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Mary Slessor: The White Queen of Calabar

Mary Slessor: The White Queen of Calabar

Mary Mitchell Slessor (2 December 1848 – 13 January 1915) was a British Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria. Once in Nigeria, Slessor began teaching and learned Efik, the local language. 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 among the Ibibio people, an ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria.

Mary Slessor was born on 2 December 1848 in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, U.K. to a poor working-class family. 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 was a skilled weaver and went to work in the mills. 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.

                                                                                      Photo: Flikr/ Mary Slessor with rescued children

The Slessors lived in the slums of Dundee. Mary’s father and both brothers died of pneumonia, leaving behind only Mary, her mother, and two sisters. By age fourteen, Mary had become a skilled jute worker and worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with just an hour for breakfast and lunch.

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. Slessor developed an interest in religion and when a mission was instituted in Quarry Pend (close by the Wishart Church), she wanted to teach. 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.

                                                            Photo: Leisure & Culture Dunde/Marry Slessor with Ekenge people

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, and arrived at her destination in West Africa just over a month later.

Slessor, 28 years of age, red haired with bright blue eyes, 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. 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.

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.

The birth of twins was considered a particularly evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, 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 the bush. Slessor 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. 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.

                                                                                    Photo: Allnumis/ Marry Slessor

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.

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

Since this was over, Slessor returned to Calabar. 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.

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.”

Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training…

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