On this day in history : 13th January 1915 – The death of Mary Slessor, the Scottish missionary to Nigeria, who successfully promoted both Christianity and women’s rights….

Mary Slessor – Public domain

Mary was born in Aberdeen on the 2nd of December 1848 into a poor working class family; she was the second of seven children…. When she was aged 11 the family moved to Dundee…. Her father, a shoemaker, was an alcoholic and was unable to keep up his trade – so he took a job as a labourer in a mill…. Mary’s mother, a skilled weaver, also worked in the mills – and at the age of 11 Mary joined them as a ‘half-timer’- meaning she spent half the day working and the other half attending the school provided by her employers…. By the age of 14 she was working full time – from 6am to 6pm…

Tragically Mary’s father and brothers all died from pneumonia – leaving just Mary, her two sisters and her mother…. Being a devout Presbyterian Mary’s mother made sure her daughters continued to attend Church – and Mary developed an interest in religion; she joined a local mission for the poor….

Mary Slessor as a young woman – Public domain

When Mary was 27 she learned of the death of missionary David Livingstone – it became her desire to follow his example…. Soon after she applied to the United Presbyterian Church’s Foreign Mission Board and underwent training in Edinburgh…. On the 5th of August 1876 Mary boarded the SS Ethiopia to sail for West Africa – arriving just over a month later at Calabar in South Eastern Nigeria….

Britain had taken control of Nigeria but was not interested in the welfare of its people – it was more concerned with maintaining trade…. The slave trade was still very fresh in people’s minds…..women had virtually no rights – and infanticide was common practice…. The West African religion had superstitions and one in particular was related to the birth of twins…. They were considered a curse and it was believed that one of them had to be a devil – twins would often be sacrificed, being left in clay pots in the jungle to die….

Source unknown – Public domain

Mary gradually gained the trust of the Ibibio people – for 15 years she lived amongst them…. She became fluent in their language, ‘Efik’ – and learnt their way of life and customs…. She encouraged trade, introduced social changes and Western style education…. She adopted several local children who had been rejected by their families…. To the Nigerians she became known as “Mother of All The People’s” – and she was made a member of the Itu Native Court….

Mary Slessor pictured with adopted children Jean, Alice, Maggie and May – a photograph taken on a trip home to Scotland C1880 Source : Dundee City Library Local Research – Public domain

By the early 1900s Mary was helping to vaccinate the people against smallpox…. Disease was rife in Western Africa, including malaria, which Mary herself was to suffer from the last four decades of her life…. As her health declined so did her strength, until eventually she could no longer walk through the rainforest but had to be pushed in a handcart…. She died on the 13th of January 1915 and was given a state funeral in Nigeria…. In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II visited her grave…. In 1977 the Clydesdale Bank issued a Scottish £10 note with the image of Mary Slessor upon it….

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