Mary Slessor of Calabar: Pioneer Missionary by W. P. Livingstone

Produced by Distributed Proofreaders MARY SLESSOR OF CALABAR PIONEER MISSIONARY BY W. P. LIVINGSTONE PREFATORY NOTE _Life for most people is governed by authority and convention, but behind these there lies always the mystery of human nature, uncertain and elusive, and apt now and again to go off at a tangent and disturb the smooth
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  • 1916
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_Life for most people is governed by authority and convention, but behind these there lies always the mystery of human nature, uncertain and elusive, and apt now and again to go off at a tangent and disturb the smooth working of organised routine. Some man or woman will appear who departs from the normal order of procedure, who follows ideals rather than rules, and whose methods are irregular, and often, in the eyes of onlookers, unwise. They may be poor or frail, and in their own estimation of no account, yet it is often they who are used for the accomplishment–of important ends. Such a one was Mary Slessor._

_Towards the end of her days she was urged to write her autobiography, but was surprised at the proposal, and asked what she had done to merit the distinction of being put in a book. She was so humble-minded that she could not discern any special virtue in her life of self-sacrifice and heroism; and she disliked publicity and was shamed by praise. When the matter was pressed upon her in view of the inspiration which a narrative of her experiences and adventures would be for others, she began to consider whether it might not be a duty, she never shrank from any duty however unpleasant. Her belief was that argument and theory had no effect in arousing interest in missionary enterprise; that the only means of setting the heart on fire the magnetism of personal touch and example; and she indicated that if account of her service would help to stimulate and strengthen the faith of the supporters of the work, she would be prepared to supply the material. She died before the intention could be carried further, but from many sources, and chiefly from her own letters, it has been possible to piece together the main facts of her wonderful career._

_One, however, has no hope of giving an adequate picture of her complex nature, so full of contrasts and opposites. She was a woman of affairs, with a wide and catholic outlook upon humanity, and yet she was a shy solitary walking alone in puritan simplicity and childlike faith. Few ham possessed such moral and physical courage, or exercised such imperious power over savage peoples, yet on trivial occasions she was abjectly timid and afraid, A sufferer from chronic malarial affection, and a martyr to pains her days were filled in with unremitting toil. Overflowing with love and tender feeling, she could be stern and exacting. Shrewd, practical, and matter of fact, she believed that sentiment was a gift of God, and frankly indulged in it. Living always in the midst of dense spiritual darkness, and often depressed and worried, she maintained unimpaired a sense of humour and laughter. Strong and tenacious of will, she admitted the right of others to oppose her. These are but illustrations of the perpetual play of light and shade in her character which made her difficult to understand. Many could not see her greatness for what they called her eccentricities, forgetting, or perhaps being unaware of, what she had passed through, experiences such as no other woman had undergone, which explained much that seemed unusual in her conduct. But when her life is viewed as a whole, and in the light of what she achieved, all these angles and oddities fall away, and she stands out, a woman of unique and inspiring personality, and one of the most heroic figures of the age._

_Some have said that she was in a sense a miracle, and not, therefore, for ordinary people to emulate. Such an estimate she would have stoutly repudiated. It is true that she began life with the gift of a strong character, but many possess that and yet come to nothing. She had, on the other hand, disadvantages and obstacles that few have to encounter. It was by surrender, dedication, and unwearied devotion that she grew into her power of attainment, and all can adventure on the same path. It was love for Christ that made her what she was, and there is no limit set in that direction. Such opportunity as she had, lies before the lowliest disciples; even out of the commonplace Love can carve heroines. “There is nothing small or trivial,” she once said, “for God is ready to take every act and motive and work through them to the formation of character and the development of holy and useful lives that will convey grace to the world.” It was so in her case, and hence the value of her example, and the warrant for telling the story of her life so that others may be influenced to follow aims as noble, and to strive, if not always in the same manner, at least with a like courage, and in the same patient and indomitable spirit.



















Mary M. Slessor
Calabar Mission Field in 1876
Miss Slessor and some of the People of Ekenge Calabar Chief of the Present Day
Calabar Sword
King Eyo’s State Canoe
The First Church in Okoyong–at Ifako Miss Slessor’s Mission House at Ekenge
“Ma’s” Quarters at Akpap
The Tragedy of Twins
The Okoyong Household in Scotland
Native Court in Okoyong
Calabar Mission Map of the Present Day A Glimpse of the Enyong Creek
Itu, showing the Beach where the Slave-market was held Court House at Ikotobong
“Ma,” with the Material for the Native Oath at her Feet Administering the Native Oath to a Witness The Government Motor Car
Miss Slessor’s Heathen Friend, Ma Eme One of Miss Slessor’s Bibles
Miss Slessor’s Silver Cross
The House on the Hill-top at Odoro Ikpe The Last Photograph of the Household


1848-1876. Age 1-28.


_”It was the dream of my girlhood to be a missionary to Calabar_.”


When the founding of the Calabar Mission on the West Coast of Africa was creating a stir throughout Scotland, there came into a lowly home in Aberdeen a life that was to be known far and wide in connection with the enterprise. On December 2, 1848, Mary Mitchell Slessor was born in Gilcomston, a suburb of the city.

Her father, Robert Slessor, belonged to Buchan, and was a shoemaker. Her mother, who came from Old Meldrum, was an only child, and had been brought up in a home of refinement and piety. She is described by those who knew her as a sweet-faced woman, patient, gentle, and retiring, with a deeply religious disposition, but without any special feature of character, such as one would have expected to find in the mother of so uncommon a daughter. It was from her, however, that Mary got her soft voice and loving heart.

Mary was the second of seven children. Of her infancy and girlhood little is known. Her own earliest recollections were associated with the name of Calabar. Mrs. Slessor was a member of Belmont Street United Presbyterian Church, and was deeply interested in the adventure going forward in that foreign field. “I had,” said Mary, “my missionary enthusiasm for Calabar in particular from her–she knew from its inception all that was to be known of its history.” Both she and her elder brother Robert heard much talk of it in the home, and the latter used to announce that he was going to be a missionary when he was a man. So great a career was, of course, out of the reach of girls, but he consoled Mary by promising to take her with him into the pulpit. Often Mary played at keeping school; and it is interesting to note that the imaginary scholars she taught and admonished were always black. Robert did not survive these years, and Mary became the eldest.

Dark days came. Mr. Slessor unhappily drifted into habits of intemperance and lost his situation, and when he suggested removing to Dundee, then coming to the front as an industrial town and promising opportunities for the employment of young people, his wife consented, although it was hard for her to part from old friends and associations. But she hoped that in a strange city, where the past was unknown, her husband might begin life afresh and succeed. The family went south in 1859, and entered on a period of struggle and hardship. The money realised by the sale of the furniture melted away, and the new house was bare and comfortless, Mr. Slessor continued his occupation as a shoemaker, and then became a labourer in one of the mills.

The youngest child, Janie, was born in Dundee. All the family were delicate, and it was not long before Mary was left with only two sisters and a brother–Susan, John, and Janie. Mrs. Slessor’s fragility prevented her battling successfully with trial and misfortune, but no children could have been trained with more scrupulous care. “I owe a great debt of gratitude to my sainted mother,” said Mary, long afterwards. Especially was she solicitous for their religious well- being. On coming to Dundee she had connected herself with Wishart Church in the east end of the Cowgate, a modest building, above a series of shops near the Port Gate from the parapets of which George Wishart preached during the plague of 1544. Here the children were sent to the regular services–with a drop of perfume on their handkerchiefs and gloves and a peppermint in their pockets for sermon-time–and also attended the Sunday School.

Mary’s own recollection of herself at this period was that she was “a wild lassie.” She would often go back in thought to these days, and incidents would flash into memory that half amused and half shamed her. Some of her escapades she would describe with whimsical zest, and trivial as they were they served to show that, even then, her native wit and resource were always ready to hand. But very early the Change came. An old widow, living in a room in the back lands, used to watch the children running about the doors, and in her anxiety for their welfare sought to gather some of the girls together and talk to them, young as they were, about the matters that concerned their souls. One afternoon in winter they had come out of the cold and darkness into the glow of her fire, and were sitting listening to her description of the dangers that beset all who neglected salvation.

“Do ye see that fire?” she exclaimed suddenly. “If ye were to put your hand into the lowes it would be gey sair. It would burn ye. But if ye dinna repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ your soul will burn in the lowin’ bleezin’ fire for ever and ever!”

The words went like arrows to Mary’s heart; she could not get the vision of eternal torment out of her mind: it banished sleep, and she came to the conclusion that it would be best for her to make her peace with God. She “repented and believed.” It was hell-fire that drove her into the Kingdom, she would sometimes say. But once there she found it to be a Kingdom of love and tenderness and mercy, and never throughout her career did she seek to bring any one into it, as she had come, by the process of shock and fear.


The time came when Mrs. Slessor herself was compelled to enter one of the factories in order to maintain the home, and many of the cares and worries of a household fell upon Mary. But at eleven she, too, was sent out to begin to earn a livelihood. In the textile works of Messrs. Baxter Brothers & Company she became what was known as a half-timer, one who wrought half the day and went to the school in connection with the works the other half. When she was put on full time she attended the school held at night. Shortly afterward she entered Rashiewell factory to learn weaving under the supervision of her mother. After trying the conditions in two other works she returned, about the age of fourteen, to Baxter’s, where she soon became an expert and well-paid worker. Her designation was a “weaver” or “factory girl,” not a “mill- girl,” this term locally being restricted to spinners in the mills. When she handed her first earnings to her mother the latter wept over them, and put them away as too sacred to use. But her wage was indispensable for the support of the home, and eventually she became its chief mainstay.

Life in the great factory in which she was but a unit amongst thousands was hard and monotonous. The hours of the workers were from six A.M. to six P.M., with one hour for breakfast and one for dinner. Mary was stationed in a room or shed, which has very much the same appearance to-day. Now as then the belts are whirring, the looms are moving, the girls are handling the shuttles, and the air is filled with a din so continuous and intense that speech is well-nigh impossible. Mary had to be up every morning at five o’clock, as she helped in the work of the home before going out, while similar duties claimed her at night. Though naturally bright and refined in disposition she was at this time almost wholly uneducated. From the factory schools she had brought only a meagre knowledge of reading and arithmetic, and she had read little save the books obtained from the library of the Sunday School. But her mind was opening, she was becoming conscious of the outer world and all its interests and wonders, and she was eager to know and understand. In order to study she began to steal time from sleep. She carried a book with her to the mill, and, like David Livingstone at Blantyre, laid it on the loom and glanced at it in her free moments. So anxious was she to learn that she read on her way to and from the factory. It was not a royal road, that thoroughfare of grim streets, but it led her into many a shining region.

Her only source of outside interest was the Church. From the Sunday School she passed into the Bible Class, where her attendance was never perfunctory, for she enjoyed the teaching and extracted all she could out of it. She would carry home the statements that arrested and puzzled her, and refer them to her mother, who, however, did not always find it easy to satisfy her. “Is baptism necessary for salvation, mother?” was one of her questions. “Well,” her mother replied, “it says that he that repents and is baptized shall be saved; but it does not say that he that repents and is not baptized shall be damned.” Some of her mother’s sayings at this time she never forgot. “When one duty jostles another, one is not a duty,” she was once told. And again, “Thank God for what you receive: thank God for what you do not receive: thank God for the sins you are delivered from; and thank God for the sins that you know nothing at all about, and are never tempted to commit.”

Mary was a favourite with her classmates. There was something about her even then which drew others to her. One, the daughter of an elder, tells how, though much younger, she was attracted to her by her goodness and her kind ways, and how she would often go early to meet her in order to enjoy her company to the class.


The explanation of much in Mary Slessor’s character lies in these early years, and she cannot be fully understood unless the unhappy circumstances in her home are taken into account. She was usually reticent regarding her father, but once she wrote and published under her own name what is known to be the story of this painful period of her girlhood. There is no need to reproduce it, but some reference to the facts is necessary if only to show how bravely she battled against hardship and difficulties even then.

The weakness of Mr. Slessor was not cured by the change in his surroundings. All the endearments of his wife and daughter were powerless to save the man whose heart was tender enough when he was sober, but whose moral sensibilities continued to be sapped by his indulgence in drink. Every penny he could lay hands upon was spent in this way, and the mother was often reduced to sore straits to feed and clothe the children. Not infrequently Mary had to perform a duty repugnant to her sensitive nature. She would leave the factory after her long toil, and run home, pick up a parcel which her mother had prepared, and fly like a hunted thing along the shadiest and quietest streets, making many a turning in order to avoid her friends, to the nearest pawnbroker’s. Then with sufficient money for the week’s requirements she would hurry back with a thankful heart, and answer the mother’s anxious, questioning eyes with a glad light in her own. A kiss would be her reward, and she would be sent out to pay the more pressing bills.

There was one night of terror in every week. On Saturday, after the other children were in bed, the mother and daughter sat sewing or knitting in silence through long hours, waiting in sickening apprehension for the sound of uncertain footsteps on the stairs. Now and again they prayed to quieten their hearts. Yet they longed for his coming. When he appeared he would throw into the fire the supper they had stinted themselves to provide for him. Sometimes Mary was forced out into the streets where she wandered in the dark, alone, sobbing out her misery.

All the efforts of wife and daughter were directed towards hiding the skeleton in the house. The fear of exposure before the neighbours, the dread lest Mary’s church friends should come to know the secret, made the two sad souls pinch and struggle and suffer with endless patience. None of the other children was aware of the long vigils that were spent. The fact that the family was never disgraced in public was attributed to prayer. The mother prayed, the daughter prayed, ceaselessly, with utter simplicity of belief, and they were never once left stranded or put to shame. Their faith not only saved them from despair, it made them happy in the intervals of their distress. Few brighter or more hopeful families gathered in church from Sunday to Sunday.

Nevertheless these days left their mark upon Mary for life. She was at the plastic age, she was gentle and sensitive and loving, and what she passed through hurt and saddened her spirit. To the end it was the only memory that had power to send a shaft of bitterness across the sweetness of her nature. It added to her shyness and to her reluctance to appear in public and speak, which was afterwards so much commented upon, for always at the back of her mind was the consciousness of that dark and wretched time. The reaction on her character, however, was not all evil; suffering in the innocent has its compensations. It deepened her sympathy and pity for others. It made her the fierce champion of little children, and the refuge of the weak and oppressed. It prepared her also for the task of combating the trade in spirits on the West Coast, and for dealing with the drunken tribes amongst whom she came to dwell. Her experience then was, indeed, the beginning of her training for the work she had to accomplish in the future….

The father died, and the strain was removed, and Mary became the chief support of the home. Those who knew her then state that her life was one long act of self-denial; all her own inclinations and interests were surrendered for the sake of the family, and she was content with bare necessaries so long as they were provided for.


In her church work she continued to find the little distraction from toil which gave life its savour. She began to attend the Sabbath Morning Fellowship and week-night prayer meetings. She also taught a class of “lovable lassies” in the Sabbath School–“I had the impudence of ignorance then in special degree surely” was her mature comment on this–and became a distributor of the _Monthly Visitor_. Despite the weary hours in the factory, and a long walk to and from the church, she was never absent from any of the services or meetings. “We would as soon have thought of going to the moon as of being absent from a service,” she wrote shortly before she died. “And we throve very well on it too. How often, when lying awake at night, my time for thinking, do I go back to those wonderful days!”

She owed much to her association with the Church, but more to her Bible. Once a girl asked her for something to read, and she handed her the Book saying, “Take that; it has made me a changed lassie.” The study of it was less a duty than a joy; it was like reading a message addressed specially to herself, containing news of surpassing personal interest and import. God was very real to her. To think that behind all the strain and struggle and show of the world there was a Personality, not a thought or a dream, not something she could not tell what, in spaces she knew not where, but One who was actual and close to her, overflowing with love and compassion, and ready to listen to her, and to heal and guide and strengthen her–it was marvellous. She wished to know all He had to tell her, in order that she might rule her conduct according to His will. Most of all it was the story of Christ that she pored over and thought about. His Divine majesty, the beauty and grace of His life, the pathos of His death on the Cross, affected her inexpressibly. But it was His love, so strong, so tender, so pitiful, that won her heart and devotion and filled her with a happiness and peace that suffused her inner life like sunshine. In return she loved Him with a love so intense that it was often a pain. She felt that she could not do enough for one who had done so much for her. As the years passed she surrendered herself more and more to His influence, and was ready for any duty she was called upon to do for Him, no matter how humble or exacting it might be. It was this passion of love and gratitude, this abandonment of self, this longing for service, that carried her into her life-work.

Wishart Church stood in the midst of slums. Pends, or arched passages, led from the Cowgate into tall tenements with outside spiral stairs which opened upon a maze of landings and homes. Out of these sunless rookeries tides of young life poured by night and day, and spread over the neighbouring streets in undisciplined freedom. Mary’s heart often ached for these boys and girls, whom she loved in spite of all their roughness; and when a mission was determined on, and a room was taken at 6 Queen Street–a small side thoroughfare nearly opposite Quarry Pend, one of the worst of the alleys–she volunteered as a teacher. And so began a second period of stem training which was to serve her well in the years to come. The wilder spirits made sport of the meetings and endeavoured to wreck them. “That little room,” she wrote, “was full of romantic experiences.” There was danger outside when the staff separated, and she recalled how several of the older men surrounded the “smaller individuals” when they faced the storm. One of these was Mr. J. H. Smith, who became her warm friend and counsellor.

As the mission developed, a shop under the church at the side of Wishart Pend was taken and the meetings transferred to it, she having charge of classes for boys and girls both on Sundays and week-nights. Open-air work was at that time dangerous, but she and a few others attempted it: they were opposed by roughs and pelted with mud. There was one gang that was resolved to break up the mission with which she had come to be identified. One night they closed in about her on the street. The leader carried a leaden weight at the end of a piece of cord, and swung it threateningly round her head. She stood her ground. Nearer and nearer the missile came. It shaved her brow. She never winced. The weight crashed to the ground. “She’s game, boys,” he exclaimed. To show their appreciation of her spirit they went in a body to the meeting. There her bright eyes, her sympathy, and her firmness shaped them into order and attention….

On the wall of one of her bush houses in West Africa there used to hang a photograph of a man and his wife and family. The man was the lad who had swung the lead. On attaining a good position he had sent her the photograph in grateful remembrance of what had been the turning-point in his life….

Another lad, a bully, used to stand outside the hall with a whip in hand driving the young fellows into “Mary Slessor’s meeting,” but refusing to go in himself. One day the girl weaver faced him. “If we changed places what would happen?” she asked, and he replied, “I would get this whip across my back.” She turned her back. “I’ll bear it for you if you’ll go in,” she said. “Would you really bear that for me?” “Yes, and far more–go on, I mean it.” He threw down the whip and followed her in, and gave himself the same day to Christ. Even then she was unconventional in her methods and was criticised for it. She had a passion for the countryside, and often on Saturday afternoons she would take her class of lads away out to the green fields, regardless of social canons.

By and by a new field of work was opened up when a number of progressive minds in the city formed Victoria Street United Presbyterian congregation, not far from her familiar haunts. In connection with the movement a mission service for the young was started on Sunday mornings under the presidency of Mr. James Logic, of Tay Square Church, and to him Mary offered her services as a monitor. Mr. Logie soon noticed the capacity of the young assistant and won her confidence and regard. Like most people she was unconscious at the moment of the unseen forces moulding her life, but she came in after days to realise the wise ordering of this friendship. Mr. Logie became interested in her work and ideals, and sought to promote her interests in every way. She came to trust Mm implicitly–“He is the best earthly friend I have,” she wrote-and he guided her thenceforward in all her money affairs.

She was as successful with the lads at this service as she had been elsewhere. Before the meeting she would flit through the dark passages in the tenements and knock, and rouse them up from sleep, and plead with them to turn out to it. Her influence over them was extraordinary, They adored her and gave her shy allegiance, and the result was seen in changed habits and transformed lives. It was the same in the houses she visited. She went there not as one who was superior to the inmates, but as one of themselves. In the most natural way she would sit down by the fire and nurse a child, or take a cup of tea at the table. Her sympathy, her delicate tact, her cheery counsel won many a woman’s heart and braced her for higher endeavour. It was the same in the factory; her influence told on the workers about her; some she strengthened, others she won over to Christ, and these created an atmosphere which was felt throughout the building.

And yet what was she? Only a working girl, plain in appearance and in dress, diffident and self-effacing. “But,” says one whom she used to take down as a boy to the mission and place beside her as she taught, “she possessed something we could not grasp, something indefinable.” It was the glow of the spirit of Christ which lit up her inner life and shone in her face, and which, unknown even to herself, was then and afterwards the source of her distinction and her power.


For fourteen years, and these the freshest and fairest years of her life, she toiled in the factory for ten hours each full day, while she also gave faithful service in the mission. And yet she continued to find time for the sedulous culture of her mind. She was always borrowing books and extracting what was best in them. Not all were profitable. One was _The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul_ by Philip Doddridge, a volume much pondered then in Scottish homes. A friend who noticed that she was somewhat cast down said to her, “Why, Mary, what’s the matter? You look very glum.” “I canna do it,” she replied. “Canna do what?” “I canna meditate, and Doddridge says it is necessary for the soul. If I try to meditate my mind just goes a’ roads.” “Well, never mind meditation,” her friend said. “Go and work, for that’s what God means us to do,” and she followed his advice. Of her introduction to the fields of higher literature we have one reminiscence. Her spirit was so eager, she read so much and so quickly, that a friend sought to test her by lending her _Sartor Resartus_. She carried it home, and when next he met her he asked quizzically how she had got on with Carlyle. “It is grand!” she replied. “I sat up reading it, and was so interested that I did not know what the time was, until I heard the factory bells calling me to work in the morning!”

There was no restraining her after that. She broadened and deepened in thought and outlook, and gradually acquired the art of expressing herself, both in speech and writing, in language that was deft, lucid, and vigorous, Her style was formed insensibly from her constant reading of the Bible, and had then a grave dignity and balance unlike the more picturesque, if looser, touch of later years. The papers that were read from her at the Fellowship Association were marked by a felicity of phrase as well as an insight and spiritual fervour unusual in a girl. Her alertness of intellect often astonished those who heard her engaged in argument with the agnostics and freethinkers whom she encountered in the course of her visiting. She spoke simply, but with a directness and sincerity that arrested attention. Often asked to address meetings in other parts of Dundee, she shrank from the ordeal. On one occasion a friend went with her, but she could not be persuaded to go on the platform. She sat in the middle of the hall and had a quiet talk on the words, “The common people heard Him gladly.” “And,” writes her friend, “the common people heard her gladly, and crowded round her and pleaded that she should come again.”


There was never a time when Mary was not interested in foreign missions. The story of Calabar had impressed her imagination when a child, and all through the years her eyes had been fixed on the great struggle going on between the forces of light and darkness in the sphere of heathenism. The United Presbyterian Church in which she was brought up placed the work abroad in the forefront of its activity; it had missions in India, China, Jamaica, Calabar, and Kaffraria; and reports of the operations were given month by month in its _Missionary Record_, and read in practically all the homes of its members. It was pioneer work, and the missionaries were perpetually in the midst of adventure and peril. Their letters and narratives were eagerly looked for; they gave to people who had never travelled visions of strange lands; they brought to them the scent and colour of the Orient and the tropics; and they introduced into the quietude of orderly homes the din of the bazaar and harem and kraal. These men and women in the far outposts became heroic figures to the Church, and whenever they returned on furlough the people thronged to their meetings to see for themselves the actors in such amazing happenings, and to hear from their own lips the story of their difficulties and triumphs.

Mrs. Slessor never missed hearing those who came to Dundee, and once she was so much moved by an address from the Rev. William Anderson as to the needs of Old Calabar that she longed to dedicate her son John to the work. He was a gentle lad, much loved by Mary. Apprenticed to a blacksmith, his health began to fail, and a change of climate became imperative. He emigrated to New Zealand, but died a week after landing. His mother felt the blow to her hopes even more than his death. To Mary the event was a bitter grief, and it turned her thoughts more directly to the foreign field. Could she fill her brother’s place? Would it be possible for her ever to become a missionary? The idea floated for a time through her mind, unformed and unconfessed, until it gradually resolved itself into a definite purpose. Sometimes she thought of Kaffraria, with its red-blanketed people, but it was always Calabar to which she came back: it had from the first captivated her imagination, as it for good reason captivated the imagination of the Church.

The founding of the Mission had been a romance. It was not from Scotland that the impulse came but from Jamaica in the West Indies. The slave population of that colony had been brought from the West Coast, and chiefly from the Calabar region, and although ground remorselessly in the mill of plantation life they had never forgotten their old home. When emancipation came and they settled down in freedom under the direction and care of the missionaries their thoughts went over the ocean to their fatherland, and they longed to see it also enjoy the blessings which the Gospel had brought to them. The agents of the Scottish Missionary Society and of the United Secession Church, who, together, formed the Jamaica Presbytery, talked over the matter, and resolved to take action; and eight of their number dedicated themselves for the service if called upon. A society was formed, and a fund was established to which the people contributed liberally. But the officials at home were cold; they deprecated so uncertain a venture in a pestilential climate. The Presbytery, undaunted, persevered with its preparations, and chose the Rev. Hope M. Waddell to be the first agent of the Society.

It is a far cry from Jamaica to Calabar, but a link of communication was provided in a remarkable way. Many years previously a slaver had been wrecked in the neighbourhood of Calabar. The surgeon on board was a young medical man named Ferguson, and he and the crew were treated with kindness by the natives. After a time they were able by another slaver to sail for the West Indies, whence Dr. Ferguson returned home. He became surgeon on a trader between Liverpool and Jamaica, making several voyages, and becoming well known in the colony. Settling down in Liverpool he experienced a spiritual change and became a Christian. He was interested to hear of the movement in Jamaica, and remembering with gratitude the friendliness shown him by the Calabar natives he undertook to find out whether they would accept a mission. This he did through captains of the trading vessels to whom he was hospitable. In 1848 a memorial from the local king and seven chiefs was sent to him, offering ground and a welcome to any missionaries who might care to come, This settled the matter. Mr. Waddell sailed from Jamaica for Scotland to promote and organise the undertaking.

Happily the Secession Church adopted the Calabar scheme, and after securing funds and a ship–one of the first subscriptions, it is interesting to note, was L1000 from Dr. Ferguson–Mr. Waddell, with several assistants sailed in 1846, and after many difficulties, which he conquered with indomitable spirit and patience, founded the Mission. In the following year it was taken over by the United Presbyterian Church, which had been formed by the union of the United Secession and Relief Churches.

In no part of the foreign field were conditions more formidable. Calabar exhibited the worst side of nature and of man. While much of it was beautiful, it was one of the most unhealthy spots in the world– sickness, disease, and swift death attacking the Europeans who ventured there. The natives were considered to be the most degraded of any in Africa. They were, in reality, the slum-dwellers of negro-land. From time immemorial their race had occupied the equatorial region of the continent, a people without a history, with only a past of confused movement, oppression, and terror. They seem to have been visited by adventurous navigators of galleys before the Christian era, but the world in general knew nothing of them. On the land side they were shut in without hope of expansion. When they endeavoured to move up to the drier Sahara and Soudanese regions they were met and pressed back by the outposts of the higher civilisations of Egypt and Arabia, who preyed upon them, crushed them, enslaved them in vast numbers. And just as the coloured folk of American cities are kept in the low-lying and least desirable localities, and as the humbler classes in European towns find a home in east-end tenements, so all that was weakest and poorest in the negro race gravitated to the jungle areas and the poisonous swamps of the coast, where, hemmed in by the pathless sea, they existed in unbroken isolation for ages. It was not until the fifteenth century that the explorations of the Portuguese opened up the coast. Then, to the horrors of the internal slave-trade was added the horror of the traffic for the markets of the West Indies and America. Calabar provided the slavers with their richest freight, the lands behind were decimated and desolated, and scenes of tragedy and suffering unspeakable were enacted on land and sea. Yet for 400 years Europeans never penetrated more than a few miles inland. Away in the far interior of the continent great kingdoms were known to exist, but all the vast coastal region was a mystery of rivers, swamps, and forests inhabited by savage negroes and wild beasts.

It is not surprising that when the missionaries arrived in Calabar they found the natives to have been demoralised and degraded by the long period of lawlessness and rapine through which they had passed. They characterised them in a way that was appalling: many seemed indeed to have difficulty in selecting words expressive enough for their purpose. “Bloody,” “savage,” “crafty,” “cruel,” “treacherous,” “sensual,” “devilish,” “thievish,” “cannibals,” “fetish-worshippers,” “murderers,” were a few of the epithets applied to them by men accustomed to observe closely and to weigh their words.

Not an attractive people to work amongst. Neither must the dwellers of the earth have appeared to Christ when He looked down from heaven ere He took His place in their midst. And Mary Slessor shrank from nothing which she thought her Master would have done: she rather welcomed the hardest tasks, and considered it an honour and privilege to be given them to do. She was not blind to the conditions at home. Often when at the Mission she realised how great was the need of the slums, with their problems of poverty and irreligion and misery. But the people there were within sight of church spires and within hearing of church bells, and there were many workers as capable as she: whilst down in the slums of Africa there were millions who knew no more of the redemptive power of Christ than did the beasts of the field. She was too intelligent a student of the New Testament not to know that Christ meant His disciples to spread His Gospel throughout the world, and too honest not to realise that the command was laid upon every one who loved Him in spirit and in truth. It was therefore with a quiet and assured mind that she went forward to the realisation of the dream. She told no one: she shrank even from mentioning the matter to her mother, but patiently prepared for the coming change. In the factory she took charge of two 60-inch looms, hard work for a young woman, but she needed the money, and she never thought of toil if her object could be gained.

Early in 1874 the news of the death of Dr. Livingstone stirred the land: it was followed by a wave of missionary enthusiasm; and the call for workers for the dark continent thrilled many a heart. It thrilled Mary Slessor into action. She reviewed the situation. Her sisters were now in good situations, and she saw her way to continue her share in the support of the home. What this loyal determination implied she did not guess then, but it was to have a large share in shaping her life. Broaching the subject to her mother she obtained a glad consent. One or two of her church friends were lukewarm; others, like Mr. Logic and Mr. Smith, encouraged her. The former, who was deeply interested in foreign missions and soon afterwards became a member of the Foreign Mission Committee, promised to look after her affairs during her sojourn abroad.

In May 1875 she offered her services to the Foreign Mission Board. Her heart was set on Calabar, but so eager was she to be accepted that she said she would be willing to go to any other field. Women agents had long been engaged in Calabar. The first, Miss Miller, had gone out with Mr. Waddell in l849-she became the “Mammy” Sutherland who did such noble service-and they were playing an ever more important part, and were stated to be both “economical and effective.” Requests had just been made for additions to the staff. The application was, therefore, opportune. Her personality, and the accounts given of her character and work, made such an impression on the officials that they reported favourably to the Board, and she was accepted as a teacher for Calabar and told to continue her studies in Dundee. In December it was decided to bring her to Edinburgh, at the expense of the Board, for three months, for special preparation….

The night before she left Dundee, in March 1876, she stood, a tearful figure, at the mouth of the “close” where she lived. “Good-bye,” she said to a friend, and then passionately, “Pray for me!”


A stranger in Edinburgh, Mary Slessor turned instinctively to Darling’s Temperance Hotel, which was then, and is still, looked upon as a home by travellers from all parts of the globe. The Darlings, who were associated with all good work, were then taking part in the revival movement of Messrs. Moody and Sankey, and the two daughters, Bella and Jane, were solo-singers at the meetings. The humble Dundee girl had heard of their powers, and she entered the hotel as if it were a shrine. Feeling very lonely and very shy, she attended the little gathering for worship which is held every evening, and was comforted and strengthened.

She found a lodging in the home of Mr. Robert Martin, a city missionary, connected with Bristo Street congregation, and formed a friendship for Ms daughter Mary. By her she was taken to visit a companion, Mary Doig, who lived in the south side. The three became intimates, and shortly afterward Miss Slessor went to live with the Doigs, and remained with them during her stay in the city. It was a happy event for her. Warm-hearted and sympathetic, they treated her as one of the family. A daughter who was married, Mrs. M’Crindle, also met her, and a lifelong affection sprang up between the two. In later days it was to Mrs. M’Crindle’s house the tired missionary first came on her furloughs.

Though she attended the Normal School in the Canongate, she was not enrolled as a regular student, and her name does not appear on the books; but a memory of her presence lingers like a sweet fragrance, and she appears to have been a power for good. One who was a student with her says: “She had a most gracious and winning personality, and impressed the students by her courage in going to what was called ‘the white man’s grave.’ Her reply to questioners was that Calabar was the post of danger, and was therefore the post of honour. Few would volunteer for service there, hence she wished to go, for it was there the Master needed her. The beauty of her character showed itself in her face, and I have rarely seen one which showed so plainly that the love of God dwelt within. It was always associated in my mind with that of Miss Angelica Fraser; a heavenly radiance seemed to emanate from both.”

Her leisure hours were given up to miscellaneous mission work in the city. Mary Doig and Mary Martin were both connected with Bristo Street congregation, and worked in the mission at Cowan’s Close, Crosscauseway, and they naturally took Mary Slessor with them. Another intimate friendship was formed with Miss Paxton, a worker in connection with South Gray’s Close Mission in the High Street. Miss Paxton was standing at the entrance to the close one Sunday, after a meeting, when Miss Slessor passed up with a Mr. Bishop, who afterwards became the printer at Calabar. Mr. Bishop introduced her. “You want some one to help you?” he said; “you cannot do better than take Miss Slessor.” The two were kindred spirits, and Mary was soon at home among Miss Paxton’s classes. Her first address to the women stands out clearly in the memory of her friend, and is interesting as indicating her standpoint then and throughout her life. It was on the question, “What shall I do with Jesus?” She told them that Christ was standing before them as surely as He stood before Pilate; and very earnestly she went on, “Dear women, you must do something with Him: you must reject Him or you must accept Him. What are you going to do?” She gave them no vision of hell- fire: she spoke to their reason and judgment, putting the great issue before them as a simple proposition, clear as light, inexorable as logic, and left them to decide for themselves.

Her two companions soon came under her influence. Their culture, piety, and practical gifts seemed to mark them out for missionaries, and as a result of her persuasion they offered themselves to the Foreign Mission Committee of the Church, and were accepted for China. In July the Committee satisfied itself with regard to Miss Slessor’s proficiency, and decided to send her out at once to Calabar. Her salary was fixed at L60. Before sailing for their different stations the three Marys, as they came to be known, attended many meetings together, and were a source of interest to the Church.

Miss Slessor was now twenty-eight years of age, a type of nature peculiarly characteristic of Scotland, the result of its godly motherhood, the severe discipline of its social conditions, its stern toil, its warm church life, its missionary enthusiasm. Mature in mind and body, she retained the freshness of girlhood, was vivacious and sympathetic, and, while aglow with spirituality, was very human and likeable, with a heart as tender and wistful as a child’s. What specially distinguished her, says one who knew her well, were her humility and the width and depth of her love. With diffidence, but in high hope, she went forward to weave the pattern of her service in the Mission Field….

She sailed on August 5, 1876. Two Dundee companions went with her to Liverpool. At the docks they saw going on board the steamer Ethiopia, by which she was to travel, a large number of casks of spirits for the West Coast. “Scores of casks!” she exclaimed ruefully, “and only one missionary!”


1876-1888. Age 28-40.


_”I am passing through the lights and shadows of life_.”


There is a glamour like the glamour of the dawn about one’s first voyage to the tropics; and as the _Ethiopia_ passed out of the grey atmosphere of England into the spring belt of the world, and then into a region where the days were a glory of sunshine and colour and the nights balmy and serene, Miss Slessor, so long confined within the bare walls of a factory, found the experience a pure delight in spite of a sense of loneliness that sometimes stole over her. Her chief grievance was that Sunday was kept like other days. Trained in the habits of a religious Scottish home it seemed to her extraordinary that no service should be held. “My very heart and flesh cried out for the courts of God’s house,” she wrote. Some of the crew comforted her by saying that there was always a Sabbath in Calabar.

It was not until the headland of Cape Verde was sighted and passed, and she saw in succession stretches of green banks, white sands upon which the surf beat, and long grey levels of mangrove, that she began to realise the presence of Africa. From the shore came hot whiffs of that indescribable smell so subtly suggestive of a tropical land; while the names of the districts–the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast–conjured up the old days of adventure, blood-red with deeds of cruelty and shame. This Gulf of Guinea was the heart of the slave trade: more vessels loaded up here with their black cargo than at any other port of the continent, and the Bight of Biafra, on which Calabar is situated, was ever the busiest spot. Mangrove forests, unequalled anywhere for immensity and gloom, fringe the entire sweep of the Gulf. Rooted in slime, malodorous and malarious, they form a putrescent paradise for all manner of loathly creatures.

Out of the blue waters of the Atlantic the _Ethiopia_ ran, on Saturday, September 11, into the mud-coloured estuary of the Cross and Calabar Rivers. On the left lay the flat delta of the Niger, ahead stretched the landscape of mangrove as far as the eye could range; to the south- east rose the vast bulk of the Cameroon Mountains. With what interest Mary gazed on the scene one can imagine. Somewhere at the back of these swamps was the spot where she was to settle and work. That it was near the coast she knew, for all that more distant land was unexplored and unknown: most of what was within sight, indeed, was still outside the pale of civilisation; through the bush and along the creeks and lagoons moved nude people, most of whom had never seen a white face. It might well seem an amazing thing to her, in view of the fact that there had been commerce with the coast for centuries. Vessels had plied to it for slaves, spices, gold dust, ivory, and palm oil; traders mingled with the people, and spoke their tongue; and yet it remained a land of mystery.

There were many reasons for this. The country was owned by no European Power. Britain regarded it–somewhat unwillingly at first–as a sphere of influence, but had no footing in it, and no control over the people. These were divided into many tribes and sections of tribes, each speaking a different tongue, and each perpetually at war with its neighbour. The necessities of trade fostered a certain intercourse; there was neutral ground where transactions took place, and products for the traders filtered down to the people at the coast who acted as middlemen. These, for obvious reasons, objected to the white men going inland–they would get into touch with the tribes, their authority would be undermined and their business ruined, and as they controlled the avenues of approach and were masters in their own house their veto could not be disregarded. In any case a journey up-river was full of peril. Every bend brought one to a new tribe, alert, suspicious, threatening. For Europeans it was a foodless country, in which they had to face hunger, fever, and death. Even the missionaries had only been feeling their way very slowly: they explored and planted out stations here and there, as permission was obtained from the chiefs, but their main efforts were directed to the task of establishing a strong base at the coast.

The estuary is about twelve miles in breadth, its banks are lined by mangrove, and here and there its surface is broken by islands. From these, as the steamer passed, parrots flew in flocks. From the sandbanks and mudbanks alligators slid into the water with a splash. Occasionally a shrimp-fisher in his canoe was seen. Higher up were the ruins of the barracoons, where the slaves were penned while waiting for shipment. Some fifty miles from the sea the steamer swung round to the east and entered the Calabar River; the swamps gave place to clay cliffs thick with undergrowth and trees, and far ahead a cluster of houses came into view–this, Mary knew, was Old Town. Then the hulks in the stream, used as stores and homes by the traders, appeared, and the steamer anchored opposite Duke Town. It lay on the right among swamps in a receding hollow of the cliff: a collection of mud-dwellings thatched with palm leaf, slovenly and sordid, and broiling in the hot rays of a brilliant sun.

It was the scene she had often endeavoured to picture in her mind. There was the hill where into the bush the dead bodies of natives used to be cast to become the food of wild beasts, now crowned with the Mission buildings. What memories had already gathered about these! What experiences lay behind the men and women who lived there! What a land was this she had chosen to make her dwelling-place–a land formless, mysterious, terrible, ruled by witchcraft and the terrorism of secret societies; where the skull was worshipped and blood-sacrifices were offered to jujus; where guilt was decided by ordeal of poison and boiling oil; where scores of people were murdered when a chief died, and his wives decked themselves in finery and were strangled to keep him company in the spirit-land; where men and women were bound and left to perish by the water-side to placate the god of shrimps; where the alligators were satiated with feeding on human flesh; where twins were done to death, and the mother banished to the bush; where semi- nakedness was compulsory, and girls were sent to farms to be fattened for marriage. A land, also, of disease and fever and white graves.

There, too, lay her own future, as dark and unknown as the land, full of hard work, she knew, full, it might be of danger and trial and sorrow….

But the boats of the traders and the missionaries came off, the canoes of the natives swarmed around, the whole town seemed to be on the water. With eyes that were bright and expectant Mary stepped from the Mission boat and set foot on African soil.


The young missionary-teacher was delighted with the novelty and wonders of her surroundings. She revelled in the sunshine, the warmth, the luxuriant beauty, and began to doubt whether the climate was so deadly after all: some of the missionaries told her that much of the illness was due to the lack of proper care, and there was even one who said he preferred Calabar to Scotland.

She was impressed with the Mission. The organisation of church and school, the regular routine of life, the large attendance at the services, the demeanour of the Christians, the quiet and persistent aggressive work going on, satisfied her sense of the fitness of things and made her glad and hopeful. To hear the chime of Sabbath bells; to listen to the natives singing, in their own tongue, the hymns associated with her home life, the Sabbath school and the social meeting; and to watch one of them give an address with eloquence and power, was a revelation. She went to a congregational meeting at Creek Town and heard King Eyo Honesty VII. speaking, and so many were present, and the feeling was so hearty and united that it might have served as a model for the home churches. She was attracted by the King; a sincere kindly Christian man, she found him to be. When she told him that her mother was much interested in him, he was so pleased that he wrote Mrs. Slessor, and the two corresponded–he a negro King in Africa and she an obscure woman in Scotland, drawn to each other across 4000 miles of sea by the influence of the Gospel.

It was true that the results of thirty years’ work in Calabar did not seem large. The number of members in all the congregations was 174, though the attendances at the services each Sunday was over a thousand. The staff, however, had never been very large; of Europeans at this time there were four ordained missionaries, four men teachers, and four women teachers, and of natives one ordained missionary and eighteen agents; and efforts were confined to Duke Town, Old Town, Creek Town, Ikunetu, and Ikorofiong–all on the banks of the rivers or creeks–with several out-stations.

Her work at first was simple: it was to teach in the day-school on Mission Hill and visit in the yards, both on week-days and Sundays. Not until the strangeness of things had worn off a little did she begin to see below the surface and discover the difficulties of the situation. What assisted the process was a tour of the stations, which it was thought well she should make in order to become acquainted with the conditions. In the out-districts she came into contact with the raw heathen, and felt herself down at the very foundations of humanity. Most of the journeying was through the bush: there were long and fatiguing marches, and much climbing and jumping and wading to do, in which she had the help of three Kroo boys, but being active in body and buoyant in spirit, she enjoyed it thoroughly. A white “Ma” was so curious a sight in some of the districts that the children would run away, screaming with fright, and the women would crowd round her talking, gesticulating, and fingering, so that the chiefs had to drive them off with a whip. She was a little startled by these demonstrations, but was told the people were merely wishing to make friends with her, and she soon overcame her nervousness.

Her first meeting was held while she was with one of the native agents, John Baillie, and took place in the shade of a large tree beside a devil-house built for a dead man’s spirit, and stocked with food. After the agent had spoken in Efik he turned to her and said, “Have you anything to say to them?” She looked at the dark throng, degraded, ignorant, superstitious. All eyes were fixed on her. For once she found it difficult to speak. Asking Mr. Baillie to read John v. 1-24, she tried to arrange her thoughts, but seemed to grow more helpless. When she began, the words came, and very simply, very earnestly–the agent interpreting–she spoke of their need of healing and saving, of which they must be conscious through their dissatisfaction with this life, the promptings of their higher natures, the experience of suffering and sorrow, and the dark future beyond death, and, asking the question, “Wilt thou be made whole?” pointed the way to peace.

As she observed and assimilated, she came to hold a clearer view of the people and the problems confronting the missionaries. She realised that the raw negroes, though savage enough, were not destitute of religious beliefs: their “theology,” indeed, seemed somewhat too complicated for comprehension. Nor were their lives unregulated by principles and laws; they were ruled by canons and conventions as powerful as those of Europe, as merciless as the caste code of India; their social life was rooted in a tangle of relationships and customs as intricate as any in the world. The basis of the community was the House, at the head of which was a Master or Chief, independent and autocratic within his own limited domain, which consisted merely of a cluster of mud-huts in the bush. In this compound or yard, or “town” as it was sometimes called, lived connected families. Each chief had numerous wives and slaves, over whom he exercised absolute control. The slaves enjoyed considerable freedom, many occupying good positions and paying tribute, but they could be sold or killed at the will of their master. All belonging to a House were under its protection, and once outside that protection they were pariahs, subject to no law, and at the mercy of Egbo. This secret society was composed of select and graded classes initiated according to certain rites. Its agents were Egbo-runners, supposed to represent a supernatural being in the bush, who came suddenly out, masked and dressed in fantastic garb, and with a long whip rushed about and committed excesses. At these times all women were obliged to hide, for if found they would be flogged and stripped of their clothing. Egbo, however, had a certain power for good, and was often evoked in aid of law and order. Naturally it was the divorcing of superfluous wives, and the freeing of slaves that formed the greatest difficulty for the missionaries–it meant nothing less than breaking up a social system developed and fortified by long centuries of custom. Thus early Miss Slessor came to see that it was the duty of the missionary to bring about a new set of conditions in which it would be possible for the converts to live, and the thought influenced her whole after-career.

The district of Calabar afforded a striking object-lesson of what could be achieved. There was no central native government, and the British consular jurisdiction was of the most shadowy character. So far there had been but the quiet pressure of a moral and spiritual agency at work, but under its influence the people had become habituated to the orderly ways of civilisation, and were living in peace and amity. It was admitted by the officials that the agreements which they concluded with the chiefs had only been rendered possible by the teaching of the missionaries: and later it was largely upon the same sure and solid foundations that British authority was to build.

So, she realised, it was not a case where one could say, “Let there be light,” and light would shine. The work of the Mission was like building a lighthouse stone by stone, layer by layer, with infinite toil and infinite patience. Yet she often found it hard to restrain her eagerness. “It is difficult to wait,” she said. One text, however, kept repeating itself–“Learn of Me.” “Christ never was in a hurry,” she wrote. “There was no rushing forward, no anticipating, no fretting over what might be, Every day’s duties were done as every day brought them, and the rest was left with God. ‘He that believeth shall not make haste.'” And in that spirit she worked.

Her better knowledge of the position made her resolve to acquire a thorough mastery of the language in order to enter completely into the life and thought of the natives. Interpretation she had already found to be untrustworthy, and she was told the tale of a native who, translating an address on the rich man and Lazarus, remarked, in an aside to the audience, that for himself he would prefer to be the rich man! Efik was the tongue of Calabar and of trade and commerce, and was understood more or less over a wide tract of country. She learnt it by ear, and from the people, rather than from the book, and soon picked up enough to take a larger share in the varied work of the Mission.

Life had a piquancy in these days when she lived with the Andersons on Mission Hill. “Daddy” Anderson was a veteran of the Mission, but it was “Mammy” Anderson with whom she came into closest relation. Of strong individuality, she ruled the town from the Mission House, and the chiefs were fain to do her bidding. At first Mary stood somewhat in awe of her. One of the duties assigned to her was to ring, before dawn, the first bell for the day to call the faithful to morning prayer. There were no alarm clocks then, and occasionally she overslept, and the rebuke she received from Mrs. Anderson made her cheeks burn. Sometimes she would wake with a start to find her room flooded with light. Half- dazed with sleep and shamed at her remissness she would hurry out to ring the bell, only to discover that it was not dawn but the light of the moon that was making the world so bright.

At one time when doing duty in Old Town she had to walk along a narrow native track through the bush. To let off the high spirits that had been bottled up in the Mission House she would climb any tree that took her fancy. She affirmed that she had climbed every tree worthy of the name between Duke Town and Old Town. Sometimes her fun made her late for meals, and Mrs. Anderson would warn her that if she offended again she would go without food. She did offend, and then Mr. Anderson would smuggle biscuits and bananas to her, with, she was confident, the connivance of his wife. She had a warm affection for all the members of the Mission staff, but for none more than for “Mammy” Anderson.

There was one of the humbler inmates of the Mission who watched with affectionate interest the young missionary with the soft voice and dancing eyes. This was Mrs. Fuller, a coloured woman who had come over from Jamaica in 1858 with the Rev. Mr. Robb and Mrs. Robb as a nurse, and married and remained after they left to be a help and comfort to many. She remembered the day when the slaves were emancipated in the West Indies. A kindly, happy, unselfish soul, she never spoke ill of any one. Somebody said to her, “Mammy, I believe you would say a good word about the devil himself.” “Well,” she replied, “at any rate he minds his own business.” “Dear old Mammy Fuller,” Miss Slessor called her, little dreaming that Mammy would live to throw flowers into her grave.


In the hush of a beautiful Sunday morning the new missionary begins what she calls the commonplace work of the day. Looking out some illustrated texts she sends a few with a kindly message to all the big men, reminding them that Mr. Anderson expects them at service. Then she sets out for the town, and few people escape her keen eye and persuasive words.

“Why are you not going to God’s House?” she asks a man who is sitting at the door of his hut. Close by are the remains of a devil-house.

He rocks himself and replies, “If your heart was vexed would you go any place? Would you not rather sit at home and nurse your sorrow?”

Mary learns that his only child has died and has been buried in the house, and according to custom the family is sitting in filth, squalor, and drunkenness. She talks to him of the resurrection, and he becomes interested, and takes her into a room where the mother is sitting with bowed head over the grave, the form of which can be seen distinctly under a blue cloth that covers the ground. A bunch of dirty muslin is hanging from the ceiling. It is a dismal scene. She reads part of John xi., and speaks about life and death and the beyond.

“Well,” remarked the man, “if God took the child I don’t care so much– but to think an enemy bewitched it!”

To the mother she says, “Do you not find comfort in these words?”

“No,” is the sullen reply. “Why should I find comfort when my child is gone?”

Mary pats her on the head, and tells her how her own mother has found comfort in the thought of the reunion hereafter. The woman is touched and weeps: the mother-heart is much the same all the world over.

A few slave-girls are all she finds in the next yard, the other inmates having gone to work at the farms; but she speaks to them and they listen respectfully. Another yard is crowded with women, some eating, some sleeping, some dressing each other’s hair, some lounging half- naked on the ground gossiping–a picture of sheer animalism. Her advent creates a welcome diversion, and they are willing to listen: it helps to pass the time. They take her into an inner yard where a fine-looking young woman is being fattened for her future husband. She flouts the message, and is spoken to sternly and left half-crestfallen, half- defiant. It is scenes like this which convince Mary that the women are the greatest problem in the Mission Field. She does not wonder that the men are as they are. If they are to be reached more must be done for the women, and a prayer goes up that the Church at home may realise the situation.

Farther on is a heathen house. The master is dead: the mistress is an old woman, hardened and repulsive, the embodiment of all that is evil, who is counting coppers in a room filled with bush, skulls, sacrifices, and charms. A number of half-starved cowed women and girls covered with dirt and sores are quarrelling over a pipe. The shrill voice and long arms of the mistress settle the matter, and make them fly helter- skelter. They call on Mary to speak, and after many interruptions she subdues and controls them, and leaves them, for the moment, impressed.

She arrives at a district which the lady agents have long worked. The women are cleanly, pleasant, and industrious, but polished hypocrites, always ready to protest with smooth tongue and honeyed words that they are eager to be “god-women,” but never taking the first step forwards. Mary, who is learning to be sarcastic, on occasion, gives them a bit of her mind and goes away heart-sick. But she is cheered at the next yard, where she has a large and attentive audience.

In the poorest part she comes upon a group of men selling rum. At the sight of the “white Ma” they put the stuff away and beg her to stay. They are quiet until she denounces the sale of the liquor; then one interrupts:

“What for white man bring them rum suppose them rum no be good? He be god-man bring the rum–then what for god-man talk so?”

What can she answer?

It is a vile fluid this trade spirit, yet the country is deluged with it, and it leaves behind it disaster and demoralisation and ruined homes. Mary feels bitter against the civilised countries that seek profit from the moral devastation of humanity.

She cannot answer the man.

A husband brings his woebegone wife who has lost five children. Can “Ma” not give her some medicine? She again speaks of the resurrection. A crowd gathers and listens breathlessly. When she says that even the twin-children are safe with God, and that they will yet confront their murderers, the people start, shrug their shoulders, and with looks of terror slink one by one away.

She visits many of the hovels, which are little better than ruins. Pools of filth send out pestilential odours. There is starvation in every pinched face and misery in every sunken eye. Covered with sores the inmates lie huddled together and clamour only for food. One old woman says:

“I have prayed and prayed till there is no breath left in me. God does not answer. He does not care.”

“To whom do you pray?”

“I don’t know, but I call Him God. I tell Him I have no friend. I say ‘You see me. I am sick. I am hungry. I am good. I don’t steal. I don’t keep bread from any one. I don’t kill. I don’t speak with my mouth when my heart is far away. Have mercy upon me.'”

Mary talks to her lovingly and earnestly, and when she leaves, the heart of the wretched woman is quietened and grateful.

It is afternoon, and time for the Efik service at four o’clock, and Mary, a little tired with the heat and the strain, turns and makes for Mission Hill.


It was not long before she had to revise her opinion of the climate. Nature was beautiful, but beneath its fair appearance lurked influences that were cruel and pitiless. “Calabar needs a brave heart and a stout body,” she wrote; “not that I have very much of the former, but I have felt the need for it often when sick and lonely.” Both the dry and rainy seasons had their drawbacks, but she especially disliked the former-which lasted from December to March-because of the “smokes” or harmattan, a haze composed of fine dust blown from the great African desert, that withered her up and sucked out all the energy she possessed. She was frequently attacked by fever, and laid aside, and on one occasion was at the point of death. But she never lost her confidence in God. Once she thought she had. It was during an illness when she was only semi-conscious, but on recovering the clearness of her mind she realised that she had given herself into His keeping and need not fear, and a sense of comfort and peace stole over her. So many attacks weakened her constitution and made her think oftener of home. She began to have a longing to look again upon loved faces, to have grey skies overhead, and to feel the tang of the clean cool air on her cheek, “I want my home and my mother,” she confessed. It was home- sickness, and there is only one cure for that. It comes, however, to pass. It is not so overpowering after the first home-going, and it grows less importunate after each visit. One finds after a short absence that things in the old environment are, somehow, not the same; that there has ceased to be a niche which one can fill; that one has a fresh point of view; and as time goes on and the roots of life go deeper into the soil of the new country, the realisation comes that it is in the homeland where one is homeless, and in the land of exile where one is at home. But at first the pull of the old associations is irresistible; and so when her furlough was due, Mary flew to Scotland as a wandered bird flies wing-weary back to its nest.

She left Calabar in June 1879 and proceeded straight to Dundee. During her stay she removed her mother and sisters to Downfield, a village on the outskirts of the city, and was happy in the knowledge that all was well with them. Friends who listened to her graphic account of Calabar tell that even then she spoke of her desire to go up country into the unworked fields, and especially to the Okoyong district, but “Daddy” Anderson was opposed to the idea. Before returning, she wrote the Foreign Mission Committee and begged to be sent to a station other than Duke Town, though she loyally added that she would do whatever was thought best. She sailed with the Rev. Hugh Goldie, one of the veteran pioneers of the Mission, and Mrs. Goldie, and on arrival at Calabar, in October 1880, found to her joy that she was to be in charge of Old Town, and that she was a real missionary at last.


The first sight she saw on entering her new sphere was a human skull hung on a pole at the entrance to the town. In Old Town and the smaller stations of Qua, Akim, and Ikot Ansa, lying back in the tribal district of Ekoi, the people were amongst the most degraded in Calabar. It was a difficult field, but she entered upon it with zest. Although under the supervision of Duke Town, she was practically her own mistress, and could carry out her own ideas and methods. This was important for her, for, to her chagrin, she had found that boarding was expensive in Calabar, and as she had to leave a large portion of her salary at home for the support of her mother and sisters, she could not afford to live as the other lady agents did. She had to economise in every direction, and took to subsisting wholly on native food. It was in this way she acquired those simple, Spartan-like habits which accompanied her through life. Her colleagues attributed her desire for isolation and native ways to natural inclination, not dreaming that they were a matter of compulsion, for she was too loyal to her home and too proud of spirit to reveal the reason for her action.

One drawback of the situation was the dilapidated state of the house. It was built of wattle and mud, had a mat roof and a whitewashed interior. She did not, however, mind its condition; she was so absorbed in the work that personal comfort was a matter of indifference to her. Her household consisted of a young woman and several boys and girls, with whose training she took endless pains, and who helped her and accompanied her to her meetings. School work made large drafts on her time at Old Town, Qua, and Akim. Young and old came as scholars. At Qua the chief man of the place after the king sat on a bench with little children, and along with them repeated the Sunday School lessons. He set them an example, for he was never absent.

But to preach the love of Christ was her passion. With every visitor who called to give compliments, with every passer-by who came out of curiosity to see what the white woman and her house were like, with all who brought a dispute to settle, she had talk about the Saviour of the world. Sunday was a day of special effort in this direction. She would set out early for Qua, where two boys carrying a bell slung on a pole summoned the people to service. One of the chiefs would fix the benches and arrange the audience, which usually numbered from 80 to 100, She would go on to Akim or Ikot Ansa, where a similar meeting was held. On the way she would visit sick folk, or call in at farms, have friendly conversation with master and dependants, and give a brief address and prayer. By mid-day she would be back at Old Town, where she conducted a large Sunday School. In the evening a regular church service was held, attended by almost the entire community. This, to her, was the meeting of the week. It took place in the yard of the chief. At one side stood a table, covered with a white cloth, on which were a primitive lamp and a Bible. The darkness, the rows of dusky faces just revealed by the flickering light, the strained attention, the visible emotion made up a strange picture. At the end came hearty “good-nights,” and she would be escorted home by a procession of lantern-bearers.

Such service, incessant and loving, began to tell. The behaviour of the people improved; the god of the town was banished; the chiefs went the length of saying that their laws and customs were clearly at variance with God’s fashions. Mr. Anderson reported to the Church at home that she was “doing nobly.” When two deputies went out and inspected the Mission in 1881-82, they were much impressed by her energy and devotion. “Her labours are manifold,” they stated, “but she sustains them cheerfully–she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.” This they attributed partly to the singular ease with which she spoke the language. Learning that she preferred her present manner of life to being associated with another white person–they were unaware, like others, of the real reason which governed her–they recommended that she should be allowed to continue her solitary course.

It was at Old Town that she came first into close contact with the more sinister aspects of mission work, and obtained that training and experience in dealing with the natives and native problems which led her into the larger responsibilities of the future. Despite the influence of the missionaries and the British Consul, many of the worst heathen iniquities were being practised. A short time previously the Consul had made a strong effort to get the chiefs to enforce the laws regarding twin-murder, human sacrifice, the stripping and flogging of women by Egbo-runners, and other offences, and an agreement had been reached; but no treaty, no Egbo proclamation could root out the customs of centuries, and they continued to be followed, in secret in the towns and openly in the country districts.

The evil of twin-murder had a terrible fascination for her. A woman who gave birth to twins was regarded with horror. The belief was that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin; one at least of the children was believed to be a monster, and as they were never seen by outsiders or allowed to live, no one could disprove the fact. They were seized, their backs were broken, and they were crushed into a calabash or water-pot and taken out–not by the doorway, but by a hole broken in the back wall, which was at once built up–and thrown into the bush, where they were left to be eaten by insects and wild beasts. Sometimes they would be placed alive into the pots. As for the mother, she was driven outside the bounds of decent society and compelled to live alone in the bush. In such circumstances there was only one thing for the missionaries to do. As soon as twins were born they sought to obtain possession of them, and gave them the security and care of the Mission House. Some of the Mission compounds were alive with babies. It was no use taking the mother along with them. She believed she must be accursed, for otherwise she would never be in such a position. First one and then the other child would die, and she would make her escape and fly to the bush.

Mary realised that the system was the outcome of superstition and fear, and she could even see how, from the native point of view, it was essential for the safety of the House, but her heart was hot against it; nothing, indeed, roused her so fiercely as the senseless cruelty of putting these innocent babes to death, and she joined in the campaign with fearless energy.

She could also understand why the natives threw away infants whose slave-mother died. No slave had time to bring up another woman’s child. If she did undertake the task, it would only be hers during childhood; after that it became the property of the master. The chances of a slave-child surviving were not good enough for a free woman to try the experiment, and as life in any case was of little value, it was considered best that the infant should be put out of the way.

The need of special service in these directions made her suggest to the Foreign Mission Committee that one of the woman agents should be set apart to take care of the children that were rescued. It was impossible, she said, for one to do school or other work, and attend to them as well. “If such a crowd of twins should come to her as I have to manage, she would require to devote her whole time to them.” More and more also she was convinced of the necessity of women’s work among the women in the farming districts, and she pressed the matter upon the Committee. She was in line with the old chief who remarked that “them women be the best man for the Mission.”

Another evil which violated her sense of justice and right, and against which she took up arms, was the trade attitude of the Calabar people. Although they had settled on the coast only by grace of the Ekois, they endeavoured to monopolise all dealings with the Europeans and prevent the inland tribes from doing business direct with the factories. Often the up-river men would make their way down stealthily, but if caught they were slain or mutilated, and a bitter vendetta would ensue. She recognised that it would only be by the tribes coming to know and respect each other, and by the adoption of unrestricted trade with the stores that the full reward of industry could be secured. She accordingly took up the cause of the inland tribes. When Efik was at war with Qua, sentries were posted at all the paths to the factories, but the people came to her by night, and she would lead them down the track running through the Mission property. At the factory next to the Mission beach they would deliver their palm oil or kernels, and take back the goods for which they had bartered them. In this way she helped to open up the country. It was not, perhaps, mission work in the ordinary sense any more than much of Dr. Livingstone’s work was missionary work, but it was an effort to break down the conditions that perpetuated wrong and dispeace, and to introduce the forces of righteousness and goodwill. In all this work she had the sympathy of the traders, who showed her much kindness. She was a missionary after their own heart.


The spirit of the pioneer would not allow her to be content with the routine of village work. She began to go afield, and made trips of exploration along the river. The people found her different from other missionaries; she would enter their townships as one of themselves, show them in a moment that she was mistress of their thought and ways, and get right into their confidence. Always carrying medicine, she attended the sick, and so many maimed and diseased crowded to her that often she would lose the tide twice over. In her opinion no preaching surpassed these patient, intimate interviews on the banks of the river and by the wayside, when she listened to tales of suffering and sorrow and gave sympathy and practical help. Sometimes she remained away for nights at a time, and on these occasions her only accommodation was a mud hut and her only bed a bundle of filthy rags.

A larger venture was made at the instance of a chief named Okon, a political refugee whom she knew. He had settled at a spot on the western bank of the estuary, then called Ibaka, now James Town, and had long urged her to pay the place a visit. It was only some thirty miles away, but thirty miles to the African is more than two hundred to a European, and Old Town was in a state of excitement for days before she left. Nine A.M. was the hour fixed for departure, but Mary knew local ways, and forenoon found her calmly cooking the dinner. The house was crowded with visitors begging her to be careful, and threatening vengeance if anything happened to their “Ma.” At 6 P.M. came word that all was ready, and, followed by a retinue comprising half the population, she made her way to the beach. Women who were not ordinarily permitted to be viewed by the public eye waited at every yard to embrace hers and to charge all concerned to look well alter her comfort.

A State canoe sent by the King lay at the water-side. It had been repainted for the occasion in the gayest of colours, while thoughtful hands had erected a little arch of matting to seclude her from the paddlers and afford protection from the dew, and had arranged some rice-bags as a couch. The pathos of the tribute touched her, and with a smile and a word of thanks she stepped into her place and settled the four house-children about the feet of the paddlers. More hours were lost in one way or another. Darkness fell, and only the red gleam of the torches lit up the scene. Alligators and snakes haunted the spot, but she had no fear so long as the clamour of the crowd continued.

At last, “Sio uden!” The command was answered by the “dip-dip” of thirty-three paddles, and the canoe glided into the middle of the river and sped onwards. In her crib she tried to read by the light of a candle, while the paddlers extemporised songs in her honour, assigning to her all the virtues under the sun–

_Ma, our beautiful, beloved mother, is on board, Ho! Ho! Ho_!

The gentle movement, the monotonous “tom-tom-tum” of the drummer, and the voice of the steersman, became mingled in a dreamy jumble, and she slept through the night as soundly as on a bed of down. Ten hours’ paddling brought the craft to its destination, and at dawn she was carried ashore over golden sand and under great trees, and deposited in the chief’s compound amongst goats, dogs, and fowls. She and the children were given the master’s room–which always opens out into the women’s yard–and as it possessed no door a piece of calico was hung up as a screen. The days were tolerable, but the nights were such as even she, inured to African conditions, found almost unbearable. It was the etiquette of the country that all the wives should sit as close to the white woman as was compatible with her idea of comfort, and as the aim of each was to be fatter than the other, and they all perspired freely, and there was no ventilation, it required all her courage to outlast the ordeal. Lizards, too, played among the matting of the roof, and sent down showers of dust, while rats performed hop, skip, and jump over the sleepers.

Crowds began to pour in from a wide area. Many of the people had never looked upon a white woman, and she had to submit to being handled and examined in order to prove that she was flesh and blood like themselves. Doubtful men and women were forcibly dragged to her by laughing companions and made to touch her skin. At meal times she was on exhibition to a favoured few, who watched how she ate and drank, and then described the operations to the others outside.

Day by day she prescribed and bandaged, cut out garments, superintended washing, and initiated women into the secrets of starching and ironing. Day by day she held a morning and evening service, and it was with difficulty that she prevented the one from merging into the other. On Sabbath the yard became strangely quiet: all connected with it were clothed and clean, and in a corner stood a table with a white cloth and upon it a Bible and hymn-book. As the fierce-looking, noisy men from a distance entered they stopped involuntarily and a hush fell upon them. Many heard the story of Christ for the first time, and never had she a more appreciative audience. In the evening the throng was so great that her voice could barely reach them all, and at the end they came up to her and with deep feeling wished her good-night and then vanished quietly into the darkness.

The people would not allow her to walk out much on account of the presence of wild beasts. Elephants were numerous–it was because of the destruction they had wrought on the farms that fishing had become the main support of the township. Early one morning a commotion broke out: a boa constrictor had been seen during the night, and bands of men armed with clubs, cutlasses, and muskets set off, yelling, to hunt the monster. Whenever she moved out she was followed by all the men, women, and children. On every side she saw skulls, rudely carved images, peace-offerings of food to hungry spirits, and other evidences of debased fetishism, while cases of witchcraft and poisoning were frequent.

One day she noticed a tornado brewing on the Cameroon heights, and kept indoors. While sitting sewing the storm burst. The wind seized the village, lifting fences, canoes, trees, and buildings; lightning played and crackled about the hut; the thunder pealed overhead; and rain fell in floods. Then a column of flame leapt from the sky to earth, and a terrific crash deafened the cowering people. Accustomed as she was to tornadoes Mary was afraid. The slaves came rushing into the yard, shrieking, and at the same moment the roof of her hut was swept away, and she was beaten to the ground by the violence of the rain. In the light of the vivid flashes she groped her way through the water, now up to her ankles, and from her boxes obtained all the wraps she possessed. To keep up the spirits of the children she started a hymn, “Oh, come let us sing.” Amidst the roar of the elements they caught the tune, and gradually their terror was subdued. When the torrent ceased she was in a high fever. She dosed herself with quinine, and as the shadow of death is never very far away in Africa she made all arrangements in case the end should come. But her temperature fell, and in two days she was herself again.

There was a morning when her greetings were responded to with such gravity that she knew something serious had occurred. During the night two of the young wives of a chief had broken the strictest law in Efik, had left the women’s yard and entered one where a boy was sleeping, and as nothing can be hidden in a slave community their husband knew at once. The culprits were called out, and with them two other girls, who were aware of the escapade, but did not tell. The chief, and the men of position in his compound and district, sat in judgment upon them, and decided that each must receive one hundred stripes.

Mary sought out Okon and talked the matter over. “Ma,” he said, “it be proper big palaver, but if you say we must not flog we must listen to you as our mother and our guest. But they will say that God’s word be no good if it destroy the power of the law to punish evildoers.”

He agreed, however, to delay the punishment, and to bring the judges and the people together in a palaver at mid-day. When all were assembled she addressed the girls:

“You have brought much shame on us by your folly and by abusing your master’s confidence while the yard is in our possession. Though God’s word teaches men to be merciful, it does not countenance or pass over sin, and I cannot shelter you from punishment. You have knowingly and deliberately brought it on yourselves. Ask God to keep you in the future so that your conduct may not be a reproach to yourselves and the word of God which you know.”

Many were the grunts of satisfaction from the people, and the faces of the big men cleared as they heard their verdict being endorsed, while darker and more defiant grew the looks of the girls.

With a swift movement she turned to the gathering:

“Ay, but you are really to blame. It is your system of polygamy which is a disgrace to you and a cruel injustice to these helpless women. Girls like these, sixteen years old, are not beyond the age of fun and frolic. To confine them as you do is a shame and a blot on your manhood: obedience such as you command is not worth the having.”

Frowns greeted this denunciation, and the old men muttered:

“When the punishment is severe, neither slave nor wife dare disobey: the old fashions are better than the new.”

Much heated discussion followed, but at last she succeeded in getting the punishment reduced to the infliction of ten stripes and nothing more. She had gone as far as she dared. Under ordinary circumstances salt would have been rubbed into the wounds, and mutilation or dismemberment would have followed. She thanked the men, enjoined the wives and slaves to show their gratitude by a willing and true service, and went to prepare alleviations for the victims.

Through the shouting and laughing of the operators and onlookers she heard piercing screams, as strong arms plied the alligator hide, and one by one the girls came running into her, bleeding and quivering in the agony of pain. By and by the opiate did its work and all sank into uneasy slumber.

Fourteen days went by, and it was time for the return journey. The same noise and excitement and delay occurred, and it was afternoon ere the canoe left the beach. The evening meal, a mess of yam and herbs, cooked in palm oil, which had been carried on board smoking hot from the fire and was served in the pot, had scarcely been disposed of when the splendour of the sunset and afterglow was swept aside by a mass of angry cloud, and the moaning of the wind fell threateningly on the ear. “A stormy night ahead,” said Mary apprehensively to Okon, who gave a long look upward and steered for the lee of an island. The sky blackened, thunder growled, and the water began to lift. The first rush of wind gripped the canoe and whirled it round, while the crew, hissing through their set teeth, pulled their hardest. In vain. They got out of hand, and there was uproar and craven fear. Sharing in the panic the master was powerless. At the sight of others in peril Mary threw aside her own nervousness and anxiety and took command. In a few moments order was restored and the boat was brought close to the tangle of bush, and the men, springing up like monkeys into the branches, held on to the canoe, which was now being dashed up and down like a straw. Mary sat with the water up to her knees, the children lashed to her by a waterproof, their heads hidden in her lap. Lightning, thunder, rain, and wave combined to make one of the grandest displays of the earth’s forces she had ever witnessed.

As quickly as it came the storm passed, and to the strains of a hymn which she started the journey was resumed. She was shaking with ague, and in order to put some heat into her the chief came and sat down on one side, while his big wife sat on the other. As her temperature rose, the paddlers grew alarmed, and pulled as they had never done in their lives. Dawn was stealing over the land when Old Town was reached, and as “Ma” was hardly a fit sight for critical eyes, she was carried up by a bush path to the Mission House.

Ill as she was, her first care was to make a fire to obtain hot tea for the children and to tuck them away comfortably for the night. Then she tottered to her bed, to rise some days later, a wreck of her former self, but smiling and cheerful as usual….

Towards the close of the year 1882 a tornado swept over Old Town and damaged the house to such an extent that she had to make a hasty escape and take refuge in a factory. The Presbytery brought her to Duke Town, but she became so ill as a result of her strenuous life and her experience in the storm, that she was ordered home, and left in April 1888. She was so frail that she was carried on board, and it was considered doubtful whether she would outlive the voyage. With her was a girl-twin she had rescued. She had saved both, a boy and girl, but whilst she was absent from the house for a little, the relatives came, and, by false pretences, obtained possession of the boy, and killed him. She was determined that the girl should live and grow up to confute their fears, and she would not incur the risk of leaving her behind.


Many strange experiences came to Mary Slessor in her life, but it is doubtful whether any adventure equalled that which she was now to go through in the quiet places of home, or whether any period of her career was so crowded with emotion and called for higher courage and resource.

She remained for the greater part of the time with her mother and sisters at Downfield, seeing few people, and nursing the little black twin, who was baptized in Wishart Sunday School, and called Janie, after her sister.

One of her earliest visits was to her friends the Doigs in the south side of Edinburgh, and here again her life touched and influenced another life. There was in connection with Bristo Street Church a girl named Jessie F. Hogg, who worked in the mission at Cowan’s Close where the “two Marys” had formerly taught. She had heard much about Mary Slessor, and when, one Sunday, a lady friend remarked that she was going to visit the missionary, Miss Hogg declared she would give much to meet her. “Then come with me,” said the lady, “I will leave you at the foot of the stair, and if you are to come up I will call you.” She was invited up, and was not five minutes in Mary’s presence before the latter said, “And what are you doing at home? What is hindering you from going to the mission field?” “There is nothing to hinder me,” was the reply. “Then come: there is a good work waiting for you to do.” Miss Hogg applied to the Foreign Mission Committee and was accepted, received some medical training, and was in Calabar before Mary herself returned. The anticipations of the latter were fulfilled. For thirteen years, with quiet heroism, Miss Hogg did a great work as one of the “Mothers of the Mission”: her name was a household word, both in Calabar and at home: and when, through ill-health, she retired, she left a memory that is still cherished by the natives. There were few of the missionaries then who loved and understood Mary better, and whom Mary loved so well.

Mary’s ideas of the qualities needed for work among the ignorant and degraded may be gathered from a letter which she wrote at this time to a friend in Dundee:

Nothing, I believe, will ever touch or raise fallen ones except sympathy. They shrink from self-righteousness which would stoop to them, and they hate patronage and pity. Of sympathy and patience they stand in need. They also need refinement, for the humble classes respect it, and they are sharper at detecting the want of it than many of those above them in the social scale. I am not a believer in the craze for “ticket-of-leave men” and “converted prize-fighters” to preach to the poor and the outcast. I think the more of real refinement and beauty and education that enter into all Christian work, the more real success and lasting, wide-reaching results of a Christian and elevating nature will follow. Vulgarity and ignorance can never in themselves lay hold on the uneducated classes, or on any class, though God often shows us how He can dispense with man’s help altogether. Then there is need for knowledge in such a work, knowledge of the Bible as a whole, not merely of the special passages which are adapted for evangelistic services. They know all the set phrases belonging to special services and open-sir meetings. They want teaching, and they will respect nothing else. I am pained often at home that there is so little of depth, and of God’s word, in the speeches and addresses I hear. It seems as if they thought anything will do for children, and that any kind of talk about coming to Christ, and believing on Christ, will feed and nourish immortal souls.

In January 1884 she informed the Foreign Mission Committee that her health was re-established and that she was ready to return, and in accordance with her own desire it was arranged to make the house habitable at Old Town and send her back there. Meanwhile she had begun to address meetings in connection with the missionary organisations of congregations, and at these her simple but vivid style, the human interest of her story, and the living illustration she presented in the shape of Janie, made so great an impression that the ladies of Glasgow besought the Committee to retain her for a time in order that she might go through the country and give her account of the work to quiet gatherings of women, young and old. The suggestion was acted upon, and for some months she was engaged in itinerating. It was not in the line of her inclination. She was very shy, and had a humbling consciousness of her defects, and to appear in public was an ordeal. It was often a sheer impossibility for her to open her lips when men were present, and she would make it a condition that none should be in her audience. When some distinguished minister or Church leader had been requisitioned to preside, a situation was created as embarrassing to him as to her. She did not, however, seem to mind if the disturbing factor was out of sight, and the difficulty was usually overcome by placing the chairman somewhere behind. These meetings taxed her strength more than the work in Africa, and she began to long for release. In December the Committee gave her permission to return, but, as conditions in the field had changed, decided to send her in the meantime to Creek Town to assist Miss Johnstone, who was not in good health.

Within a few weeks a situation developed which altered her plans. The severe weather had told on the delicate constitution of her youngest sister Janie, a quiet, timid girl, but bright and intelligent, and somewhat akin to herself in mind and manner; and it was made clear that only a change to a milder climate would save her life. Mary was torn with apprehension. She had a heart that was bigger than her body, and she loved her own people with passionate intensity, and was ready for any further sacrifice for their sake. Never bold on her own behalf, she would dare anything for others. Thinking out the problem how best she could reconcile her affection for her sister and her duty to the Mission, she fell upon a plan which she would have shrunk from proposing had she alone been concerned. If she could take the invalid out with her to Creek Town, and if they were allowed to dwell by themselves, the life of her sister would not only be prolonged, but she herself would be able to continue, by living native fashion, to pay her share of the expenses at home. To the Committee, accordingly, she wrote early in 1885, stating that she would not feel free to go to Creek Town unless she were permitted to take her sister with her, and unless she were allowed, instead of boarding with any of the Mission agents, to build a small mud house for their accommodation.

The Committee received the proposal with a certain mild astonishment. It had many a problem to solve in its administration of the affairs of the Missions, but its difficulties were always increased when it came into contact with that incalculable element, human nature. It could not be supposed to know all the personal and private circumstances that influenced the attitude of the missionaries: it could only judge from the surface facts placed before it; and as a rule it decided wisely, and was never lacking in the spirit of kindness and generosity. But even if the members had known of that fluttering heart in Dundee, they could not, in the best interests of the Mission, have acquiesced in her scheme, and it was probably well, also, for Mary that it was gently but firmly put aside.

For her the way out was found in the recommendation of an Exeter lady whom she had met, who advised her to take her sister to Devonshire. She seized on the idea, and forthwith wrote a letter stating that she felt it to be her duty to remove the invalid to the South of England, where she hoped her health would be restored, and asking whether in the event of her own way being cleared she would be allowed to return to Calabar, or whether she was to consider herself finally separated from the Mission. Nothing could have been more sympathetic than the reply of the Board. It regretted her family afflictions, said it would be glad to have the offer of her services again in the future, and in consideration of her work continued her home allowance till the end of April.

Meanwhile Mary had, in her swift fashion, carried off her sister, and her answer came from Devonshire. She thanked the Committee for its consideration, but, with the independence which always characterised her, accepted the allowance only up to the end of February. Thus voluntarily, and from a sense of duty, but with a sore heart, she cut herself adrift, for the time being, from the service of the Church.

As the climate of Devonshire seemed to suit her sister, they went to Topsham, where a house was secured with the help of a Mr. Ellis, a deacon in the Congregational Church, to whom she was introduced. It was soon furnished, and then her mother was brought down, and for all her toil and self-sacrifice she was rewarded by seeing a steady improvement in the condition of the invalid, and the quiet happiness of both. The place proved too relaxing for her own health, and she was never free from headaches, but she was not one to allow indisposition to interfere with her service for the Master. In the Congregational Church her winning ways made many friends, and she was soon taking an active part in the meetings and addressing large gatherings on her work in Calabar.

And then another event occurred which further complicated the situation. Her sister Susan in Scotland went to pay a visit to Mrs. M’Crindle, and died suddenly on entering her house. Mary had now the full responsibility for the home and its upkeep; she was earning nothing, and she had her mother and sister and the African baby to provide and care for. Happily the invalid continued to improve, and as it was imperative for Mary to be back at work, it was decided that she should apply for reinstatement. She told her mother of her desire to go up-country, and asked whether she would allow her to do so if the opportunity came. “You are my child, given to me by God,” was the reply, “and I have given you back to Him. When He needs you and where He sends you, there I would have you be.” Mary never forgot these brave words, which were a comfort to her throughout her life. On applying to the Foreign Mission Committee stating that she was willing, if it saw fit, to go back at once, she was gladly reinstated, and Calabar was consulted regarding her location. As there was some talk of a forward movement it was resolved to leave the matter over, and send her in the meantime to Creek Town.

Her friends in Topsham assured her that they would look well after her mother and sister, but all the arrangements she had made for the smooth working of the household collapsed a month before she was booked to sail. Her mother suddenly failed and took to her bed. Mary grew desperate with strain and anxiety, and like a wild creature at bay