Mary Slessor (centre) and some of her charges
Mary was born in Aberdeen and moved to Dundee in her pre-teens when her dad was looking for work. Times were tough in 1859 so young Mary had to work as a labourer at a jute mill. Luckily she worked only half of each day, and attended the mill school run by the company for the rest. Old Mrs Slessor was deeply religious and it was not surprising when young Mary followed her mother’s values.
Mary joined a local mission teaching the poor and decided to dedicate her life to Spreading The Word for the Presbyterian Church. She was trained up at the Foreign Mission Board in Edinburgh and was shipped out to Africa in 1876. I was particularly impressed that she learned to speak Efik, the language of the Calabar people, and in time mastered it. Most of us struggle learning French and German in school, relatively easy languages in comparison with Efik.
Calabar region of Nigeria
Mary Slessor went to live among the Efik people in Calabar, now in Nigeria (on the west coast of Africa). The colonial power, Britain, maintained control of the country. But Britain seemed to be more interested in the maintenance of trade for importers and exporters back home, rather than in the welfare of the Nigerians.
This White Queen of Calabar, as Mary became known, took huge risks. She successfully fought against the killing of twins at infancy, adopting them instead, banned the eating of human flesh and tried endlessly to improve the status of women. Most important from my point of view, Mary established hospitals for small pox patients and later made vaccinations available to the children.
In 1891 the British government set up a system of vice-consular justice in Calabar. Mary Slessor had established such an influence over the locals that consul-general Sir Claude Macdonald made her a vice-consul, the first woman to be so appointed in the British Empire. Justice was certainly done, though her court could be a little bit personalised and eccentric.
Mary Slessor Church in Calabar
In 1898, Mary Slessor returned to Scotland, touring the Edinburgh churches and talking endlessly about the horrors she had seen. Although slavery had been banned by the British in the Nigerian Protectorate in 1848, well before Mary’s missionary work started, she still moved Scottish worshippers to tears with tales of slave markets and cannibalism fifty years later.
It is said that the land and people of Calabar were changed by her heroic efforts. I am certain that her legacy IS remembered in Scotland because I have read all the reviews of her life. But it is also said that she is fondly remembered in Nigeria as The White Queen of Calabar or Mother of All the Peoples. I haven’t read any African reviews of her work, but I do know that when she died in Nigeria in 1915, Mary given a state burial. She had spent 39 years there.
Ten pound note with Slessor's portrait
The Mary Slessor Journal of Medicine is an official publication of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital in Nigeria. The University of Calabar Teaching Hospital is housed in the former Saint Margaret Hospital in Calabar, a health care facility established in 1897 as the first centre of secondary health care in Nigeria. Mary's grave still stands on a hill some 200 metres from this teaching hospital.
It actually took some time before Britain recognised her contribution. Mary was the first woman to appear on a Scottish Clydesdale Bank ten pound note, in 1998; her portrait appears on the obverse of the £10 note, replacing David Livingstone’s. On the reverse, Slessor is depicted holding children in her arms alongside a map of Nigeria.
Slessor with some of her adopted children