Sixty-six-year-old Mary Mitchell Slessor lay dying in the
village of Use Ikot Oku, Nigeria. Feverish, weak, and
going in and out of consciousness, she prayed, "O Abasi, sana mi
yak" (O God, let me go). Her prayer was granted just before dawn
on January 13, 1915. The woman known as eka kpukpru owo
(everybody's mother) had lived nearly forty years in Nigeria, but
her death was noted around the world, and her influence lives on
How did Mary Slessor, a petite redhead from the slums of
Dundee, Scotland, become a role model for others, even today?
How did she come to wield such influence in the land known to
her compatriots as the white man's grave? How did she fit into
the British Empire's plan to "civilize" Nigeria? A study of Slessor's
life reveals certain factors leading to a missionary fervor, combined
with a large measure of down-to-earth common sense.
Through the trying circumstances of her youth, she learned to
face and overcome difficult situations in ways that often challenged
the mission methods and attitudes of her era.
The Mission at Calabar
In 1841 Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving
with the Scottish Presbyterian mission in Jamaica, received a
copy of Sir T. Fowell Buxton's book The Slave Trade and Its Remedy.
The author proclaimed that God would inspire men from the
West Indies to return to their African homeland with the Gospel
of Jesus Christ. Buxton's book spurred Waddell to urge colleagues
and congregants to seek to establish a mission in Africa.
Slaves had been freed in Jamaica in 1833, and Waddell and other
missionaries had a strong ministry among the people there.
The synod in Jamaica sent Waddell as their representative to
the Foreign Mission Board in Edinburgh to plead for permission
to go to Calabar, near the southeastern coast of present-day
Nigeria. At first the society denied the request, but the persistence
of the Jamaican group paid off, and in 1846 the first
contingent of missionaries finally reached Calabar. The mission
saw some successes, but for years mission stations remained for
the most part clustered around the coastal villages near the
mouths of the Cross and Calabar Rivers.
By the time of Mary's birth in 1848, her mother (also Mary
Slessor), like hundreds of other Scottish Presbyterians, eagerly
read each issue of the Missionary Record. The United Presbyterian
Church (later United Free Church of Scotland) published this
monthly magazine to inform members of missionary comings
and goings, progress, problems, and needs. The exploits of the
famous missionary explorer David Livingstone, as well as those
serving in Calabar and elsewhere, enthralled Mrs. Slessor, and
she communicated her enthusiasm for missions to her children.
Mary's childhood had a dark side in the person of her
alcoholic father, Robert. In 1859 he moved the family from
Aberdeen to Dundee, hoping for a change. He worked briefly as
a shoemaker, then in one of the city's textile mills, but he soon was
laid off and then reverted to his old lifestyle.
Mary's mother was already a skilled weaver and began work in one of the mills to help support the family. By the time
she was eleven, Mary also went to work in the mill. Like many
others around them, the Slessors lived in the slums and knew the
meaning of hunger. Before long, Mary's father and both her
brothers died, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two
David Livingstone, missionary hero of the day, had urged fellow
Christians not to let die the fire of opening Africa to Christianity.
Slessor responded to this call. She read everything she could lay
hands on, including the works of Milton, Carlyle, and others. She
became an eager student of the Bible and was convinced she must
give herself to God's service. As later years were to show, once
she felt certain of God's leading on any matter, nothing kept her
from following through. This admirable characteristic sometimes
put her at odds with coworkers and the mission board.
Slessor's life, apart from twelve-hour workdays, revolved
around the church. As a teenager, she began teaching Sunday
school and working with a youth club. On Saturdays she often
led her group on outings-running races with them, climbing
trees, hiking up her skirts when necessary. Her usually docile
attitude gave way to exasperation when she learned that some of
the church elders disapproved of such behavior.
Her notes for a lesson she taught at Wishart Church in 1874
contain an urgent plea which is also an unwitting foretelling of
her own life story.
Thank God! For such men & women here & everywhere, who in
the face of scorn, & persecution . . . dare to stand firmly & fearlessly
for their Master. Their commission is today what it was yesterday.
'Go ye into all the world, & preach the Gospel to every creature.'
. . . not the nice easy places only, but the dark places, the distant
places . . . to the low as well as the high, the poor as well as the rich,
the ignorant as well as the learned, the degraded as well as the
refined, to those who will mock as well as to those who will receive
us, to those who will hate as well as to those who will love us.
She answered her own challenge to go when news reached
Britain of Livingstone's death in 1874.
The Foreign Mission Board agreed to send Slessor to Calabar
as a teacher upon completion of a three-month training course in
Edinburgh. She wrote in later years that the training would have
been more beneficial had it been "more practical." Whatever the
training, it surely did not include house-building and concretemaking,
chores she found herself involved in through the years.
At the same time Slessor continued to be a serious student and
teacher of the Bible in Africa. She came to exemplify the truth set
forth by missions historian Andrew Walls that missionaries "set
themselves to intellectual effort and acquired learning skills far
beyond anything which would have been required of them in
their ordinary run of life."
Arrival at Calabar
Slessor embarked for Calabar on August 6, 1876, and in September
set foot on African soil at Duke Town, forty miles inland up
the Calabar River estuary. Neither the oppressive tropical climate nor the innumerable insects or wild animals
could dampen her high hopes, wonder, and enthusiasm.
She admired her teacher, longtime missionary
Mrs. Euphemia Sutherland, whom she dutifully followed
around as she learned the business of being a
"female agent"--teaching, dispensing medications, and
making the rounds of the women's yards surrounding
Duke Town, mission headquarters in the greater Calabar
Slessor eagerly followed advice given her to make
the study of the Efik language her highest priority. She
was such an apt student of the language that she was
described by Africans as having an Efik mouth.
During her first years in Calabar Slessor began to
understand the religious beliefs of the people, their
social relationships, their laws and customs (especially
as represented by the governing Ekpe fraternity), and
the problems presented by polygamy, slavery, and
drunkenness. She abhorred the practices of twin-murder
and the sacrifice of wives and slaves upon the death
of a chief. She began to make elevating the status of
women one of her priorities. Her eccentricities and
headstrong personality became more evident as she
broke tradition by shedding her Victorian petticoats
and climbing trees. She marched bareheaded and barefoot
through the jungle and declined to filter her water--habits
she maintained for years.
Within three years Slessor, now thirty years old, was ill and
homesick. Frequent attacks of fever sidelined her, and she suffered
from the harmattan, the dusty Saharan wind that blew
during the dry season and consumed her energy. She went home
to Scotland, but after a stay of a little over a year, she returned to
Slessor had begged to go to a different station and was
delighted to find she was assigned to Old Town, a few miles up
the Calabar River. Here she was freer to go her own way, though
in theory she remained under the supervision of Duke Town. She
found that by living like an African (tea was the only European
nicety she allowed herself), she could now live more cheaply and
send more of her small salary home to care for her mother and
sisters. Responsible for several outstations, she trekked miles
through the jungle to conduct Sunday services, telling everyone
she met about the Savior of the world sent by the one true and
For years missionaries had rushed to rescue twins or orphaned
babies before they could be killed. Slessor herself became
a champion baby-saver. One of her earliest twin adoptees, Jane,
lived with her until Slessor's death more than thirty years later.
From then on, her African household always included babies
and young children. Eventually, she raised six girls and two boys
as her own.
As early as 1882 Slessor began to explore along the river. She
sometimes stayed away for days at a time, visiting different
villages, meeting the people, listening to their stories of hardship
and sorrow, carrying medicine to treat their illnesses, and preaching
informally. The people responded with affection to her open
acceptance of them and her mastery of their language. She began
to travel further afield in response to appeals from village chiefs.
In Ibaka, thirty miles downstream, people came from miles
around to see the white Ma (an honorific term similar to Madam,
often applied to a mother figure). She dispensed medicines,
worked with the women, and held morning and evening services
daily for two weeks.
In 1883 Slessor returned to Scotland, sick again, with baby
Janie in tow. The child was a great attraction in the churches and
homes visited. The furlough extended to two and a half years,
with one delay after another. Finally, Slessor left her mother and
younger sister in the care of a friend and returned to Calabar in
1885, this time to Creek Town, across the river and farther inland
from Duke Town.
She served with other missionaries in Creek Town but
longed to move on to new territory. She had told the Calabar
Mission Committee of her desire to go to the people of Okoyong
even before her first furlough. When both her mother and her
remaining sister died by early 1886, she had no more family ties
to Scotland. She mourned--then looked toward the move she felt
God called her to. She said, "I am ready to go anywhere, provided
it be forward."
Mission representatives had visited Okoyong territory numerous
times but found no welcome there. Fearsome reports of guns
and drunkenness, trial by ordeal with poison beans, human
sacrifice, cannibalism, and skulls on display circulated about the
people and the territory--between the Cross and Calabar rivers,
about thirty miles from Duke Town. Understandably, the mission
committee in Calabar was not enthusiastic about sending a
lone woman into such danger, but finally at the end of 1886 they
approved her request. Then ensued more than a year of negotiations
with Okoyong chiefs. Slessor finally took matters into her
own hands in June 1888 and went alone to finalize arrangements
for her move. "I had often a lump in my throat," she admitted,
"and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly
Slessor trekked four miles inland from the Calabar River to
Ekenge, where she met Chief Edem and his sister, Ma Eme, and
received a promise of land for her house. Thus began fifteen years
of service to a people who sometimes loathed her but more often
loved her. Ma Eme became Slessor's friend and often aided the
white Ma in rescuing babies, women, and slaves, though she did
not become a Christian through the years, as Slessor had so
Mary considered Okoyong territory home, first in Ekenge,
then in Akpap a few miles away, where the people moved when
farmland soils were depleted. It was here that stories of her
reckless bravado in dealing with dangerous situations grew and
spread throughout neighboring districts. Chiefs and slaves alike
came to believe that the white Ma had a special magic of her own.
Here, too, many of her personal encounters with other white men
and women-missionaries, military men, and popular Victorian
traveler Mary Kingsley--were recorded. Kingsley, who called
Slessor a "veritable white chief over the entire [Okoyong] district,"
observed, "Her great abilities, both physical and intellectual,
have given her among the savage tribe an unique position,
and won her, from white and black who know her, a profound
esteem . . . and the amount of good she has done, no man can fully
estimate. . . . [Okoyong] was given, as most of the surrounding
districts still are, to killing at funerals, ordeal by poison, and
perpetual internecine wars. Many of these evil customs she has
In 1890, while Slessor recuperated back in Duke Town from
fever, she met a new missionary teacher, Charles Morrison,
eighteen years her junior. He was attracted to her both by her
reputation and by the fact that they both enjoyed literature and
poetry. How the couple kept their deepening friendship out of
the limelight in Calabar is hard to fathom. The relationship is not
mentioned in other missionary correspondence, but when Slessor
returned to Scotland for furlough in 1891, she appeared wearing
an engagement ring. She had agreed to marry Morrison on the
condition that the Foreign Mission Board approve his going to
join her in Ekenge. It did not.
For Slessor there was never any thought that she would
leave the ministry to which God had called her or abandon her
assurance that she was to keep moving forward, so the engagement
was off. She left no written record of her relationship with
Morrison or her disappointment at being denied marriage.
In 1892 the British consul general, Major Claude MacDonald,
appointed Slessor vice consul of the Okoyong territory. She had
insisted that "her people" were not ready for a British court
system, so it was natural to hand the job officially to her, since she
was already doing it informally. She served several years, then
resigned over a disagreement with a new young district commissioner.
She resumed the same job again (now called vice president
of the native court) in 1905 and became well known for her
quick and fair, though often unconventional, judgments.
Arochuku lay up Enyong Creek, off the Cross River. The Aro
people purportedly continued slaving expeditions, taking of
skulls, and cannibalism. Accounts, even if exaggerated, by survivors
who had escaped from Arochuku were the last straw for the
British. In 1901 the Foreign Office decreed that "persuasion was
useless with these cannibals" and proceeded to attack and defeat
them. Though she may not have questioned the British military
intervention at Arochuku, the use of force was not Slessor's own
method of operation. She did take firm stands against the evils
she saw (and was known in later years to box the ears of unruly
men as if they were naughty children), but she always sought to
win people by telling of, and demonstrating, the great love of
No sooner had the military conquest ended than Slessor
determined to move up Enyong Creek into Aro country. She told
the missions committee that it was time for an ordained missionary
to come to Akpap and build up the church for Okoyong so she
could move on. (By now she was telling the Foreign Mission
Board what she expected to happen, not just making polite
requests.) Her fame preceded her arrival, and she began a new
work in 1904 at the village of Itu on the west bank of the Cross
River near the junction of Enyong Creek, the place that became
her headquarters for several years.
About this time Charles Partridge became district commissioner
of the Itu area, and he and Slessor began a long friendship.
His headquarters was twenty-five miles from Itu, so they often
had occasion to correspond. He saved her many letters to him
written from 1905 through 1914 and donated them to the city of
Dundee in 1950. In these letters we see Slessor's relationship with
someone outside the church whose friendship she valued highly.
Partridge wrote in his presentation of the letters, in which he
acknowledges his own agnosticism and his disdain for missionaries
in general: "I have had intercourse with many distinguished
people. . . . Of the women, I place first Mary Slessor,
whom you call 'the White Queen of Okoyong'! She was a very
remarkable woman. . . . Excepting Miss Slessor, I thoroughly
disapprove of all missionaries!"
Slessor wrote to Partridge about people they both knew-
British officers, local chiefs, missionaries, and others; she discussed
everything from legal cases she was handling to the
weather and insects. She shared much more with him than she
did with many mission coworkers.
Slessor took her beloved adopted son Dan with her on her
final furlough to Scotland in 1907. While there she wrote to
Partridge several times. On one occasion she responded to news
of an illness he had: "[T]hen comes your letter with its woeful tale
of sickness. . . . I ought to be preaching to you & telling you 'it
serves you right' for you are such an agnostic. & etc. etc. but I am
too sorry to indulge in this. . . . Have you good reading? It is such
a good help to keep off nervousness & weariness to have a good
book, & someone to read with."
When she returned to Africa, the plucky trailblazer continued
to move forward, "just to take hold," and she spent the last
four years of her life itinerating between Use Ikot Oku and Ikpe,
twenty miles apart on Enyong Creek, a long and difficult trek
before roads were built. Much of that time she was deathly ill, but
always she rallied, even crawling to Sabbath services when
necessary, determined to carry out the commission she was
convinced was hers. In each new place she faced the same
problems she had contended with at previous stations.
In 1913 Mary Slessor received an award from the British
government. She was elected an Honorary Associate of the Order
of Saint John of Jerusalem. When she actually received the medal,
she was most embarrassed. In keeping with her character, she
accepted it on behalf of all the missionaries who served in
Slessor's last letter to Partridge was written on Christmas
Eve 1914. She confided that she did not much care whether or not she survived her "long illness." She was depressed by the
deaths of two friends and by the news of the war in Europe. Less
than a month later, she died.
Mary Slessor's stubborn drive to open new territory to education
and the presentation of the gospel message stands as a prime
example of what Ogbu Kalu, Nigerian church historian and
professor of world Christianity and mission at McCormick Theological
Seminary, Chicago, refers to as "a broader view of the
style and vision of the [missionary] enterprise." He states, "Her
vision was much broader and more activist than her compatriots
Slessor demonstrated her social activism in a number of
ways: her persistent rescue of twins and orphans, in some cases
adopting and raising the children as her own; her determination
to make life better for women in general, especially in setting up
vocational training schools for them; her use of the "each one
teach one" principle later espoused by Frank Laubach and other
modern literacy proponents (she would send a couple of boys
who had learned to read into a village that had invited her to
come, and they would teach not only reading but also what they
knew of the Bible); and her participation in settling disputes,
whether as an agent of the British government or on an informal,
personal basis. She brought a semblance of order to communities
in a time of social and political upheaval.
Kalu says, "Slessor represents [a] genre of missionary presence
which rejected the social and spatial boundaries created by
the 'ark syndrome' in missionary attitude." In Calabar she was
a catalyst that challenged the mission to change emphasis, to
become a sending body rather than a mostly stationary body, a
practice the mission's converts had been urging for some years.
She garnered support from younger mission colleagues, in addition
to being admired by British colonial personnel and the
people of the districts where she lived and worked.
Mary Slessor's importance in the history of the development
of the church in Africa cannot be denied. She is remembered--by
some, venerated--in both Scotland and southeastern Nigeria. In
2000 she was chosen one of the millennium persons of Calabar,
the place she began her witness. She is honored in the area with
statues, each a likeness of Slessor holding twin babies. A hospital
and schools are named for her. In Scotland a ten-pound note
bears her picture. Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at her grave in
Calabar in 1956. The museum in Dundee displays stained glass
windows that depict events from her life. Slessor herself would
have shunned such goings-on. Regardless, she left a trail of
churches and schools, a host of people who admired her deeply--and many who still do.
1. Slessor Notebook, 1874, Dundee Museum, DUNMG/MSColl, 1984-
2. James Buchan, The Expendable Mary Slessor (New York: Seabury
Press, 1981), p. 25.
3. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History:
Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books,
1996), p. 172.
4. W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar (London: Hodder &
Stoughton, 1916), p. 55.
5. Buchan, Expendable Mary Slessor, p. 84.
6. Mary H. Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988;
originally published 1897), p. 74.
7. Buchan, Expendable Mary Slessor, p. 168.
8. Charles Partridge, "Letter [to Dundee]," August 24, 1950, Dundee
9. Mary Slessor, "Letter [to Partridge]," October 3, 1907, Dundee
10. Ogbu Kalu, "Personal Correspondence [E-mail to author]," February
Dundee Art Galleries and Museum DUNMG/MSColl
"Diaries," 1911 and 1914 (1956-16(a-b)).
"Notebook," 1874 (1984-258).
Personal Bibles (with handwritten commentaries), 1910 and
undated (1984-257; 1953-6(c)).
"Personal Letters [misc.]," 1877-1914 (1986-396; 1986-397(1-2);
1998-102; 1984-259(1-5); 1980-510).
Dundee Central Library, Local Studies Department
"Letters [to Charles Partridge]," 1905-14.
"The Prodigal Son [in Efik]," voice recording. Recorded by Charles
Partridge in Nigeria; ca. 1905.
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
"Personal Letters [misc.]," 1884-1914 (Acc 5239/1; 6825/15).
"Personal Reports," Missionary Record of the United Presbyterian
Church of Scotland [title varies], 1875-1915.
University of Edinburgh Main Library, Department of Special Collections
"Letter [to Agnes Young]," February 24, 1913.
Works About Mary Slessor
Of numerous biographies the most useful for study are:
Buchan, James. The Expendable Mary Slessor. New York: Seabury, 1981.
Christian, Carol, and Gladys Plummer. God and One Redhead. London:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.
Livingstone, W. P. Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary. London:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Significant information on the Scottish Presbyterian mission work in
Calabar or on Mary Slessor appears in:
Hudson, J. Harrison, Thomas W. Jarvie, and Jock Stein. Let the Fire Burn:
A Study of R. M. McCheyne, Robert Annan, and Mary Slessor. Dundee:
Handsel Publications, 1978, pp. 42-65.
Johnston, Geoffrey. Of God and Maxim Guns: Presbyterianism in Nigeria,
1846-1966. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier Univ. Press, 1988.
Kalu, Ogbu, ed. A Century and a Half of Presbyterian Witness in Nigeria,
1846-1996. Lagos: Ida-Ivory Press, 1996.
Luke, James. Pioneering in Mary Slessor Country. London: Epworth, 1929.
McFarlan, Donald M. Calabar: The Church of Scotland Mission, 1846-1946.
London: Thomas Nelson, 1946.
Proctor, J. H. "Serving God and Empire: Mary Slessor in South-Eastern
Nigeria, 1876-1915." Journal of Religion in Africa 30, no. 1 (2000): 45-61.
Taylor, W. H. "Mary Slessor (1848-1915), Pedagogue Extraordinary."
Scottish Education Review 25, no. 2 (1993): 109-22.
Taylor, W. H. Mission to Educate: A History of the Educational Work of the
Scottish Presbyterian Mission in East Nigeria, 1846-1960. Leiden: Brill,
This article is reprinted from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 2002, vol. 6, No. 24, by permission of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, New
Haven, Conn. For details visit www.OMSC.org. All rights reserved.