By Effanga Peter Essien aka Ette Ibibio


I would like to share with you the story of an important figure in the history of missionaries. She is one of the strongest female missionaries remembered to date. This remarkable woman was named Mary Mitchell Slessor. I am thankful for her beneficent and laudable endeavors during her lifetime towards a total suppression of the culture and habit of killing of  twins in the region of my birth.


Mary and her family


Mary Slessor was born on December 2, 1848 in Gilcomston, close to Aberdeen, Scotland. The second of seven children, only four of whom survived childhood, her father was Mr. Robert Slessor. He was originally from Buchan and a shoemaker by trade. Mr. Robert had his own personal problems, mostly with alcohol, which deeply affected his whole family. In 1859, he moved his family to Dundee in search of cure for his habit and new life for his family. Robert Slessor was unable to keep up with his profession, he took up a job as an employee in one of the city's textile mills, but he soon was laid off and then reverted to his old lifestyle. He died shortly of pneumonia.

Mary's mother was already a skilled weaver and began to work in one of the mills to help support the family, she was from Old Meldrum,  an only child who had been brought up in a home of refinement and devoutness. She was described by those who knew her as a sweet-faced woman, patient, gentle, and retiring, with a deeply religious character. It was from her, however, that Mary got her soft voice and loving heart.  Mrs.Slessor left the factory, and for a time kept a little shop in which Mary used to help, especially on Saturday afternoons and weekday evenings when trade was busiest.
Mrs .Slessor became a member of the United Presbyterian Church of Wishart, named after the nearby Wishart Arch from which Protestant martyr George Wishart had reputedly preached to plague victims during the epidemic of 1544.The church had sent out many brave people to various parts of the world to preach the gospel of Christ, and a new Mission had just begun among heathen in a wild country called Calabar in West Africa. She used to read each issue of the Missionary Record, a monthly magazine published by The United Presbyterian Church to inform members of missionary activities and needs. Mrs.Slessor  took a great interest in all she heard on Sundays about the dark lands beyond the seas where millions of people had never heard of Jesus.
Those lovely and excited story’s from the monthly magazine was a big mechanism that must have triggered Mary’s mother to open her heart towards Christianity, mission activities and humanity. She had a deep interest in missionary work in the Calabar region of Nigeria, for instant, she whole heartedly  supported her eldest son Robert towards mission endeavours as a missionary to Calabar. When Mary was 25 years old, her brother, Robert died at a young age, this was a big lost to Mrs Slessor as well as the whole family.
Mary now wondered if perhaps she could go to Calabar in place of her late brother, but there was a problem, at the time, missions work was mainly for men, so she was encouraged to get involved with home missions. Remarkably, Mrs Slessor lived and saw her dream come true in her beautiful, red headed Mary. Even at a time when missions work was mainly  and strictly for men,


Early age


At the age of eleven, Mary Slessor worked as a "half timer" in the Baxter Brothers' Mill. She spent half of her day at a school provided by the mill owners, and the other half working for the company. She worked and studied hard for mission duty and doctrines. Mary was very sorry for those helpless bush-children, and often thought about them. She dreamed often of going out some day to that terrible land and saving the lives of twins.
Life of a missionary preacher was always very exciting to Mary just as that of a Scottish boy named William Anderson, who years before use to pass the hours at his job tending animals and reading the Bible cover to cover in his teenage years, he was always daydreaming about the exciting life of a missionary preacher just as Mary. Mary in her later life happened to live in Duke Town on Mission Hill with the same Anderson's, whom she affectionately called Daddy and Mama.

Clearly in the nineteenth century, missionaries were no gender egalitarians. Women were not easily allowed to be ordained as ministers, but becoming a missionary teacher was a praiseworthy outlet for a woman’s religious enthusiasm. Mary found joy and satisfaction in Christianity.In reality, religion, education, and the British empires gave women a new avenue to much social respectability.
By the age of fourteen Mary had become a skilled jute worker. She was often up before 5 a.m. to do the housework before heading to worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.with just an hour for breakfast and lunch. She used to read every book she could lay hands on including the works of Milton and Carlyle. I wonder if Mary had the opportunity to read about the story of Rev. Samuel Edgerley, who witnessed the destruction of Old Town in Calabar while on board the H.M.S. Antelope from the ships guns shots, tearing through homes and the community buildings of the same town that later became her home.


Calabar and the Mission Station


David Livingstone, missionary hero of the day, had urged fellow Christians not to let die the fire of opening Africa to Christianity. When Mary heard that David Livingstone had died, she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Mary worked till the age of 28 in the Scottish industry before she applied to the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church, offering her life to the people of the Calabar region, as a missionary teacher. Eventually, After a brief period of a three months training in Edinburgh, she was finally offered the permission to go on the mission to Old Calabar.
At 29 years of age, with red hair and bright blue eyes shining in enthusiasm, wondering about the daunting task ahead, Mary set sail in the S.S. Ethiopia on 5th of August 1876 heading to Old Calabar mission. She was dismayed to find the ship loaded with hundreds of barrels of whiskey. Remembering how alcohol had ruined her own family, she frowned, “Scores of barrels of whisky,” she muttered, “and only one missionary”. Overwhelmed by the enormous accounts of strange and terrifying work ahead in Nigeria as outlined in the "Missionary Records" during her training, Mary doubted her own ability sometimes, teasing herself as "wee and thin and not very strong" to perform similar deeds. She arrived at her destination in just over a month later. At her arrival, some of the old hands in her mission in Calabar might have been excused for questioning whether she would last her first full year.

Origin of Old Calabar Mission

The incentive of the mission to the Old Calabar came through the horrific grief,  pains and extreme suffering of the Jamaican Christians slaves of Calabar descendants. They wished that God could one day send missionaries with the messages of salvation to the people of their land of origin where they first lost their innocence and freedom in the first place, through kidnapping  and trading, in their own nature, into the barbaric and cruelty state of horror and slavery.
It was In 1841, that Hope Masterton Waddell, an Irish clergyman serving with the Scottish Presbyterian mission in Jamaica, received a copy of Sir T. Fowell Buxton's book “The Slave Trade and Its Remedy” where the author proclaimed that God would inspire men from the West Indies to return to their African homeland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But their prayers, the  Jamaican slaves, came to reality in 1844 when King EyoNsa II of Creek Town, Calabar, wrote to George Blyth requesting for missionaries to start western-style schools among the Efik people in old Calabar.
The newly formed Presbyterian Synod of Jamaica decided to send the Waddells and Jamesons to Old Calabar soon after receiving EyoNsa II’s invitation. The Presbyterian missionaries’ very excitement over the Efik king’s invitation at least partially stemmed from denominational rivalry.  The Methodists, Baptists, and even the Anglicans who had already made missions into West Africa from Jamaica finally arrive in Calabar in 1846. However there had been no previous missionary presence in Old Calabar.
By going to Old Calabar the United Free Church of Scotland which then became the Presbytery of Biafa in 1858 left a significant mark on the empire because they were evangelizing alone.  The missionaries’ purpose in travelling to the colonies was to evangelize and expand the Kingdom of God on Earth.
It could be argued that the Scottish Presbyterians did not become missionaries to participate in empire building, although they were intimately wrapped up in the larger civilizing project. They were motivated by scripture and a sense of Christian duty, it was to the Scots, a national pride, nourished by the opportunity to extend her independent church, educational system, and other aspects of her civil society into the Imperial territories, they demonstrating their zealous liberal, evangelical spirit that gave shape to both the British Empire itself and how Britons perceived the objectives of the empire in the nineteenth century. perhaps it may be said that without the Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, the British Empire would not have been justly British.
Presbyterianism was the only taste of Christian doctrine, worship style and church structure that the Efiks had in the mid nineteenth century. However Old Calabar did not yield the fruit that the Scottish Presbyterians had tasted in Jamaica.


Aberdeen to Calabar with guided moralities


To conduct evangelism in Old Calabar was difficult and a very dangerous process. Travelling in the area and communication with the people was an effort made against nature and man’s unfriendly environment. The natural environment and the people were very hostile, Killer elephants and lions, swarms of insects, witchdoctors and cannibals all lived and were intertwined. For the white people, entering such area meant suicide or death since the knowledge of Anopheles mosquito and its role as a host for the deadly malaria parasite was not known, diseases and infections were legion, this part of Africa was known as the White Man's Grave.
From the beginning, the missionaries struggled to educate and evangelize the locals, the mission saw some successes, but for years, mission stations remained for the most part assembled around the coastal villages near the mouths of the Cross and Calabar Rivers. Until the arrival of the Scottish iron lady ‘Mma Mary Slessor’ who came and broke the rules.