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  • 1916
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turned this way and that for an avenue of escape. In her agony of mind she went to Him who had never failed her yet, and He gave her guidance. Next day a letter was on its way to Dundee to an old factory friend, asking if she would come and take charge of the household. A strange mingling of pathos and dignity, a passionate love and solicitude, marked the appeal, which, happily, evoked a ready assent. Not less moving in its way was the practical letter she sent to her friend, with long and minute directions as to travelling; there was not a detail forgotten, the mention of which might contribute to her ease and comfort. Her friend arrived a few days before her departure. On Guy Fawkes’ Day Mary wished to take her to a church meeting to introduce her to some acquaintances, but was too afraid to venture out among the roughs–she who was soon to face alone some of the most savage crowds in Africa!

On the sea the past months receded and became like an uneasy dream. She was content simply to lie In her chair on deck and rest her tired mind and body. On arriving it was pleasant to receive a warm welcome from all the Mission friends, and still more pleasant to find that there had been talk of her going to Ikunetu to attempt to obtain a footing among the wild people of Okoyong.


Despite her happiness in being back at the work she loved, there was an underlying current of anxiety in her life. Her thoughts dwelt on the invalids at home; she wearied for letters; she trembled before the arrival of the mails; even her dreams influenced her. But she would not allow herself to grow morbid. Every morning she went to the houses in the Mission before breakfast to have a chat and cheer up the inmates. On New Year’s Eve, fearing the adoption of European customs by the natives, and wishing to forestall them, she invited all the young men who were Christians to a prayer-meeting from eleven o’clock till midnight. They then went up and serenaded Mr. and Mrs. Luke, two new missionaries, whose subsequent pioneer work up-river was a record of toil and heroism. Mr. Luke entered into the spirit of the innovation. He gave out the 2nd Paraphrase and read the 90th Psalm. Prayer was uttered, and the company separated, singing the evening hymn in Efik.

Next morning, the first of the year 1886, she arose early and wrote a letter, overflowing with love and tenderness and cheer, to her mother and sister. It was finished on the third, on the arrival of the home mail. She was at tea with Mrs. Luke before going to a meeting in the church, when the letters came. “I was hardly able to wait for mine,” she wrote; “and then I rushed to my room and behaved like a silly body, as if it had been bad news. It brought you all so clearly before me. At church I sat beside the King and cried quietly into my wrap all the evening,” The last words in her letter were, “Tell me all your troubles, and be sure you take care of yourselves.” She never received a reply. Mrs. Slessor had died suddenly and peacefully at the turn of the year. She had been nursed by loving hands, whilst her medical attendant and the minister of the Congregational Church, and his wife, showed her much kindness. Three months later Janie also passed away, and was laid beside her mother in Topsham cemetery, the deacons and members of the church and many friends attending and showing honour to one whom they had learned to love for her own sake as well as for her sister’s.

Mary was inconsolable. “I, who all my life have been caring and planning and living for them, am left, as it were, stranded and alone.” A sense of desolation and loneliness unsupportable swept over her. After all the sorrow that had crowded upon her she felt no desire to do anything. “There is no one to write and tell all my stories and troubles and nonsense to.” One solace remained. “Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no one will be anxious about me if I go up- country.” It was characteristic of her that the same night she heard of her mother’s death she conducted her regular prayer-meeting: she felt that her mother would have wished her to do so, and she went through the service with a breaking heart, none knowing what had happened.

She wrote hungrily for all details of the last hours, and specified the keepsakes she wished to have. “I would like something to look at,” was her repeated cry. To her friend who had taken charge of the home she was for ever grateful. In the midst of her grief she was thoughtful for her welfare and attended to the minutest details, even repaying the sixpences expended for the postage of her letters to Calabar. All admirers of Mary Slessor will honour this lowly Scotswoman who came to her help in the day of her greatest need, and who quietly and efficiently fulfilled her task….

So the home life, the source of warmth and sweetness and sympathy, was closed down and she turned to face the future alone.


Again three Marys were in close association–Miss Mary Edgerley, Miss Mary Johnstone, and Miss Mary Slessor. During the year, however, the two former proceeded home on furlough, and the last was left in entire charge of the women’s side of the work at Creek Town. It was the final stage of her training for the larger responsibilities that awaited her. There was at first little in the situation to beguile her spirits. It was a bad season of rain and want, and she was seldom out of the abodes of sickness and death. So great was the destitution that she lived on rice and sauce, in order to feed the hungry. And never had she suffered so much from fever as she did now in Creek Town.

Her duties lay in the Day School, Sunday School, Bible Class, and Infant Class, but, as usual, the more personal aspect of the work engaged her chief energies. The training of her household, which, as she was occupying a part of Mr. Goldie’s house and had less accommodation, was a small one then, took much of her time and thought and wit. First in her affections came Janie, now a big and strong girl of four years, and as wild as a boy, who kept her in constant hot- water. She was a link with the home that had been, and Mary regarded her as specially her own: she shared her bed and her meals, and even her thoughts, for she would talk to her about those who had gone. The child’s memory of Britain soon faded, but she never ceased to pray for “all in Scotland who remember us.” She was made more of than was good for her, but was always brought to her level outside of Creek Town. Mary had heard that both her parents were dead, but one day the father appeared at the Mission House. She asked him to come and look at his child. He shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Let me look from a distance.” Mary seized him and drew him towards the child, who was trembling with terror. In response to a command in Efik the girl threw her arms around his neck, and his face relaxed and became almost beautiful. When he looked into her eyes, and she hid her head on his breast, the victory was complete. He set her upon his knee and would scarcely give her up. Although he lived a long way off he returned every other day with his new wife and a gift of food.

Next came a girl of six years, whose father was a Christian. She also was full of tricks, and, with Janie, was enough for one house. But there was also Okin, a boy of about eight, whose mother was a slave with no voice in his upbringing, but whose mistress wished him to be trained up for God, a mischievous fellow whose new clothes lasted usually about a week, but willing and affectionate and, on the whole, good; and another boy of ten called Ekim, a son of the King of Old Town, whose mother gave him to Mary when she first went out. On her departure for Scotland he had gone back to his heathen home and its fashions, but returned to her when she settled in Creek Town. He was truthful, warm-hearted, and clever, and as a free boy and heir to a responsible position the moulding of his character gave her much thought and care. The last was Inyang, a girl of thirteen, but bigger than Mary herself, possessing no brains, but for faithfulness, truthfulness, honesty, and industry without a peer. She hated to dress or to leave the kitchen, but she washed, baked, and did the housework without assistance, and was kind to the children. These constituted her inner circle, but she was always taking in and caring for derelict children. At this time there were several in the house or yard. Two were twins five months old, whom she had found lying on the ground discarded and forlorn, and who had developed into beautiful children. Their father was a drunken parasite, with a number of wives, whom he battered and beat in turn. Another castaway came to her in a wretched state. The father had stolen a dog, and the mother had helped him to eat it. The owner threw down a native charm at their door, and the woman sickened and died, and as all believed that the medicine had killed her no one would touch the child. The woman’s mistress was a daughter of old King Eyo, and a friend of Mary, and she sent the infant, dirty and starved, to the Mission House with her compliments. Mary washed and fed it and nursed it back to decent life, but on sending to the mistress a request that one of the slave women might care for it, she got the reply, “Let it die.” She let it live.

In the mornings, while busy with her household, there were perpetual interruptions. Sick folk came to have their ailments diagnosed and prescribed for. Some of the diseases she attended to were of the most loathsome type, but that made no difference in her compassionate care. Hungry people came to her to be fed, those in trouble visited her to obtain advice and help, disputes were referred to her to be settled. When all these cases had been dealt with she would go her round of the yards, the inmates of which had come to look upon her as a mother. She would sit down and chat with them and discuss their homes, children, marketing, illness, or whatever subject interested them, sometimes scolding them, but always leading them to the only things that mattered. “If I told you what I have seen and known of human sorrow during the past months you would weep till your heart ached,” she wrote to a friend. Some of her experiences she could not tell; they revealed such depths of depravity and horror that the actions of the wild beasts of the bush were tame in comparison.

At Creek Town, as elsewhere, it was not easy to tabulate what had been achieved, as the fact that women could not make open confession without incurring the gravest penalties kept the missionaries ignorant of the effect of their work. But Mary saw behind the veil; she knew quiet women whose souls looked out of their eyes, and who were more in touch with the unseen than they dared tell; women who prayed and communed with God even while condemned to heathen practices. There was one blind woman whom she placed far before herself in the Christian race:

She is so poor that she has not one farthing in the world but what she gets from us–not a creature to do a thing for her, her house all open to rain and sun, and into which the cows rush at times–but blind Mary is our one living, bright, clear light. Her voice is ever set to music, a miracle to the people here, who only know how to groan and grumble at the best. She is ever praising the Lord for some wonderful manifestation of mercy and love, and her testimony to her Saviour is not a shabby one. The other day I heard the King say that she was the only visible witness among the Church members in the town, but he added, “She is a proper one.” Far advanced in spiritual knowledge and experience, she knows the deep things of God. That old hut is like a heaven here to more than me.

“Pray for us here” was the appeal in all her letters to Scotland at this time. “Pray in a business-like fashion, earnestly, definitely, statedly.”

For herself she found a friend in King Eyo, to whom she could go at any time and relate her troubles and receive sympathy and support. She, in turn, was often in his State room advising him regarding the private and complicated affairs of his little kingdom and his relations with the British Government. He honoured her in various ways, but to her the dumb affection of a slave woman whom she had saved was more than all the favours which others, high in the social scale, sought to show her.


The question of her future location received much consideration. The needs of the stations on the Cross River, the highway into the interior, were urgent, and it was thought by some that the interests of the Mission called for her presence there, but her mind could not be turned from the direction in which she believed she could do the best work. She was essentially a pioneer. Her thoughts were for ever going forward, looking past the limitations and the hopes of others, into the fields beyond teeming with populations as yet unreached. She was of the order of spirits to which Dr. Livingstone belonged. Like him she said, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” From the districts inland came reports of atrocity and wrong: accusations of witchcraft, the ordeal of the poison bean, the shooting of slaves, and the destruction of infants; and she felt the impelling call to go and attack these evils. It was not that she did not recognise the value of base-work, of order and organisation and routine.

The fact that she spent twelve years in patient and loyal service at Duke Town, Old Town, and Creek Town demonstrates how important she considered these to be. But they had been years of training meant to perfect her powers before she went forward on her own path to realise the vision given her from above, and they were now ended. For her the fulness of the time had come, and with it the way opened up. The local Mission Committee decided, in October 1886, to send her into the district of Okoyong, and informed the authorities in Scotland of the fact, carefully adding that this was in line with her own desire.

A change had just been made in the relation of the women on the staff of the Mission to the administration at home. The Zenana Scheme of the Church had been constituted as a distinct department of the Foreign Mission operations in 1881, and having appealed to the women of the congregations, had proved a success. It was now thought expedient that the Calabar lady agents should be brought into the scheme, and accordingly, in May 1886, they became responsible to the Zenana Committee, and through them to the Foreign Mission Board. The Zenana Committee recommended that the arrangement regarding Mary should be carried out, and the Foreign Mission Board agreed.


1888-1902. Age 40-54.


“_I am going to a new tribe up-country, a fierce, cruel people, and every one tells me that they will kill me. But I don’t fear any hurt- only to combat their savage customs will require courage and firmness on my part._”


Some time in the dim past a raiding force had swept down from the mountains to the east of Calabar, entered the triangle of dense forest- land formed by the junction of the Cross and Calabar Hirers, fought and defeated the Ibibios who dwelt there, and taken possession of the territory. They were of the tribe of Okoyong believed to be an outpost, probably the most westerly outpost, of the Bantu race of Central and South Africa, who had thrust themselves forward like a wedge into negro-land. Physically they were of a higher type than the people of Calabar. They were taller and more muscular, their nose was higher, the mouth and chin were firmer, their eye was more fearless and piercing, and their general bearing contrasted strongly with that of the supine negro of the coast.

To their superior bodily development they added the worst qualities of heathenism: there was not a phase of African devilry in which they did not indulge. They were openly addicted to witchcraft and the sacrifice of animals. They were utterly lawless and contemptuous of authority. Among themselves slave-stealing, plunder of property, theft of every kind, went on indiscriminately. To survive in the struggle of life a man required to possess wives and children and slaves–in the abundance of these lay his power. But if, through incompetence or sickness or misfortune, he failed he was regarded as the lawful prey of the chief nearest him. To weaken the House of a neighbour was as clear a duty as to strengthen one’s own. Oppression and outrage were of common occurrence. So suspicious were they even of each other that the chiefs and their retainers lived in isolated clearings with armed scouts constantly on the watch on all the pathways, and they ate and worked with their weapons ready to their hands. Even Egbo law with all its power was often resisted by the slaves and women regardless of the consequences. No free Egbo man would submit to be dictated to by the Egbo drum sent by another. A fine might be imposed, but he would sit unsubdued and sullen, and then obtain his revenge by seizing or murdering some passing victim. But all combined in a common enmity against other tribes, and the region was enclosed with a fence of terrorism as impenetrable as a ring of steel. The Calabar people were hated because of the favoured position they enjoyed on the coast, and their wealth and power; and a state of chronic war existed with them. Each sought to outrival the other in the number of heads captured or the number of slaves stolen or harboured, and naturally there was no end to the fighting. All efforts to bring them together in the interests of trade had been in vain. Even British authority was defied, and messages from the Consul were ignored or treated with contempt.

They had their own idea of justice and judicial methods, and trials by ordeal formed the test of innocence or guilt, the two commonest being by burning oil and poison. In the one case a pot was filled with palm oil which was brought to the boil. The stuff was poured over the hands of the prisoner, and if the skin became blistered he was adjudged to be guilty and punished. In the other case the esere bean–the product of a vine–was pounded and mixed with water and drunk: if the body ejected the poison it was a sign of innocence. This method was the surest and least troublesome–for the investigation, sentence, and punishment were carried out simultaneously–unless the witch-doctor had been influenced, which sometimes happened, for there were various means of manipulating the test.

These tests were applied when it was desired to discover a thief, or when a village wanted to know whose spirit dwelt in the leopard that slew a goat, or when a chief wished to prove that his wife was faithful to him in her heart, but chiefly in cases of sickness or death. They believed that sickness was unnatural, and that death never occurred except from extreme old age. When a freeman became ill or died, sorcery would be alleged. The witchdoctor would be called in, and he would name one individual after another, and all, bond and free, were chained and tried, and there would be much grim merriment as the victims writhed in agony and their heads were chopped off. The skulls would be kept in the family as trophies. Occasionally the relations of the victims would be powerful enough to take exception to the summary procedure and seek redress by force of arms, and a vendetta would reign for years.

If a man or woman were blamed for some evil deed an appeal could be made to the law of substitution, and a sufficient number of slaves could be furnished as would be equivalent for themselves, and these would be killed in their stead. The eldest son of a free House, for instance, would be spared by the sacrifice of the life of a younger brother.

The fact that a man’s position in the spirit-world was determined by his rank and wealth in this one, demanded the sacrifice of much life when chiefs died. A few months before Miss Slessor went up amongst them a chief of moderate means died, and with him were buried eight slave men, eight slave women, ten girls, ten boys, and four free wives. These were in addition to the men and women who died as a result of taking the poison ordeal. Even when death was due to natural decay the retinue provided was the same. After her settlement she made careful enquiry, and found that the number of lives sacrificed annually at the instance of this custom could not have averaged fewer than 150 within a radius of twenty miles, while the same number must have died from ordeals and decapitation on charges of causing sickness. To these had to be added the number killed in the constant warfare.

Infanticide was also responsible for much destruction of life. Twin murder was practised with an even fiercer zeal than it had been in Calabar. Child life in general was of little value.

It was significant of the state of the district that gin, guns, and chains were practically the only articles of commerce that entered it. Gin or rum was in every home. It was given to every babe: all work was paid for in it: every fine and debt could be redeemed with it: every visitor had to be treated to it: every one drank it, and many drank it all the time. Quarrels were the outcome of it. Then the guns came into play. After that the chains and padlocks.

Women were often the worst where drink was concerned, There were certain bands formed of those born in the same year who were allowed freer action than others: they could handle gun and sword, and were used for patrol and fighting purposes, and were so powerful that they compelled concessions from Egbo. They exacted fines for breach of their rules, and feasted and drank and danced for days and nights at a time at the expense of the offenders.

Such lawlessness and degradation at the very doors had long caused the Calabar Presbytery much thought. Efforts had been made to enter the district both from the Cross and the Calabar Rivers. In one of his tours of exploration Mr. Edgerley was seized, with the object of being held for a ransom of rum, and it was only with difficulty that he escaped. Others were received less violently, though every member of the tribe was going about with guns on full cock. Asked why, they said, “Inside or outside, speaking, eating, or sleeping, we must have them ready for use. We trust no man.” When they learned of the new laws in Calabar their amazement was unbounded. “Killing for witchcraft prohibited!” they exclaimed. “What steps have been taken to prevent witchcraft from killing?” “Widows not compelled to sit for more than a month in seclusion and filth!–outrageous!” “Twins and their mothers taken to Duke Town–horrible! Has no calamity happened?”

Very little result was achieved from these tours of observation. A Calabar teacher was ultimately induced to settle amongst them, but after a shooting affray was compelled to fly for his life. Missionaries, however, are never daunted by difficulties, nor do they acquiesce in defeat. Ever, like their Master, they stand at the door and knock. Once again the challenge was taken up, and this time by a woman. So difficult was the position, that the negotiations for Miss Slessor’s settlement lasted a year. Three times parties from the Mission went up, she accompanying them, only to find the people–every man, woman, and child–armed and sullen, and disinclined to promise anything. “I had often a lump in my throat,” she wrote, “and my courage repeatedly threatened to take wings and fly away–though nobody guessed it!”

At last, in June 1888, in spite of her fears, she resolved to go up and make final arrangements for her sojourn.


She went up the river in state. Ever ready to do her a kindness, King Eyo had provided her with the Royal canoe, a hollow tree-trunk twenty feet long, and she lay in comfort under the cool cover of a framework of palm leaves, freshly lopped from the tree, and shut off from the crew by a gaudy curtain. Beneath was a piece of Brussels carpet, and about her were arranged no fewer than six pillows, for the well-to-do natives of Calabar made larger and more skilful use of these than the Europeans.

The scene was one of quiet beauty; there was a clear sky and a windless air; the banks of the river–high and dense masses of vegetation– glowed with colour; the broad sweep of water was like a sheet of molten silver and shimmered and eddied to the play of the gleaming paddles. As they moved easily and swiftly along, the paddlemen, dressed in loin- cloth and singlet, improvised blithe song in her praise. Strange and primitive as were the conditions, she felt she would not have exchanged them for all the luxuries of civilisation.

She needed sustenance, for there was trying work before her, and this a paraffin stove, a pot of tea, a tin of stewed steak, and a loaf of home-made bread gave her. Wise mental preparation also she needed, for there were elements of uncertainty and danger in the situation. The Okoyong might be on the war-path: her paddlers were their sworn enemies: a tactless word or act might ruin the expedition. As the canoe glided along the river she communed with God, and in the end left the issue with Him. “Man,” she thought, “can do nothing with such a people.”

Arriving at the landing beach she made her way by a forest track to a village of mud huts called Ekenge, four miles inland. Her reception was a noisy one; men, women, and children thronged about her, and called her “Mother,” and seemed pleased at her courage at coming alone. The chief, Edem, one of the aristocrats of Okoyong, was sober, but his neighbour at Ifako, two miles farther on, whom she wished to meet, was unfit for human company, and she was not allowed to proceed. She stayed the night at Ekenge, where she gathered the King’s boys about her to hold family worship. The crowd of semi-naked people standing curiously watching the proceedings exclaimed in wonder as they heard the words repeated in unison: “God so loved the world,” and so on. At ten o’clock the women were still holding her fast in talk. One, the chiefs sister, called Ma Eme, attracted her. “I think,” she said, “she will be my friend, and be an attentive hearer of the Gospel.” Wearied at last with the strain she was forced to retire into the hut set apart for her.

A shot next morning startled the village. Two women on going outside had been fired at from the bush. In a moment every man had his gun and sword and was searching for the assailant. Mary went with one of the parties, but to find any one in such a labyrinth was impossible, and the task was given up. Going to Ifako she interviewed the chiefs. The charm of her personality, her frankness, her fearlessness, won them over, and they promised her ground for a schoolhouse. Would, she asked, the same privilege be extended to it as to the Mission buildings in Calabar? Would it be a place of refuge for criminals, those charged with witchcraft, or those liable to be killed for the dead, until their case could be taken into consideration? They assented. And the house she would build for herself–would it also be a harbour of refuge? Again they assented. She thanked them and promptly went and chose two sites, one at Ekenge and one at Ifako, about twenty to thirty minutes’ walk apart, according to the state of the track, in order that the benefits of the concession might operate over as wide an area as possible. She foresaw, however, that as they were an agricultural and shifting people, and spread over a large extent of territory, she would require to be constantly travelling, and to sleep as often in her hammock as in her bed.

Rejoicing over the improved prospects, she set out on the return journey to Creek Town. It was the rainy season, and ere long the canoe ran into a deluge and she was soaked. Then the tide was so strong that they had to lie in a cove for two hours. The carcase of a huge snake drifted past, followed by a human body. She was on the outlook for alligators, but only saw crowds of crabs on the rotten tree-stumps and black mud fighting as fiercely as the Okoyong people. She was too watchful to sleep, but she heard the boys say softly, “Don’t shake the canoe and wake Ma,” or “Speak lower and let Ma sleep.” When they were once more out on the river she slumbered, and awoke to find the lights of Creek Town shining through the darkness.

When her friends saw her packing her belongings they looked at her in wonder and pity. They said she was going on a forlorn hope, and that no power on earth could subdue the Okoyong save a Consul and a gunboat. But she smiled and went on with her preparations. King Eyo again offered his canoe and paddlers and a number of bearers for her baggage. By Friday evening, August 3, 1888, all was ready, and she lay down to rest but not to sleep. On the morrow she would enter on the great adventure of her life, and the strangeness of it, the seriousness of it, the possibilities it might hold for her, kept her awake and thoughtful throughout the night.


The dawn came to Creek Town grey and wet. The rain fell in torrents, and the negroes, moving about with the packages, grumbled and quarrelled. Wearied and unrefreshed after her sleepless night, Mary was not in the best of spirits, and she was glad to see King Eyo, who had come to supervise the loading and packing of the canoe: his kind eyes, cheery smile, and sympathetic words did her good, and her courage revived. Few of the natives wished her God-speed. One young man said with a sob in his voice, “I will constantly pray for you, but you are courting death.” Not great faith for a Christian perhaps, but her own faith at the moment was not so strong that she could afford to cast a stone at him. As the hours wore on, the air of depression became general, and when the party was about to start Mr. Goldie suddenly decided to send one of the Mission staff to accompany her on the journey. Mr. Bishop, the printer, who was standing by, volunteered, and there and then stepped into the canoe. Mary and her retinue of five children stowed themselves into a corner, the paddlers pushed off, and the canoe swept up the river and disappeared in the rain.

The light was fading ere they reached the landing beach for Ekenge, and there was yet the journey of four miles through the dripping forest to be overtaken. It was decided that she should go on ahead with the children in order to get them food and put them to sleep, and that Mr. Bishop and one or two men should follow with dry clothes, cooking utensils, and the door and window needed for the hut, whilst the carriers would come on later with the loads. As Mary faced the forest, now dark and mysterious, and filled with the noises of night, a feeling of helplessness and fear came over her. What unseen perils might she not meet? What would she find at the end? How would she be received on this occasion? Would the natives be fighting or drinking or dancing? Her heart played the coward; she felt a desire to turn and flee. But she remembered that never in her life had God failed her, not once had there been cause to doubt the reality of His guidance and care. Still the shrinking was there; she could not even move her lips in prayer; she could only look up and utter inwardly one appealing word, “Father!”

Surely no stranger procession had footed it through the African forest. First came a boy, about eleven years of age, tired and afraid, a box containing tea, sugar, and bread upon his head, his garments, soaked with the rain, clinging to his body, his feet slipping in the black mud. Behind him was another boy, eight years old, in tears, bearing a kettle and pots. With these a little fellow of three, weeping loudly, tried hard to keep up, and close at his heels trotted a maiden of five, also shaken with sobs. Their white mother formed the rear. On one arm was slung a bundle, and astride her shoulders sat a baby girl, no light burden, so that she had to pull herself along with the aid of branches and twigs. She was singing nonsense–snatches to lighten the way for the little ones, but the tears were perilously near her own eyes. Had ever such a company marched out against the entrenched forces of evil? Surely God had made a mistake in going to Okoyong in such a guise? And yet He often chooses the weakest things of this world to confound and defeat the mighty.

The village was reached at last, but instead of the noise and confusion that form a bush welcome there was absolute stillness. Mary called out and two slaves appeared. They stated that the chief’s mother at Ifako had died that morning, and all the people had gone to the carnival. One obtained fire and a little water, while the other made off to carry the news that the white woman had arrived. She undressed the children and hushed them to sleep, and sat in her wet garments and waited. When Mr. Bishop appeared it was to say that the men were exhausted and refused to bring up anything that night. A woman of weaker fibre and feebler faith would have been in despair: Mary acted with her usual decision. The glow of the fire was cheerful and the singing of the kettle tempting, but the morrow was Sunday, there was no food, the children were naked, and she herself wet to the skin. She gave one of the lads who had arrived with Mr. Bishop a lantern, and despatched him to the beach with a peremptory message that the mea must come at once and bring what they could. But knowing their character she asked Mr. Bishop to collect some of the slaves who had been left to watch the farms, and send them after her as carriers, and then, bootless and hatless, she plunged back into the forest.

She had not gone far before one of the other lads came running after her to keep her company; a touch of chivalry which, pleased and comforted her. So dense was the darkness that she often lost sight of her companion’s white clothes, and was constantly stumbling and falling. The shrilling of the insects, the pulsation of the fire-flies, the screams of the night-birds and the flapping of their wings, the cries of wild animals, the rush of dark objects, the falling of decayed branches all intensified the weirdness and mystery of the forest gloom. Even the echo of their own voices as they called aloud to frighten the beasts of prey struck on their ears with peculiar strangeness.

By and by came an answer to their cries, and a glimmer of light showed in the darkness. It was the lad with the lantern. As she had surmised, he had failed in his mission. She moved swiftly to the river, splashed into the water, and, reaching the canoe, threw back the cover under which the men were sleeping, and routed them out, dazed and shamefaced. So skilful, however, was she in managing these dusky giants that in a short time, weary as they were, they were working good-humouredly at the boxes. With the assistance of the slaves who came on the scene they transferred what was needed to Ekenge, and by midnight she felt that the worst was over.

Sunday did not find her in more cheerful mood. Her tired limbs refused to move, and wounds she had been unconscious of in the excitement of the journey made themselves felt, while her feet were in such a state that for six weeks afterwards she was unable to wear boots. Whether it was the persistent rain and the mud and the weariness and the squalid surroundings, or the fact that the tribe she had come to civilise and evangelise were given over to the service of the devil, or that her faith had weakened, or whether it was all of these together, her first Sunday in Okoyong was one of the saddest she ever experienced. More than once she was on the verge of tears.

And yet she was eager to begin work. Prudence, however, held her back from visiting the scene of debauchery at Ifako. A few women had come home with fractious babies, or to procure more food for the revellers, and gathering these about her she held a little service, telling them in her simple and direct way the story of the Christ who came from the Unseen to make their lives sweeter and happier.

It was the first faint gleam of a better day for Okoyong.


The room allotted to Mary was one of those in the women’s yard or harem of Edem the chief, and had been previously used by a free wife, who had left its mud floor and mud walls in a filthy state. At one entrance she caused a door to be hung, while a hole was made in the wall and a window frame fitted in. The work was rude and gaps yawned round the sides, but she ensured sufficient privacy by draping them with bedcovers. The absence of the villagers at Ifako gave her time to complete the work, and with her own hands she filled in the spaces with mud. She also cleared a portion of the ground set apart for her and circled it with a fence, and within this did her washing. But soon there were calls upon her.

“_He took a little child and set him in the midst_.” Her work began with a child. In a fight between Okoyong and Calabar a man of Ekenge had been beheaded. His head was recovered and sent home, thus removing the disgrace, but his wife did not survive the shock, and left a baby girl, which was now brought to Mary. It had been fed on a little water, palm oil, and cane juice, and looked less like an infant than a half- boiled chicken. Its appearance provoked mirth in the yard, but she stooped down and lifted it and took it to her heart, resolving to give it a double share of the care and comfort of which it had been defrauded. As she carried it about in her arms, or sat with it in her lap, she was regarded with a kind of amused astonishment. But the old grandmother came and blessed her. At first the child rallied to the new treatment: it grew human-like: sometimes Mary thought it looked bonnie: but in a few days it drooped and died.

The bodies of children were usually placed anywhere in the earth near the huts or under the bush by the wayside, but she dressed the tiny form in white and laid it in a provision box and covered it with flowers. A native carried the box to a spot which she had reserved in her ground: here a grave was dug, and she stood beside it and prayed. The grandmother knelt at her feet, sobbing. Looking on at a distance, curious and scornful, were the revellers from Ifako; they had heard of the proceedings, and had come to witness the white woman’s “witchcraft.” All that they said in effect when they saw the good box and the white robe was, “Why this waste?” And so the work in Okoyong was consecrated by the death and Christian burial of a little child.

When the people came crowding back from the devil-making they sought out a young lad who had detached himself from the orgies and remained in the village, where he had been very attentive to Mary. They accused him of deserting their ancient customs. She saw him standing in their midst near a pot of oil which was being heated over a fire, and noticed the chief, in front going through some movements and the lad holding out his arms, but was unaware of what was taking place until she saw a man seize a ladle, plunge it into the boiling oil, and advance to the boy. In a moment the truth flashed upon her and she darted forward, but was too late. The stuff was poured over the lad’s hands, and he shuddered in agony. It was doubtful whether her intervention at that early period would have done any good. They were following the law of the country, and if she had managed to prevent the act they would probably have resorted to the ordeal thereafter in secret; and her object was to show them a better way.

Immediately after this the men of the village left on an expedition of revenge against a number of mourners with whom they had quarrelled. A week of rioting followed. Then a freeman died in the neighbourhood, and once more the village was deserted. Mary, meanwhile, moved hither and thither, making friends with the women, healing the sick, tending the children, and doing any little service that came in her way.

The return to normal conditions brought her into active conflict with the powers of evil. The mistress of a harem in the vicinity bought a good-looking young woman whom the master coveted, and she became a slave-wife. She appeared sullen and unhappy. One afternoon Mary saw her mudding a house that was being built for a new free-born wife, and spoke to her kindly in passing. A few minutes later the girl made her way to one of her master’s farms, and sat down in the hut of a slave. The latter was alarmed, knowing well what the consequences would be, but she refused to move. The man went off to his work, and she walked into the forest and hanged herself. Next morning the slave was brought in heavily ironed, and at a palaver the master and his relatives decreed he must die; they had been degraded by being associated in this way with a common slave.

Mary, who was present, protested against the injustice of the sentence; the man, she argued, had done no wrong; it was not his fault that the girl had gone to his hut. “But,” was the reply, “he has used sorcery and put the thought into the girl’s mind, and the witch-doctor has pronounced him guilty.” She persisted. The crowd became angry and excited; they surged round her demanding why a stranger who was there on sufferance should interfere with the dignity and power of free-born people, and clamoured for the instant death of the prisoner. Threats were shouted, guns and swords were waved, and the position grew critical, but she stood her ground, quiet and cool and patient. Her tact, her good humour, that spiritual force which seemed to emanate from her in times of peril, at last prevailed. The noise and confusion calmed down, and ultimately it was decided to spare the man’s life. She had won her first victory.

But the victim was loaded with chains, placed in the women’s yard, starved, and then flogged, and his body cruelly cut in order to exorcise the powers of sorcery that were in him. When Mary went to him he was a bruised and bleeding heap of flesh lying unconscious by the post to which he was fastened. The women in the yard were sitting about indifferent to his plight.


For many weeks she was an inmate of the harem, a witness of its degraded intimacies, enduring the pollution of its moral and physical atmosphere, with no other support than hallowed memories and the companionship of her Bible. Her room was next that of the chief and his head wife: the quarters of five lesser wives were close by; other wives whose work and huts were at the farms shared the yard with the slaves, visitors, and children; two cows–small native animals that do not produce milk–occupied the apartment on the other side of the partition; goats, fowls, cats, rats, cockroaches, and centipedes were everywhere. In her own room the three boys slept behind an erection of boxes and furniture, and the two girls shared her portion. Every night her belongings had to be taken outside in order to provide sufficient accommodation for them all, and as it was the wet season they had usually to undergo a process of drying in the sun each day before being replaced.

There was a ceaseless coming and going in the yard, a perpetual chattering of raucous voices. The wives were always bickering and scolding, the tongue of one of them going day and night, her chief butt being a naked and sickly slave, who was for ever being flogged. There was no sleep for Mary when this woman had any grievance, real or imaginary, on her mind.

Both wives and visitors conceived it their duty to sit and entertain their white guest. To an African woman the idea of loneliness is terrible, and good manners made it incumbent that as large a gathering as possible should keep a stranger company. All is implied in the word “home,” its sacredness and freedom, its privacy, lies outside the knowledge and experience of polygamists. Kind and neighbourly as the women were, they could not understand the desire of Mary to be sometimes by herself. She needed silence and solitude; her spirit craved for communion with her Father, and she longed for a place in which to pour out her heart aloud to Him. As often as politeness permitted, she fled to the ground reserved for her, but they followed her there, and in desperation she would take a machete and hack at the bush, praying the while, so that her voice was lost in the noise she made.

One woman of mark was Eme Ete–Ma Eme as she was usually called–a sister of the master, the same who had attracted her attention on the previous visit. She was the widow of a big chief, and had just returned from the ceremonies in connection with her husband’s death, where she had undergone a terrible ordeal. All his wives lay under suspicion, and each brought to the place of trial a white fowl, and from the way in which it fluttered after its head was cut off the judgment was pronounced. The strain was such that when the witch-doctor announced Ma Eme free from guilt she fainted. Big-boned and big-featured, she had been fattened to immensity. One day Mary pointed to some marks on her arms and said, “White people have marks like these,” showing the vaccination cicatrice on her own arm. Ma Eme simply said, “These are the marks of the teeth of my husband.” In that land a man could do as he liked with his free-born wife–bite her, beat her, kill her, and nobody cared. When consorting with the others Ma Eme had the coarse tone common to all, but as she spoke to Mary or the children her voice softened and her instincts and manners were refined and gentle. A mother to every one, she scolded, encouraged, and advised in turn, and when the chief was drunk or peevish she was always between him and his wives as intercessor and peacemaker. She watched over Mary, brought her food, looked after her comfort, and helped her in every way, and did it with the delicacy and reserve of a well-bred lady. Unknown to all she constituted herself Mary’s ally, becoming a sort of secret intelligence department, and, at the risk of her life, keeping her informed of all the underground doings of the tribe. “A noble woman,” Mary called her, “according to her lights and knowledge.”

The wives appeared to have less liberty than the slaves. How carefully guarded their position was by unwritten law Mary had reason to know. A girl-wife employed a slave-man to do work for a day. His master unexpectedly sent for him, and he asked the girl for the food which was part of his wage. She at first declined; her husband was absent, and it was against the law of the harem, but as he insisted she yielded and handed him a piece of yam. When this became known she was seized, bound, and condemned to undergo the ordeal of the burning oil. It was an occasion for feasting and merriment, and as the fun progressed the cords were gradually tightened until she screamed piteously with the pain. Mary went and faced the crowd and pled for her release. There was the usual uproar, but she succeeded in carrying off the victim, who was kept chained to her verandah until the dancing and rioting ended with the dawn.

Conditions in the harem were not favourable to child life. The mothers were ignorant and superstitious, and there was no discipline or training. Infants were often given intoxicating drink in order that fun might be made of their antics and foolish talk. As they grew up they learned nothing but what was vile. The slave children became thieves– they had to steal in order to live. But if caught they would be chained to a post and starved or branded with fire-sticks. They became deceitful–they had to lie in order to gain favour. In this they simply followed the instinctive impulses of their nature and of the lower nature about them. As the insects mimicked inanimate objects to escape injury or death, so they simulated the truth to save themselves a beating or mutilation. The free-born children did not require to steal, but lying was in the air like a contagion, and none could avoid its influence. Of the older boys and girls Mary wrote: “They are such a pest to every one that it is almost impossible to love them.” Yet with a divine pity she gathered them to her and mothered them.

Her earlier observations of the character of the African women were confirmed by her sojourn in the harem. Hard and callous, as a result of centuries of bush law and outrage, their patience and self-repression under the most terrible indignities were to her a marvel. They were not devoid of fine feeling, and beneath the surface of their nature the flow of affection and pity often ran pure and sweet. On one occasion a large number of prisoners were chained previous to undergoing the ordeal of the poison bean. There were mothers with infants in their arms, who throughout a hot day lay on the ground in torture and terror. At dusk the guards left them for a time, and seizing the chance a few of the older women stole tremblingly towards them with water, which they gave to the children and divided the remainder among the mothers. Anticipating such an opportunity Mary had had some rice cooked, and this also the women smuggled to the prisoners. Had they been discovered their lives would have been forfeited.

Bands of women of the special class already described came from a distance to see the white “Ma,” always more or less under the influence of drink; loose in speech, and destitute of modesty, these Amazons made her angry. They would appear at night and demand admittance to the yard in the hope of obtaining rum and other good things from the wealthy white woman. When barred out they threatened reprisals. The chief, who never allowed his wives to go out of the yard to dance even with his own relatives, stood on guard all night before his guest’s room, and it was only after sunrise, when all were astir, that they were admitted. Haggard after their night’s debauch, they presented a sorry sight, their bare bodies painted and decked with beads, coloured wools, and scraps of red and yellow silk, and many with babies at their side. Mary regarded them with pity, but all they could extract from her was disapproval and rebuke, and they left with threats to make her position untenable.

Some of the scenes she witnessed in the harem cannot be described. “Had I not felt my Saviour close beside me,” she said, “I would have lost my reason.” When at home the memory of these would make her wince and flush with indignation and shame. She had no patience with people who expounded the theory of the innocence of man outside the pale of civilisation–she would tell them to go and live for a month in a West African harem.


The sound of native voices chanting came through the brooding stillness of the hot afternoon. With the wild war-song of Okoyong the forest familiar, but words were strange and wonderful;

_Jesus the Son of God came down to earth He came to save us from our sins.
He was born poor that He might feel for us. Wicked men killed Him and hanged Him on a tree, He rose and went to heaven to prepare a place for us_….

They were sung with a tremendous force, and as each voice fell into the part which suited it, the result was a harmony that thrilled the heart of the white woman who listened.

It was Mary Slessor’s day school.

For a people possessing no written language, no literature, no knowledge beyond that handed down from father to son, the first step towards right living, apart from the preaching of the Gospel, is education. Schools go hand in hand with churches in missionary effort. Mary began hers before she had the buildings in which to teach, one at Ekenge and the other at Ifako. The latter was held in the afternoon in order that she might be back in her yard by sunset. The schoolroom was the verandah of a house by the wayside; the seats were pieces of firewood; the equipment an alphabet card hung on one of the posts.

At first the entire population turned out and conned the letters, but as novelty wore off and the men and women returned to their work the attendance dropped to thirty. Good progress was made, and ere long the dark-skinned pupils were spelling out words of one and two syllables. The lesson ended with a scripture lesson, a short prayer, and the singing of the sentences she taught. The last was so much enjoyed that it was often dark before she could get away.

The school at Ekenge was held in the outer yard of the chief’s house in the evening, when all the wives and slaves were at leisure. Men and women, old and young, bond and free, crowded and hustled into the yard, amidst much noise and fun. After a lesson on the alphabet and the multiplication-table she conducted worship. It was a weird scene–the white woman, slim and slight, standing bareheaded and barefooted beside a little table on which were a lamp and the Book; in front, squatting on the ground, the mass of half-naked people as dark as the night, their shining faces here and there catching the gleam of the light; the earnest singing that drowned the voices of the forest, and the strange hush that fell, as in grave sweet tones the speaker prayed to what was to them the Unknown God.

The tale of such doings was carried to every corner of Okoyong, and invitations began to arrive from chiefs in other parts. Some, who were known as “the terror of Calabar,” came personally to ask her to visit their villages, and all laid down their arms at the entrance to her yard before entering into her presence. But her own chief warned her against acting too hastily, and she would probably have followed his advice and sought to strengthen her position at Ekenge and Ifako had the matter not been taken out of her hands.


The principal wife of a harem in close neighbourhood to Mary went to pay a visit to her son and daughter at a village in the vicinity of the Cross River, some eight hours distant from Ekenge. She found the chief so near death that the head man and the people were waiting outside, ready for the event. Hastening into the harem she spoke of the power of the white “Ma” at Ekenge. Had she not cured her grandchild who had bees very ill? Had she not saved many others? Let them send for her and the chief would not die. Her advice was acted upon, and a deputation was despatched with a bottle and four rods–about the value of a shilling– to secure Mary’s aid. She was called to the private room of her chief, where she found the messengers. “What is the matter with him?” she asked. As no one knew she decided to go and see for herself. Edem and Ma Eme objected–the length of the journey, the deep streams to be crossed, the heavy rains, made the task impossible. “I am going to get ready,” was her reply. Finding her immovable, the chief turned with a face of gloom to the deputation and sent, them back with a demand for an escort of freewomen and armed men. Mary imagined he was merely endeavouring to mark time until the death took place: in reality he saw the district given over to violence and murder, and she in the midst and her life imperilled.

She passed a sleepless night. Was she right, after all, in taking so great a risk? She laid the matter where she laid all her problems, and came to the conclusion that she was. With the morning appeared the guard of women, who intimated that the armed men would join them outside the village. The rain was falling as they set out later came down in torrents, continuous, and pitiless. Her boots were soon abandoned; then her stockings; next her umbrella, broken in battle with the vegetation, was thrown aside. Bit by bit her clothes, too heavy to be endured, were transferred to the calabashes carried by the women on their heads, and in the lightest of garments she struggled on through the steaming bush.

Three hours of trudging brought her to a market-place where, in the clearing atmosphere, hundreds of natives were gathering. They gazed at her in amazement. Feeling humiliated at her appearance, she slunk shyly and swiftly through their midst and went on, wondering if she had “lost face” and their respect. Afterwards she learnt that the self-denial and courage which that walk in the rain exhibited had done more than anything else to win their hearts. Others, however, were not so well- disposed. At one town the old chief was anything but courtly, and only with reluctance allowed her to pass.

When she reached the sick man’s village and looked into the grim expectant faces of the armed crowd, she felt as if she were walking into a den of wild beasts. At any moment the signal might be given, and the slaughter of the retinue for the spirit-land begin. The women, silent and fear-stricken, carried off her wet clothes to dry. She was cold and feverish, but went straight to the patient and tended him as well as she could. Then she turned to the pile of odds and ends of garments which had been collected for her, and looked at them with a shudder. But there was no alternative, and, arraying herself in the rags, she went forth to meet the critical gaze of the crowd.

The medicine she had brought had proved insufficient, and more must be obtained; many lives, she knew, depended upon it. To go back to Ekenge was out of the question. Was there, she asked the people about her, a way to Ikorofiong? The Rev. Alexander Cruickshank was stationed there, and he would supply what was needed. They confessed that there was a road to the river and a canoe could be got to cross, but they dared not go there, they would never come back, they would be seized and killed. Some one told her that a Calabar man, whose mother was an Okoyong woman and who came to trade, was living in his canoe not far off. “Seek him,” said she. He was found, but would not land until assured that it was a white woman who wanted him. Mary prevailed upon him to undertake the journey; and he returned with all she required and more. With the thoughtfulness and kindliness of pioneer missionaries Mr. and Mrs. Cruickshank sent over tea and sugar and other comforts and, what she valued not less, a letter of cheer and sympathy. Hot with fever, racked with headache, she brewed the tea in a basin, and it seemed to her a royal feast. The world of friends had drawn nearer, she felt less lonely, her spirits revived.

The patient drew back from the valley of death, regained consciousness, and gathered strength; and the women looking on in wonder, became obedient and reliable nurses; the freemen thought no more of sacrifice and blood; the whole community had visions of peace; they expressed a wish to make terms with Calabar and to trade with the Europeans and learn “book.” She was engaged all day in answering questions. Morning and evening she held a simple service, and seldom had a more reverent audience. Much worn out, she left them at last with regret, promising to be always their mother, to try and secure a teacher, and to come again and see them.

Her faith and fearlessness had been justified, and she had her reward, for from that time forward Okoyong was free to her.


The belief in witchcraft dominated the lives of the people like a dark shadow more menacing than the shadow of death. Taking advantage of their superstition and fear the witch-doctors–some of the cunningest rogues the world has produced–held them in abject bondage, and Mary was constantly at battle with the results of their handiwork.

The chief of Ekenge was lying ill. Since she had taken up residence in his yard he had treated her with consideration, and guarded her interests and well-being, and now came the opportunity to reciprocate his kindness. She found him suffering from an abscess in his back, and gave herself up to the task of nursing and curing him. All was going well, when one morning, as she entered with his tea and bread, she saw a living fowl impaled on a stick. Scattered about were palm branches and eggs, and round the neck and limbs of the patient were placed various charms. The brightness of her greeting died away. Edem was suspiciously voluble and frank, flattered the goodness and ability of the white people, but said they could not understand the malignity of the black man’s heart. “Ma, it has been made known to us that some one is to blame for this sickness, and here is proof of it–all these have been taken out of my back.” He held out a parcel which, on opening, she found to contain shot, powder, teeth, bones, seeds, egg-shells, and other odds and ends.

On seeing the collection the natives standing around shook with terror, and frantically denounced the wickedness of the persons who had sought to compass the death of the chief. Mary’s heart sank, she knew what the accusation meant. At once, before her eyes, men and women were singled out, and seized and chained and fastened to posts in the yard. Remonstrance, rebuke, argument were in vain. The chief at last became irritated with her importunity, and ordered his retainers to carry him to one of his farms, whither he was accompanied by his wives, those of note belonging to his house, and the prisoners. He forbade “Ma” to follow, and enjoined secrecy upon all, in order that no tales might be carried back to her. But she had her own means of obtaining intelligence of what was going on, and she heard that many others were being chained, as they were denounced by the witch-doctors.

The chief became worse, and stronger measures were decided on: all the suspected must die. Mary was powerless to do more than send a message of stern warning. Days of suspense and prayer followed. On the last night of the year she was lying awake thinking of the old days and the old friends, her heart homesick, and the hot tears in her eyes, when the sound of voices and the flash of a lantern made her start up. It was a deputation from the farm. They had learnt that the native pastor, the Rev. Esien Ukpabio, at Adiabo–the first native convert in Calabar –was skilled in this form of disease, and would “Ma” give them a letter asking him to come over and see the chief? The letter was quickly given, and she returned to her rest and her memories.

When the native pastor asked what was the matter, the reply was that “Some one’s soul was troubling the chief.” “In that case,” he said, “I can do nothing,” and no persuasion or bribe could move him from his position. His sister, however, thought it might be well for her to go and see what she could do, and he consented. Under her care the abscess broke and the chief recovered, and all the prisoners were released with the exception of one woman, who was put to death.

Aware of the uncanny way in which his guest heard of things the chief sent his son to forestall any tale-bearer. “No one has been injured,” she was assured. “Only one worthless slave woman has been sold to the Inokon.” As it was the custom to dispose of slaves who were criminals and incorrigible to this cannibal section of the Aros for food at their high feasts the story was plausible, but she knew better, and when the son added that the three children of the victim had been “quite agreeable,” she thought of the misery she had witnessed on their faces. She pretended to believe the message, however, for to have shown knowledge of the murder would have been to condemn scores to the poison ordeal, in order that her informant might be discovered.

When the chief was convalescent it was announced by drum that he would emerge on a certain day from his filth–for the natives do not wash during illness–and that gifts would be received. His wives and friends and slaves brought rum, rods, clothes, goats, and fowls, and there ensued a week of drinking, dancing, and fighting, worse than Mary had yet seen.

In the midst of it all she moved, helpless and lonely, and somewhat sad, yet not without faith in a better time,


A more extraordinary instance of superstition occurred soon after. A chief in the vicinity, noted far and wide for his ferocity, intimated that he was coming to Ekenge on a visit. It meant trouble for the women, and she prayed earnestly that he might be deterred from his purpose. But he duly appeared, and throwing all her anxiety upon God, she faced him calm and unafraid. Days and nights of wild licence followed, accompanied by an outcrop of disputes, most of which were brought to her to settle.

One morning she found the guest drunk to excess, but determined to return at once to his village. His freemen and slaves were beyond control, and soon the place was in an uproar: swords were drawn, guns were fired, the excitement reached fever heat. With a courage that seemed reckless she hustled them into order and hurried them off and accompanied them for the protection of the villages through which they must pass. She was able to prevent more drink being supplied to them, and all went well until, at one point on the bush track, they came upon a plantain sucker stuck in the ground, and, lying about, a cocoanut shell, palm leaves, and nuts. The fierce warriors who had been challenging each other and every one they came across to fight to the death, were paralysed at the sight of the rubbish, and turning with a yell of terror rushed back the way they had come. Mary sought forcibly to restrain them, but, frantic with fright, they eluded her grasp, and ran shrieking towards the last town they had passed to wreak vengeance on the sorcerers. She ran with them, praying for swiftness and strength: she passed them one by one, and breathlessly threw herself into the middle of the path, and dared them to advance. She felt she was almost as mad as they were, but she relied on a Power Who had never failed her, and He did not fail her now. Her audacity awed them: they stopped, protested, argued, and gradually their hot anger, resentment, and fear died down, and eventually they retraced their steps. She took up the “medicine” they dreaded, and pitched it into the bush, ironically invoking the sorcery to pass into her body if it wanted a victim. But nobody could persuade them to proceed that way, and they made a long detour.

Unfortunately drink was smuggled to the band, and fighting began. She induced the more sober to assist her to tie a few of the desperadoes to trees. Leaving these, the company went on dancing, brandishing arms, embracing each other, and committing such folly that she felt that she could bear it no longer. As the swift twilight fell she called her few followers and returned, releasing on the way the delinquents bound to the trees, but sending them homewards with their hands fastened behind their backs. On passing the scene of the sorcery she picked up the plantain sucker, laughingly remarking that she would plant it in her yard, and give the witchcraft it possessed an opportunity of proving its powers.

Nothing is hidden in an African community, news travels swiftly. Next morning came a messenger from the chief she had escorted home. It had been a terrible night, he said; the native doctor had come to his master and had taken teeth, shot, hair, seeds, fish-bones, salt, and what not, out of his leg, If they had been left in the body they would have killed him. It was the plantain sucker that was to blame, and his master demanded it back. Mary read the menace in the request: the plant was to be used as evidence against some victim. Argument and sarcasm alike failed, and she was obliged to hand it over, Edem was standing by. “That,” he grimly remarked, “means the death of some one.”

On the arrival of the sucker native oaths were administered to all in the village accused of the sorcery, ordeals of various kinds were imposed on young and old, slave and free, and the life-blood of a man was demanded by way of settlement of the matter. Strong in their innocence the people resisted the claim, but by guile the chief’s myrmidons caught and handcuffed a fine-looking young man belonging to one of the best families and dragged him into hiding. Any attempt to effect a rescue would have meant his murder, and in their dilemma the people thought of the white “Ma” and sent and begged her to come and plead with the chief for the life and liberty of the prisoner.

She had never a more unpleasant task, for she detested the callous savage, but there was nothing else to do; and she went depending less upon herself than upon God. She walked tremblingly into the man’s presence, but her fear soon passed into disgust and indignation. He was the personification of brutality, selfishness, and cowardice. Laughing at her entreaties he told her to bring the villagers and let them fight it out. She pointed out that neither he nor his House had suffered by what had happened; that the accused people had taken every oath and ordeal prescribed by their laws; and that his procedure was therefore unjust and unlawful, “It is due to your presence alone that I escaped,” he retorted; “they murdered, me in intention if not in fact.” His head wile backed him up, and both became so rude and offensive to Mary that it took all her grace to keep her temper and her ground. As she would not leave the house the chief said he would, and walked out, remarking that he was going to his farm on business. Swallowing her pride she followed him and begged him humbly as an act of clemency to free the young man. He turned, elated at her suppliant attitude, laughed loudly, and said that no violence would be used until all his demands had been complied with.

She returned to her yard, and days of strain followed. The situation developed into a quarrel between the truculent chief and Edem, and every man went armed, women crept about in fear, scouts arrived hourly with the latest tidings. Her life was a long prayer….

One day the young man was set free, without reason or apology being given or condition exacted, and told to go to his people. With his safety all desire for revenge was stilled, and matters resumed their normal course. The heart of Mary once more overflowed with gratitude and joy.


She was impatient to have a house of her own, but the natives were slow to come to her assistance. They thought the haste she exhibited was undignified, and smiled compassionately upon her. There was no hurry– there never is in Africa. If she would but wait all would be well. When argument failed, they went off and left her to cut down the bush and dig out the roots herself. Lounging about in the village they commiserated a Mother who was so strongheaded and wilful, and consoled themselves with the thought of the work they would do when once they began. She could make no progress, and there was nothing for it but to tend the sick, receive visitors, mend the rags of the village, cut out clothing for those who developed a desire for it, and look after her family of bairns.

One day, however, the spirit moved the people and they flocked to the ground. She constituted herself architect, clerk of works, and chief labourer. Her idea was to construct a number of small mud-huts and sheds, which would eventually form the back buildings of the Mission House proper. Four tree-trunks with forked tops were driven into the ground, and upon them were laid other logs. Bamboos, crossed and recrossed, and covered with palm mats, formed the roof and verandah. Upright sticks, interlaced and daubed with red clay, made the walls. Two rooms, each eleven feet by six with a shaded verandah, thus came into existence. Then a shed was added to each end, making three sides of a square. Fires were kept blazing day and night, in order to dry the material and to smoke it as a protection against vermin. Drains were dug and the surrounding bush cleared.

In one of the rooms she put a fireplace of red clay, and close to it a sideboard and dresser of the same material. Holes were cut out for bowls, cups, and other dishes, and rubbed with a stone until the surface was smooth. The top had a cornice to keep the plates from falling off, and was polished with a native black dye. Her next achievement was a mud-sofa where she could recline, and a seat near the fireside where the cook could sit and attend to her duties.

In the other room she deposited her boxes, books, and furniture. Hanging upon the posts were pots and pans and jugs, and her alphabet and reading-sheets. In front stood her sewing-machine, rusty and useless after its exposure in the damp air. There also at night was a small organ, which during the day occupied her bed.

Such was the “caravan,” as Mary called it, which was her dwelling for a year: a wonderful house it seemed to the people of Okoyong, who regarded it with astonishment and awe. To herself it was a delight. Never had the building of a home been watched with such loving interest. And when it was finished no palace held a merrier family. At meals all sat round one pot, spoons were a luxury none required, and never had food tasted so sweet. There were drawbacks–all the cows, goats, and fowls in the neighbourhood, for instance, seemed to think the little open yard was the finest rendezvous in the village.

Her next thought was for the church and schoolhouse. A mistress of missionary strategy, she wished to build this at Ifako, in order that she might control a larger area, but the chiefs for long showed no interest in the matter. One morning, however, an Ifako boy sought her with the message, “My master wants you.” She thought the command somewhat peremptory, but went. To her surprise she found the ground cleared; posts, sticks, and mud ready, and the chiefs waiting her orders. She designed a hall thirty feet by twenty-five, with two rooms at the end for her own use, in case storm or sickness or palaver should prevent her going home. Work was started; and not a single slave was employed in the carrying of the material or in the construction. King Eyo sent the mats, some thousands in number, for the roof, and free women carried them the four miles from the beach, plastered the walls, moulded the mud-seats, beat the floor, and cleared up, and all cheerfully, and without thought of reward. Doors and windows were still awanting, but she asked for the services of a carpenter from Calabar to do this bit of work; and meanwhile the humble building, the first ever erected for the worship of God in Okoyong, was formally opened.

It was a day of days for the people. Mary had prepared them for it, and all appeared in their new Sunday attire, which, in many cases, consisted of nothing more than a clean skin. But the contents of various Mission boxes had been kept for the occasion, and the children, after being washed, were decked for the first time in garments of many shapes and colour–“the wearing of a garment,” said Mary, “never fails to create self-respect.” It was a radiant and excited company that gathered in the hall. There was perhaps little depth in their emotion, but she regarded the event as a step towards better things. Her idea was to separate the day from the rest, and to make it a means of bringing about cleanliness and personal dignity, while it also imposed upon the people a little of that discipline which they so much needed.

The chiefs were present, and they voluntarily made the promise before all that the house would be kept sacred to God and His service, that the slave-women and children would be sent to it for instruction, that no weapon of warfare would be carried into it, and that it would be a sanctuary for those who fled to it for refuge.

Services and day school were now held regularly in the hall. The latter was well attended, all the pupils showing eagerness to learn “book,” and many making rapid progress.

The larger Mission House, which Mary intended to occupy the space in front of the yard at Ekenge, was a stiffer problem for the people, and for a time they hung back from the attempt to build it.


Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Christian truth and progress was not superstition or custom, but drink. She had seen something of the traffic in rum and gin at the coast, but she was amazed at what went on in Okoyong. All in the community, old and young, drank, and often she lay down to rest at night knowing that not a sober man and hardly a sober woman was within miles of her. When the villagers came home from a drunken bout the chief men would rouse her up and demand why she had not risen to receive them. At all hours of the day and night they would stagger into the hut, and lie down and fall asleep. Her power, then, was not strong enough to prevent them–but the time came.

The spirit came up from Calabar and was the chief article of trade. When a supply arrived processions of girls carrying demijohns trooped in from all quarters, as if they were going to the spring for water. At the funeral of one big man seven casks of liquor were consumed, in addition to that bought in small quantities by the poorer classes. A refugee of good birth and conduct remarked to Mary once that he had been three days in the yard and had not tasted the white man’s rum. “Three days!” she replied, “and you think that long!” “Ma,” he said, in evident astonishment, “three whole days! I have never passed a day without drinking since I was a boy.”

She fought this evil with all her energy and skill. Her persuasion so wrought on the chiefs that on several occasions they agreed to put away the drink at palavers, with the result that those who had come from a distance departed, sober and in peace, to the wonderment of all around.

She saw that the people were tempted and fell because of their idleness and isolation; for they still maintained their aloofness from all their neighbours, and there was yet no free communication with Calabar. If a missionary happened to pay her a visit he would be stopped on the forest track by sentries who, after satisfying themselves as to his identity, “cooeed” to other watchers farther on. Dr. Livingstone believed that the opening up of Central Africa to trade would help to stamp out the slave traffic, and in the same way she was convinced that more legitimate commerce and the development of wants among the people would to some extent undermine the power of drink. All the ordinary trade she had seen done so far was the sale of five shillings’ worth of handkerchiefs and a sixpenny looking-glass. She urged the chiefs to take the initiative, and was never tired of showing them her possessions, in order to incite within them a desire to own similar articles. They were greatly taken with the glass windows and doors, and one determined to procure wood and “shut himself in.” Her clock, sewing-machine, and organ were always a source of wonder, and people came from far and near to see them. The women quickly became envious of her household goods, and she could have sold her bedcovers, curtains, meat-safe, bedstead, chest of drawers, and other objects a score of times. More promising still was their desire to have clean dresses like their “Ma,” and she spent a large portion of her time cutting out and shaping the long simple garment that served to hide their nakedness.

She also sent down to Calabar and asked some of the native trading people whom she knew to come up with cloth, pots, and dishes, and other useful articles, guaranteeing them her protection; but so great was their fear of the Okoyong warriors and so poor their faith in her power, that they refused point blank–they would as soon have thought of going-to the moon. “Well,” said Mary, “if they won’t come to us we must go to them.” She had been seeking to familiarise the minds of the chiefs with the idea of settling their disputes by means of arbitration instead of by fighting, and had been cherishing the hope that she might persuade some of them to proceed to Creek Town and discuss the subject with King Eyo. She now proposed to the King that he should invite them to a palaver at his house, and at the same time she would endeavour to have some produce sent down direct to the traders.

The King had never ceased to take an interest in her work: he frequently sent up special messengers to enquire if all was well, and always reminded her that he was willing to be of service to the Okoyong people. A grandson of the first King Eyo also sent men occasionally, with instructions to do anything they could for the white Mother, and to bring down her messages to Calabar. Such kindly thought often took the edge off her loneliness.

The King at once sent the invitation, and, trusting more in the word of Mary than in that of the King, all the chiefs in her neighbourhood accepted the offer and an expedition to Creek Town was organised. A canoe was obtained, and heaped with yams and plantains, gifts for the King, and with bags of palm-kernels and a barrel of oil, the first instalment of trade with the Europeans. Alas! the natives know nothing about a load-line, and as the tide rose the canoe sank. It was not an unmixed pleasure setting out with men who were ignorant of the management of canoes, but another day was fixed and another canoe was found. The whole of Okoyong seemed to be at the beach, and every man, woman, and child was uttering counsel and heartening the intrepid voyagers. Several of the chiefs drew back and disappeared, and of the half-dozen who remained only two could be persuaded to embark when they learnt that guns and swords must be left behind.

“Ma, you make women of us! Did ever a man go to a strange place without his arms?” “Ma” was inexorable. She sat down and waited, and after a two hours’ palaver swords were ungirt and handed with the guns to the women. Those who still declined to go were received back with rejoicing, and farewells were made with those who went, amidst wailings and tears. A start was made, but the craft proved to be ill-balanced, and the cargo had to be shifted. As this was being done she detected a number of swords hidden below the bags of kernels. Her eyes flashed, and the people scattered out of the way as she pitched the arms out on the beach. With a meekness that was amusing the men scrambled into their places and the canoe shot into the river, Mary taking a paddle and wielding it with the best of the men. The journey was made through dense darkness and drizzling rain, and occupied twelve hours.

But she was rewarded by the result. Nothing could exceed the kindness of King Eyo. He bore himself as a Christian gentleman, listened courteously to the passionate and foolish speech of the Okoyong representatives, reminded the supercilious Calabar chiefs that the Gospel which had made them what they were had only just been taken to Okoyong, and in giving the verdict which went against them, he gently made it the finding of righteousness, according to the laws of God. When all had been settled he asked Mary to take the chiefs over his palace, and invited them to a meeting in the church in the evening, where he spoke words of cheer and counsel from the words, “To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

This experience made a great impression upon the chiefs: they left with a profound reverence for the King and a determination to abide by his decisions in the future, whilst Mary had added much to her dignity and position. This was proved the morning after they returned to Ekenge. She was awakened by a confused noise, and on looking out was astonished to find several chiefs directing slaves, who were working with building material. “What is the matter?” she asked in wonder. Instead of answering her one of the chiefs who had accompanied her to Calabar turned to the crowd and, in a burst of eloquence, described all he had seen at Creek Town, how the Europeans lived, and how King Eyo and every chief and gentleman had treated their Mother as a person superior to them, and given her all honour. They in Okoyong must now treat her as befitted her rank and station, and must build her a proper house to live in, Mary was hard put to it to preserve her gravity. Soon afterwards a young slave, for whom she had often pled, began to wash his hands in some dirty water in a dish outside: his master ran at him with a whip, and it was all she could do to prevent him being lashed. Opening out again and again he called the lad a fool for daring to touch a dish used by their Great White Mother.

But what was more important than all was the fact that the way had at last been opened up for trade relations with Calabar. The people began to make oil and buy and sell kernels, and to send the produce down the river direct to the factories. As she had foreseen, they had now less time for palavers, and less inclination for useless drinking, and still more useless quarrelling and fighting.


The story of the settlement in Okoyong and of the building of the hut and hall was related by Miss Slessor in the _Missionary Record_ of the Church for March 1889. The hall she described as “a beautiful building, though neither doors nor windows are yet put in, as we are waiting for a carpenter. And,” she added, “if there were only a house built, any other agent could come and take up the work if I fail.” In the same number of the _Record_ there appeared an appeal by the Foreign Mission Committee for “a practical carpenter, with an interest in Christian work,” for Calabar.

There happened to be in Edinburgh at this time a carpenter named Mr. Charles Ovens, belonging to the Free Church, who was keenly interested in foreign missions. As a boy he had wished to be a missionary, but believing that only ministers could hold such a post he relinquished the idea. He was an experienced tradesman of the fine old type, a Scot of Scots, with the happy knack of looking on the bright side of things. Having been in America on a prolonged visit he was about to return there, and had gone to say good-bye to an old lady friend, a United Presbyterian. The latter remarked to him, “I see Miss Slessor wants a man to put in her doors and windows–why don’t you go to Calabar?” He had never heard of Miss Slessor, but the suggestion struck him as good, and he straightway saw the Foreign Mission Secretary, and then went and changed the address on his baggage. He left in May, and on his arrival in Calabar was sent up to finish the work Mary had begun. All his speech at Duke Town was of America and its wonders, but when he returned some months later he could talk of nothing but Okoyong.

He found Mary attired in a simple dress, without hat or shoes, dining at a table in the yard in the company of goats and hens. She sprang up with delight on hearing the Scots tongue, and welcomed him warmly. The conditions were most primitive, and his room was only eight feet long and five feet wide, but he possessed much of her Spartan spirit. Although ignorant of the native language he was of great assistance to her during his stay, while his humour and irresistible laugh lightened many a weary day. As he worked he sang “auld Scots sangs,” like the “Rowan Tree” and “The Auld Hoose.” When she heard the latter tears came into her eyes at the memories it recalled. Even Tom, his native assistant, was affected. “I don’t like these songs,” he said, “they make my heart big and my eyes water!”

The Mission House had progressed well under Mary’s superintendence. She had aimed at making it equal to any at the big stations, and had planned an “upstairs” building with a verandah six feet above the ground, and a kitchen and dispensary. She had mudded the walls, and the mat roof was being tied on, and now that Mr. Ovens was at work all was promising well, when an event occurred which put a stop to operations for months.


One morning, when nature was as lovely as a dream, Mr. Ovens was working at the new house, and Miss Slessor was sitting on the verandah watching him. Suddenly, from far away in the forest, there came a strange, eerie sound. Ever on the alert for danger, Mary rose and listened.

“There is something wrong,” she exclaimed.

For a moment she stood in the tense attitude of a hunter seeking to locate the quarry, and then, swiftly moving into the forest, vanished from sight. Mr. Ovens sent Tom, his boy, off after her to find out what was the matter. He returned with a message that there had been an accident, and that Mr. Ovens was to come at once and bring restoratives. As the ominous news became known to the natives standing around a look of fear came into their faces.

Mr. Ovens found her sitting beside the unconscious body of a young man. “It is Etim, the eldest son of our chief, Edem,” she explained. “He was about to be married, and had been building a house. He came here to lift and bring a tree; when handling the log it slipped and struck him on the back of the neck, and paralysis has ensued.”

He glanced at her face as if surprised at its gravity. She divined what he thought, and speaking out of her intimate knowledge of the people and their ways she said, “There’s going to be trouble; no death of a violent character comes apart from witchcraft…. Can you make some sort of a litter to carry him?”

Divesting himself of part of his clothing, and obtaining some strong sticks, he made a rough stretcher, on which the inert form was laid conveyed to Ekenge.

For a fortnight Mary tended the patient in his mother’s house, hoping against hope that he would recover, and that the crisis she dreaded would be averted, but he was beyond human help. One Sunday morning he lay dying, and the news sent a spasm of terror throughout the district. Hearing the sound of wailing Mary rushed to the yard and found the lad being held up, some natives blowing smoke into his nostrils, some rubbing ground pepper into his eyes, others pressing Ms mouth open, and his uncle, Ekpenyong, shouting into his ears. Such treatment naturally hastened the end. When life was fled, the chief dropped the body into her arms and shouted, “Sorcerers have killed and they must die. Bring the witch-doctor.”

At the words every man and woman disappeared, leaving only the mother, who, in an agony of grief, cast herself down beside the body. When the medicine-man arrived he laid the blame of the tragedy upon a certain village, to which the armed freemen at once marched. They seized over a dozen men and women, the others escaping into the forest, and after sacking all the houses returned with the prisoners loaded with chains, and fastened them to posts in the yard, which had only one entrance.

Anxious to pacify the rage of the chiefs, father and uncle, Mary undertook to do honour to the dead lad by dressing him in the style befitting his rank. Fine silk cloth was wound round his body, shirts and vests were put on, over these went a suit of clothes which she had made for his father, the head was shaved into patterns and painted yellow, and round it was wound a silk turban, all being crowned with a tall black and scarlet hat with plumes of brilliant feathers. Thus attired the body was carried out into a booth in the women’s yard, where it was fastened, seated in an arm-chair, under a large umbrella. To the hands were tied the whip and silver-headed stick that denoted his position, while a mirror was arranged in front of him, in order that he might enjoy the reflection of his grandeur. Beside him was a table, upon which were set out all the treasures of the house, including the skulls taken in war, and a few candles begged from Mary.

When the people were admitted and saw the weird spectacle they became frenzied with delight, danced and capered, and started on a course of drinking and wantonness.

“You’ll have to stop all work,” Mary said to Mr. Ovens, who felt as if he were moving in some grotesque fantasy of sleep; “this is going to be a serious business. We can’t leave these prisoners for a moment. I’ll watch beside them all night and you’ll take the day.”

And time and time about in that filthy yard, through the heat of the day and the chill of the night, these two brave souls kept guard opposite the wretched band of prisoners, with the half-naked people, armed with guns and machetes, dancing drinking about them. As one barrel of rum was finished another was brought in, and the supply seemed endless. The days went by, and Mr. Ovens lost patience, and declared he would go and get a chisel and hammer and free the prisoners at all costs. “Na, na,” replied Mary wisely, “we’ll have a little more patience.”

One day she went to Mr. Ovens and said, “They want a coffin.”

“They’ll have to make one,” he retorted.

“I think you’d better do it,” she rejoined; “the boy’s father has some wood of his own, of which he was going to make a door like mine, and he is willing to use it for the purpose.”

They proceeded to the yard to obtain measurements, and as they entered Mary caught sight of some esere beans lying on the pounding stone. She shivered. What could she do! She returned to her hut. Prayer had been her solace and strength during all these days and nights, and now with passionate entreaty she beseeched God for guidance and help in the struggle that was to come. When she rose from her knees her fear had vanished, and she was tranquil and confident. Reaching the yard she took the two brother chiefs aside, and told them that there must be no sacrifice of life. They did not deny that the poison ordeal was about to take place, but they argued that only those guilty of causing the death would suffer. She did not reply, but went to the door of the compound and sat down: from there she was determined not to move until the issue was decided. The chiefs were angry. To have a white woman– and such a woman–amongst them was good, but she must not interfere with their customs and laws. The mother of the dead lad became violent. Even the slaves were openly hostile and threatening. The crowd; maddened by drink, ran wildly about, flourishing their guns and swords. “Raise our master from the dead,” they cried, “and you shall have the prisoners.”

Night fell. Mr. Ovens gathered up the children and put them to bed. Mary scribbled a note to Duke Town and gave it to the two native assistant carpenters, and directed them in English to steal in the darkness to the beach and make their way down the river. There was distraction within the yard as well as without. Three of the women were mothers with babies, who were crying incessantly from hunger and fear. Another, who had chains round her neck and bare limbs, had an only daughter about fifteen years of age, who was a cousin of the dead lad, and the betrothed wife of his father. The girl clung to her mother, weeping piteously. Sometimes she would come and clasp “Ma’s” feet, beseeching her to help her, or waylay the chiefs, and offer herself in servitude for life in exchange for her mother’s freedom.

Mr. Ovens had gone to the hut, and Mary was keeping vigil when a stir warned her of danger. Several men came and unlocked the chains on one of the women–a mother–and ordered her to the front of the corpse to take the bean. Mary was in a dilemma. Was it a ruse to get her out of the yard? If she followed, would they bar the entrance and wreak their vengeance on the others who remained? “Do not go,” they cried, and gazed at her pleadingly. But she could not see a woman walk straight to death.

One swift appeal to God and she was after the woman. The table was covered with a white cloth, and upon it stood a glass of water containing the poison. As the victim was in the act of lifting the glass she touched her on the shoulder and whispered, “_’Ifehe!_” (run). She gave a quick glance of intelligence into the compelling eyes and off both bounded, and were in the bush before any one realised they were gone. They reached the hut. “Quick,” Mary cried to Mr. Ovens, “take the woman and hide her.” In a moment he had drawn her in and locked the door, and Mary flew back to the yard. “Where is she?” the prisoners cried. “Safe in my house,” she answered. They were amazed. She herself wondered at her immunity from harm. It might be that the natives were stupefied with drink–but she thought of her prayer.

Finding that she was not to be moved, the chiefs endeavoured to cajole and deceive her. “God will not let anybody die of the bean if they are not guilty,” they said. They released two of the prisoners, substituting imbiam, the native oath, for the poison ordeal, and later, five others. She still stood firm, and two more obtained their freedom. There they stopped. “We have done more for you than we have ever done for any one, and we will die before we go further.” Three remained. One woman, with a baby, they would not release. “Akpo, the chief of her house, escaped into the bush, and the fact of his flight proves his guilt,” they argued; “we cannot ransom her.” The other two, a freeman and the woman named Inyam with the daughter, were relatives of the bereaved mother, and also specially implicated, and they were seized and led away. Mary hesitated to follow, but hoping that the girl might be able to keep her informed of what was going on she decided to remain with the woman with the infant.

Another dawn brought visitors from a distance, who only added to the rioting and her perplexity. They told her that Egbo was coming, and advised her to fly to Calabar. She replied that he could come and play the fool as much as he pleased, but she would not desert her post. The father stormed and threatened, and declared he would burn down the house. “You are welcome,” she said, “it is not mine.” In a blazing passion he cried that the woman would die. So terrified and exhausted was the victim that she begged “Ma” to give in. At this point Ma Eme came to the rescue: kneeling to her brother she besought him to allow Mary to have the prisoner in the meantime–she could be chained to the verandah of the hut, and could not possibly escape with such a weight of irons. Mary caught at the plan, and declared that she would give a fair hearing to the charges against the house which she represented.

To her infinite surprise the chiefs gave in. “But,” said they, “if she is sent out of the way to Calabar, you pay a heavy fine, and leave here for ever.” Fearing they would repent, she hastily called for the keys to unlock the chain, but the slaves pretended ignorance, said they could not find them, and denounced the liberation of the murderers. Patience and firmness again succeeded, the keys were produced, the locks were opened. Mary gathered up the long folds of chain, and Ma Eme, also trembling with eagerness, pushed them out in order that they might escape the crowd. They ran through the scrub to the hut, and here the mother and child were housed in a large packing-case, while a barricade was put up to make the position more secure.

During the afternoon two of the Calabar missionaries arrived, and added the weight of their influence to Mary’s, giving a magic-lantern exhibition in the open, and in other ways endeavouring to lend prestige to the funeral, in order to compensate for the lack of human sacrifice. A quieter night followed, though the vigil was unbroken. In the morning the father of the dead lad called her aside, and in a long harangue justified his desire to do his son honour by giving him a retinue in the spirit-land. Then calling to his retainers he ordered them to bring the freeman. Dragging him forward, limping and dazed, he presented him formally to “Ma,” saying, “This further act of clemency must satisfy you. The woman who is left must take the poison: you cannot object–she will recover if she is innocent.”

She thanked him warmly, but renewed her entreaties for the release of the woman also. The chief turned away in anger and disgust, and the battle went on. As the missionaries were obliged to return to Calabar she and Mr. Ovens were again left alone. All day she followed the chief, coaxing and pleading. Sometimes he ignored her; sometimes he brusquely showed his annoyance; sometimes he looked at her in pity, as if he thought she were crazed. But he gave her no hope. When a whisper came to her ears that the burial would take place that night in the house of the chief she was heart-sick with dread.

Late in the evening, as she was busy with her household, she heard a faint cry at the barricade:

“Ma, Ma, make haste, let me in.”

Noiselessly she pulled aside the planks, and Inyam, heavily ironed, crawled on her hands and knees into the room. Her story was that she had managed by friction to cut one of the links of the chain which bound her, and had escaped by climbing the roof. Mary looked at the thick chain hanging about her, and guessed whose were the kindly black hands that had given her aid, but she kept her thought to herself. The last of the prisoners was now safe, the funeral in the house of the chief had taken place, and only a cow had been placed in the coffin, and her joy was great. But her troubles were not over.

A party of natives coming to the funeral met another party returning drunk with excitement and rum. Recalling some old quarrel the latter killed one of the men they met, cut off his head, and carried it away as a trophy. Fighting became general between the factions, and many were seriously wounded.

One afternoon the village went suddenly mad with panic. All the women and children and all the men without arms rushed frantically about. Mothers clutched their babies, wives and slaves seized what belongings they could carry, children screamed and held on to the first person they met. They had heard sounds that heralded the advance of the dreaded Egbo. Then, by a common impulse, all rushed for the protection of the white woman’s yard. She pulled down the barricade, packed as many children and women into her room as it could hold, and ordered the others into the bush at the back. The women were almost insane with terror, and the manacled prisoner begged to be killed. As the beating of the drum and the shouting of the mob drew near Mary trembled, but again prayer restored her to calm. Even when the village was invaded and shouting began, she was without fear. And, strange to say, the mob remained but a short time, and not a shot went home. They had set fire to every house in the village from which the prisoners had been taken, and wrecked another and burned the stock alive. As no powerful chief submitted to Egbo sent out by another House, Edem’s village also ran amok, and for over a week the population haunted the forest, shooting down indiscriminately every man and woman who passed. It was not until much blood had been shed that the various bands became tired of the struggle and returned to their dwellings.

For three weeks the prisoners were kept in the hut, and then “Ma’s” pressure on the chiefs succeeded, and the chained woman was released on condition that if her chief Akpo were caught he would take the poison ordeal, whilst Inyam, taking advantage of all the people being drunk one night, stole out into the forest and escaped. What became of her Mary never knew, until one day, months after, when travelling, she passed a number of huts in the bush, and was accosted by name and found herself face to face with the refugee.

This was the longest and severest strain to which she was subjected; it was her worst encounter with the passions of the natives, her greatest conflict with the most terrible of their customs, and she came out of it victorious. For the first time in the dark history of the tribe the death and funeral of one of the rank of a chief had occurred without the sacrifice of life. In some mysterious way she had been able to subdue these wild people and bend them to her will. Her fame went far and wide throughout Okoyong and beyond into regions still unexplored, and many thought of her with a kind of awe as one possessing superhuman power. There were, indeed, some amongst those who knew her who had a lurking suspicion that she was more than woman.


Various incidents came as an aftermath to these happenings. One afternoon the women came running to “Ma” saying that the elder chief, Ekpenyong, was bent on taking the poison ordeal. When she reached his yard she found him in a fury, shouting and threatening, the women remonstrating, the slaves weeping. It was some time ere she could learn the cause of the uproar. A man from a neighbouring village had been about whispering that Ekpenyong had slain his nephew, in order that his own son might absorb the inheritance. Ekpenyong was determined to undergo the test, and in accordance with native law, which gave the right to a freeman to call others of equal rank to share the trial with him, he demanded that his brother Edem–who it was alleged had instigated the man to make the accusation–should also take the poison.

When Mary had grasped the situation she ridiculed the attitude of the chief, scolded him unmercifully, and at last secured his promise not to carry out his threat. As a guarantee of his good faith she claimed possession of the esere beans. He denied that he had any. With the help of his womenkind she made a secret search, and found eleven beans at the bottom of a basket, which she conveyed in the darkness to her hut. As more beans could not be obtained until the morning she felt that all was well for the night. Shouting, however, made her run back. Mad with drink the chief was clinging to a bag which the women were endeavouring to seize. He was hitting out at them with his heavy hand, and most of them were bleeding. “There is poison in that bag,” they cried. “No, Ma, only my palm-nuts and cartridges.” Quietly, firmly, persistently, she demanded the bag. He threw it at her. Opening it she found palm-nuts and cartridges. For a moment she looked foolish, but diving deeper she pulled out no fewer than forty of the deadly beans. “I’ll take the liberty of keeping these,” she said coolly, but with a swiftly beating heart. “No, no,” he shouted, and his followers joined him in protest. Outwardly calm she walked between the lines of armed men, ironically bidding them take the bag from her. But their hands were held, and she passed safely through, reached her hut, handed the beans to Mr. Ovens, and returned to the scene to pacify the crowd.

Next morning she learnt to her consternation that Ekpenyong had risen stealthily during the night and gone off on his errand of death. Fortunately a chief some miles off detained him by force until she arrived. She stuck resolutely to him, and as all the more powerful chiefs came over to her side from sheer admiration of her pluck, he had eventually to abandon his purpose. After taking the native oath he betook himself to another part of the forest, where he built up a new settlement.

One more episode remained to round off the sequence of events. The murderer of the young man in the funeral party was the oldest son of a House noted for bloody deeds, and the act roused the slumbering fury of its neighbours. War was declared and fighting began. Mary interfered and pressed for arbitration, and both sides at last acceded to her request, and asked her to conduct the palaver. Aware that the man was a triple murderer and the penalty death, she shrank from the duty, and begged them to put the matter into the hands of a Calabar chief. This they did, and went to Ikunetu on the Cross River, where “blood for blood” was the verdict. Fines and death by substitution of slaves were offered and refused; the youngest son, a mere baby, was sent in atonement and rejected; then the second son, a lad of twenty, was despatched, and it was agreed that his death would redeem his brother. Mary’s distress was acute, especially as she had declined to act as judge, but she was relieved on learning that the prisoner had escaped, and was being sheltered by one of the slave-traders across the river. She wished to get him into her own yard, but the weeping mother said it was too dangerously near home.

One morning, early, she heard the sound of rapid firing, and in alarm she sent messengers to enquire the cause. The lad had been betrayed, brought back, filled with gin, and amidst discharge of guns, beating of drums, singing and dancing, had been strangled and hung in the presence of his mother and sister. These two alone mourned the dead, the others were glad that the matter had been so easily settled, and for a week the loafers and drunkards in the district held high carnival.

As time passed and the heat of the persecution cooled, Mary made tentative proposals that Akpo, the escaped chief, and his family, should be allowed to return. “I will go and fetch them myself if their safety be guaranteed,” she said. Edem, the father of the dead lad, replied, “Very well, Ma, you can say that all thought of vengeance is gone from our heart, and if he wishes to come to his own village or live in your home or go anywhere in Okoyong he is at liberty to do so.” But trust is rare in Africa, and suspicion dies hard, and Akpo could not bring himself to believe that Edem wished him well, and he elected to remain where he was. Again she paid the exile a visit, taking with her an elderly man, who was betrothed to his daughter, but he could not overcome his fears. In his heart he and his friends were incredulous that the chiefs of Okoyong would listen to a woman. A third time the patient Mary went to him, and succeeded in bringing him and his son back with her, the women remaining behind until a new house could be built.

The home-coming was fall of pathos. House, farm, clothing, seed-corn, yams, goats, fowls, all had vanished. But as the chief stood amidst the familiar surroundings his gloom and silence fell away, and he knelt and clasped “Ma’s” feet, and with eyes filled with tears vowed that he and his house would be under yoke to her for ever, and that they would never rebel against any commands she gave or do anything contrary to her wishes. Most people, white and black, occasionally felt disposed to dispute her rulings, and more than once her will and that of the chief clashed, but he stood to his word, and there was no family in the district who gave her message a more loyal hearing.

Edem acted nobly. He not only arranged for the housing of the two men, but gave them a piece of ground and seed for food plants. When she went to tell him all had been done, he simply said, “Thank you, Ma.” But in the evening he came alone to her, knelt and held her feet, and thanked her again and again for her wonderful love and courage, for her action, in forbidding them to take life at his son’s death, and for all the peaceful ways which she was introducing. “We are all weary of the old customs,” he said, “but no single person or House among us has power to break them off, because they are part of the Egbo system.”

And one by one, secretly and unknown to each other, the free people came to her and thanked her gratefully for the state of safety she was bringing about, and charged her to keep a stout heart and to go forward and do away with all the old fashions, the end of which was always death.


Meanwhile the Mission House had evolved into what was in her eyes a thing of beauty. She could at any rate boast that it was the finest dwelling in Okoyong, and it was a happy day when she removed “upstairs.” Nor was the house all that was accomplished during these troublous times. Mr. Goldie had made her a gift of a canoe; but without a boathouse it was exposed to rain and ants and thieves, and she planned a shelter at the beach that would do both for it and for herself. Ma Eme brought her people to the spot, the men cut down trees and erected the framework, and the women dug the mud and filled in the walls, and Mr. Ovens made a door and provided a padlock.

Thus, in the course of a short time, she had built a hut; a good house with accommodation for children, servants, and visitors; a dispensary; a church; and a double-roomed boathouse. All the native labour had been given cheerfully and without idea of money, but from time to time she distributed amongst the workers a few gifts from the Mission boxes, or a goat or a bag of rice. In addition to her house at Ekenge she had a room in several of the villages, where she put up on her journeys; and it was characteristic of her that she secured these not for her own convenience but for the sake of the people, in order that they might feel that they were being looked after.

It was, indeed, for the people she lived. Mr. Ovens states that she was at their beck and call day and night; she taught in the schools, preached in the church, and, as he puts it, “washed the wee bairnies herself,” and dressed the most loathsome diseases, all with tenderness and gay humour. “I never saw a frown on her face,” he says. She was always ready for anything and equal to any emergency. “One morning,” he recalls, “she came to me. ‘Twins,’ she said, ‘and we have to go.’ When we arrived at the spot we found that the bairns had been murdered by the grandmother, and the mother was lying on the bare ground in a hut some distance away. Miss Slessor sent her a bed and pillow, and told her husband to be kind to her. The man took her back into the house– such a thing had never been known before.”

It was at this time that the plump and pretty infant referred to by Miss Kingsley in her _Travels in West Africa_ was saved. The mother died a few days after the birth, and as there was a quarrel between her family and that of the father the child was thrown into the bush by the side of the road leading to the market, and lay there for five days and six nights.

This particular market is held every ninth day, and on the succeeding market-day, some women from the village by the side of Miss Slessor’s house happened to pass along the path and heard the child feebly crying: they came into Miss Slessor’s yard in the evening, and sat chatting over the day’s shopping, and casually mentioned in the way of conversation that they had heard the child crying, and that it was rather remarkable that it should be still alive. Needless to say Miss Slessor was off, and had that waif home. It was truly in an awful state, but just alive. In a marvellous way it had been left by leopards and snakes, with which this bit of forest abounds, and, more marvellous still, the driver ants had not scented it. Other ants had considerably eaten into it one way and another; nose, eyes, etc., were swarming with them and flies; the cartilage of the nose and part of the upper lip had been absolutely eaten into, but in spite of this she is now one of the prettiest black children I have ever seen, which is saying a good deal, for negro children are very pretty with their round faces, their large mouths not yet coarsened by heavy lips, their beautifully-shaped flat little ears, and their immense melancholy deer-like eyes, and above these charms they possess that of being fairly quiet. This child is not an object of terror, like the twin children; it was just thrown away because no one would be bothered to rear it–but when Miss Slessor had had all the trouble of it the natives had no objection to pet and play with it, calling it “the child of wonder,” because of its survival. This child was named Mary after the house mother, and completed the number of those who for long constituted the inner circle of the family. The others were Janie, Alice–a rescued twin of “royal” blood, and Annie–the child of the woman who took a native oath to prove that she did not help her husband to eat a stolen dog. These four were to grow up and become a comfort to their white “Mother,” and will reappear from time to time in the course of the story. Another helper in the house at this time was Mana, a faithful girl, who had been caught by two men when going home from a spring, and brought to Okoyong and sold to Ma Erne. Other children there were, all with more or less tragic histories, and all were looked after and trained and loved.