Mary Slessor

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Mary Slessor
Mary Slessor.jpg
Mary Slessor
Born 2 December 1848 (1848-12-02)
Aberdeen, Scotland
Died 13 January 1915(1915-01-13) (aged 66)
Nationality Scottish
Known for Christian Missionary work in Africa; promoting women's rights
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 and promoting women's rights.

Early life[edit]

Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 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.[1] At the age of eleven, Mary Slessor 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 also died, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters.[1] By age fourteen, Mary Slessor had become a skilled jute worker, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with just an hour for breakfast and lunch.[2]

Her mother was a devout Presbyterian 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.[1] Mary Slessor developed an interest in religion and, when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), she volunteered to teach.[2] Mary Slessor was 27 when she heard that David Livingstone, the famous missionary and explorer, had died, and she wanted to follow in his footsteps.

Early Missionary Career[edit]

Eventually, Mary Slessor applied to the United Presbyterian Church's Foreign Mission Board. After training in Edinburgh, she set sail in the S.S. 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,[2] was first assigned to the Calabar region, and warned about the people there believed in witchcraft and other superstition. Ritual sacrifice of children, and twins in particular, was common among the people she would be ministering to, but the young missionary remained undaunted.[3] Mary Slessor 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, but the malaria she contracted forced her return to Scotland and to recover. She thus left Calabar for Dundee in 1879.[4]

After 16 months in Scotland, Slessor returned to Africa, but not to the same compound. Her new assignment was 3 miles further into Calabar, in Old Town. Since Mary Slessor assigned a large portion of her salary to support her mother and sisters in Scotland, she economised, and took to eating the native food.

Mary Slessor with adopted children Jean, Alice, Maggie and May. Image taken in Scotland

Issues that Mary Slessor 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, as well as the lack of education or any status for women.[5] The birth of twins was considered an evil curse. Natives feared the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Twin babies were often abandoned in the bush. Mary adopted every child that she found abandoned, and set out twins missioners to find, protect and care for them at the Mission House. Some Mission compounds were alive with babies.[4] 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 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.[4]

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 churches all over, sharing stories from Africa.

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 wars between local people, 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.” Mary Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training to Africans.[6]

Among the Okoyong and Efik[edit]

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, Mary 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. Mary Slessor lived a simple life in a traditional house with Africans. 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 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. Slessor frequently campaigned against injustices against women and sought to raise their status. She also took in outcasts and worked tirelessly to protect children and in particular unwanted children, especially twins.[7]

In 1892 Mary 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 Africa, where she died in 1915.[8]

Mary Slessor went to live among theand 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.


For the last four decades of her life, Mary Slessor suffered intermittent fevers from malaria contracted in her first station. However, she downplayed the personal costs, and never gave up to return permanently to Scotland. The fevers eventually weakened Slessor 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 during a particularly severe fever, on 13 January 1915, at her remote station near Use Ikot Oku.[7]

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.[9]

Commemoration in Calabar and Amongst the Efiks[edit]

Mary Slessor' work in Okoyong earned her the Efik nickname of Obongawan Okoyong (Queen of Okoyong). This name is still used commonly to refer to her in present day Calabar. Several memorials in and around the Efik provinces of Calabar and Okoyong testify to the value of 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.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Rev. J. Harrison Hudson, Rev. Thomas W. Jarvie, Rev. Jock Stein. "Let the Fire Burn" - A Study of R. M. McCheyne, Robert Annan and Mary Slessor. This is an out-of-print booklet that was published in 1978 by Handsel Publications (formerly of Dundee). The company is now called Handsel Press. It is listed as D.15545, 15546 under Mary Slessor in List of Reference Works at the Local Studies Department of Dundee Central Library, The Wellgate, Dundee, DD1 1DB.

External links[edit]