Benga Customs, which
denounced local customs and taught biblical truths and morals for daily living,
seemed to have had a profound influence on later missionaries as well as his
own people. Missionary Jean Kenyon
Mackenzie, who arrived on the field several years after his death, immortalized
his teachings on the Ten Commandments in The
Atlantic Monthly, as well as in her book, An African Trail.
Dr. Robert Hamill Nassau, in his
1902 obituary of Pastor Ibia, described him as “brave, outspoken, manly,”
yet Ibia showed a gentle and fervent concern for the women and children of his
community, wanting them to know the Savior, and to know freedom in Him. He affirmed women in their spiritual growth
and in their leadership in the church, while respecting their difficult
circumstances in polygamous marriages and the influences of heathen
relatives. It was Nassau who recognized
Ibia’s true “manliness” and strength in standing up against the men in his
community, in their oppression of women, and against the patriarchal rule of
the missionaries who were reticent to relinquish power, authority, and autonomy
to indigenous church leaders. Much was written about Ibia’s godly character
and gifted leadership for many years after his death. His legacy lived on in the ministry of his
son, Bodumba, who felt called into the ministry just following his father’s
death, in 1902. In praising the son, missionary Melvin Fraser
credited the father:
Bodumba Ibia, of Sauline
mien, modest and frank, still wearing the dews of youth and carrying seeds of
promise, is ably holding the church at Corisco where he inherited the mantel of
his sainted father, Rev. Ibia, who towered high among his fellows, and is
cherished in memory as a many of marked ability and of weight in pulpit, parish,
Ibia’s story, only recently
retrieved from mission archives, indicates that there is truly “nothing new
under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9); and that the church, today, is still trying
to find balance in affirming culture, challenging unjust systems, and standing
firm in the faith. Pastor Ibia J’Ikenge
models for us many of the traits mentioned in Romans, chapter twelve, in his
refusal to conform to the pattern of his contemporaries, whether of his own
culture or even that of the missionaries serving among his people. His knowledge of Scripture and steadfast
faith gave him the boldness to speak against hypocrisy as well as affirm the
roles and giftedness of all members
of the body of Christ, particularly women of faith, whose influence could
transform their community for Christ. Ibia clearly welcomed a cooperative
relationship with believers of other cultures, but taught his people the value
of independence, self-support, mutuality, and industry. Ibia and his wife offered hospitality and
honor to Christians and unbelievers, alike, little expecting that they would be
immortalized in secular literature of their time. Though for many years he endured criticism
and injury for his godly, yet counter-cultural leadership, Ibia shows us that
we can resist being overcome by evil,
and truly overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Mary Henrietta. 1897. Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco
and Cameroons (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited), 403.
 Nassau, Robert Hamill. 1914. Ibiya—A West African
pastor. The Missionary Review of the
World 27 (6): 442-444. Dr. Nassau declared, ‘This holding of ruling
elderships by the missionaries finally became an evil, resulting in the abuse
of power’ (p. 442).
Mary Henrietta. 1897. Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corisco
and Cameroons, 403.
Boteler, Capt. Thomas, R.N. 1835. Narrative of a voyage of discovery of Africa
and Arabia, performed by his majesty’s ships Leven and Barracouta, from 1821 to
1826, under the command of Capt. F. W. Owen, R. N. in two volumes, Volume II
(London: Richard Bentley), 404..
Robert Hamill. 1902. Rev. Ibia J’Ikenge [an obituary]. The Assembly Herald
March 1902: 106-107. Dr. Nassau believed that Ibia was born in the mid-1830’s,
though no exact birth year was recorded.
The two met when Nassau first arrived as a missionary at Corisco in
1861; Nassauwas then twenty-six, and estimated Ibia to be a little older than
Gaboon Mission was established in 1842 by the American Board of Commissioners
for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and located in an area that is now the capitol
city of Libreville. Corisco island is
situated north of Gabon, and off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. The Presbyterian Board established the
Corisco Mission in 1850. The two
missions merged in 1870, due to personnel shortages.
Robert Hamill. 1888. A History of the
Presbytery of Corisco (Trenton, N.J: Albert Brandt, Jr. Press), 5.
Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission (PBFM). 1858. Corisco Mission
Report. In The Twenty-first Annual
Report of the Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United
States of America (New York:
Presbyterian Board Mission House Publishers), 43.
Mary Louise. 1874. Letter excerpt quoted
in the Third annual report of the Woman’s Presbyterian Board of Missions of the
North-West (Chicago: D. & C. H. Blakeley, Printers), 58.
 Ford, Rev. Edward A. 1891. Persecution of a native pastor. The Church At Home And Abroad 10(12):531..
 American Colonization Society. 1861.
IBIA—The heathen boy of Corisco. The African Repository 37 (4): 120.
three young men were Andeke (at Evangasimba), Sukonjo (at Ugovi), and Ibia (at
1858, 39, italics added).
In this report, Ibia is listed as a ‘native teacher’ at Alongo, working with
missionary Cornelius DeHeer.
40. The girls’ boarding school was
composed of sixteen girls, aged six to sixteen .
Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. 1859. Corisco Mission Report. In The
Twenty-second Annual Report of the Board
of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
(New York: Presbyterian Board Mission
House Publishers), 42.
 Nassau, Robert Hamill. 1903. Some
ramifications of polygamy. The Assembly
Herald 8 (6): 238-240. P 238.
Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. 1860. Corisco Missions Report. In The
Twenty-third Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Mission
of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New York: Presbyterian Board Mission House Publishers),
 Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission. 1861. Corisco Mission Report. In The Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Board of
Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
(New York: Presbyterian Board Mission
House Publishers), 30.
 Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission.
1863. Corisco Mission Report. In The Twenty-sixth Annual Report of the
Board of Foreign Mission of thePresbyterian Church in the United States of
America (New York: Presbyterian Board Mission House Publishers), 19.
 Wilson, Samuel. 1872. George Paull of Benita—A memoir (Philadelphia:
Presbyterian Board of
Charity L. 1872. Letter from Charity L.
Sneed, a native Bible –reader, to the Martin Luther Mission Band, Wheeling, W.
Virginia. Woman’s Work for Woman Vol. 1 No. 4. January 1872. 159-160. Charity Sneed, though African American, was
listed as a ‘native helper.’ She and her
parents were emancipated from slavery in 1854 and emigrated to Liberia. While still a teenager, in 1859, Charity
journeyed from Liberia to Equatorial Africa, to serve with the Presbyterian
mission. She joined the missionary women
and local African women in evangelism, education, literacy and vocational
 De Heer, Rev. Cornelius 1874. Notices of the Corisco Station—Letter of Rev.
De Heer dated Aug 18 1873. Presbyterian Monthly Record Vol XXV No 1 January 1874. 176.
 Mackey, Rev. J. L. 1864. Hindrances at
Corisco, West Africa. The Home and
Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Vol. XV.
No. XII December 1864. 275-276.
 Nassau, Robert Hamill. 1867. Mainland work
of the Corisco mission. Home and Foreign
Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. XVIII
(2): 61-63. P 62.
 Cassava, or manioc, is a staple food
among the peoples of Equatorial Africa.
 Menaul, Rev. John. 1868. A visit to Ibia’s place. The Record of the Presbyterian church in the United States of America
Vol. XIX(9): 215.
 Nassau 1888, 12. By the time he was ordained, Ibia had been a
licentiate for ten years. It would be
another ten years before he was given a church, and three more before he was
officially installed. Nassau notes that
the 1880 ordination of the second native pastor, Ntaka Truman, was due to the
same reason—all missionaries were absent, and only Ibia was left to represent
American Colonization Society.
Ordination of a Native African. African Repository 1870, 350.
Robert Hamill. 1870. Notices of Corisco
and Benita work (letter dated July 27, 1870). The Presbyterian Monthly Record XXI (12): 278.
Ibia. 1871. An African minister’s report. The
Presbyterian Monthly Record 22 (2): 51.
 Woman’s Work for Woman was a missionary
journal put out by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian
Church, describing mission work around the world that was both supported by
women and focused on ministry to women.
By early 1873, the magazine boasted a readership of 5,000 (Woman’s Work
for Women Vol. 2 No. 6, page insert, no number).
1872. Letter from Rev. Ibia—The native
pastor at Corisco--To Miss Bella A. Nassau. Woman’s
Work for Woman 2(5): 202.
 J’Ikenge, Ibia. 1873.
Letter of Ibia J’Ikenge—to Miss B. A. Nassau. Corisco, August 18, 1872. Woman’s
Work for Woman 2(6): 272.
 Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission. 1873. The
Corisco Report. In The Thirty-sixth Annual Report of the Board of Foreign
Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New York:
Presbyterian board Mission House Publishers), 34.
 Nassau, Robert Hamill. 1874. Crowned in
Palm-Land—A story of African mission life (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott &
Co), 101. According to Nassau, Ukuku means
‘departed spirit’ in the Benga language (p 101)
Ukuku was actually a man dressed up to impersonate the spirit. Runners would precede his arrival, warning
women and children to flee or hide their eyes, lest they be killed.
Robert Hamill. 1904. Fetichism in West
Africa (London: Duckworth & Co), 144.
Mackenzie, Jean Kenyon. 1916. The Black Commandments.
The Atlantic Monthly 118: 794-803. Mackenzie
also included Ibia’s material in her book,
‘An African Trail’ Mackenzie,
Jean Kenyon. 1917. An African Trail (West Medford, MA: The Central Committee on
the United Study of Foreign Missions), 796.
 Rev. John Cameron Lowrie was the
Corresponding Secretary for the Presbyterian Board from 1850 to 1891.
 Reutlinger, Mary Louise. 1878.
Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 17 January 1878. Vol 12
Reel 75 Letter 307. Philadelphia:
Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
 Rankin, William. 1895. Memorials of foreign missionaries of the
Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (Philadelphia:
The Trustees of the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work),
information on both the DeHeers and Mrs. Reutlinger was provided by Mrs. Holly
Lemons, who is a descendant of Rev. DeHeer and his first wife, and who has
possession of the DeHeer family archives.
DeHeers and Mrs. Reutlinger returned to serve for many more years at the
mainland mission posts, near Corisco, and remained as Ibia’s colleagues in the
Rev. Albert. 1878b. Letter to Dr.
Lowrie, dated 1 February 1878. Vol 12 Reel 74 #102. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society
Archives. Underlining in the original.
 Bushnell, Rev. Albert. 1878a. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 1 February 1878. Vol.
12 Reel 74 #98. Philadelphia:
Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
Rev. Samuel H. 1878. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 24 May 1878. Vol 12 Reel 74 #111. Philadelphia: Presbyterian
Historical Society Archives. Italics
Robert Hamill. 1914b. My Ogowe: Being a narrative of daily
incidents during sixteen years in Equatorial West Africa (New York: The Neale
Publishing Company), 237.
Ibia. 1878a. Letter to Rev. Samuel H. Murphy (Gaboon
Mission), dated 27 February 1878. Vol. 12 Reel 74 #105. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society
J’Ikenge, Ibia. 1878b. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 18 July 1878. Vol 12 Reel 75 #313. Philadelphia: Presbyterian
Historical Society Archives.
J’Ikenge, Ibia. 1878c. Letter to Dr.
Lowrie, dated 2 October 1878. Vol. 12 Reel 75
#320 Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
 Nassau, Robert Hamill. 1878.
Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 1 November 1878. Vol 12 Reel 75 Letter 322. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society
Ibia. 1879a. An African minister’s journal: April 16, 1879. The Presbyterian Monthly Record 30 (10):313-315. The second part of Ibia’s journal was printed
in the following month’s issue: The Presbyterian Monthly Record 30 (11): 346-349.
 J’Ikenge, Ibia. 1881. Letter to Dr. Lowrie
dated Dec 1881. Vol 13 Reel 75 Letter
117 Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
Ibia. 1883a. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, dated 1 January
1883. Vol 13 Reel 76 Letter 264.
Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
was one of four mission stations on the island of Corisco. The four were later consolidated under the
Rev. Adolphus Clemens. 1883. Letter to
Dr. Lowrie, dated 17 February 1883. Vol 13 Reel 76 Letter 278. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society
Rev. Graham. 1883. Letter to Dr. Lowrie,
dated 6 March 1883. Reel Vol 13 76 Letter 280.
Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
 J’Ikenge, Ibia. 1883b. Letter to Dr. Lowrie,
dated 17 September 1883. Vol 13 Reel 76 Letter
290. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
Ibia. 1884a. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, date 16 July 1884. Vol 13 Reel 76 Letter 62. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society
Ibia. 1884b. Letter to Dr. Lowrie, date 31 October 1884. Vol 13 Reel 76 Letter 88.
Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society Archives.
Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission. 1891.
Gaboon and Corisco Mission. In The Fifty-fourth Annual Report of the
Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of
America (New York: Presbyterian Board
Kingsley 1897, 385.
 Fraser, Rev. Melvin. 1912.
What missionaries are doing in West Africa. The
Missionary Review of the World 25 (1): 22-29. P 24.