James Thomas, whose journal is transcribed and appended to this introduction, was a ‘native agent’ of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) at Gbebe and Lokoja at the confluence of the Niger-Benue rivers between 1858 and 1879. A liberated slave who had been converted to Christianity in Sierra Leone, he enlisted in the service of the CMS Niger Mission headed by Rev. Samuel A. Crowther. Thomas was kidnapped around 1832 from Ikudon in northeast Yoruba, near the Niger-Benue confluence. He lived in Sierra Leone for twenty-five years before returning as a missionary to his homeland.
Gbebe was an important mid-nineteenth-century river port on the Lower Niger. It was located on the east bank of the Niger, a mile below its confluence with the Benue, and about 300 miles from the Atlantic. Aboh, Onitsha, Ossomari, Asaba, Idah, and Lokoja were other famous mid-nineteenth century Lower Niger towns. From an 1841 estimated base of about 1,500, its population rose to about 10,000 by 1859. Contemporary exploration and trading reports by W. B. Baikie, S. Crowther, T. Hutchinson, and J. Whitford indicate that the town occupied an important place in the commercial life of the region.
However, little is known about the town's sociopolitical structures and processes, and still less is known about its relationship with its neighbors. Hence the internal sociopolitical and economic basis for the settlement's economic role in the region is largely unresearched. The reports of James Thomas, Simon Benson Priddy, and Charles Paul, CMS missionaries resident in the town for several years, contain evidence that would be useful for such an endeavor.