Friday, December 02, 2005

Mary Slessor


The daughter of an alcoholic shoemaker (born on this day in 1848 in Gilcomston, Scotland), Mary Slessor developed an interest in missionary work as a member of the Wishart Church in Dundee, Scotland. Although she was known among school friends for her courage and determination (she purportedly convinced local ruffians who were tormenting her to join her Sunday school class), she doubted her courage for work abroad, but in 1876 set sail for Nigeria as a missionary of the United Presbyterian Church.

There she found a country torn apart by the economies of slavery, where witchcraft and human sacrifice were prevalent responses to strife and women were regarded as little more than livestock. Unlike many who had come before her in the name of "civilization," however, Slessor adopted local styles and became fluent in Efik -- to the point of being able to summon superior rhetorical figures while arguing with local authorities against the harsh treatment of women or the local reluctance to receive vaccination against smallpox.

She was so effective, in fact, that in 1903, Mary was invited to continue her public health and welfare activities as a member of the British government as an attache in the court of Itu. Leveraging British desires for clearer trade routes, Slessor secured government funding for her efforts while penetrating deeper and deeper into the Nigerian interior, not infrequently conducting all-night treks through rain forests in the service of her humanitarian ambitions.

Near the end of her life, however, she had grown quite feeble from recurrent illnesses, and when she died at the age of 67 on January 13, 1915, she was probably suffering from malaria, which was still rampant and uncontrolled in Nigeria. She was given a state funeral and buried in the heart of the country under a great Scottish granite cross which has become a place of pilgrimage for the likes of Elizabeth II, among others.

She has become a kind of Scottish national heroine over the years, as the accompanying illustration of her on a Clydesdale Bank £10 note indicates -- an honor reserved for such other Scottish leading lights as Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce.

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