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Mary Slessor, Missionary

Posted in History, Religion on Monday, 16 April 2007

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Mary Slessor

Though the daughter of a shoemaker, Mary Slessor spent most of her life walking around barefoot as she tramped amongst the swamps and jungles along the banks of the Cross and Calabar rivers in Nigeria. It was part of a vast area which was known as the “white-man’s grave”.

Mary was born in Scotland, the eldest daughter of an often-drunk father and a frail, God-fearing, hard-working mother. From an early age, due mainly to her mother’s influence, she was devoted to the Church. She had a strong belief that she would be called by God to go out into the world to preach the gospel.

She listened to the horrific tales told by missionaries returning from the Calabar region. Tales of cannibalism, slavery and, the most horrible of all to Mary, that twins were an evil omen and, therefore, were destroyed at birth, their tiny bodies squashed in to clay pots and thrown away, and their mothers banished from the tribe.

Even so, when the call came — Mary was 24 at the time — it was to Calabar that she went. During the second half of the 19th century, Calabar was a large collection of mud-hut villages around the confluence of the Cross and Calabar rivers, some 80 kilometres from the coast, where they empty out into the Bight of Biafra. Vast tracts consisted of fever-ridden mangrove swamps criss-crossed by unexplored creeks which swarmed with evil-eyed crocodiles. The dense jungles bordering the creeks and swamps were full of dangerous wild animals. It was the land of the Efik tribe who acted as middle-men between the European traders on the coast and the warring Ekois and Ebo tribes in the hinterland.

No white man dared to venture into the country of these cannibal tribes. They were ruled by witchcraft and strong ju-ju worship. The tribes captured and traded in slaves, as they had done for hundreds of years before the arrival of white visitors. When the Europeans came to Africa in search of slaves, the Ekos and Ebos were only too willing to trade slaves for gin. A large number of these slaves were shipped to the American plantations from what is still often referred to as the “slave coast”. The tribes kept many slaves themselves. When a chief or other important person died, some of his slaves were buried alive with him to serve him in the next life. Slaves were sacrificed to appease the spirits and bring good luck. Life meant little to the slaves while death was but a brief transition from this world into the next. To reach the world of the spirits was the ambition of every slave; the short stay on this earth was of no consequence.

It was into this world of intense humid heat, tropical diseases, witchcraft, slavery, and cannibalism that an excited Mary stepped ashore from the steamer which had brought her from England to Africa in 1876. She was taken to the white mission house with its bell tower, on a nearby hill. Standing a little apart was the large white building of government offices over which flew the Union Jack.

At first Mary was given unimportant tasks at the mission, but it was not long before she won the confidence of everyone with her patience, hard work and captivating smile. Little by little she was given more responsible duties until she became a fully-fledged missionary.

It was now that she came face to face with the blackest custom of the tribes from the interior — the barbaric murder of twins. Though for a while Mary had to accept the custom, she was determined to stamp out the practice. It was a bold challenge indeed to be thrown out by a lone white woman in a hostile land.

Mary made the rescuing of twins one of her major tasks. In her home she was surrounded by many of these mites whom she had saved from death. One such infant girl, brought in by a trader, grew up to become her constant companion. She was named Little Jennie after Mary’s own dead sister. The door of her house was never closed to any newcomer. Determined to spread the Word of God far afield, this remarkable woman began to penetrate ever deeper and deeper into the dense jungles and to explore the interior. She began to penetrate the forests. Barefooted she plodded along the dark twisting jungle paths from village to village. By canoe she explored the crocodile and hippopotamus infested creeks and rivers; farther and farther she went, her fame preceding her from village to village. People came from far and near to hear the words of wisdom of this brave little white woman who had ventured into a country where no stranger, black or white, normally dared to go.

Mary Slessor carried no weapons, just patience and courage, but no threat of violence frightened her. African chiefs soon did as they were told. Her whiteness was a novelty to the natives and before long they began to bring her their troubles. She settled differences between chiefs and their wives. She became an arbitrator between warring factions. She appointed herself judge, saying that she would get the truth, replacing the inhuman practice of pouring boiling palm-oil on the victim until he or she confessed or died. So great did her influence become, not only in bringing the Word of God, but in bringing law and order, to the Okoyong province, that the government recognised her work and gave her its support.

Her amazing energy, endless drive and patience were the wonder of her associates. But she was getting older and the strain began to tell on her health. Still she did not give in, driving herself even harder, and the acquisition of a bicycle only encouraged her to venture further afield. Eventually the ruthless punishment she inflicted on her body took its toll. She died at the age of 66 on 13 January 1915.

7 comments on “Mary Slessor, Missionary”

  1. 1. paddington says:

    fantastic art!!! who is the artist?

  2. 2. Steve says:

    The artist is Roger Payne.

    If you click on the artwork it will take you through to the Picture Gallery where you can find more details about the artwork including — where we know — the name of the illustrator.

  3. 3. paddington says:

    what else can you tell us about the artist roger payne? has he ever been interviewed?

  4. 4. Steve says:

    Roger Payne is still alive and well. I interviewed him when I was putting together the history of Look and Learn. A forum, where we can run interviews and the like, is already being planned and Roger is someone I’d like to cover. If anyone has other suggestions for interviews, just let us know.

  5. 5. countrybumpkin says:

    I think it would be a good idea to put the date of the original article somewhere in these blog postings.

  6. 6. The Publisher says:

    This article originally appeared in issue 1022 (10 October 1981) of Look and Learn. We didn’t know this when originally preparing the data for the Picture Library. However, generally, if you click on the main picture in the blog entries, you will be taken through to the Picture Library, which will give the date of original publication of the picture/article. I should perhaps add that we are revising articles slightly before adding them to the blog.

  7. 7. OliverT says:

    Looking at contemporary pictures of Mary Slessor on Google Images, it seems that Roger Payne has done a pretty good job (vs recent pulp-book illustrators who have tended to play up her red hair). Jungle is also pretty realistic, don’t you think?

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