Mary Mitchell Slessor, the Scottish missionary, was born on the 2nd of December, 1848.
Wee Mary Slessor from Aberdeen in Scotland, who once journeyed to Africa, is remembered variously, but always fondly, as ‘the white Mother’, ‘Ma Okoyong’, ‘a big person’, ‘Eka Kpukpru Owo’ (everybody’s mother – or ‘Mother of all the Peoples’), ‘the White Queen of Calabar’ and “the most wonderful woman in West Africa”. Strangely, by one biographer, she was called the “Expendable Mary Slessor”, but J. H. Morrison pays her a much more apt tribute, stating: “She is entitled to a place in the front ranks of the heroines of history, and if goodness be counted an essential element of true greatness, if eminence be reckoned by love and self-sacrifice, by years of endurance and suffering, by a life of sustained heroism and purest devotion, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to name her equal”.
Mary Mitchell Slessor was born in Gilcomston, in Aberdeen, on the 2nd of December, 1848. Her mother, who was a deeply religious woman, was from Oldmeldrum and her keen interest in missionary work in Nigeria was to have a great influence on Mary. In 1859, the family moved to Dundee and Mary, at the age of eleven, was sent to work in the jute mills, to supplement the family income. She was a ‘half timer’ in the Baxter Brothers’ Mill and spent the other half of her arduous days at a school provided by the mill owners. It was a harsh introduction to the work ethic, which was to dominate her life. By the time she was fourteen, Mary had become a skilled jute worker and began working full time. That meant a twelve hour day toiling at her weaving machine “amid the flash of the shuttles, the rattle of the looms and the roar of the machines”. Like her countryman and fellow missionary, David Livingstone, Mary furthered her education by reading books during any spare moments she could snatch.
Mary and her mother were members of the Wishart Church, named after the Protestant martyr, George Wishart, the only true hero of the Reformation in Scotland. Mary volunteered to become a Christian teacher at a local mission and the earliest story of her courage occurred at that time. The story goes that she successfully stood her ground against a gang of local youths, when one of their number swung a weaver’s shuttle, closer and closer to her face. Mary defied them by demanding that if she didn’t flinch, they would all join the Sunday School class. Mary triumphed, and later the experience was something that she would exploit in her encounters with far more threatening adversaries.
Mary became entranced by accounts of work in Nigeria, which were outlined in the ‘Missionary Record’ and successfully applied to the ‘Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church’ for a posting to the Calabar region of West Africa. She left Scotland aboard the S.S. ‘Ethopia’ on the 5th of August, 1876 and returned only once, briefly. The part of Africa to which she had sailed was known as the ‘White Man’s Grave’ and a place where life meant very little. Witchcraft and superstition were prevalent in a country where slavery was common. Cannibalism occurred in some parts and human sacrifice routinely followed the death of a village dignitary. The ritual murder of twins took place, because their birth was thought to be an evil sign and if a family had too many children, the simply left the unwanted child in the bushes to die. In that primitive society, women were treated as little more than livestock, but Mary stepped bravely ashore and never once looked back.
Diseases and infections were things that foreigners could hardly avoid and the average life expectancy was just a few years. However, Mary survived and as remedies and precautions became available in the early years of the 20th Century, she provided vaccination against the dreaded smallpox and set up mission hospitals for treating the native peoples. Unlike most missionaries, Mary became fluent in the Efik language and adopted native styles, so as to better integrate with and influence the native culture, and the day-to-day lives of those she served. Mary urged them to quit worshiping the skulls of dead men and not to be afraid of evil spirits. She told them not to kill the wives and slaves of a ‘big man’ when he dies, because, “They cannot help him in the next life”.
Mary was clever enough to have leveraged the British desire for better trade routes in order to secure finance and as Government money was secured, Mary was able to move ever further into the heartland. Her legendary all night treks through rain forests into the Nigerian interior are nothing short of incredible. At first, she worked in the missions in Duke Town, Creek Town and Old Town, her first sight of which was a human skull swinging from a pole in front of the meeting house. In 1888, despite the best advice of King Eyo Honesty VI, the intrepid exploreress went alone to work among the Okoyong. The King, conceding to her wishes against his better judgement, sent her upriver as a “big person in the grandest canoe in all of Calabar”. Mary was the first outsider ever allowed to live amongst the Okoyong, where she was allowed to build a school. In a reprise of her Dundee experience, she prevented several internecine battles by refusing to get out of the way. “Out of the way; you die, too white Ma. Move on!” she was told, but she calmly stood her ground, crying “Shoot, if you dare!” They didn’t.
Her reputation also helped her in venture into the territory of the cannibal Azo tribe, whom she won over in her own peerless way. Mary’s insistence on lone stations had often led her into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation as “somewhat eccentric”. Nevertheless, she was heralded in Britain as the ‘white queen of Okoyong’ and had achieved what traders, soldiers, and diplomats had been unable to do for four hundred years – open up the heartland of Nigeria to outsider trade. A missionary, but not an evangelist, Mary concentrated on settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education. To the natives, who trusted her absolutely, she was known as the “White Mother” or “Ma”. In 1892, she was made vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court and in 1905, she was named vice-president of the Ikot Obong native court. In 1913, she was awarded the Order of St John of Jerusalem. H. K. W. Kumm, in ‘African Missionary Heroes and Heroines’ wrote of a conversation with Sir William Wallace, the Deputy Governor of Northern Nigeria, who described Mary Slessor as “the most wonderful woman in West Africa”.
Mary Slessor died on the 13th of January, 1915, after a prolonged bout of fever, probably suffering from malaria. She was given a state funeral and buried on a hillside by the mission station where she had first served, under an imposing cross of Aberdeenshire granite.