Mary Slessor was born December 2, 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her father was a shoemaker but also an alcoholic. In an attempt to start a new life, they moved to Dundee where her father obtained work in the mills. Her mother was a weaver. In the 1840s, Scotland was undergoing great changes as steam powered looms began to overtake the cottage industries. Crops were poor for several years and families were moving into the cities to find work. The cities were squalid, unsanitary places with families crammed into one-room houses called “single-ends.” Mary Slessor was ten years old.
When she was eleven, this small child began working in the mills as a “half-timer.” She would begin working at 6 a.m. and would finish at 11 a.m. Then, it was school from noon to 6 p.m. It was a difficult world, but one that provided Mary the ability to later cope with the forests of Africa. If you could survive the slums of Dundee in the 1840s, you could survive anything. Today, Dundee is a beautiful city with a great university.
Her mother was a very religious person and would read the children missionary stories from “The Missionary Record.” She encouraged the children to play as missionaries teaching African children. They attended the United Presbyterian Church. During her teen years, Mary Slessor by her own admission was rather wild and, of course, to survive in the mills one had to be tough. By now, she worked full time and attended school at night. Her hero was David Livingston a pioneer medical missionary, explorer, and anti-slavery crusader. Livingston was born in the mill town of Blantyre, Scotland, March 19, 1813.
Mr. James Logie was a leader in Mary’s local Presbyterian kirk and he began to loan Mary books, and his wife began to teach her proper manners and speech. By 20, she was teaching Sunday school, running youth clubs and helping women with large families. She was described as “an angel of mercy in miserable homes.” In 1875, Mary Slessor applied to join the missionary society. She was accepted and arrived in the town of Calabar (now located in Nigeria) a year later.
Mary was uncomfortable with the protocol of the mission station and felt herself of lower class. She found the uniform not to her liking - white blouse, black skirt, petticoats, stockings, helmet and boots. She wanted to work among the common people who spoke the language known as Efik. At the mission house she was not an African and her desire was to become one of the natives, living as they lived.
By 1880, she had abandoned the prescribed dress for missionaries and began to wear cotton dresses and canvas shoes. She was eating native food, drinking water from the river and several times nearly died of malaria. Her parents and last remaining sister died, and Mary was traveling deeper and deeper into the forests with her medicine chest and food locker. She would travel barefoot like the natives and soon the native women were wearing cotton dresses like Mary.
Sometimes the tribes brought Mary back to Duke Town for medical treatments and on one of those journey she met Charles Morrision. He was described as delicate, sensitive and a loner, like Mary. He wrote poetry and was working on a novel. They both loved books and it is said he would often go to the hospital and read to her. He proposed and she accepted, but in 1892, he was sent back to England for his health. Mary Slessor refused to leave her work, which was now her life. They said goodbye and a year later Mary heard that he had died.
In 1891, the British set up a system of vice-consular justice in Calabar. Mary Slessor was made a consul-general and was the first woman appointed to a position like this in the history of the British Empire. As a result of her preaching, changes began to take place. Human sacrifices stopped at funerals. Schools were started and churches established. In time, tribal chiefs from as far away as 100 miles were coming to Mary for advice on how to handle the British occupation. The government was asking Mary how to deal with the natives. In the forest, tribes were amazed to see this barefoot white woman with red hair traveling with a group of orphans whose lives she had saved. For the next 23 years, she traveled deeper into the forests preaching her message. By 1905, at the age of 57, she could no longer walk and was pulled along in a cart by her orphan children. The people of Scotland had raised the money and sent the cart.
In January of 1915, Mary Slessor, now 66 years of age, died in a mud hut surrounded by only what she and her orphans could carry. Among the treasures was a book where she and Charles Morrison had signed their names side by side. In her pocket was one of his poems. She was given a State funeral and buried in the mission cemetery at Duke Town.
When Queen Elizabeth II first visited Calabar, at her own request, she laid a wreath on Mary Slessor’s grave. The Aro Tribe gave her the name by which she was known throughout the West Coast of Africa: Eka Kpukpro Owo, “Mother of All The Peoples.”
Books have been written about Mary Slessor and this is just one page. I encourage you to read more about her amazing life. You can also find information on the Internet.
Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club of Chicago
The next History Club meeting is scheduled for May 5, 2012. If you have a birthday in May come celebrate with us at our meeting. More announcements shortly.