Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, served as a missionary to Calabar (southern Nigeria), West Africa, for thirty-eight years. At that time Calabar was considered one of the deadliest and most degraded countries in all of Africa. While the European slave trade had been largely abolished in Calabar decades earlier, the country’s population continued to be ravaged by intertribal warfare, disease and superstitious pagan practices. Mary compassionately, courageously pioneered in areas of Calabar that other missionaries and even traders avoided.
For the first several years of her missionary career, Mary ministered in two mission settlements, Duke Town and Old Town, on the Calabar River, about forty miles from the coast. She was soon placed in charge of the mission work at Old Town and its three small outstations. In those locations she held regular school sessions for both children and adults during the week, then led worship services and a Sunday School on the Lord’s Day.
One of the horrifying, superstitious practices that Mary and the other missionaries strove to overcome was the custom of killing twin babies. Calabarians believed that the father of one of the twin infants was an evil spirit and that at least one of the twins was a monster. Twin babies were seized, their backs were broken and they were thrown out into the bush to be eaten by wild animals or insects. The infants of slave mothers who died were also left in the wild to perish. The missionaries rescued both those types of endangered infants whenever they could and took them to the missionary compounds where they were cared for and protected.
Mary spoke out against the evils of those forms of infanticide and took several such rescued children under her care. At any given time throughout her missionary career she usually had a number of rescued and orphaned children she was foster parenting. At first the people of Calabar viewed this with suspicion, thinking Mary was in league with a devil and expecting to see her suffer ill effects as a result. But in time their superstitious suppositions faded, and she became known everywhere as “the white Ma who loves babies.” (In Calabar and neighboring regions “Ma” was a term of respect for a mother.)
After twelve years of service in Calabar, Mary was granted the longtime desire of her heart when she was given permission to carry out pioneering missionary work in the previously unreached Okoyong region, a densely forested wedge of land between the Cross and Calabar rivers north of Old Town. The Okoyongese practiced witchcraft and animal sacrifice. They plundered property and slaves from neighboring tribes. They commonly used two superstitious trials-by-ordeal to determine a person’s guilt or innocence if suspected of a crime: boiling palm oil was poured over the hands of a suspect or he was required to drink water mixed with ground powder from the poisonous esere bean. As a result, many innocent people were left badly burned or dead. The illness of a freeman was invariably considered the result of someone having practiced sorcery against him. The local witchdoctor was called to supposedly identify the guilty individuals, who were then executed by decapitation. When a chief died, many individuals were put to death to accompany him into the spirit world. Liquor, guns and chains were practically the only items of commerce that entered Okoyong. Gin or rum was in every home and was drunk by every adult and child, beginning from infancy.
Mary ministered among these desperately needy Okoyongese for many years. Initially she taught school and held Sunday worship services at two substantial neighboring villages, Ekenge and Ifako. She also helped undermine the prevailing and devastating liquor traffic in Okoyong by introducing more beneficial forms of legitimate trade. Okoyongese began giving their time, attention and effort to producing palm kernels and oil to trade with Calabarians in exchange for cloth, pots, dishes and other useful items. In addition to material benefits for the Okoyongese, this trade also resulted in a considerable reduction in the amount of time they spent in useless drinking and fighting.
Eventually the day came when, at Mary’s insistence and for the first time in the known history of Okoyong, the death and funeral of a chief took place without the traditional sacrifice of other individuals to accompany him into the afterlife. Chiefs and other free people, one by one and unknown to each other, secretly came to Mary to thank her for her love and courage as well as for all the peaceful, life-giving policies she was promoting. They encouraged her to keep a brave heart and to continue doing away with the old customs that invariably produced death.
Mary did continue to manifest marked courage in her dealings with the Okoyongese. On numerous occasions she was seen taking large, drunken mean by the neck, pulling them away from their alcohol and throwing them to the ground! She once stopped and confiscated a canoe-load of machetes that were being taken upriver for use in war. Several times she played a key role in preventing tribes from going to war with each other. On one such occasion she intervened between two tribes that were on the brink of attacking each other. Though her heart was beating wildly, she stood between them and made them pile their rifles on opposite sides of her. With mounds of weapons heaped up over five feet high on both sides, she then negotiated a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Four years after beginning her ministry in Okoyong, the British Government asked Mary to carry out a new judicial responsibility in that region. For many years British authorities had exercised only minimal influence over the coastal regions of Calabar, while tribes like the Okoyongese further up the Cross River wholly ignored and opposed British directives. Recognizing Mary’s unique position and influence in Okoyong, British authorities asked her to organize and supervise an indigenous court and empowered her to do all that was necessary to promote the reception of new laws in the region.
Mary presided over the court at various locations throughout Okoyong. Large groups of tribal leaders came to consult her about adjusting their customs to the new laws. Through these activities justice was promoted for the local people and the rule of law was promoted in the region. Though Mary did not relish that type of service, she sought to carry it out faithfully, believing it to be part of the ministry the Lord had for her to do. Those efforts helped to greatly reduce such practices as killing infant twins, the poison bean ordeal and executing individuals at the deaths of chiefs. Mary gained a reputation as a tough but just judge, and Okoyongese
came from great distances to have their trials held before her.
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A fuller account of Mary Slessor’s storied missionary career in Calabar is recorded in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). W. P. Livingstone’s Mary Slessor of Calabar, Pioneer Missionary (originally published 1916) is the classic full-length biography of her life. Bruce McClennan’s Mary Slessor, A Life on the Altar for God (Christian Focus, 2015) is a more recent full account of her life.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie