|Born||2 December 1848
|Died||13 January 1915 (aged 66)
Use Ikot Oku, Calabar, Nigeria
|Known for||Christian Missionary work in Africa; promoting women’s rightsand rescuing unwanted children|
|Religion||Christian (United Presbyterian Church of Scotland)|
Mary Mitchell Slessor (2 December 1848 – 13 January 1915) was a Scottish missionary to Nigeria. Her work and strong personality allowed her to be trusted and accepted by the locals while spreading Christianity, protecting native children and promoting women’s rights. She is credited with having stopped the killing of twins among the Efik, a particular ethnic group in Nigeria.
Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, Scotland in a poor working-class family. She was the second of seven children of Robert and Mary Slessor. Her father, originally from Buchan, was a shoemaker by trade. In 1859, the family moved to Dundee in search of work. Robert Slessor was an alcoholic and, unable to keep up shoemaking, took a job as a labourer in a mill. Her mother, a skilled weaver, also went to work in the mills. At the age of eleven, Mary began work as a “half-timer” in the Baxter Brothers’ Mill, meaning she spent half of her day at a school provided by the mill owners and the other half working for the company.
The Slessors lived in the slums of Dundee. Before long, Mary’s father died of pneumonia, and both her brothers also died, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters. By age fourteen, Mary had become a skilled jute worker, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with just an hour for breakfast and lunch.
Her mother was a devout Presbyterian who read each issue of the Missionary Record, a monthly magazine published by The United Presbyterian Church (later the United Free Church of Scotland) to inform members of missionary activities and needs. Slessor developed an interest in religion and, when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), she wanted to teach. Slessor was 27 when she heard that David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, had died, and decided she wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Early missionary career
Eventually, Slessor applied to the United Presbyterian Church’s Foreign Mission Board. After training in Edinburgh, she set sail in the SS Ethiopia on 5 August 1876, and arrived at her destination in West Africa just over a month later.
Slessor, 28 years of age, red haired with bright blue eyes, was first assigned to the Calabar region in the land of Efik people. She was warned that the Efik people there believed in traditional West African religion and had superstitions in relation to women giving birth to twins. Slessor lived in the missionary compound for 3 years, working first in the missions in Old Town and Creek Town. She wanted to go deeper into Calabar, but she contracted malaria and was forced to return to Scotland to recover. She left Calabar for Dundee in 1879. After 16 months in Scotland, Slessor returned to Calabar, but not to the same compound. Her new assignment was three miles farther into Calabar, in Old Town. Since Slessor assigned a large portion of her salary to support her mother and sisters in Scotland, she economised by learning to eat the native food.
Issues Slessor confronted as a young missionary included the lack of Western education, as well as widespread human sacrifice at the death of a village elder, who, it was believed, required servants and retainers to accompany him into the next world.
The birth of twins was considered a particularly evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Unable to determine which twin was fathered by the evil spirit, the natives often abandoned both babies in the bush. Slessor adopted every child she found abandoned, and sent out twins missioners to find, protect and care for them at the Mission House. Some mission compounds were alive with babies. Slessor once saved a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, but the boy did not survive. Mary took the girl as her daughter and called her Janie.
According to WP Livingstone, when two deputies went out to inspect the Mission in 1881–82, they were much impressed. They stated, “…she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.” This they attributed partly to the singular ease with which Slessor spoke the language.
After only three more years, Slessor returned to Scotland on yet another health furlough. This time, she took Janie with her. During the next 3 years, Slessor looked after her mother and sister (who had also fallen ill), raised Janie, and spoke at many churches, sharing stories from Calabar.
After this hiatus, Slessor returned to Calabar. She saved hundreds of twins out of the bush, where they had been left either to starve to death or be eaten by animals. She helped heal the sick and stopped the practice of determining guilt by making the suspects drink poison. As a missionary, she went to other tribes, spreading the word of Jesus Christ.
During this third mission to Calabar, Slessor received news that her mother and sister had died. She was overcome with loneliness, writing, “There is no one to write and tell my stories and nonsense to.” She had also found a sense of independence, writing, “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will worry about me if I go up country.”
Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training to Efiks. The superstitious threat against twins was not only in Calabar; but also spread to a town Arochukwu on the far west of Calabar. There is a high school named in honor of Mary Slessor. This is located in Arochukwu, a town west of Calabar, about three half hours drive away. The people of Calabar are Efik tribe though the popular Arochukwu town is in Ibo tribe. Both Calabarand Arochukwu share some common cultures and are in southeastern Nigeria, in Cross River State and Abia State respectively.
Among the Okoyong and Efik
In August 1888, Slessor traveled north to Okoyong, an area where previous male missionaries had been killed. She thought that her teachings, and the fact that she was a woman, would be less threatening to unreached tribes. For 15 years, Slessor lived with the Okoyong and Efik people. She learned to speak Efik, the native language, and made close personal friendships wherever she went, becoming known for her pragmatism and humour. Slessor lived a simple life in a traditional house with Efiks. Her insistence on lone stations often led Slessor into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation for eccentricity. However, her exploits were heralded in Britain and she became known as the “white queen of Okoyong”. Slessor did not focus on evangelism, but rather on settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education.
It was the belief in Calabar that if a women had twins one of them had to be a devil so the twins were left in the jungle in clay pots to die. Mary Slessor successfully fought against the practice of killing twins at infancy.
In 1892, Slessor became vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court. In 1905 she was named vice-president of Ikot Obong native court. In 1913 she was awarded the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Slessor suffered failing health in her later years but remained in Calabar, where she died in 1915.
For the last four decades of her life, Slessor suffered intermittent fevers from the malaria she contracted during her first station to Calabar. However, she downplayed the personal costs, and never gave up her mission work to return permanently to Scotland. The fevers eventually weakened Slessor to the point where she could no longer walk long distances in the rainforest, but had to be pushed along in a hand-cart. In early January 1915, while at her remote station near Use Ikot Oku, she suffered a particularly severe fever. Slessor died on 13 January 1915.
Her body was transported down the Cross River to Duke Town for the colonial equivalent of a state funeral. A Union Jack covered her coffin. Attendees included the Provincial Commissioner, along with other senior British officials in full uniform. Flags at government buildings were flown at half mast. Nigeria’s Governor-General, Sir Frederick Lugard, telegraphed his “deepest regret”‘ from Lagos and published a warm tribute in the Government Gazette.
Honoured by the Scottish Bank (Clydesdale Bank)
Mary Slessor was also honoured in 2009 by Clydesdale bank during their World Heritage Series and the Famous Scots Series. Where she was featured on the back of the bank’s £10 note. The bank note highlighted her work in Calabar (Nigeria). It also feature a map of the area she worked in Calabar (Nigeria) and a lithographic vignette depiciting her work with children and a sailing ship emblem.
Several memorials in and around the Efik provinces of Calabar and Okoyong testify to the value placed on her work.
Some of these include:
- Mary Slessor Road in Calabar
- Mary Slessor Roundabout
- Mary Slessor Church
- Statues of her (usually carrying twins) at various locations in Calabar
- Main-belt asteroid 4793 Slessor (1988 RR4) named after her to mark the centenary celebrations on 13 January 2015.
Memorial in Achimota School, Ghana