Mary Slessor, mother of all the peoples

IMAGINE, if you will, a young woman, a red-headed mill-worker from the slums of Dundee, standing in her Sunday best on the deck of a packet steamer, The Ethiopia, in 1876, as it made its way upriver to Duke Town in Calabar – a part of southern Nigeria ravaged by the slave trade, where human sacrifice and cannibalism were common practice.

IMAGINE, if you will, a young woman, a red-headed mill-worker from the slums of Dundee, standing in her Sunday best on the deck of a packet steamer, The Ethiopia, in 1876, as it made its way upriver to Duke Town in Calabar – a part of southern Nigeria ravaged by the slave trade, where human sacrifice and cannibalism were common practice.

Imagine her awe as her senses were assaulted by new sights and smells: mangrove swamps, humming birds, alligators and vivid, tropical blossoms. And her trepidation when, soon after, she wandered through the cemetery of the local church and saw the graves of so many other young Scots who had made the journey before her.

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Not that Mary Slessor was labouring under any illusions. The dangers of Calabar were well-known to readers of the Missionary Record – a monthly magazine published by the United Presbyterian Church: poor water supplies, malaria, and tribes hostile to traders and evangelists alike. The chiefs kept a harem of wives and slaves, who were slaughtered when they died. Twins, on the other hand, were slaughtered at birth on the grounds one of them had been spawned by the devil (and it was impossible to tell which). So high was the death rate among those who joined the Hope Waddell Mission, in Duke Town, new arrivals were encouraged to bring their own coffins. But Slessor was determined to live among the people, dispensing medicine, mediating in disputes and, of course, teaching the Gospels. By the time she died at the age of 67 – 100 years ago on Tuesday – she was revered throughout the region, where she served as the British Empire’s first female magistrate.

Unconventional in her approach, Slessor divested herself of her western clothing, learned to speak the local language, adopted a family of “black babies” who would otherwise have been left to die and became known as Eka Kpukpru Owo – the mother of all the peoples. Afraid of no-one, she dedicated herself to improving the lives of women and stood up to those in power to prevent them carrying out mass killings.

Today, the missionary – who never lost her strong Dundonian accent – still commands so much respect in Calabar that, on Mothering Sunday, women wear a waxen cloth emblazoned with her image, and her legacy lives on in the skills centre and clinic in Akpap Okoyong, in Cross River State, set up by the Dundee-based Mary Slessor Foundation.

Though her sphere of influence was smaller, Slessor was, in her own way, as significant as explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone was known from South Africa to Malawi, while the whole of Calabar is only 400 square miles, but Slessor’s relationship with tribal chiefs was more intimate and intense. Her determination to help regardless of the risk fostered the Scottish tradition for public service which can still be seen today in the efforts of aid workers, including Pauline Cafferkey, who have put their lives on the line to treat Ebola victims in Sierra Leone.

Yet, like many women of her time, Slessor’s achievements have gone largely unrecognised in her homeland. Though her grave in the Duke Town cemetery is marked by a granite cross, and her image has featured on a £10 note, few people in Scotland know much about her background, her work, or the way she transformed the lives of those she encountered.

Now the Mary Slessor Foundation, set up in 2002, is determined to change all that. On Tuesday, a plaque mounted on a stone hewn from a quarry just outside Aberdeen – the city of Slessor’s birth – will be unveiled outside the Steeple Church in Dundee. Given the dearth of monuments honouring Scottish women in Scottish cities, any physical tribute to someone of Slessor’s stature is to be welcomed. But the foundation also wants to make sure her story is kept alive through education. Foundation chairman Doug Binnie has been working with the local authority to try to get lessons on her life taught in schools, and there will be a series of centenary events, including an exhibition at the Verdant Works, Scotland’s Jute Museum, a short story competition, a photography competition and talks by experts, including Billy Kay, author of The Scottish World. The play, Mother Of All The Peoples, will be on at Dundee Rep in April.

“I would argue that potentially Mary Slessor achieved more than David Livingstone and has had nothing like the recognition and that’s a shame,” says Binnie, an architect with Nicoll Russell Studios, who first took an interest in her life when his wife Lynne was cast as Slessor in the play. “She lived at a time when women had nothing, they were subservient at home and abroad, so her achievements were immense. As a man, Livingstone had the advantages of education, and, as a result, was revered, but she has been largely overlooked.”

Livingstone and Slessor – the second of seven children – both started life as mill-workers, but Slessor’s upbringing was more harsh. Her father Robert, a violent alcoholic, uprooted the family and moved to Dundee when she was eight, but he was unable to hold down a job and they lived in poverty in a single end. By the time she was 11, she was working as a half-timer at the jute mill – spending half the day working and half at the mill school. Soon her father and her brothers died, leaving only her mother and two sisters. By 14, she was working a 12-hour day as a weaver, handling the shuttles on giant looms amidst the whirr of the belts and the clatter of the machines.

Unlike Livingstone, Slessor was never going to be able to go to university, but she did benefit from the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, which placed a high value on literacy (primarily to enable working class people to read the Bible). As a Sunday school teacher at the Wishart Church (later incorporated into Steeple Church) her free spirit manifested itself in the way she hitched up her skirt to climb trees on expeditions.

Slessor had long been interested in travelling to “the dark continent”, but when Livingstone died, she was swept up in the missionary fever that gripped the country and applied for a post in Calabar.

The idea of a woman heading out to Africa alone must have raised eyebrows, but Slessor was no frail Victorian gentle-lady. Her harsh lifestyle had made her both physically and psychologically resilient. She was not cowed by male power or squeamish about dirt or poverty or unaccustomed to death. Nor was she bound by social strictures. Her initial wildness was the bane of the older missionaries who, like the nuns in The Sound Of Music, wondered how to solve the problem of their new charge. Though she’d had little training for the position, her faith and her willingness to get stuck in carried her through. Though she lived mostly in African-style dwellings, she eventually built a European-style house, with concrete floors to keep away the ants. When asked who had taught her to lay concrete, she replied: “Naebody, I just mix it and stir it like porridge. Then I turn it oot, smooth it wi a stick and say: ‘Lord, here’s the cement. If it be thy will, please set it.’ And he aye does.”

For her first few years, Slessor stayed in the mission at Duke Town; she learned to speak Efik like a native, but she was often homesick and frustrated. After returning from a trip to Scotland to recover from a bout of malaria, she moved upriver to Old Town, where she worked on her own. Gradually – and against advice – she made her way further north to Akpap Okoyong, not only forging fruitful relationships with previously hostile tribal leaders, but encouraging them to forge better relationships with each other so they could trade.

On her many excursions into the jungle, she stayed in mud huts and carried medicine to tend the sick. Once, a canopied state canoe was sent to transport her on a 30-mile journey to meet Chief Okon, her companions beating the tom-tom and singing songs in her honour as they paddled.

Slessor campaigned to improve the lives of women who were treated as chattels, campaigning against brutal punishments such as flogging, poison and burning oil, but she is probably best remembered for rescuing dozens of babies who would otherwise have been slaughtered. Of these, she adopted seven. The first, Janie, was one of a set of twins whose brother had already been killed; another, Daniel had a mother who died in childbirth. Slessor often brought one of her children back to Scotland, taking them on speaking engagements where they made a great stir. Daniel’s four daughters – Barbara, Olive, Mary and Jean – still live in Calabar and spoke to Kay for his book, which contains a chapter on missionaries. Now, the Mary Slessor Foundation has commissioned a genealogy company to try to chart her family tree to trace other descendants of the children.

As for marriage, however, that was another sacrifice Slessor had to make. Her engagement to teacher Charles Morrison was broken off after the Mission Board rejected her request for him to join her in Akpap Okoyong – a post she refused to leave.

Of course, the main objective of Slessor’s work was to bring Christianity to the region. Nigeria was colonised by Britain in 1885 and became a British protectorate in 1901, the same year the government launched an attack on the Aro people in an attempt to halt the practice of cannibalism. When their attack was over, Slessor moved from Akpap to Itu in Aro country, where she gathered a congregation of 300 and built a school for 68 pupils.

In 1903, she saw the first seven children baptised as Christians. While in Akpap, she had been appointed vice-consul and presided over the native court. In Itu she was named vice-president of the native court. Slessor’s links to imperialism could make her a problematic figure for modern sensibilities, yet something about her forthright egalitarianism seemed to win over the harshest critics. One journalist from the London Morning Post who tracked her down wrote: “I am not given to admire missionary enterprise. The enthusiasm which seems to many magnificent, seems to me but meddling in other people’s business. But this missionary conquered me if she didn’t convert me.”

When Kay travelled to Duke Town parish church, he found a congregation still misty-eyed at Slessor’s memory. “I was very much imbued with that scepticism about aspects of European colonial history and wondered whether missionaries were people were basically people who trampled local culture and let nothing survive, but the personal response I got in Calabar made me see the other side of the story,” he says.

“When I first started talking about her, there was almost a visceral wave, something tangible, which came back to me from the people in the church. It was inspired by the love of Slessor and what she stood for, but it was also, I think, that a lot of the people, especially the older generation had Scottish teachers in their schools and Scottish ministers and hearing a Scots voice – that’s what provoked the response.”

When Slessor died of a fever, she was given the colonial equivalent of a state funeral; a flag was draped over her coffin, state officials attended and flags over government buildings were flown at half-mast. But it was the outpouring of grief from those native people she had lived with that was the most poignant tribute to her achievements. According to one account, as women began a wild wail of lament at her graveside, “one lifted up her voice in an exalted appeal that went straight to the heart: ‘Do not cry, do not cry! Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Ma was a great blessing’.”

Today, across Calabar, there are statues of Slessor holding twins; this year Scotland too will pay homage to the woman fellow missionary James Macgregor once described as “a whirlwind and an earthquake and a fire and a still, small voice”.