True, Samuel Ajayi Crowther authored first ever book written in Igbo Language

September 6, 2021

By Michael Olatunbosun


The Claim: A Facebook post recently claimed that Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote the first book in Igbo language, Isoama-Ibo Primer, in 1857.

Verdict: There is sufficient evidence to conclude that Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote the first book in Igbo language, the Isoama-Ibo Primer in 1857.


Full Story

A post, which had been originally shared on Facebook, recently reappeared on WhatsApp with the claim that Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther was the person who wrote the first book in Igbo language. The claim was originally made by Adulawo TV on 29 January 2020, and reposted by 5Cees Media on Facebook on January 20, 2020.

It claimed that:

‘The first book in Igbo language (Isoama – Ibo: A Primer) was written by a Yoruba man, Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809-1891) in 1857.

‘The book had 17 pages, with the Igbo alphabets, words, phrases, sentence patterns, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and translations of the first chapters of Matthew's Gospel.

In 1882, Crowther also wrote the "Vocabulary of the Ibo Language", the first comprehensive dictionary in Igbo.

Crowther, a descendant of King Abiodun, an Alaafin of the Oyo Empire, was the grandfather (through his second daughter, Abigail Crowther) of Herbert Olayinka Macaulay (1864-1946), founder of Nigeria's first political party, whose father, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1826-1878), founded the first secondary school in Nigeria in 1859. #HistoryVille


Screenshot of the Facebook post by Adulawo          


Verifying the claim

This researcher set out to verify whether Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote any book in Igbo language, and if indeed the book was the first ever published in Igbo language.

Francis W. Pritchett in his compilation of the Igbo Language, where he extensively quoted Louis Nnamdi Oraka's The Foundations of Igbo Studies (Onitsha: University Publishing Company, 1983) as his source, acknowledged that Ajayi Crowther was one of two missionary linguists of Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Freetown, whom Edwin Norris took along with 12 interpreters, in an 1841 expedition on the Niger to work around Aboh (now Agbor, a city in Delta state) because they needed to communicate in Igbo. He reported that John Clarke also helped (1843 to 1848) to collect vocabularies of African languages, including 250 words and a few numerals written in Igbo.

Francis Pritchett thus confirmed that in 1856, Ajayi Crowther was taught Igbo and later in 1857 Crowther produced the first book in Igbo Isoama – Ibo Primer, with the help of Simon Jonas, an Igbo man who came from emancipated slave families who settled in Freetown. The primer has 17 pages, with the Igbo alphabet, words, phrases, sentence patterns, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and translations of the first chapters of Matthew's Gospel. Thus, Crowther became the first to use the Lepsius Standard Alphabet.

Indeed, it is here confirmed that Ajayi Crowther wrote in Igbo language apart from Yoruba, for Pritchett claimed again that in 1882 Crowther wrote another work, Vocabulary of the Ibo Language, the first comprehensive dictionary in Igbo, stating further that in 1883 Crowther and Frederick Schon jointly revised it and added more words, and finally came out with Vocabulary of the Ibo Language, Part II, an English-Ibo dictionary.


Screenshot of the post by 5Cees of Facebook


The Controversy

However, Pritchett also claimed that the first published book (or material in Igbo was by a German missionary named G.C.A. Oldendorp around 1777. This was in a book, Geschichte der Mission der Evangelischen Bruder auf den Carabischen (History of the Evangelistic Mission of the Brothers in the Caribbean), which contained a few Igbo words, numerals, 13 nouns, 2 sentences. But Ephraim Chukwu clarified this by stating that Oldendorp only ‘recorded some Igbo numerals and nouns’ which will not be sufficient to conclude that it was a book.

Other sources appear to disagree that Ajayi Crowther wrote the Isoama-Igbo Primer. For instance, the blogger Oblong Media insisted that it was Simon Jonas who wrote the first manuscript written in Igbo language, Isoama-Ibo Primer, and that it was only published by Samuel Crowther. This position was corroborated by a piece published about a year ago.

However, another source, ViaLibri stated that this primer by Samuel Ajayi Crowther was the first work in Igbo language, even though it acknowledged also that Ajayi wrote it. Another source in agreement that Ajayi Crowther was the first to publish a book in Igbo in 1857 was indeed Isoama-Ibo: A Primer. The Indigenous Language Site also acknowledged that Samuel Ajayi Crowther was an ex-slave and teacher who was also an outstanding African linguist, leader, and Africa’s first Anglican bishop. But other sources maintained that Simon Jonas actually assisted Samuel Ajayi Crowther, to produce the primer for the Igbo language in 1857.

Professor Sheriff Folarin, a political scientist and historian, affirmed to this researcher that Ajayi Crowther actually wrote a book in Igbo language. “Yes, he did. He and Schon worked on their Igbo language (a little of what Crowther had learnt in S/Leone alongside Igbo slave resettlers) before 1857. He worked on a book in Igbo having engaged one or two former slaves of Igbo origin whom he and Schon took along and one of two they met there who worked with them, in Eastern Nigeria. As time went by, as they stayed in Igboland, they put their hands on a book using Igbo as the language,” he said.

Also, Professor Obaro Ikime, Emeritus Professor and eminent historian at the University of Ibadan, stated that the claim that Ajayi Crowther wrote the first book in Igbo language is valid: “Ajayi- Crowther used the methodology of translation the methodology of translation to bring the book to fruition. Meaning that if he did not conceive of the idea of the book, there wouldn't have been the need for a translator. He wanted the Igbo to be able to read something in their own language and achieved that. Thus the claim to authorship is valid.”

According to Chukwuebuka Oraegbunam of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages, University of Ibadan, the study of written Igbo Language started in West Indies, where the first person that collected and wrote down Igbo words was a pastor of a church group known as Moravian Brethren, G. A. C. Oldendrop in 1777. He published a book where he wrote down a collection of words of African Languages gotten from the slaves that were working on a farm there. He wrote down 13 nominals, and 2 sentences he translated to Igbo.

After the abolition of slave trade, most of the slaves in England and America were repatriated and kept at a slave camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Fernando Po. It was at this slave camp that people like the linguist Hannah Kilham, a Methodist, J. F. Schon and Ajayi Crowther, both sent by the CMS, took interest in collecting and writing down the languages of those slaves. Crowther showed more interest in Yoruba language while J. F. Schon faced Igbo Language.

Chukwuebuka Oraegbunam further informed this researcher that Kilham collected few Igbo words and other African languages spoken at the slave camp. Another attempt was that of the Marchant Richard Lemon Lender who after sailing to the coast of Niger returned to England and submitted a report of his voyage. In his report, he wrote down a few Igbo words that he had collected on his journey.

In fact there was another important collection of African Languages which had more Igbo words, phrases and sentences. The work was done by Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle in 1854, tilted Polyglotta Africana In other words, several other attempts were made before Crowther. But Crowther collected all these attempts made by people which were documented, and published them with the title 'Igbo Premier' in 1857. Crowther had access to these documents because he was sent by the CMS, so to have a complete text that would act as a guide towards the teaching of Igbo language and also help in their missionary work, he collected them and published them under the above given title.


It is evident from the various historical sources explored and the confirmation of historians consulted, that Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote in Igbo language apart from Yoruba and other languages in which he had competence as a linguist.

There is sufficient evidence to conclude that Samuel Ajayi Crowther wrote the first book in Igbo language, especially the Isoama-Ibo Primer in 1857. The deduction is that he actually pieced together all attempts made by others, and collaborated with his contemporaries to publish the book.


The researcher produced this fact-check per Splash FM 105.5, Ibadan with the Dubawa 2021 fellowship partnership, to facilitate the ethos of truth in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.


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