To begin with, let us try
to imagine ourselves in the deep mysterious silence of an African jungle,
no roads, no wood paths, such as we know in Scotland, but we can follow
tracks made by animals, and now and then, but rarely, we can see the
intense blue of the sky beyond the trees, and a glint of the pitiless sun.
There is a river flowing not far from us, and we can just hear the sound
of the dip of paddles as a native canoe glides towards the village; we
hear too the rhythmic song of the paddlemen.
Presently we come upon the
village, a few huts made of bamboo and thatched with plantain leaves;
there are black children playing about, deep jet black, with close-curled
hair, and all, unclothed.
This is the true land of
the Negroes, that word being derived from the Latin, Niger, meaning black.
The country we are talking about is called Nigeria, for it is watered by
the mighty Niger river; the river which, centuries ago, even before the
birth of Christ, men had discovered, and called ‘The Nile of the Negroes,"
supposing it to be a branch of the Egyptian Nile. This land of Nigeria is
indeed the cradle of the negro race.
But Africa is a mighty
continent; let us look carefully on the map at this region, Nigeria. It is
but a tiny part of the mighty continent, though itself nearly as large in
area as Great Britain, France and Belgium put together.
It lies tucked away, as it
were, in the angle where North-western Africa juts out like a huge
shoulder from the trunk; the eastern boundary of Nigeria touches the curve
of the coast, as it sweeps southward past the Cameroon mountains.
Look also from that curve
westwards, and along the edge of the coast line you will see descriptive
words which sum up an old and terrible piece of history: ‘Gold Coast;
Ivory Coast; Slave Coast.’
For in the Middle Ages
there came hither from Mediterranean countries sailors who were seeking a
sea-way to India and the further East. Touching at various ports, they
discovered gradually the wealth which lay behind the swamps and jungles of
the coast; gold from inland gold mines; ivory, or ‘elephant’s teeth’, and
‘black ivory’, as was sometimes called the tragic merchandise, African
It was not only Portuguese
who first trafficked in those goods; our own John Hawkins of Plymouth in
1562 carried off 800 negroes from Sierra Leone to be sold at 40 pounds a
piece on the West Indian Islands. And the traffic went on, worked further
and further southwards and eastwards, till in that angle where Nigeria
lies, the Cross river and the Calabar river making a great estuary, there
grew up the densest market for this traffic in humanity. To the ports on
this estuary throngs of black men and women and children were driven along
forest paths; those who fell out by the way were left to die of hunger or
to be the prey of beasts, and even such a fact was more merciful than the
voyage oversea, where one-third of the number died of heat and thirst
before the journey’s end. Can we wonder that centuries of such traditions
had made fear the ruling factor in the life of these negroes? And
fear is the evil root from which spring cruelty and lying, suspicion, and
hideous ways of worshipping the ‘unknown gods’ whose wrath must at any
cost be appeased.
* * * * * *
Up the estuary of the Cross
and the Calabar rivers there passed one September day in 1876 a steamer
from Liverpool, the ‘Ethiopia’. There was on board her a certain woman
missionary, Mary Slessor by name, who had come to work with the ‘Scottish
United Presbyterian Mission’, established now for some thirty years at
Mary Slessor came from the
town of Dundee, where she had had a hard life. Being the eldest of five
children she had looked after younger brothers and sisters while her
mother worked in a factory, and from the age of eleven she had been a
factory hand herself. The family was poor, for the father, once
respectable, had become a hopeless drunkard; not till after his death was
Mary free to follow her true line of interest, namely work among slum
children in evening schools and Sunday schools.
For there were bad slums in
most towns, then as now, and no public day schools to help on the
civilizing and disciplining of children who had little discipline at home.
So the work of these volunteer teachers was hindered by gangs of rough
lads who tried to frighten school-goers, both teachers and taught. Thus,
one evening as Mary Slessor went to the evening school, she suddenly found
herself the centre of a group of boys who were swinging a heavy weight
round the heads of passers-by. Mary stood still, unflinching and silent,
the weight swung nearer and nearer till it all but grazed her forehead.
‘She’s game, boys; let her go’, the leader shouted, and when she entered
the mission-room the crowd of boys followed her in, and sat quiet to hear
That incident sufficiently
paints one aspect of Mary’s character; if by ‘game’ we mean
self-controlled, though tremulous – wisely patient with the undisciplined
– then indeed Mary Slessor was ‘game’.
When, soon after this, she
felt herself less needed at home, her thoughts turned towards foreign
mission work; through the church she attended she heard of the crying
needs of Calabar, where there were not more than twelve white teachers
with some twenty native workers. So at the age of twenty-seven, she joined
this group of missionaries at Duke Town on the creek, and for some months
followed only the routine for newcomers, i.e. learning ‘Efik’ the
most useful of the native languages, teaching the native children, and
occasionally visiting outlying stations where she tried her hand at
speaking in Efik to large gatherings of men and women.
And so wise a person was
she that in all these early experiences she was aiming at knowledge of the
fundamental humanity of the people she wanted to help. Her mental attitude
towards her problems was not ‘What am I to do, or to say?’
but always ‘What do these people need, and why do they need it?’
After three years of this
life, she was brought so low by frequent attacks of fever that she
returned to Scotland for a holiday. Braced up by her native air, and the
restful voyages, she was back at Duke Town in the autumn of 1880.
Here, to her great joy, she
found herself promoted to what she called ‘being a real missionary’, her
next experience was the charge of the mission work at Old Town, farther up
the river and in the midst of very degraded people.
Let us watch her at work.
Imagine a hut with matted roof, walls of mud and wattle, and whitewashed
interior. Here Mary Slessor lives with one young native woman and several
girls and boys whom she is training. Her life in her home is of the
simplest, for her time is wholly absorbed in not only teaching but
perpetually giving advice and medical help to people of a wide district.
‘On Sabbath’, as her Scots
tongue phrases it, she is fully occupied: first, at a service, very early,
in the distant village, Qua; about 100 worshippers here: later, a service
at Akim; at mid-day a large Sunday school to be conducted at Old Town; and
in the evening, again at Old Town, a large meeting in the chief’s yard. ‘A
table covered with a white cloth; on this a Bible and a primitive lamp;
darkness amid which rows of dusky faces are just revealed by a flickering
Or, let us watch her on a
short visit to ‘Elephant Country’; a native chief has sent a state canoe
in which she lies under a curtain of matting, trying to read by
candlelight, till she falls asleep lulled by the rhythm of the native
voices and the sound of the paddles. On arrival she is carried ashore to a
chief’s hut where she is beset by crowds of women who sit as close to her
as possible by way of showing respect and friendliness. The heat, the
crowding, and the sounds from rats and lizards in the roof above make the
days bad enough, but the nights—terrible!
And, after her visit has
become known, crowds gather from distant villages, sick and wounded
persons—all who are in any trouble or distress—thronging round her for
advice and consolation. For wrong-doers ‘Ma’ must be judge; happily by
this time, she understands Efik standards and superstitions, and speaks
Efik more fluently and more intelligently than the natives themselves. So,
when a case arose of some girls who were condemned to be beaten with 100
lashes for a trivial breaking of a foolish law—Mary pleaded for them, at
first in vain. She blamed them for breaking the law, but far more strongly
those who would exact the cruel penalty. The lashes were given, but ten
stripes only; and then the poor girls ran to ‘Ma’, sobbing with pain and
fear and were soothed to rest by medicine and dressings to their wounds.
This is a typical scene of
‘Ma’s’ work in the ‘up-river country.’
And again her health gave
way and a return to Scotland was necessary. As before, she recovered, but
it was not till the end of 1885 that she was back at her post; soon after
this she heard from home of the death of her mother and of her one
remaining sister.... Only her dear black people to need her now!
She had been at work at the
Calabar Base for some twelve years when she began to feel the impulse to
go yet farther afield. She knew of inland districts where no white
missionary had as yet worked. In June 1888, with permission from the
authorities, she journeyed up the main stream, the Cross river, to explore
the terrible district called Okoyong. This was a tract of forest land
interspersed with cultivated patches and inhabited by a finer and stronger
race than the negroes of the coastal regions. Finer and stronger
physically, that is, but cruel, revengeful and passionately superstitious;
to them, human life was valueless, women mere chattels, all sickness and
death except from old age, due to sorcery—twin babies, things accurst and
only to be murdered—such were some of the problems facing a pioneer
As before, a friendly
chief, King Eyo of Creek Town, lent her his royal canoe in which she lay
in a curtained recess covered with palm leaves. On landing, she had to
travel on foot through the forest to a native village, where she was
welcomed with clamorous warmth, and received promises from the chiefs of
gifts of ground for home and school, with special conditions, insisted on
by her, that all land and building given to the mission should be held
sacred as harbours of refuge for accused and criminal persons.
Even so, we are reminded,
must the early preachers of Christianity in England have pleaded with our
Saxon forefathers for land where such protection should be looked on as
lawful. And so grew up the rights of sanctuary.
Then, Mary returned to
Creek Town, packed her belongings together with all that would be needed
for a new mission centre, and set off with her five native ‘children’,
up-river to Okoyong.
It was dusk when they
reached the landing-beach—-dusk and raining pitilessly. There were four
miles of dripping forest to be covered on foot to the village, Ekenge:
with her, one white man had come from the mission to help, but as he must
be left to superintend the unloading, and as the children’s rest and
shelter mattered most, ‘Ma’ set off alone with them—three boys of eleven,
eight and three, a girl of five and a baby girl on ‘Ma’s’ shoulders. And
as they trudged thus through dripping darkness ‘Ma’ sang to keep up their
spirits— probably her own were the most in need. She was not sorry,
probably, to find ‘the village’ departed wholesale to the funeral of their
chief; two slaves appeared, however, and helped her to get fire and
shelter so that the younger children were dried and comforted to sleep.
But before there could be any rest for ‘Ma’ she had been forced to return
to the landing-beach where the carriers were sleeping unperturbed, and
with the help of Mr. Bishop and the slaves from Ekenge, some stores of
food and clothing at last reached the village.
Thus began the new venture!
There being no house for
‘Ma’ at present, she was lodged in the harem, that is, among the
wives of the chief. She had indeed a room of her own, but the black
children she had brought shared this; it had been left dirty by the former
occupier, goats, fowls and cats wandered in and out, centipedes and
cockroaches were everywhere. A door was fixed by her request, and a sort
of window inserted, but ‘Ma’ was the centre of curiosity, and moreover, by
native African standards, a visitor should not be left alone.
So much for her personal
comfort! And this state of things lasted many weeks for, in spite of
promises to help in building her house, they could see no need for hurry;
‘there never is hurry in Africa’, it has been said; and when, at length, a
group of mud huts arose, with two rooms and a verandah, with a shed at
each end, this seemed a palace of peace, and cleanliness, and privacy
compared with her life in the harem. A mission hall arose not long after,
with willing contributions of materials and work from numberless black
folk, and thus the outward form of a settlement began. But the real
problems, the changes needed in customs, life and beliefs, these indeed
were matters for tougher, stubborner patience, for infinite courage and
wrestling and prayer.
Among all the original
problems of the primitive life of these people, there was another,
bitterer than all, the problem of drink; for this did not belong to
primitive life, but arose purely from trade with white men. Worst of all,
how could these childlike people understand why one set of white men
should sell them spirits, and another set of white men blame those who
As a chief had said to Mary
long ago at Duke Town, ‘What for white man bring rum, suppose them rum no
be good? He be god-man bring rum; then, what for god-man talk so?’ There’s
the difficulty, in a nut-shell!
Here are some scenes in
Mary’s most strenuous life.
Sitting in her verandah one
morning, a sound reaches her from the surrounding jungle; she starts,
listens, then quietly makes off in the direction of the sound, as an
animal might hasten to its young.
She finds a young man
injured, paralyzed indeed, by the fall of a log; a Scots carpenter,
working at a new house for her, discovers her and the patient, and
together they carry him back to his village. For two weeks she nurses him,
till his death. The chief, viewing the dead body, shouts ‘Sorcerers have
killed him! Bring the witch doctor!’ (It is like an awful travesty of a
The witch doctor arrives,
and decides that a certain village is guilty of the young man’s death;
from this, a dozen or so of men and women are brought prisoners to Ekenge,
loaded with chains.
Mary conceives the idea of
changing the people’s views by honouring the corpse; she dresses it
gaudily, places it in the midst of the crowd, every honour she can invent
around it; all that happens is a perfect orgy of dancing and drinking.
Meanwhile the prisoners are there, starving, while for days the orgy goes
on; the two brave Scots keeping watch alternately by day and by night lest
greater harm befall them. And day by day, Mary is pleading, pleading for
the lives of these prisoners – if only once the custom can be broken
through, she thinks, there will be hope of stopping it. At last, one woman
is led out to drink the poison cup; Mary seizes her and drags her away,
out of the circle, into her own house; it is sanctuary, the woman is safe;
the white ‘Ma’ cannot be touched.
And slowly, by twos and
threes, the prisoners were released, through days of strained watching and
pleading, and last of all, the rescued woman was allowed to slip out alone
into the forest. Thus the white ‘Ma’ had her way.
Not long after, when she
had prevented another death penalty, she realized the gratitude of these
fear-ridden folk, as one after another would come to her secretly to give
thanks for her teachings of mercy.
* * * * *
In 1890, Miss Slessor was
again ordered home, since fever was attacking her more and more
frequently. Two mission ladies were appointed to fill her place at Ekenge,
where by this time there was a real mission-house with plenty of space, a
church, a dispensary and a boat-house.
But at the very moment when
she was awaiting the steamer and packing her trunk, came news from a
far-off village that fighting was going to begin between tribes which she
knew. Her resolve was made; she could and would prevent it.
No warnings of danger to
herself, no arguments from her own helplessness availed. Taking two
attendants with lanterns, she walked all through the night, reaching the
first of the warlike villages at dawn; surrounded for a few minutes by
armed bands, she is presently recognized by the chief who leads them; they
cannot promise to keep the peace, but they say she may go with them to
plead between the two forces.
Soon they are off, and she,
after one hour’s rest, is after them, in response to the familiar call
from women-folk, ‘Run, Ma, run.’
She reaches the place where
fighting is about to begin—the air resounding with yells—and she, a white
woman alone in the midst of African tribes determined on war, she
determined on peace.... She speaks very much as a teacher might speak to
quarrelling children; no one else speaks, or moves; suddenly an old man
kneels at her feet; ‘We thank you, Ma, for coming’, he says in Efik, ‘we
beg of you to help, so that peace may be kept’; and she discovers that he
is a chief whom, two years before this, she had visited and nursed in
Now is the time for
mother-wit, no pleading, no sentiment.
‘Find me a comfortable
seat’, said she, ‘and I will talk to two or three men from both sides.’
It took hours to settle the
differences, but at last they agreed on payment of a fine to the aggrieved
party, and the fine to be paid on the spot.
A fresh difficulty here;
for gin was to be the medium for payment; they would drink till they were
mad, as ‘Ma’ knew too well, and the peace would end in an orgy!
Quick as thought she
removed her outer garment and threw it over the boxes of liquor; this act
by native custom gave the protection of her person to the object which,
therefore, none dared touch. Then taking one glass only, ‘Ma’ dealt out
the drink to each—one glassful—no more. They obeyed her like children,
promising to keep the peace during her absence in England, and the promise
was actually kept.
For her part, she had to
undertake that the rest of the liquor should reach the village claiming
it, and then worn out but victorious, the little ‘white mother’ tramped
back to her forest-hut.
She had earned a holiday!
* * * * * *
When she reached Scotland,
she surprised her friends with the news that she had lately become engaged
to be married to a mission teacher named Charles Morrison, who had gone
from Scotland to the base in Calabar. A difficulty had arisen from the
fact that the mission authorities required Mr. Morrison’s help at Duke
Town only, and would not sanction his joining Miss Slessor at Okoyong,
while she for her part entirely refused to work anywhere except for the
present in that difficult district. Nothing, perhaps, in Mary’s whole
career illustrates her selfless devotion more than her attitude during
this crisis of her life; ‘I lay it all in God’s hands’, she said; and
when, eventually, the matter ended in Mr. Morrison’s return to Scotland on
account of his health, she merely said, ‘What the Lord ordains is right’;
she never again spoke of this bit of experience, only after her death some
of her favourite books were found to contain the initials ‘C.M.’ and
‘M.S.’ close together, a token that the memory was a very real thing in
* * * * * *
A year later, in restored
health, Miss Slessor was back at work, amid the old difficulties, the old
horrors, the old imperious claims on her courage and patience, symbolized
in the familiar cry, ‘Run, Ma, run,’ at any hour of the day or night.
Now, it is again the fear
of witchcraft, a chief dead, and someone suspected; a throng of people
deep in the forest waiting to accuse a suspected person. ‘Ma’ watches
also—sleepless during four days and nights—wild beasts creeping stealthily
about the throng, only scared by fire-light. The natives hope to weary out
the ‘white mother,’ but her will is as of iron—they submit.
* * * * * *
Or it is a case of a
runaway slave who takes refuge with her, and she must be the peacemaker.
Her commonsense talk wins over the master and the slave is taken back.
* * * * * *
Now, it is another case of
twin-babies about to be killed, and ‘Ma’ must save them. Even the friendly
chief Edem is against her in this case, but she manages to convince both
him and his people that there is nothing uncanny about twin babies. Thus a
clear step is taken towards public toleration.
We have a good deal of
testimony from travelling visitors about Miss Slessor at this period of
her career. Miss Mary Kingsley visited her at Ekenge and was profoundly
impressed with her personality and her influence. This is the more
striking because Miss Kingsley had no sort of sympathy with mission work,
but thought that African natives would work out a satisfactory
civilization of their own, if freed from the influence of bad
European habits. So it was a wonderful thing that the two women should
become firm friends—Mary Slessor, a fervent Christian; Mary Kingsley, as
she said of herself, ‘without the part that one believes with.’
Moreover, Miss Slessor was
becoming known to the Government officials; two of these, Mr. Moor, the
Vice-Consul for her district, and later Sir Claud Macdonald, the Consul,
held conferences with the chiefs, exacting promises from them that
wholesale murders and other horrors should cease; and such public doings
strengthened Mary Slessor’s hands. The officials, however, never failed to
note and to report that Miss Slessor’s influence was greater than theirs.
One such official wrote thus: ‘I have been staying with ‘Ma’ and learning
my first lesson in dealing with natives. . .As an interpreter, she made
every "palaver" easy.’
Again a missionary visitor
writes of her: ‘She is really Queen of the whole Okoyong district. The
High Commissioner and his staff leave all the work in her hands. One thing
I noticed was that she never allowed a native to sit in her presence,
though when they are ill, sometimes with loathsome diseases, she will
nurse them. And she never shakes hands with them.’
On the other hand, her
fearlessness amazed her visitors; ‘no locks on her doors.’ And once a man
convicted of murder was brought to her house, in chains. While waiting for
him to be taken to Duke Town ‘Ma’ sat with him in her house, he unchained,
doors and windows open. She showed no fear.
Again in her frequent walks
through forests, often at night, she heard leopards not far off; afraid
she was, but unflinching. ‘I used to pray, "O God of Daniel shut their
mouths", and He did.... But I used not to believe the story of Daniel.’
About fifteen years after
her first settlement in Okoyong, the first Communion Service was held in a
hall beneath the Mission House at Akpap, now Miss Slessor’s headquarters.
It was a wonderful event for her—a great throng of worshippers, and eleven
children to be baptized, six of whom she had rescued, as twins, from
death. A psalm was sung in Efik and Miss Slessor spoke a few words of
pleading with her people ‘to remain true to the faith.’
‘Her face had a far-away
look. . . and her eyes shone as though she saw in a vision her beloved
Okoyong at last fair and redeemed.’
* * * * * *
The days of adventure,
however, were not yet over. She was looking in imagination across the
river to a western region on the banks of the Enyong creek, a region which
for centuries had been a noted centre of slave traffic. The tribe called
Aros had long dominated the weaker tribe, south of the creek, the Ibibios;
these latter, through centuries of terror, had become as furtive as hunted
animals. Mary Slessor had long known of the horrors of this region, for
she had talked to the native slave-dealers as no other white had done. A
military expedition into the Aro country had done something towards
suppressing the worst of the evils, and it was now Miss Slessor’s greatest
wish to begin some mission work amongst these people.
When, at length, two new
helpers took over her own station, Akpap, she went upriver by Government
launch, and found to her surprise many friendly chiefs and even traders.
One chief in especial, sent an invitation to her, and welcomed her to his
quite civilized house, where he told her how he had once guided a
missionary when he was a boy, and had heard of the ‘white man’s God’, and
of the ‘Great White Ma.’
She was presently asked by
Government to act as a magistrate, sitting in a native court to judge
offenders against the law. She consented to act so, in the district of Itu,
but would not take any salary. Native chiefs were joint judges, and a jury
was present, but in practice her decision was supreme. Terrible cases came
before her, but her experience of such matters enabled her to judge
without sentimentality, and with shrewd sense; nor would she allow
ill-manners from the native chiefs. She would box a man’s ears if he
continued to interrupt her. Little as truth was respected, few dared to
try deceiving her; she would lay bare every falsehood and shame a liar
Her life at this time,
between 1906 and 1912, was a struggle between ill-health, and her most
strenuous duties—court sittings, teaching and preaching, palavers with
native visitors. Once, after ten hours in court, she returned home to find
fifty visitors waiting for advice and it took her till midnight ‘to
straighten out their troubles.’
When she became thoroughly
ill, she consented to travel to the Canary Islands, and rest there as she
could not rest where she was known. On her return, wonderfully restored,
the doctor’s report of her was: ‘Good for many years—with care.’ With the
best possible will to take care of herself, however, old habits of entire
selflessness could not be broken through. She went on with most of her
ordinary work—except that of the court, which she gave up—she visited the
centre at Akpap, meeting crowds of her old friends of Okoyong—some of her
rescued babies grown into healthy, happy young people—and she conducted a
religious service with a congregation of four hundred.
Now, for the first and only
time, she was induced to accept a token of public recognition in England;
she was sent the beautiful silver cross signifying admission as ‘Honorary
Associate into the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in
England’, an honour conferred only on persons ‘eminently distinguished for
philanthropy.’ Much as she hated to appear in public, and specially to be
the centre of attention, she felt bound in honour to go to Duke Town to
receive publicly this badge of honour. There was a great gathering, and
she was obliged to speak after the presentation; chiefly she addressed the
children who were present, trying to impress on them the idea of loyalty
to Government as well as to Christianity, and stressing the honour of her
presentation as given to the mission rather than to her. Of herself she
‘If I have done anything in
my life, it has been easy, because the Master has gone before.’
For two more years she
wrestled on and on, meeting the same old difficulties in her own original
ways, still travelling up and down the rivers, still keeping a little home
where her native ‘children’ were cared for—and then came a last shattering
blow— the Great War of 1914.
It was August—strange awful
days in Europe, the first week after the Declaration of War—but it was not
till August 13th that the news reached the Calabar Mission Field. It was
the neighbourhood of the German territory of the Cameroons that brought
fear to the European settlers there; fear for their settlements and work
rather than for themselves. Miss Slessor’s health suffered greatly from
the strain of anxiety but her fighting spirit rose, ‘Oh! if I were 30
years younger, and a man’, she cried.
At the New Year she had a
happy meeting with two of her co-workers, but a week later she went down
with an acute attack of fever. Five of her native girls were with her, and
the mission workers nursed her by turns. She suffered intensely from
thirst and utter weakness: ‘O God, release me’, she was heard to say. On
January 12th her strength was swiftly ebbing, her breathing difficult: the
end came gently in the very early dawn.
* * * * * *
Throngs of men and women
were round the house soon afterwards for the news had spread swiftly;
hundreds came to look once more on ‘Everybody’s Mother.’
Two days later, the coffin
reached Duke Town and crowds followed it in procession from the Mission
Hall to the cemetery. There was no noisy sound of grief; the natives
realized now that silence means reverence. She was laid to rest there
under African skies amid the black people she had lived for—tropical
sunshine, tropical flowers above her—and the faithful devotion of African
* * * * * *
There seems no need to try
to sum up the results of her work; as we read of it we feel indeed that
the best part of it could not be described or expressed in any way. Her
amazingly wide and deep influence was revealed to some extent after her
death by the mass of letters she had received. It seems as though none
came into contact with her without a deep impression of her simple,
joyous, loving humanity. She is a beautiful example of the beautiful
‘To have love is to work