Mary Slessor

Last updated

Mary Slessor
Mary Slessor.jpg
Born2 December 1848 (1848-12-02)
Died13 January 1915(1915-01-13) (aged 66)
Use Ikot Oku, Calabar, Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria
Nationality Scottish
Known forChristian missionary work in Africa;women's rights and rescuing children from infanticide.
Monument to Mary Slessor, Steeple Church, Dundee Monument to Mary Slessor, Steeple Church, Dundee.jpg
Monument to Mary Slessor, Steeple Church, Dundee

Mary Mitchell Slessor (2 December 1848 – 13 January 1915) was a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria. Once in Nigeria, Slessor learned Efik, one of the numerous local languages, then began teaching. Because of her understanding of the native language and her bold personality Slessor gained the trust and acceptance of the locals and was able to spread Christianity while promoting women's rights and protecting native children. She is most famous for having stopped the common practice of infanticide of twins in Okoyong, an area of Cross River State, Nigeria. [1] [2]


Early life

Mary Slessor Mary-slessor.jpg
Mary Slessor

Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, Scotland to a poor working-class family, who could not afford proper education. She was the second of seven children of Robert and Mary Slessor. Her father, originally from Buchan, was a shoemaker by trade. Her mother was born in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire and was a deeply religious woman. [3] 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 was a skilled weaver and went to work in the mills. [4] 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. Mary Slessor's father and both brothers died of pneumonia, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters. [4] 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. [5]

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. [4] Slessor developed an interest in religion and when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), she wanted to teach. [5] 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, that is how she started her mission.

Missionary work

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 with her relation Robert Mitchell Beedie, a missionary from New Deer in Buchan, the two had the same grandmother, and arrived at her destination in West Africa just over a month later.

Slessor, 28 years of age, red haired with bright blue eyes, [5] was first assigned to the Calabar region in the land of the Efik people. She was warned that they believed in traditional West African religion and had superstitions in relation to women giving birth to twins. Slessor lived in the missionary compound for three 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. [3] 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.

Mary Slessor is pictured with adopted children Jean, Alice, Maggie and May, in an image taken in Scotland Mary-slessor-and-adopted-children.jpg
Mary Slessor is pictured with adopted children Jean, Alice, Maggie and May, in an image taken in Scotland

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. [6]

According to W. P. 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. [3]

After only three more years, Slessor returned to Scotland on yet another health furlough. During the next three years, Slessor looked after her mother and sister (who had also fallen ill), and spoke at many churches, sharing stories from the Calabar area.

Once this was over, Slessor returned to area further away from central Calabar, from the areas which had already eliminated the more heathen practices. 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. [2]

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." [7]

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 called Arochukwu on the far west of Calabar. The people of Calabar belong to the Efik tribe though the popular Arochukwu town is at the Igbo tribe's region. Both Calabar and Arochukwu share some common cultures and are in southeastern Nigeria, precisely Cross River State and Abia State respectively. [8]

Among the Okoyong and Efik

Pots in which twin babies were exposed to die (circa 1880) Pots in which Twin Babies were Exposed (imp-cswc-GB-237-CSWC47-LS2-016).jpg
Pots in which twin babies were exposed to die (circa 1880)

In August 1888, Slessor travelled north to Okoyong, an area where male missionaries had been killed. She thought her teachings, and the fact she was a woman, would be less threatening to unreached tribes. For 15 years, Slessor lived with the Okoyong and the Efik people. She learned to speak the native Efik 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 her 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 continued her focus on evangelism, settling disputes, encouraging trade, establishing social changes and introducing Western education.

It was the belief in the area that the birth of twins was considered a particularly evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was a 'devil child', 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 clay pots to die. In most of Calabar the practice had been eliminated by the Missionaries and King Eyo Honesty II. Slessor left the area of Calabar and moved further in to Okoyong. She 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. [2] [3] 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. She took Janie home to Scotland with her on at least one visit.

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. Slessor's health began to suffer in her later years, but she remained in Calabar, where she died in 1915. [9]


Memorial plaque on Mary Slessor's grave at Calabar, eastern Nigeria, in 1981 Mary Slessor Grave Calabar Nigeria 11.81 edited-2.jpg
Memorial plaque on Mary Slessor's grave at Calabar, eastern Nigeria, in 1981

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 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. [10]

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 regrets" from Lagos and published a warm eulogy in the government gazette. [11]

A report on her death in The Southern Reporter of 21 January 1915 mentions a time she spent on furlough in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scottish Borders. It states that "She and her four adopted African children were a centre of great attraction and helped to deepen the interest of the whole community in the Foreign Mission work of the Church." It praises her strong force character, her unostentatious manner, and her zeal for the tribes around Calabar. [12]

Honours and legacy

Slessor's 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 Calabar.

Several memorials in and around the Efik provinces of Calabar and Okoyong testify to the value placed on her work. Some of these include:

A female hostel in the University of Nigeria Nsukka is named Mary Slessor Hall in her honour.

A girls' house, "Slessor House", was named after her in Achimota School, Ghana. [13]

In Scotland, a bust of Slessor is now in the Hall of Heroes of the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. In Aberdeen a memorial stands in the city's Union Terrace Gardens and in Dundee, a new city centre park is named 'Slessor Gardens' in her honour. There are also streets named after her in Glasgow, Dundee and Oldmeldrum in Scotland; and in Coventry in England.

Slessor was honoured on a 1997 bank note by Clydesdale Bank for the World Heritage Series and Famous Scots Series. She was featured on the back of the bank's £10 note, highlighting her work in Calabar. The note also features a map of Calabar, a lithographic vignette depicting her work with children, and a sailing ship emblem. [14]

Main-belt asteroid 4793 Slessor (1988 RR4) [15] named to mark her centenary celebrations on 13 January 2015.

In 1950, the anthropologist Charles Partridge, a friend of Slessor when both were in Nigeria, donated letters from her, along with a recording of her voice, now The Slessor Collection at Dundee Central Library; [16] he said of her: "She was a very remarkable woman. I look back on her friendship with reverence- one of the greatest honours that have befallen me." [17]

Mary is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 11 January. [18]

See also

Related Research Articles

Efik mythology Body of myths and legends of the Efik people

Efik mythology consists of a collection of myths narrated, sung or written down by the Efik people and passed down from generation to generation. Sources of Efik mythology include bardic poetry, art, songs, oral tradition and proverbs. Stories concerning Efik myths include creation myths, supernatural beings, mythical creatures, and warriors. Efik myths were initially told by Efik people and narrated under the moonlight. Myths, legends and historical stories are known in Efik as Mbụk while moonlight plays in Efik are known as Mbre Ọffiọñ.

The Anaang are a Southern Nigerian ethnic group whose land is primarily within 8 of the present 31 local government areas in Akwa Ibom State: Abak, Essien Udim, Etim Ekpo, Ika, Ikot Ekpene, Obot Akara, Oruk Anam, Ukanafun in Akwa Ibom State,and 3 of the 17 Local government areas in Abia State: Ugwunagbo, Obi Ngwa,and Ukwa East of Abia State.

Calabar City in Cross River, Nigeria

Calabar is the capital of Cross River State, Nigeria. It was originally named Akwa Akpa, in the Efik language. The city is adjacent to the Calabar and Great Kwa rivers and creeks of the Cross River.

Efik people Ethnic group in West Africa

The Efik are an ethnic group located primarily in southern Nigeria, and western Cameroon. Within Nigeria, the Efik can be found in the present-day Cross River State and Akwa Ibom state. The Efik speak the Efik language which is a member of the Benue–Congo subfamily of the Niger-Congo language group. The Efik refer to themselves as Efik Eburutu, Ifa Ibom, Eburutu and Iboku.

Samuel Bill

Samuel Alexander Bill MBE was an Irish Christian missionary, explorer and the founder of the Qua Iboe Mission . Bill was raised in Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church, east Belfast, but was most notably associated with Island Street Belfast City Mission Hall. His interest in missionary work was sparked by a visit to Belfast by Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey in 1874. He attended the Harley Missionary Training College in London, then under the leadership of Henry Grattan Guinness; and travelled to Nigeria to commence a work amongst the Ibeno people in 1887. The mission base was founded on the banks of the Qua Iboe River, and this base gave the name to the independent interdenominational mission that Bill founded.

Mission Africa Christian mission organisation

Mission Africa is an interdenominational, evangelical, Christian mission organisation. When founded in 1887, by the Irish independent missionary Samuel Bill, the organisation ministered in Nigeria. Today, it primarily works in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Chad and Kenya while maintaining headquarters in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Its current Chief Executive is the Reverend Dr Paul Bailie.

Robert Laws

Robert Laws FRGS FRSGS (1851–1934) was a Scottish missionary who headed the Livingstonia mission in the Nyasaland Protectorate for more than 50 years. The mission played a crucial role in educating Africans during the colonial era. It emphasized skills with which the pupils could become self-sufficient in trade, agriculture or industry as opposed to working as subordinates to European settlers. Laws supported the aspirations of political leaders such as Simon Muhango and Levi Zililo Mumba, both educated at Livingstonia schools.

Ibiono-Ibom LGA in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

Ibiono-Ibom is a Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State in the south-south region of Nigeria. It has its administrative headquarters at Oko Ita.

The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria is a Presbyterian church in the Nigeria and subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Mother Mary of the Incarnation Martin, M.M.M. was the Irish foundress of the Catholic religious institute of the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Duke Town City state in southern Nigeria

Duke Town, originally known as Atakpa is an Efik city-state that flourished in the 19th century in what is now southern Nigeria. The City State extended from now Calabar to Bakassi in the east and Oron to the west. Although it is now absorbed into Nigeria, traditional rulers of the state are still recognized. The state occupied what is now the modern city of Calabar.

Efik is the indigenous language of the Efik people of Nigeria. It is the official language of Cross River State in Nigeria. The language is named after the Efik people who are situated in the present-day Cross River state and Akwa Ibom state. The Efik language is mutually intelligible with other lower Cross River languages such as Ibibio, Annang, Oro and Ekid but the degree of intelligibility in the case of Oro and Ekid is unidirectional; in other words, speakers of these languages speak and understand Efik but not vice-versa. The Efik vocabulary has been enriched and influenced by external contact with the British, Portuguese and other surrounding communities such as Balondo, Oron, Efut, Okoyong, Efiat and Ekoi (Qua).

Hope Waddell Training Institution Colonial school in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria

The Hope Waddell Training Institution (HOWAD) is a school in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria founded by missionaries from the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1895. It is named after the Reverend Hope Masterton Waddell.

The Medical Missionaries of Mary are a religious institute of the Catholic Church dedicated to providing health care to the underdeveloped regions of the world. They follow a Benedictine spirituality, with its focus on life in community, shared prayer and hospitality.

Eyo Honesty II Obong of Creek Town

King Eyo Honesty II was the ruler of Creek Town from 1835 until his death on 3 December 1858. Creek Town was part of the Efik city-states of the Old Calabar province in the Bight of Biafra. Eyo was born into the family of Eyo Nsa and Inyang Esien Ekpe. His father, Eyo Nsa alias Willy Eyo Honesty or Eyo Willy Honesty was one of the prominent figures of the 18th century in Efik Maritime history. His mother Princess Inyang Esien Ekpe was the daughter of Esien Ekpe Oku.

Scottish Protestant missions

Scottish Protestant missions are organised programmes of outreach and conversion undertaken by Protestant denominations within Scotland, or by Scottish people. Long after the triumph of the Church of Scotland in the Lowlands, Highlanders and Islanders clung to a form of Christianity infused with animistic folk beliefs and practices. From 1708 the Scottish Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) began working in the area. In 1797 James Haldane founded the non-denominational Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Home. Dozens of lay preachers, divinity students and English preachers were sent to the region. In the early nineteenth century a variety of organisations were formed to support evangelism to the region.

Asi Archibong-Arikpo Nigerian elder (Chief)

Asi Archibong-Arikpo was a Nigerian midwife, politician, and fashion designer.

Margaret Manson Graham was a Scottish nurse who worked as a missionary in Nigeria.

Reverend Hope Masterton Waddell was an Irish medical missionary in Jamaica and Calabar, Nigeria. The Hope Waddell Training Institution is named after him.

Alexander Ross (missionary) Scottish missionary and explorer

Alexander Ross was a Scottish missionary with the United Presbyterian Church (Scotland) in Duke Town, Old Calabar, West Africa along with other notable missionaries including William Anderson, Hugh Goldie, and Mary Slessor. Making two separate expeditions in 1877 and 1878, Ross was the first white man to venture south of Old Calabar to the palm-oil town of Odobo. He discovered the Falls of Komè on the River Meme and recorded details of the places, customs and languages of Efut. In 1881 the Mission was torn apart by a schism between Ross and Anderson that was to be a crucial link in the chain of events which led to the annexation by Britain of the territory from Calabar to the Niger.


  1. "Mary Slessor".
  2. 1 2 3 Imbua, David Lishilinimle (2013). "Robbing Others to Pay Mary Slessor: Unearthing the Authentic Heroes and Heroines of the Abolition of Twin-Killing in Calabar". African Economic History. 41: 139–158. ISSN   0145-2258. JSTOR   43863309.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Livingstone, WP (1927), Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (PDF), London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  4. 1 2 3 Hardage, Jeannette, "Slessor, Mary", Dictionary of African Christian Biography, archived from the original on 30 April 2013.
  5. 1 2 3 Mary Slessor: 'Mother of All the Peoples', New Rochelle, NY: Holy Trinity, archived from the original on 2 December 2012.
  6. Quinn, Frederick, "Mary Slessor, 1848–1915", Dictionary of African Christian Biography, archived from the original on 30 April 2013.
  7. Taylor, William H. (1996). Mission to educate: a history of the educational work of the Scottish Presbyterian mission in East Nigeria, 1846-1960. BRILL. pp. 127–128. ISBN   90-04-10713-4.
  8. Taylor, William H (1996). Mission to educate: a history of the educational work of the Scottish Presbyterian mission in East Nigeria, 1846–1960. Brill. pp. 127–28. ISBN   90-04-10713-4.
  9. Biographical history, Edinburgh University.
  10. White, Donna (29 August 2010). "Red-hot designers hail Scots missionary for inspiring African style". The Daily Record. Retrieved 6 September 2011.
  11. Proctor, JH (2000). "Serving God and the Empire: Mary Slessor in South-Eastern Nigeria, 1876–1915". Journal of Religion in Africa. Brill. 30 (1): 45–61. doi:10.1163/157006600X00483. JSTOR   1581622.
  12. "Eminent Missionary's Death". The Southern Reporter. 21 January 1915.
  13. "Achimota School. - Timeline - Facebook".
  14. "August 5: Mary Slessor". This Day in Presbyterian History. 5 August 2017. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  15. Jet propulsion laboratory, NASA.
  16. "Dundee Central Library: Slessor Collection". Retrieved 20 October 2019.
  17. "Charles Partridge (Biographical details)". The British Museum . Retrieved 4 April 2019.
  18. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 27 March 2021.

Further reading