Saker was an enthusiastic missionary, part of the first group to sail from the West Indies to West Africa.
An exhibition group had landed on the island of Fernando Po in 1841, and set up a mission base with the vision to expand the work into the mainland.
Back in London the expedition group publicised the new mission endeavour and four couples offered themselves for service. Among them were Alfred Saker, a draughtsman at the Admiralty dockyard at Devonport, and his wife Helen.
In 1843, the Sakers and John Clarke sailed to Jamaica to gather a West Indian missionary group together. All the recruits arrived at Fernando Po in February 1844.
The West Indian mission to Africa was, however, not a success and as a result the majority of the Jamaicans returned home in 1848.
Despite the apparent failure of the mission, there were some positive experiences. The local community at Clarence was receptive to the gospel and some converts, as well as some from the Jamaica party, went on to be instrumental in the spread of the mission work.
Joseph Merrick, who with his wife had sailed from Jamaica to Fernando Po, began work among the Isubu people at Bimbia in 1845. Merrick got a hold of the language and began translation work on Genesis, Exodus, Matthew and John into Isubu. Merrick’s work laid the foundation for Saker’s Bible translation into the Douala language, which he completed in 1872.
Saker’s first convert, Thomas Horton Johnson, went with Saker to the mainland to take the message of Christ to the indigenous people there. He became the first African pastor of Bethel church, which was established by Saker in Cameroons Town.
Joseph Jackson Fuller
Joseph Jackson Fuller, born a slave in Jamaica, came over to join his father who had been a part of the original mission group from Jamaica, and arrived in West Africa in 1845. In 1850 he was accepted by BMS as a full missionary and served in Cameroon until his retirement in 1888. Fuller played a crucial role in maintaining Baptist interest in the mission in Cameroon, and was the centre of stability for the mission, even more so than Saker.
Reaching the mainland
The main aim of the mission was to reach the people of the Cameroon mainland; however, it proved harder than the missionaries had anticipated. Saker and Johnson settled in King A’kwa’s town (also known as Cameroons Town, and Douala today) on 16 June 1845.
Many of the people there were from cannibalistic tribes, they were superstitious, often at war with rival tribes, and normally unclothed – a completely different culture to Victorian England!
Saker preached for two years with very little interest from the indigenous people. But in 1849, the message was received by at least one person, who was baptised, and made the church congregation number five (made up of Saker and his wife, Johnson and his wife, and the Douala convert).
Stepping backwards, stepping forwards
European mortality led to the mission being under threat of collapse, and by 1848 Saker was forced to return to Clarence to fill in the gaps left there by his deceased colleagues. Three years earlier the British had abandoned their naval base, leaving it open for Spain to claim the island. This did not disrupt the missionary activities until 1858 when the Spanish authorities outlawed all but Roman Catholic religious practices.
Saker decided to relocate the BMS mission base to a port town on the mainland at Ambas Bay, which he named Victoria. Saker’s plan was for a Christian colony to develop at Victoria and help in the spread of the gospel further inland. However, his vision was not realised: the British Foreign Office were not interested in Amber Bay for a harbour, and many of the ex-slaves from Fernando Po refused to follow Saker to Victoria. However, 82 people did go, and a small church was formed. It was here that Thomas Comber arrived to serve as BMS missionary in Cameroon in 1876.
Allegations arise, differences buried
By this time, Saker had considerable influence over the Cameroon mission, running a Christian community in Cameroons Town ‘without police, court, magistrate or judge’. His position led to allegations being brought against him, from both fellow missionaries and also some of the Cameroonian Christians. The BMS committee met with Saker in England but held the position that the charges against him were ‘in the main unfounded’. Saker returned to Africa in 1864, but with his responsibilities appropriately altered to remove any further difficulties.
Tensions remained though between the mission personnel as to the focus of the work; Saker concentrated on ‘civilising’ the Douala, while the others thought this distracted from evangelism. Once more, in 1868, Saker was called back to England and it was decided that the Committee would send E B Underhill back with the Sakers in 1869 to get a first-hand experience of the situation in Cameroon.
However, the purpose of the visit was quickly overshadowed by the sudden death of Mrs Underhill who died in Cameroons Town. Her death affected all the missionaries and seemed to dispel the cloud of stagnation which had been hovering over the mission. J J Fuller wrote:
"The differences which existed were brought to a termination by her death all agreeing to bury all the unpleasantness in the grave with her and thus ended what at first seem an unending trouble."
In 1877 and in the light of a large donation to BMS, two men, Thomas Comber and George Grenfell, were dispatched from Cameroon to Congo to investigate the potential of establishing a mission on the Congo river.
Their work would prove to be highly influential for the mission in West Africa.
Becoming a German mission
By 1885, Cameroon had come under the rule of Germany, and the future of the mission in Cameroon was uncertain again. BMS entered into negotiations with a German mission agency, Basel Mission, and it was agreed in 1886 that BMS would withdraw from Cameroon and hand over the work to the Basel Mission. The transition was not easy though for the churches.
Enabling the word to be spread
Through all the difficulties, transitions and differences, Saker had planted churches in Cameroon which went on to grow into maturity. He was a man of vision, tainted by controversy, but whose work enabled the gospel to spread through Africa.