Mary Mitchell Slessor

Mary SlessorMary Mitchell Slessor, known as "Mother of All the People", was a Scottish missionary to Nigeria, born on 2nd December 1848 in Mutton Brae, which was the home of Mary Slessor, at Aberdeen in Scotland, the second of seven children, only four of whom survived childhood. Her father, Robert Slessor, originally from Buchan, was a shoemaker and her mother, Mrs.Slessor, from Oldmeldrum, was a deeply religious woman of sweet disposition, who had a keen interest in missionary work in the Calabar, South Eastern region of Nigeria. Mary's mother, a strong believer in the Christian faith, had hoped that her eldest son, Robert might become a missionary, but he died at the age of sixteen. At that same time her father was sacked from the shoe factory and the family headed south to Dundee in hope of a new life.

In 1859, at the age of 11 when her family was looking for work, moved to Dundee. Mary’s father was an alcoholic who had to stop his work as a shoemaker and eventually became a mill labourer. Her mother, Mrs.Slessor was determined to see her children properly educated. The young Mary not only attended Church but, began work as a “half timer” in the Baxter Brothers’ Mill. Mary spent half of her arduous day at a school provided by the mill owners and the other half in productive employment for the company. During this time she read and studied the books that helped her decide her destiny. Thus began a harsh introduction to the work ethic which was to dominate her life.

Mary Slessor
In the meantime, Mary learned that in 1848 a mission had been set up at Calabar on the Nigerian coast, at the very centre of the African slave trade. What fascinated her most of all was that the mission had been established by a Dr Ferguson who first went to Nigeria as surgeon aboard a slave ship. When Dr.Ferguson's ship was wrecked on the Nigerian coast, the crew almost starved to death before they were found by local tribesmen. White-men, especially slave traders, were understandably unpopular in such regions and the crew were convinced that they would have killed. But, contrary to the sailors' presumptions, the men were fed and nursed back to health before the tribal chief helped them find a passage home.

At the age of 27 years old, in 1875, Mary came to the realization that there had to be more to life than working in a cotton mill. After Mary received the news that her long time hero, David Livingstone had died, she was determined to “Go forward” like him, which were David Livingstone’s famous words were referring to his willingness to go wherever God called him. Approximately a year later, after months of training and signing papers and she was on her way to Calabar. Her plans to go to Calabar were held up for several years after her father died and Mary found herself responsible for her younger sisters and ailing mother. On 5th August 1876, when she was 28 years old, she sailing on the "Ethiopia" of the African Steamship Line to start a new life at the Calabar Christian Mission. The trip was rigorous and she fell ill several times, but she made it to Calabar in good spirits. Although her spirits remained hopeful, the new missionary came to the realization that witnessing to the people of Calabar was not going to be an easy job. After personally visiting some of the tribal people she soon learned how real the fear of evil spirits was among the people.

Mary Slessor with Nygeria people
She developed a strong interest in religion and joined a local mission teaching the poor. One famous story from this time is that of the Red Headed Lady: Mary dared a gang of boys that she would not flinch as they swung a metal weight closer and closer to her face; she successfully stayed still and the boys were so ashamed of themselves they decided to attend her Sunday School and the leader of the gang became a Christian. Mary also noticed all of the boys coming back every Sunday. Her determined work and strong personality allowed her to be trusted and accepted by the locals, promoted women's rights and spreading Christianity as a missionary in Nigeria. The tribes of that region she found to have traditions that were cruel beyond belief. For instance, they slaughtered the slaves and wives of important men when they died and also killed twins at birth believing that one of the children was evil! She had not been there long when she witnessed a slave being fed to a crocodile in hope that the sacrifice would bring a good season's fishing. These were things were typical of the many barbaric traditions that Mary was determined to eradicate.

Mary Slessor's House in Calabar

Thereafter, Mary Slessor went to live among the Efik, an ethnic group located primarily in Southeastern Nigeria and the Okoyong which lived near the Efiks who live in Calabar, in present day Nigeria. There she successfully fought against the killing of twins at infancy. Mary Slessor was a driving force behind the establishment of the Hope Waddell Training Institute in Calabar, which provided practical vocational training to Africans.

Mary Slessor Group
After spending 3 years at a missionary compound in Calabar, Mary longed to go into the interior of Africa, “Where no other white person has settled”. Instead of this happening, a missionary’s worst nightmare came upon Mary, malaria. God obviously still had plans for Mary for she survived the deadly disease. But to her horror she was sent home to recuperate. Finally, after 16 months of recovering, Mary was sent back to Calabar. To her delight she was not sent back to the missionary compound, but 3 miles further in-land to Old town. She would finally be able to make her own rules and work solo. It took some time for the people of Old Town to get use to Mary’s fire red hair and her blue eyes, but soon they were calling her the “white ma”. Babies started to appear at Mary’s doorstep because human life was not valued among the tribal people, and if she didn’t care for the babies they would be left to die. Mary took on the responsibility immediately, but soon she needed more help. The local girls provided that helped as quickly as possible. Mary even adopted a baby for just herself. She got the baby from another village that was just about to kill twins (the people believed twins were a curse to their village), when Mary snatched the twins from the killers and brought them back to her orphanage. The twins were a boy and a girl that thrived until the twins’ family tricked a helper girl into allowing them to “borrow the boy. The family killed the boy, leaving Mary devastated. The girl, however, lived and became Mary’s “daughter”. The girl was named Janie.

Mary Slessor Church at Calabar

Mary’s health affected her work in Africa once again and again she had to be sent home. This time though, she did not leave alone. Janie went with her mother on the trip home to Scotland and kept her company on the lonely trip. Upon arriving in Scotland, Janie became the center of attention since many people there had never seen a black baby. Although Mary enjoyed her time in Scotland, she was anxious to return to her home in Africa. She did not return to Old town though, Mary went on to live in 2 more tribes. Although she did not stay in one place for long, she often went to neighbouring tribes to assist the people there too.

Grave Yard

Mary spent 39 years with the people of different regions of Calabar were filled with excitement, disappointment, horror and joy. Even though she was only 5 feet tall, she stood up to many warriors, chiefs’ witch doctors and murderers. Her adventures varied from healing hundreds of people (including chiefs), rescuing prisoners, slaves and wives from being murdered, saving and caring for countless children and babies, witnessing to the most frightening tribes, settling many disputes among tribes and neighbors, assisting chiefs in decisions for their tribe, and sometimes just looking a tribal person in the face and telling them about the love of God.

Grave of Mary Slessor

Through the years Mary made much progress in her work and eventually won the trust all around her. The recurring illnesses and general hardships which she faced as a matter of course all took their toll on this redoubtable woman. Her physical strength had greatly declined and the woman who had once thought nothing of all-night treks through the rain forest was finally reduced to travelling in a hand-cart propelled by one of her assistants. On 13th January 1915, after an excruciating and prolonged bout of fever, Mary Slessor died, at the age of 66 years at Duke Town, Nigeria. At her burial hundreds wept and moaned as the great little woman was laid to rest. By the time of her death, she had achieved many of her goals. Twins were no longer seen as evil and slaves were no longer fed to crocodiles as acts of sacrifice.

Memory of Mary

Mary Slessor is still remembered in Dundee, as in her adopted homeland and there is a growing world-wide interest in her work. The finest tribute was from those of her own who knew her best. To them she was “Mother of All the People” or, more simply, “Ma”. Mary Slessor is also commemorated today on banknotes issued in Scotland by the Clydesdale Bank. Her portrait appears on the obverse of the £10 note, replacing David Livingstone, whose image featured on the notes prior to 1998. On the reverse, Slessor is depicted holding children in her arms alongside a map of the Ekoi and Ibibio in Calabar (present-day Nigeria).


  1. She was Mother of All the People. Good biography, keep it up.


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