07 June 2011

Mary Slessor - a religious feminist in Victorian Nigeria

I would not, I think, choose a woman missionary worker as a role model for young women today, if religion was her only contribution to feminism. But Scottish missionary Mary Slessor (1848-1915) was different.

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


Hermes said...

Two points strike me. The sheer force of will that many poor people showed in educating themselves when all the odds were against them.

I'm not religious but whatever (current) views - missionaries like Mary don't receive recognition for the good they undoubtedly did.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
One cannot be but impressed by the unselfishness of people like Mary Slessor who, for whatever reason, were, and are, prepared to devote the major part of their lives to a cause which promotes the well being of others and which, through their work, enhances and enriches the lives of complete strangers.

Hels said...

agreed. One doesn't have to be anti-religious to see evangelising in Africa as part of European colonialisation.

Slessor was so busy with the education, health care and justice systems, she didn't have the time (or didn't see the need) for mass conversions of the locals.

I suspect the church found her a bit weird and a bit radical. Thus the lack of recognition till relatively recently.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance
spot on. She was heroic. She lived in the same flimsy huts as her village friends, and ate the same food. She risked infections all the time, and did suffer terribly from malaria. This was no mamby pamby European Miss Bountiful, helping the poor peasants for one weekend in her life.

Hermes said...

Just a little sideways but another poor (boy) becomes missionary. Cambridge UP are re-issuing David Livingstone's books:


Hels said...

there are remarkable similarities - Scottish, Victorian, sent to Africa as a missionary, having a strong interest in medicine, anti-slavery.

And isn't it interesting that Livingstone was not a seen as a success as a missionary because his numbers were low.

In particular I liked the line that his journal helped create the heroic myth of the dedicated missionary and anti-slavery campaigner, who seemed to validate Western colonial policies.

Of course we know that post-colonial interpretations of Victorian involvement in Africa are changing all the time. Still, not too many people would have seen Mary Slessor as pursuing Western colonialisation of Africa.

Hermes said...

Thank you Helen,
I've seen discussions where we should not have intervened in countries like India and Africa. In so many ways I agree but would I defend widow burning, slavery etc - of course not.

Livingston'e early life is remarkable:


I try not to think how some young people waste their priviliged lives.

student of history said...

Interesting woman. I can see some connections between Mary Slessor and Mary Mackillop. Two women, same time in history, same urge to leave home and work with struggling communities. It also seems they were not fully appreciated by their respective churches.

Hels said...

Hermes and student
Isn't it fascinating that Livingstone, Slessor and MacKillop might have been responding to similar impulses yet with very different outcomes. I love history!

Toyin O. said...

I remember the story of this woman when I was in secondary school in Nigeria; thanks for that history lesson.

Hels said...

thank you. You are almost an eye witness to history that is little told in European history books.

And your evidence indicates that Nigerian history classes still recognise the importance of Mary Slessor's contribution to the Calabar region 130 years later.

Janet said...

I just returned from a camp for teens where we trained them to share the good news about Jesus Christ with children. Our missionary story this summer is about Mary Slessor called "Run, Ma, Run!" Thank you for posting pictures and more information about this remarkable woman! She truly cared for the spiritual and other needs of the people of Calabar and beyond.

Hels said...


timing is everything :) There could be no better role model than Mary Slessor for modern teens who want to make a difference. I hope young women were particularly impressed.

Anonymous said...

I wish to thank you for your post on Miss Slessor, a strong woman to be admired and esteemed. Here is a little list of other women of faith who changed both their world and the lives of those around them; amazing individuals all.

Miss Carmichael in India working with orphans and child prostitution
Miss Hester Needham working with women in London and natives in Sumatra
Miss Gwen Elen Lewis working in the Cameroons and the Congo
Miss Irene Petrie working in Kashmir with women
Miss Mary Reed working with lepers in India
Miss Christina Forsyth who worked with the tribes of South Africa

Hels said...

many thanks for that. I will do some reading on the weekend.

Were you suggesting that Mary Slessor was part of a trend in Victorian times? British women of a certain class, religiosity and marital status would have been looking to make an important contribution, especially in remote countries?

I wonder if they knew of each other's work.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Calabar all my life and its amazing how Mary Slessor impacted Calabar for many generations after she died. The cross on her grave can be seen from a distance - it is enormous. Its a pity that her committment to medical care has not been emulated by the current medical doctors and government of Nigeria that are corrupt to the extent that the medical directors of the University of Calabar teaching hospital use funds to buy cars and line their pockets rather than equip the hospital to help the poor who cannot afford private hospital care

Hels said...


thank you so much for your comment. I can read the history books easily, but I cannot tell if a] the locals still feel strongly about Mary Slessor today or
b] if the locals feel she delivered a better quality of health care in the 19th century than do doctors in the 21st century.