Mary Slessor – Missionary to 1800’s Nigeria

SEE FILM BELOW + see links to other biographical films at bottom of post.

Mary-slessor-and-adopted-children

Mary Slessor, inspired by the life of Dr. David Livingstone set out for West Africa at the age of 28. Undaunted  by two illnesses, one of them being malaria, which forced her to return to Scotland for a short period, by the witchcraft, and the one case of ritual slaughter practiced by the natives, she learned the native language, lived with and like the natives and moved further and further into unbroken territory- Efik and Okoyong of Calabar, in present day Nigeria. Along the way she established missions and adopted every baby she found due to the ritual killing of twins that is still practiced in some Nigerian villages today. (See here- 40 Abuja Towns Kill Twins! (stharry.wordpress.com) ) Besides being an evangelist, Mary Slessor also concentrated on settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education. In 1892 she was made vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court and in 1905 was named vice-president of Ikot Obong native court. Slessor suffered failing health in her later years but remained in Africa where she died in 1915.

If you think all Victorian women were ladies in lavender crinolines swooning at the sight of a mouse, think again. There were a surprising number who went off into the unknown alone, and the bravest was a Scottish missionary called Mary Slessor. She became a legend in Scotland and in Nigeria, where she is still celebrated today. When she first went to Africa in 1876 the Scottish church had bee established on the Nigerian coast for many years but the interior was largely unexplored. This fascinating two-part documentary explores her life and works, from her early childhood in Aberdeen to the work she carried out improving trading and the living standards of women in Nigeria.

Part 1

Part 2

Mary Slessor was born on December 2, 1848 in Gilcomston, close to Aberdeen, Scotland. 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. 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 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.

Mary’s mother was a devout Presbyterians who read each issue of the Missionary Record, a monthly magazine published by The United Presbyterian Church (later United Free Church of Scotland) to inform members of missionary activities and needs. Mary developed an interest in religion and, when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), Mary volunteered to become a teacher. Mary was 27 when she heard news that David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, had died. She wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Missionary

Eventually, Mary applied to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church. After a of training in Edinburgh, Mary set sail in the S.S. Ethiopia on 5 August 1876, and arrived at her destination in West Africa just over a month later. She was 28 years of age, red haired with bright blue eyes. Mary was sent to the Calabar region, warned that witchcraft and superstition were prevalent. The ritual sacrifice of children, and twins in particular, was customary among the people she would be ministering to, but Mary was undaunted. She worked first in the missions in Old Town and Creek Town. She lived in the missionary compound for 3 years. She wanted to go deeper into Calabar, malaria forced her to go home to Scotland and recover. Mary left Calabar for Dundee in 1879. She was in Scotland for 16 months before heading back to Africa.

On her return, she did not go back to the compound, but 3 miles further into Calabar, to Old Town. As she had to leave a large portion of her salary at home for the support of her mother and sisters, she had to economise and took to subsisting on the native food.

Issues that Mary confronted as a young missionary included widespread human sacrifice at the death of a village elder, who, it was believed, required servants and retainers to accompany him in the next world, and the lack of education or any status for women. The birth of twins was considered an evil curse. The belief was that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin; and as they were allowed to live. Twin babies were often abandoned in the bush. In such circumstances as soon as twins missioners sought to obtain possession of them, and gave them the security and care of the Mission House. Some of the Mission compounds were alive with babies.Mary adopted every child that she found abandoned. She once saved a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, but the boy did not survive. Mary was devastated, but took the girl as her daughter and called her Janie.

After only three more years, she went back to Scotland on yet another furlough because she was extremely sick. But she wasn’t alone this time, she had Janie with her. She was home for over 3 years looking after her mother and sister, who had also fallen ill. While she was home, Mary spoke at churches all over and shared stories from Africa.

According to Livingstone, when two deputies went out to inspect the Mission in 1881-82, they were much impressed. They stated, “…[S]he 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 she spoke the language.

Mary again returned to Africa, with more determination then ever. She saved hundreds of twins out of the fierce jungle, where they had been left either to starve to death or get eaten by wild animals. She prevented dozens, possibly even hundreds of wars, helped heal the sick and stopped the practice of determining guilt by making the suspects drink poison. She went to other tribes, spreading the word of Jesus Christ wherever and whenever she could. While in Africa, she received news that her mother and sister had died. She was overcome with loneliness. She wrote,”There is no one to write and tell my stories and nonsense to.” She had also found a sense of writing, ”Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain,and no one will worry about me if I go up country.”

In August 1888, she went traveled north to Okoyong, an area where missionaries were previously killed, but Mary was sure that her teachings, and the fact that she was a woman, would be less threatening to unreached tribes than male missionaries had been. For 15 years, she stayed with the Okoyong. She was a peacemaker and a nurse. She died when she was 66.

Among the Efik

Unlike other missionaries, Mary lived as part of the tribe, learned to speak Efik, the native language, and made close personal friendships wherever she went. She adopted abandoned twins and worked tirelessly to protect children and raise the status of women. Mary was known for her pragmatism and humour; this earned her the respect and trust of the people she wanted to serve.

Mary Slessor went to live among the Efik and the Okoyong which lived near the Efiks who live in Calabar, in present day Nigeria. There she successfully fought against the killing of twins at infancy. Mary Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training to Africans.

Death

In 1888 she went alone to work among the Okoyong. For the rest of her life Slessor lived a simple life in a traditional house with Africans, concentrating on pioneering. Her insistence on lone stations often led her into conflict with the authorities and gained her a reputation as somewhat eccentric, but she was heralded in Britain as the ‘white queen of Okoyong’. She was not primarily an evangelist but concentrated on settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education. Slessor frequently campaigned against injustices against women, took in outcasts and adopted unwanted children. In 1892 she was made vice-consul in Okoyong, presiding over the native court and in 1905 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 Africa where she died in 1915.

Mary Slessor died in 1915 at her remote station near Use Ikot Oku. Her body was transported down the Cross River to Duke Town for the colonial equivalent of a state funeral. Attendees at her funeral included the Provincial Commissioner along with other senior British Officials in full uniform. Her Coffin was wrapped in the Union Jack. Flags at government buildings were flown at half mast and the Governor General of Nigeria, Sir Fredrick Lugard telegraphed his ‘deepest regret’ from Lagos and published a warm tribute in the Government Gazette. WIKIPEDIA link – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Slessor

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