Mary Slessor: Forward into Calabar

Chapter 1
The Vice-Consul of Okoyong

The hot West African sun beat down on the clearing at the edge of the village. It was midafternoon, and the court hearing that had started early in the morning was dragging on. Okpono, his near-naked body glistening in the sun, was once again making a spirited argument as to why his brother-in-law should be forced to pay back the money he owed him. The vice-consul of Okoyong sat cross-legged in the shade of a huge kapok tree listening to the argument as she skillfully worked the knitting needles in her hands, passing the woolen yarn over the end of each needle to form a new stitch. The knitting seemed to have a calming effect on her and on the crowd who had gathered to view the proceedings. The vice-consul had already heard Okpono make his argument at least twenty times and listened as Okpono’s brother-in-law refuted it each time. She could tell the men were beginning to tire of talking, and soon it would be her turn to take over and render judgment. Experience had taught her that it was important for those involved in the case to talk about it until they could talk no more and were ready to listen to what she had to say.

It amazed Mary Slessor, the blue-eyed, red-haired Scottish woman who served as vice-consul, that she was the one deciding such disputes and that so many people came to observe the proceedings. When Mary first entered the Okoyong region years before, people fled from her in terror. They had never seen a white woman before, and they took her red hair as a sign her head was on fire. But over the years, Mary had won the trust of the people in the region. Now the people called her the “white ma,” and instead of fleeing, they flocked around her. No one had done more than the white ma to change the cruel and inhuman customs and practices that had terrorized the people’s lives for so many years.

Mary focused her attention on the case. Okpono’s brother-in-law was now wrapping up another rebuttal to Okpono’s argument, and it was time for Mary to start thinking about rendering judgment. The decision was cut and dried, really, but Mary still had a few things to think on. She was irritated that Okpono would take his brother-in-law to court when he himself neglected his children and took delight in regularly beating his wives, especially the wife who was the sister of the man he had dragged into court. What troubled Mary the most was that the brother-in-law was a hard-working, honorable man who had simply had some bad luck. So while the case was plain and simple—the brother-in-law owed the money and needed to pay it back—Mary was concerned that justice be administered in a broader sense. Besides understanding that debts needed to be repaid, people needed to see that it wasn’t okay to neglect their children or beat their wives.

Mary sat knitting in silence, mulling over what to do. After several minutes, she laid aside her knitting and got to her feet. Looking Okpono’s brother-in-law squarely in the face she said, “I find you guilty and order you to pay to Okpono the money you owe.”

Dejected at losing, the brother-in-law dropped his head. At the same time, a large smirk crept across Okpono’s face. But Mary had a surprise for Okpono. She spoke again to the brother-in-law. “I also order you to give Okpono a whipping, right here and now. And be sure you make it hard, or I will fine you for going easy on him.”

A look of shock quickly replaced the smirk on Okpono’s face. At the same time, looks of satisfaction crept across the faces of those in the crowd. This was justice. The white ma truly understood their ways.

With her duties as vice-consul discharged for the day, Mary gathered up her knitting and placed it into a bag. It was time to eat and then share more of the gospel message with the village. In the morning, Mary would begin the trek back to Ekenge, the village where she lived.

As she sat at the fire that night eating a bowl of corn stew with her fingers, Mary wondered what the people back at the Baxter cotton mill in Dundee, Scotland, would think if they saw her now. They would probably be amazed that she had managed to stay alive for so long in such a harsh environment, especially when so many other missionaries had died within a few years of arriving in Calabar. They might also marvel at the fact that the eleven-year-old girl who had started working at the mill was now vice-consul, the sole administrator of British law in the Okoyong region. Of course, Mary would not have believed it possible back then either, but here she was. There was no denying it—she had grown a lot from being that small girl working at the mill. In fact, she now felt more at home among the people of the Okoyong region than she did among Scottish people in Scotland. Indeed, she now referred to the Africans as “her” people, and they referred to her as Eka Kpukpru Owo, the Mother of Us All. It was all a long way from life in Dundee….

Chapter 2
It Was Up to Her

Eleven-year-old Mary Slessor stood by the door of the only house she’d ever known and watched as a neighbor hauled away the kitchen table. The table was being sold to raise money for the family to move to the city of Dundee, Scotland.

“Don’t worry about the move, Mary. Things will work out for the best. It will give your father a fresh start,” her mother said, patting Mary’s bright red curly hair. “There will be new opportunities for you in Dundee. Perhaps you’ll even be able to go to school.”

Mary’s eyes lit up. “That would be wonderful. Do you really think I might get to go?” she asked.

“Once we’re all settled in and your father has a steady job, I don’t see why not. Now, run along and fold the blankets for me, would you? I’ve a mind to put them in the bottom of this chest.”

Mary skipped happily from the front door of the cottage to the tiny bedroom she shared with her three younger sisters. Her younger brother John slept in the loft above the kitchen. Until a year ago, when he had become weak and died, Robert, her older brother, had slept in the loft as well. With his death, Mary had become the oldest child of Robert and Mary Slessor, after whom the two elder children were named.

As Mary folded the blankets, she thought about what her mother had said and wondered whether things really would be better in Dundee than they were in Gilcomston, near Aberdeen on the northeast coast of Scotland where they lived. Although Mary had never been more than a few miles from her home, her friend Helen had and had told her all about the towns in the lowlands of Scotland. The buildings there were apparently dark and close together, and it was almost impossible to breathe because the thick smoke produced by the factories hung in black clouds above the cities. It sounded horrible to Mary, and not one bit as good as living in Aberdeen, where the wind rustled through the highland heather and down into the city. But surely things in Dundee weren’t as bad as Helen said. Otherwise why would her mother be so eager for the family to move there?

Mary knew part of the answer. It was because of her father, a strong, muscular man with curly red hair who told the most exciting stories and whose laugh could fill the whole house. That is, when he was sober. When he was drunk, he turned into a monster. He yelled and screamed and lashed out at his wife and children. And lately he had been drunk more and more. Mary knew it had something to do with his shoemaking business not going well. She had lain awake one night and had heard her mother beg her father to move the family to Dundee, where he could get a steady job in one of the new factories there.

Mrs. Slessor had explained to Mary on several occasions that in this age of machines, the “big” money was to be made in the cities working in the new factories springing up there and not in some backwater community making shoes by hand. It was 1859, and anyone living in Scotland, she insisted, should be taking advantage of the wave of industrialization sweeping across the country.

Mary desperately wanted to believe that moving to Dundee would be a change for the better. She hoped her father would stop drinking and get a job with a regular wage. She also hoped she could attend school. She longed to be able to read and write.

As she finished folding the blankets, Mary heard a commotion outside the cottage and the neighing of a horse. She rushed outside to see the horse and dray that would take them to the ferryboat for the trip down the coast to Dundee.

Two days later, Mary discovered that Dundee was everything Helen had said—and worse. The family was crammed into a dirty two-room apartment on the second floor of a tenement building on Queen Street, right in the heart of one of Dundee’s slums. And just as Helen had said, the air was so thick with black smoke that it coated the laundry Mrs. Slessor hung out the window to dry. The laundry was often grimier after it had been washed than before.

Mary helped her mother scrub and clean up the two rooms, but there were two things they could do nothing about. The first was the rats that scurried across the floor of the apartment. It was useless trying to catch them. Hundreds more were living out in the muddy streets ready to move inside and take the place of any rat Mary and her mother managed to kill. The second thing they could do nothing about was the smell, which wafted up through the building from the street below, a mixture of raw sewage and rotting garbage. On warm days, the terrible smell was so overpowering that Mrs. Slessor would keep the windows shut. It was better to endure the heat than open the windows and put up with the foul odor.

Although the family’s housing situation was horrible, Mary told herself it didn’t matter as long as her father had a job and her mother was happy. And for the first month, that’s exactly how things were. Mrs. Slessor busied herself arranging the apartment and taking care of the children while her husband began working for a shoemaker. It was such a relief to Mary to have her father come home at night not smelling of alcohol. Mary was especially delighted when her father began talking about moving the family into a cottage and sending the older children to school. They would do it as soon as he had saved up the money, her father assured everyone.

Regrettably, this change in Mary’s father lasted only about a month. One Saturday night, about five weeks after they had moved to Dundee, Robert Slessor came home very late and very drunk. Mrs. Slessor had left his dinner—mutton stew and mashed potatoes—on the table for him. Soon after he arrived home, Mary heard her father throw the plate of food against the wall, cursing because it was as cold as a stone. Tears filled Mary’s eyes as she lay still in bed between her sisters. Her stomach ached with hunger as she thought about the biggest chunks of meat that her mother had carefully set aside for her father’s plate. Now the food was a splattered mess on the wall, a mess Mary would no doubt have to clean up in the morning.

The shouting went on for a long time, but finally it died down and Mary fell asleep. In the morning she awoke to the sound of her father snoring loudly in the next room. The events of the night before drifted into her mind, and she was glad it was Sunday. At least today she would get to go to church with her mother, brother, and sisters.

Mary liked attending Wishart Memorial Church, especially Sunday school. She enjoyed the stories the pastor told and the missionary reports of the church secretary, who would describe what was happening in Calabar. Mary knew all about Calabar from the missionary stories her mother read to the children from the Missionary Record, the missions newsletter of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Calabar was an area in West Africa where, in 1846, just two years before Mary was born, the Presbyterian Church had founded a mission. Mary could even find it on the map, right at the place where the coast of Africa took a sharp bend to the west.

To Mary Slessor, sitting straight and tall in the dark wooden pew Sunday after Sunday, Calabar was everything Dundee was not. It was fascinating and foreign. Mary’s big brother Robert had thought so, too, and Mary recalled how together as little children back in Gilcomston they had “played church” together. Robert had always told her, “When I grow up, Mary, I am going to be a missionary, and do you know what? I’m going to take you with me!” Mary had always laughed and replied, “That’s a fine plan, Robert, and I’d be glad to be your assistant.” Now Robert was dead, but Mary knew that her mother cherished hopes that John would become the missionary of the family. Mary did all she could to fire him with enthusiasm for Calabar.