Iwe Irohin: The First Nigerian Newspaper and the Beginnings of the Indigenous African Press

Nigerian flag colors and newspaper overlay main

Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Am Egba Ati Yoruba (A newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba people) was the first indigenous newspaper in West Africa. Henry Townsend, an Anglican missionary, started it in 1859. He wanted to inform the people using reading. Samuel Crowder, the first African bishop, assisted him, including developing the first written form of the Yoruba language of Nigeria. Iwe Irohin itself was short-lived. However, it was only the start of a newspaper tradition that continues today in written and visual forms.

Importance of Newspapers

The First Amendment protects our most basic liberties, including the freedom of the press. The press serves a fundamental role in an informed citizenry. In the 21st Century, many people watch the news. Nonetheless, written media, including newspapers, still play an important role. 

Newspapers served a fundamental role for centuries. The development of a printing press and cheap means of distributing printed material provided an opportunity to reach a broad readership. Newspapers were a convenient way for people to get basic information. They spread ideas and made people think. They helped to promote literacy and education. 

European colonization of Africa brought many things, good and bad, including newspapers.  

Henry Townsend Goes To Africa 

Henry Townsend (1815-1886) was an Anglican (Church of England) missionary. 

Missionaries have traveled to foreign lands to spread their beliefs from ancient times. They learn the ways of the local people, including their language, and try to serve the people’s needs. 

Missionaries are a significant way colonial powers spread their ideas to new lands. The British government welcomed missionaries because they promoted the “true faith” in Africa and helped to “civilize” them. I am using quotation marks because Africans had their religions and ways of life. The British, however, were more concerned about their own.   

Townsend ministered to the Yoruba in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. He befriended Shodeke, a leader of the Egba people. 

Development of A Written Language 

Henry wanted to teach the local people to read and write. Samuel Crowder, a Yoruba priest, was a big help. Townsend and Crowder worked together to write a primer (language guidebook) and Christian hymns in the Yoruba language. 

Samuel A. Crowther, the first native African Anglican bishop, started his translation of the Bible. Crowther was an originator of the written Yoruba language. The Yoruba people did not have a written language. The first written form of their language was in Arabic. 

West Africans spread information orally. This technique has been present since ancient times throughout the world. Written language is a more convenient way to spread information, especially about things that traditional native storytellers are not knowledgeable about. 

A written Yoruba text published for easy access was a revolutionary moment. 

Early African Newspapers 

The first English newspaper in Africa was published in South Africa in 1800. An American free slave published the Liberia Herald in the country established as a refugee for freed slaves. Mixed-raced Angolans (a Portuguese colony) also published newspapers in the mid-1800s.

The first African-produced paper in West Africa was Charles Bannerman’s Accra Herald, produced in 1858 in the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). 

News for Egba and Yoruba people

Henry Townsend’s brother was a newspaper publisher and printer. Henry brought a printing press to Africa, which he first used to print religious pamphlets. 

Townsend founded the Iwe Irohin Fun Awon Am Egba Ati Yoruba (Newspaper for the Egba and Yoruba people) in 1859. The Iwe Irohin was a biweekly paper written in the Yoruba language. The price was 120 cowries (shells used for money). The newspaper is the first indigenous (native people) newspaper published in West Africa. The newspaper was eight pages long. 

Iwe Irohin primarily published religious-related news. The content soon expanded to more general news and information of the day. The paper soon had an English supplement.  

By 1866, it was the first bilingual newspaper in Africa, with both Yoruba and English (costing one penny) editions. Iwe Irohin was published until 1867.

Why Was Iwe Irohin Published? 

My objective is to get the people to read, ie, to beget the habit of seeking information by reading.

Henry Townsend

Henry Townsend explained that the newspaper was published to “help the overall development” of the local people. For instance, Townsend set up a school to train printers. The school would provide training and the start of a Nigerian publishing industry.  

James Ede, an Egbaman whom Henry Townsend trained, served as the chief printer of the Iwe Irohin. The paper was a pioneer in the development of Nigerian media. The media today includes newspapers, radio and television stations, online news sites, social media platforms, and blogs. 

Reverend Townsend was very concerned about spreading Christianity. Learning how to read was very important because it allowed people to read the Bible. Nonetheless, reading and writing enabled people to do a whole lot more. It promoted literacy and education. The local people were able to obtain the news of the day.

Iwe Irohin published news of political developments, including expeditions and inter-tribal affairs. Its readers were able to keep abreast of tribal and colonial affairs. 

The paper also promoted an anti-slavery message. Slavery was still widely practiced in Africa and continued to exist in other places in the world. Many people in the community were refugees from slavery. Some British conservatives were not big fans of this sort of message.  

Why Did Iwe Irohin Stop Publishing? 

The British did not control Nigeria in the 1860s. 

The British and Egba people came into conflict. The Egba closed off British trade routes.  In 1867, they expelled British traders and missionaries from their territory.

Henry Townsend supported the Egba people and opposed the British attacks that led to these events. Nonetheless, Egba destroyed the printing press. The paper stopped publishing. 

The next Nigeran newspaper, the Lago Times, was published in 1880.  

Iwe Irohin Rises Again 

Iwe Irohin itself was reborn in 2012. 

The original was a cheaply made newspaper in black and white with no photos. The 21st Century version was a thirty-two page tabloid with eight pages in color. 

The underlying spirit, however, was the same. The goal was to promote information to their readers and help their development as Nigerian citizens. Rev. Townsend must be smiling.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.