Mary Slessor and Africa

On this day in 1915 one of Scotland’s most famous missionaries, Mary Slessor, died. Her portrait is widely circulated thanks to it being used on the Scottish £10 note issued by the Clydesdale Bank (with a map of Calabar in Nigeria and African missionary scenes on the reverse). As MacKenzie has observed, Slessor is ‘often depicted as one of the principal heroines of missionary endeavour in Africa’, but in public perception she tends to be overshadowed by male missionaries, particularly David Livingstone. Mary was one of a significant number of female missionaries actively engaged overseas, many of whom were supported by societies such as the Greenock Ladies’ Overseas Missionary Association.

Born in early December 1848 near Aberdeen, the Slessor family relocated to Dundee when Mary was still young. It was in that city that Mary spent her days working in a mill as well as attending the mill’s school. Mary soon became a skilled jute worker. It was through her mother, a devout Presbyterian, that Mary learned to appreciate her religion; she soon became involved in the church in her local area, volunteering as a teacher.

Inspired by David Livingstone, Mary developed an interest in foreign missions. She applied to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church and, after being trained for foreign service in Edinburgh, made her way to West Africa on the S.S. Ethiopia on 5 August 1876 aged 28. For the rest of her life Mary devoted herself to working in Africa – though illness (malaria) saw her return to Scotland on several occasions.

The area that Mary worked in was Calabar, a region, where witchcraft and superstition were common. Mary sought to counter both, particularly the ritual sacrifice of children, especially twins, which was a local custom. Later in her life the moved to Okoyong. Mary lived a simple life close to the people, learning to speak the native language (Efik) andadopting children. She also was keen to improve the lives of women.  Slessor stood out partly because of the esteem in which she was held in Africa – which is also reflected in her funeral: when Slessor died at her station in Africa, her body was transported from where she had died down the river to Duke Town for what came close to a state funeral.

If you are interested in learning more about Mary, have a look at this documentary from the 1960s. If you are interested in the history of Scottish missionaries, also check out my post on The Legacy of David Livingstone.

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