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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
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The life of a Scots woman and 19th century missionary to Nigeria.
In her own opinion, Mary Slessor was “wee and thin and not very strong,” but throughout her life she showed herself to be a remarkably strong and tenacious woman. Combining this with her limitless enthusiasm, kindness and generosity, Mary Slessor earned her reputation as one of the most effective and well loved Christian missionaries in Africa during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born on 2nd December 1848, Mary was the second child of a shoemaker in Aberdeen; a poor family made poorer by her father’s alcoholism. No longer able to continue in his work, Robert Slessor moved the family to Dundee in 1859, and became a mill labourer.
There was little option for Mary. Aged only 11, she also went to work at the Baxter Brothers’ Mill, initially on a halftime basis where she would work in the mill for half the day and spend the other half at a school run by the company.
It was a harsh beginning in life, and instilled in Mary a strong work ethic and respect for education.
Mary was deeply religious, having followed her mother in this regard and developed a keen interest in missionary work. She joined a local mission and proved her dedication and strength of will immediately. One story tells of her bravery in dealing with a gang of local youths. Mary made a deal with them: if they continued to swing their metal weight closer and closer to her face and she did not flinch, then the boys must attend her Sunday School. Mary did not flinch.
There wasn’t much in the way of personal hardship that Mary wouldn’t endure in order to Spread the Word, so she was an ideal candidate for missionary work when the opportunity arose. Aged only 28, Mary applied to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church and, after some brief training in Edinburgh, set sail on the S. S. Ethiopia on 5th August 1876.
Modern views of this sort of evangelism can be rather more conflicted than they would have been in the 1800s, but Mary did far more than preach to the native tribes of West Africa.
She arrived at a time of particular political turmoil. Britain was expanding her colonial empire to protect trade interests in what later became the Nigerian Protectorate, and although the slave trade was banned by this point, its memory was still fresh in the minds of the people.
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.
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. The importance of this was not underestimated by the regional Governor of the time, and her contacts proved useful in developing new trade. She adopted abandoned twins and worked tirelessly to protect children and raise the status of women. Mary was known for her pragmatism and humour; no doubt a necessity under the circumstances, but this also earned her the respect and trust of the people she wanted to serve.
As vaccinations became available in the early 20th century, Mary set up hospitals for treating smallpox and maladies.
Hundreds of missionaries in Africa succumbed to malaria and other diseases, sometimes killed outright, often returning home in a permanently weakened state.
Mary contracted malaria and had to suffer the fever again and again for the next 40 years, but she downplayed the personal cost of this, and never gave up to return to Scotland.
She continued to push on, further and further into Nigeria, bringing Christianity, education and medicine to hostile tribes, without much thought to her own safety.
Mary Slessor gave so much of herself to so many people, and clearly loved her work. But it did take its toll. The fevers eventually weakened her to the point where she could no longer walk all day or night in the rainforest, but had to be pushed along in a hand-cart. She eventually died after a particularly severe fever, on 13th January 1915.
To the Nigerian people who came to love her, Mary Slessor was known as “Mother of All The Peoples.” Some only knew her as “Ma.” Mary Slessor is commemorated today on banknotes issued in Scotland by the Clydesdale Bank; her portrait appears on the £10 note.