An Extraordinary Factory Lassie
Mary Slessor was a wayward and original genius, consecrated to the service of Christ. In Old Testament history cases occur where the Spirit of God comes mightily upon a man, sweeping him beyond himself, so that natural timidity and weakness are overcome, weariness is forgotten, and in a holy frenzy some great work of God is wrought. Some such influence is needed to explain the extraordinary career of Mary Slessor. A Scots lassie of strong sense and shrewdness, timid and shy yet full of fun, with a vast store of nervous energy liable to discharge itself fitfully in bursts of jollity and daftness, she was captured and possessed by the Divine Spirit, and irresistibly impelled to do the strange work she did. In speaking of her it is difficult to avoid the language of extravagance. She is entitled to a place in the front rank of the heroines of history, and if goodness be counted an essential element of true greatness, if eminence be reckoned by love and self-sacrifice, by years of endurance and suffering, by a life of sustained heroism and purest devotion, it will be found difficult, if not impossible, to name her equal.
Mary Slessor was born December 2, 1848, in the city of Aberdeen, [Scotland], and was the second of a family of seven children. From her earliest years the home was made miserable by the intemperance of her father, and was only saved from total wreck by the toil and patient goodness of her mother. When Mary was eight years old the family removed to Dundee, in the hope that away from his old companions the father might make a new start. Unhappily there was no improvement, and Mrs. Slessor had to go out to work in the factory to earn a scanty livelihood for her children. Mary was left in charge of the house, but at the age of eleven she also began work in the factory as a halftimer. In such a home the children, delicate and ill-fed, could not hope to thrive and ere long three of them died. The father's habits grew worse, and Saturday night was a night of terror, often spent by Mary in wandering miserably in the streets. At length he died and left the home saddened yet relieved of the strain of his presence.
Even in the darkest years, however, there was a sunnier side. The tenderest ties of affection bound the mother and her children together, and they shared the same warm Christian faith. Sunday was the happiest day of the week and few of their church friends suspected the secret tragedy of the home, so jealously was it guarded. Their interest in missions seems always to have been strong. Mary's favourite game was to teach an imaginary school of black children. Her elder brother Robert used to announce that he meant to be a missionary when he became a man, and when the boy died the thought took serious hold of his sister that she might one day go in his place to the foreign field.
Years were to elapse before that ambition was fulfilled. Like many other distinguished missionaries Mary Slessor served a full term of apprenticeship in mission work at home. She had always been a diligent scholar in Sunday School and Bible Class, and an eager reader of the best books she could lay hands on. It was no ordinary factory lassie who studied Milton's Paradise Lost and sat up half the night over Sartor Resartus. Wishart Church, to which Mary belonged, started a mission in one of the worst slums of Dundee and she volunteered her services as a worker. She was small and fragile but full of pluck, ready to do and dare anything for Christ's sake. The mission rooms were in sad disorder.
"We shall need a charwoman to give the place a thorough cleaning," said the superintendent.
"Nonsense," said Mary, "we will clean it ourselves."
"You ladies clean such a dirty hall!"
"Ladies!" laughed Mary. "We are no ladies; we are just ordinary working folk."
And next night she and another teacher were hard at it with pails and scrubbing brushes.
At first the mission workers had to encounter a certain amount of opposition and rough usage, especially when they attempted to hold open air meetings. One night Mary found herself suddenly surrounded by a band of rough lads who threatened to "do for her" unless she promised to desist.
"I won't," said Mary. "You can do what you like."
"All right, here goes," shouted the leader, and he produced a lump of lead attached to a cord and began to swing it threateningly round her head. She stood without winking while the lead swished past her brow. After a few tense moments the lad suddenly threw it away, exclaiming with honest admiration, "We can't force her, boys, she's game."
Never was a word more fitly spoken. Mary Slessor was what would now be called a good sport. She had more than a dash of that daredevil spirit which leaps up in the moment of peril, not fiercely but good humouredly. First and last and always she was "game." The lads became her devoted followers, and years after the leader sent her the photograph of himself with his wife and children in grateful remembrance of the turning point of his life.
Mary's methods with her class of boys were quite unconventional. On Saturday afternoon she would join them in long walks into the country and was foremost in any fun that was agoing. Sometimes an impish spirit of mischief seemed to take possession of her. Once when walking with a girl friend she knocked at some cottage doors and ran away. "Oh, Mary, I am shocked at you," said her friend. To which remonstrance Mary gaily replied:
"A little nonsense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men."
All the week she was hard at work in the factory. For years she had been the mainstay of the home, and this continued till she seemed to have settled down for life to the toilsome lot of a factory worker. It was not till her twenty-eighth year that the horizon widened and the romance of her African career began.
In 1874 the Christian world was profoundly moved by the news of Livingstone's death. It marked an epoch in modern missionary history. To Mary Slessor it brought an intense revival of her missionary dreams, and she reviewed the possibilities afresh. She felt the time had come when she could be spared from home. Besides, she hoped to be able to send home part of her salary. Before volunteering for service she asked her mother's consent. "My lassie," said her mother, "I'll willingly let you go. You'll make a fine missionary, and I'm sure God will be with you." Calabar was the mission field on which her heart was set, but in making her offer of service she expressed her willingness to go anywhere. To her great joy she was accepted for work in Calabar, and after some months of training in Edinburgh she sailed for the west coast of Africa on the 5th of August, 1876.
II. In Dark Calabar
Calabar, or Old Calabar as it was wont to be called, was a household word in the United Presbyterian Church. A certain member of that communion, dimly conscious of having heard the name from childhood, asked a collector incredulously, "Is the old beggar living yet?" Few were so ignorant of what the name signified, for throughout the Church there was a proud interest in Old Calabar as the Church's most difficult and most romantic mission field.
In the inmost recesses of the Gulf of Guinea, a hundred miles east of the Niger, the Cross River rolls its waters to the sea. The surrounding country is now included in the British colony of Southern Nigeria. It is the ancestral home of the Negro proper, and in the days when the slave traders swept the west coast of Africa, multitudes were torn away from these regions and shipped off to the plantations in the West Indies. It was among the children of these plantation slaves that the idea of the Calabar Mission first arose. The United Presbyterian Church had had a mission in Jamaica since 1824, and when the slaves were emancipated many of them turned their thoughts back to the old home of their people, and longed to carry thither the story of the Cross. In this desire their missionaries warmly sympathised, and one of them, Mr. Hope Waddell, went to Scotland to arouse the interest of the home Church. Having secured the necessary help, he sailed for Calabar in 1845, in his little brigantine, the Warree. After some months spent there, he took the Warree over to Jamaica, and brought thence an additional band of helpers.
The Cross River cannot compare in volume with those giants of Africa, the Nile, the Niger, the Congo or the Zambesi, yet its estuary gives a surprising impression of magnitude. For the first thirty miles it maintains a breadth of ten miles. Above that point, though the breadth is not diminished, the channel is filled with a labyrinth of islands. Beyond these islands the Calabar River comes in from the east, finding its way by various channels to the main stream. Near its mouth, on opposite banks and with an island between them, lie Duke Town and Creek Town. Here the mission was commenced. When the Warree first cast anchor, a few trading ships lay in the river for barter with the natives. No white trader was allowed to settle on shore, and few had any desire to do so, for the country was regarded as a white man's grave. "Kings" were plentiful in Calabar. Every town of any size had its king, some of whom were prosperous traders and men of influence, especially King Eyo Honesty of Creek Town. But for the most part they were raw savages who sustained their kingship with ridiculous solemnity, robed in a strip of yellow cotton and crowned with a battered pot-hat. The wealthier chiefs and traders had their houses packed full of sofas and mirrors and every variety of English furniture, which they knew not how to use.
This slight contact with civilisation had done nothing to banish the superstitions or mitigate the barbarous customs of heathenism. Belief in evil spirits was universal, witchcraft and the poison ordeal were practised everywhere. The towns on the river bank offered human sacrifices to the spirit of the river for the success of the fishing. When twin children were born they were, as quickly as possible, buried alive, and the unhappy mother killed or driven into the bush. At the death of a chief or any man of importance there was a cruel slaughter among his people. A huge cavern was dug for a grave, and into it the body of the chief was placed, resting on the bodies of four of his wives, bound hand and foot but living. Slaves were then brought to the grave-side, their heads struck off, and their bodies tumbled in till the grave was full, when all was covered over with earth and trampled down. To such hideous customs add the horrors of tribal wars, of slavery and slave-raiding, and there rises the picture of a land covered with gross darkness and full of the habitations of cruelty.
III. "Blessed with an Efik Mouth"
When Mary Slessor arrived in Calabar, the Mission had been in existence for thirty years and considerable progress had been made in the district immediately around Duke Town and Creek Town as well as a few miles up the river, but the interior of the country had yet to be penetrated. Back in the depths of the primeval forest savage tribes, some of them cannibals, raided and fought and wallowed in the abysmal night of heathenism. Nowhere was the darkness of Africa more dense than in the hinterland of the West Coast.
At first Mary was charmed with the novelty and beauty of her surroundings. After the smoke of Dundee and the confinement of the factory she revelled in the glory of the sunshine and the luxuriance of the tropics. The deadly climate had not yet laid its hand on her, and she vented her wild spirits in climbing the biggest trees in the neighbourhood. She claimed in after years that she had climbed every respectable tree between Duke Town and Old Town. Her home was with "Mammy" and "Daddy" Anderson in their house on Mission Hill above Duke Town, a one time haunted spot thick strewn with the decaying bodies of the unburied dead, but now the headquarters of the Mission. Mammy Anderson was a bit of a disciplinarian, and evidently found her volatile young friend "a handful," as the Scots say. She threatened that those who did not come for meals at regular hours must go without. To Mary, regularity was next to impossible, but she found that, when she transgressed the rule, bananas and biscuits were smuggled to her, while her dear old Mammy turned a blind eye.
Meantime, with all her quaint ways and oddities, Mary had plunged into the work heart and soul. She rapidly acquired the language, and seemed to steep herself in the native mind. The people began to say that she was "blessed with an Efik mouth." She visited in their homes and addressed little audiences wherever they could be found. Gradually the shuddering depths of heathenism were unveiled before her eyes, and stirred her soul with infinite yearning and pity. She did not escape her share of west coast fever, and by the end of a three years' strenuous apprenticeship she was thoroughly run down and homesick. "I want my home and my mother," she confessed.
A short furlough in Scotland restored her physical vigour and she returned to Calabar in 1880 with fresh ardour. To her delight she was given charge of the work in Old Town and was left free to follow her own methods. It was a strange situation for a Scots lassie to be left solitary in a West African town where the vilest heathenism had combined with gin and the slave trade to make a hell upon earth. Yet this isolation was entirely to her mind, for more reasons than one. She was sending home a large part of her meagre salary to her mother, and to enable her to do this she lived almost entirely on native food. But chiefly she welcomed the opportunity of living among the people till she became like one of themselves. This was the secret of the extraordinary influence she acquired.
She loved the Africans and never wearied of them, however grieved and sickened in soul she might be by their heathenish ways. Perhaps the iniquity that lay heaviest on her heart was the systematic murder of twin children. In the benighted minds of the natives the superstition was firmly rooted that, when twins were born, the father of one of them must be some evil spirit with whom the mother had formed an unnatural union. Both mother and children were regarded with the greatest horror. The woman was driven out of her village as an accursed being, the infants were made away with at once, being either buried alive or crushed into an earthen pot and flung into the bush. The Mission was always on the outlook for these little waifs and many of them were rescued. It was useless to restore them to their mother, for she also regarded them with aversion and would, if she got the chance, destroy them with her own hands. The infants of slave mothers who died were also often left to perish, and the callousness of the people in regard to child life was appalling.
Mary Slesser's mother-heart yearned over these tiny morsels of black humanity. She gathered them in with both arms and soon her house was full to overflowing. From first to last she saved in this way scores of children, some of whom grew up in her home to love and serve her like daughters. Other babies came into her hands too enfeebled to live. These, when they died, she dressed and buried with reverent care, while the natives watched her with stupid wonder, saying, "Why this fuss about a dead child? She can get hundreds more."
While carrying on her work in Old Town, Mary Slessor constantly heard the call of the unknown, and felt increasingly the fascination of the dark, untraversed hinterland. Hers was the restless spirit of the pioneer, ever reaching out eagerly to the regions beyond. She had now no family ties in the home land, for her mother and sister were both dead, and her heart was wholly given to Africa. To bury herself in its darkest depths, to labour for its uplifting, to live and die among its people, was her sole and consuming ambition. At length in 1886 the Mission Council agreed that she should go up country and break new ground in Okoyong, a district lying in the angle between the Calabar and Cross Rivers.
IV. Settled Among Savages
Okoyong was the home of a fierce and powerful tribe, supposed to be of Bantu origin, for they were of better physique, lighter in colour, and with finer features than the negro tribes around them. Appalling stories of their barbarism reached the coast. They were a tribe of head-hunters, with no central authority, but each village under its own petty chief, all armed and suspicious of one another, prone to drunkenness and bloody brawls in the intervals between more serious fighting.
It was not easy to secure the consent of these wild people to the settlement of a missionary among them. Several visits were paid to the district but without result. At length in the summer of 1888 Mary Slessor went up the river herself and, making her way to a village called Ekenge, she secured the consent of the chief, Edem, to the building of a mission house there. No doubt one influence leading to this was the strange friendship which sprang up at first sight between Mary and the chief's sister, Ma Eme. The latter, though she never became a Christian, remained a lifelong friend of the Mission, and often sent secret warning when any plot or savage project was on foot. Mary returned to Creek Town to prepare for a permanent settlement in Okoyong.
On the 3rd of August she set out on her great adventure. It was a dull grey morning with a thick drizzle of rain. A few friends gathered at the river bank to see her off. "I will always pray for you," said one, "but you are courting death." She stepped into the canoe with five native orphans who formed her household,—the eldest a boy of eleven, the youngest a baby in her arms,—the paddlers pushed off, and in a few minutes they had disappeared in the mist. It was dark before they reached the landing place for Ekenge, and the village itself was four miles back in the forest. Taking the baby in her arms and urging forward the now terrified and weeping children, Mary struck out along the forest path, leaving the men to follow with the loads. On reaching the village she found it deserted on account of a funeral carnival in the next village. She got shelter in a hut and waited for the loads to arrive. By and by news reached her that the men were tired and refused to come on. Mary at once rose up, retraced the four miles of forest path, routed the men out of the canoe, rallied and scolded them, and brought them all on to Ekenge by midnight.
In after years the same resolute spirit, full of dash and fun, carried her through a hundred toils and perils where any other woman would have sunk down and failed.
She was not long in making herself at home. She superintended and helped with her own hands the building of a mud-walled house. She went about with bare feet and bare head, subsisted on native food, drank unfiltered water, slept on the ground, got drenched with rain, and in short did everything that would have killed any ordinary person. She had a wonderful way with the natives. Her perfect mastery of the language, her fearlessness and good humour made her pleadings irresistible. She would plunge into the thick of a drunken brawl and separate the combatants. Even when more serious fighting was afoot she often intervened with success. So extraordinary did her influence become that, whenever any trouble arose, the instant cry of the women was, "Run, Ma, run." And run she did, at any hour of the night or day. Sometimes, if the night alarm was urgent, she sped along the forest path, clad only in her night dress. "Of course," she would explain apologetically, "they were not to know but what it was court dress." Strangely enough, she continued through it all a naturally timid and shrinking woman, trembling in every limb and praying in agony as she ran. But her tears were overpowered and her sensitive spirit was swept onward by an irresistible passion of heavenly love.
She continued with ardour her work of saving twins and other outcast children. She had at all times a considerable family under her care, but no matter how numerous they might be there was ever room in her heart and home for more. Sometimes two or three tiny hammocks would be slung from the roof around her bed so that she could conveniently reach and rock the little sleepers through the night. Scenes were witnessed that would have moved a heart of stone. On one occasion, hearing of the birth of twins in a neighbouring village, Mary ran to the rescue, but ere she had gone far she met the unhappy mother staggering along the path, with the babies in a basket on her head and the whole village hounding her off into the forest with execrations. Mary took her home, and as the poor creature lay dying she cried out to her husband for forgiveness, sobbing in her delirium, "I did not mean to insult you."
On another occasion Mary heard some women remarking casually how strange it was that a baby should live five or six days in the bush. On inquiry she found that the baby of a dead slave mother had been cast out about a week before because nobody cared to nurse it, and that morning, as the women came in to the market, they still heard its feeble cries. Mary flew to the spot and found the baby, alive indeed but almost eaten up by the flies and insects that swarmed over it. Under her care it recovered and proved a singularly sweet and pretty little girl. Mary gave the child her own name and lived to see her happily married to David, an educated native from Lagos, and the proud driver of a Government motor car.
Another great battle had to be fought against heathen funeral customs. Only a few months before Mary Slessor went to Okoyong the funeral of a petty chief was celebrated by the burial along with him of four free wives, sixteen slaves and twenty boys and girls. The death of every person of importance was signalised by drunkenness, bloodshed, and the poison ordeal. Often Mary Slessor, taking her own life in her hand, stood between the living and the dead. One day Mr. Ovens, the carpenter from Duke Town who had been sent up to repair her house, was working on the roof when he heard a wild cry from the forest. Mary was off in a moment, and following he found her beside the unconscious form of a young man. It was Etim, the eldest son of the chief Edem, lying crushed under a heavy log. For a fortnight Mary nursed him, but in vain.
"Sorcerers have killed my son, and they must die," exclaimed the chief fiercely. "Bring the witch doctor."
He came and, after some incantations, laid the guilt on a neighbouring village near the scene of the accident. Soon a dozen men and women were in chains awaiting execution. Meantime Mary had not been idle. To propitiate the people and maintain a grip of the situation she took charge of the funeral arrangements, and proceeded to carry them through with thoroughgoing barbaric splendour. She arrayed the body in the finest clothes she could procure, while the head, after being shaved and painted yellow, was crowned with a tall hat adorned with gorgeous plumes. Thus attired the body was seated in an arm chair under an umbrella, with a whip and walking stick in both hands, and a mirror in front to delight the spirit of the dead man with the reflection of all his glory. The natives danced in ecstasy at the sight. But the danger was not yet past.
"This is going to be a serious business," said Mary to Mr. Ovens.
"We can't leave these prisoners for a moment. I'll watch beside them all night, and you'll take the day."
Then the weary vigil began. The chief had great respect for the white Ma, but he was determined to honour his son with blood. Mary pled the cause of the prisoners and one or two were released. She got Mr. Ovens to make a coffin for the dead boy, and two missionaries were hurried up from Creek Town with a magic lantern to honour the occasion still further. To uninstructed eyes it would all have seemed a bit of melodramatic farce, but in reality it was a grim struggle for human lives. And in the end she won. The last of the prisoners was released and only a cow was sacrificed at the grave. It was the first chief's grave in Okoyong that was not saturated with human blood.
Gradually, her sway over the tribe increased till she became by common consent an arbiter in all sorts of disputes. Sometimes she would sit a whole day quietly knitting while she listened to the interminable speeches of the opposing parties, so that they might feel that they had been allowed to say their utmost before she gave her decision.
V. Essential Justice
In 1891 the British Government, which was at that time extending its authority into the interior, recognised her unique position and appointed her Vice-consul for Okoyong. It was a post for which she had no liking, but she accepted it in the belief that she could thereby help to tide her people over the difficult transition time that lies between savagery and civilised governments. In this she was singularly successful, and was able to report in 1894: "No tribe was formerly so feared because of their utter disregard of human life, but human life is now safe. No chief ever died without the sacrifice of many lives, but this custom has now ceased. Some chiefs, gathered for palaver at our house, in commenting on the wonderful change, said, 'Ma, you white people are God Almighty. No other power could have done this.'"
With the Government officials she was always on the best of terms, and one of them has given a lively description of her personal appearance and original methods of court work. "A little frail old lady with a lace shawl over her head and shoulders (that must, I think, have been a concession to a stranger, for I never saw the thing again), swaying herself in a rocking chair and crooning to a black baby in her arms. I remember being struck—most unreasonably—by her very strong Scotch accent. Her welcome was everything kind and cordial. I had had a long march, it was an appallingly hot day, and she insisted on complete rest before we proceeded to the business of the court. It was held just below her house. Her compound was full of litigants, witnesses, and onlookers, and it was impressive to see how deep was the respect with which she was treated by them all. She was again in her rocking chair, surrounded by several ladies and babies-in-waiting, nursing another infant.
"I have had a good deal of experience of Nigerian courts of various kinds, but have never met one which better deserves to be termed a Court of Justice than that over which she presided. The litigants emphatically got justice—sometimes, perhaps, like Shylock, "more than they desired"—and it was essential justice, unhampered by legal technicalities. One decision I recall—I have often wished that I could follow it as a precedent. A sued B for a small debt. B admitted owing the money, and the Court (that is Ma) ordered him to pay accordingly. But she added, 'A is a rascal. He treats his mother shamefully, he neglects his children; only the other day he beat one of his wives, yes and she was B's sister too; his farm is a disgrace, he seldom washes, and then there was the palaver about C's goat a month ago. Oh, of course, A did not steal it, he was found not guilty, wasn't he?—all the same the affair was never satisfactorily cleared up, and he did look unusually sleek just about then. On the other hand B was thrifty and respectable. So, before B paid the amount due, he would give A a good, sound caning in the presence of everybody.' "
VI. The Church of Christ in Okoyong
Amid these varied labours and struggles she never ceased to plead with loving insistence the claims of Christ. She conducted service, taught the children in school, and visited the people in their homes. She was no organiser, as she herself well knew. Indeed, so absorbed in mind was she and so irregular in habits, that not infrequently she lost count of the days of the week, and would be found mending the roof of the house on Sunday and holding Church service on Monday. But one thing never failed, her spirit of passionate devotion and unwearying love.
In 1896, under the compulsion of ill health and yielding to the urgency of the Committee, she came to Scotland on furlough, bringing with her no fewer than four of her black children. Their presence excited much interest throughout the Church, but Mary herself, who could face a mob of savages, proved to be the most timid of missionary speakers, and absolutely refused to proceed if a man appeared in the audience. Even the inevitable chairman was only tolerated if he kept out of sight. Children, however, white as well as black, were her unfailing delight and she made troops of little friends everywhere. Speaking of Okoyong she expressed her feeling that her work there was done. The time, she said, had come for a Church to be organised in the district, and for her to move farther on into the interior. It was three years before this desire was gratified.
Returning to Calabar she resumed her work in Okoyong. Her last years there were saddened by the loss of many of her old friends through an epidemic of smallpox. She had removed from Ekenge to a more populous centre at Akpap, and she turned her old house into a hospital. Many of the people fled and left her to fight the disease single-handed. Her own chief, Edem, caught the infection and she nursed him till he died. With her own hands she made his coffin, dug his grave, and buried him. Next day two missionaries arrived from Creek Town and found her completely prostrate. When they visited her house at Ekenge they found it full of corpses, and not a living soul near.
The epidemic passed and her work resumed its normal course. At last she had the joy of seeing a little church organised, and of sitting at the Lord's Table with a company of those whom she had led out of heathen darkness into the Christian light.
VII. The Pioneer of the Enyong Creek
Meantime big events were happening in Calabar. The country to the west of the Cross River had never been penetrated by the white man. Powerful cannibal tribes occupied the whole of the Ibo country right across to the Niger. Little was known of them save the ominous fact that they poured down the Enyong Creek a continuous stream of slaves to the great slave market at Itu. A renowned centre of their barbarous worship was at Arochuku, near the head of the Creek, where stood a famous idol known as the Long Ju-Ju. Pilgrims to this shrine were often seized and offered in sacrifice or sold as slaves. In 1902 a British force marched to Arochuku, subdued the tribes, and demolished the Ju-Ju. Thus a vast and densely populated country was thrown open to the Gospel.
Mary Slessor felt an irresistible call to go in and possess the land. "I feel drawn on and on," she said, "by the magnetism of this land of dense darkness and mysterious weird forest." The Mission Council, recognising her exceptional gifts, gave her a roving commission to pioneer along the line of the Enyong Creek. At the age of fifty-four she set out on this new adventure, with the same fervour of spirit as she had entered Okoyong, and she was spared for twelve years more of toil and achievement. She established herself first at Itu, the old slave market at the mouth of the Creek, and later, when a medical missionary was settled there, she pushed on up country. Now that the power of the Ju-Ju had been broken the people everywhere were crying out for teachers, not from any pure thirst for the Gospel but to learn if possible the secret of the white man's power. It was impossible to meet the demand, and Mary could only travel incessantly along the Creek, building rest-huts for herself here and there, and endeavouring in this way to keep in touch with the seekers after light. Some of her own boys and girls from Okoyong gave assistance as teachers. The progress made was remarkable and included some of the most romantic episodes in her career.
On one of her earliest voyages down the Creek, a canoe shot out from the
bank and she was invited to go ashore at a place called Akani Obio. Here
she was taken to the house of a chief, Onoyom by name, who told her a
touching story of his career. As a boy he had once seen a Calabar missionary,
and afterwards he had heard something of the Christian religion from
an ex-teacher of the mission who had fallen into sin and drunkenness.
Now he was eager to build a church for his people. In due time the church
was built at a cost of £300, provided by Onoyom himself, and every
Sunday morning the Union Jack was hoisted to intimate to all passers
by upon the Creek that no trading was to be done that day. When, by and
by, the chief and his wife were baptised, and Mary sat with them and
other converts at the Lord's Table, it was to her "a foretaste of heaven." "Akani Obio," she said, "is now linked on to Calvary. I am sure our Lord will never keep it from my mother."
Her remarkable influence over the natives was again recognised by the Government, and in 1905 she was asked to become President of the native court for the district around Itu. She consented to undertake the work but refused the salary, which accordingly was paid into the Mission funds. She ably discharged the duties of her office till 1909, when she was compelled by failing strength to resign the post. She continued, however, to preserve the happiest relations with the young Government officials, who treated their Ma with a teasing affection that masked a deep respect. She was by common consent the mother of the country, and her fame had travelled all along the West Coast. Her vitality and youthfulness of spirit were a continual marvel. Receiving a goat in a present at a certain village she led it home through the forest gaily singing, "Mary had a little lamb." She might seem eccentric and a bit of a character, but no one who knew her could fail to be impressed by her devotion and strong sense.
One of her Government friends having presented her with a bicycle she learned to ride, and while laughing at herself as a silly old woman on a wheel, she rejoiced in the help it gave her in her work. Soon, however, she was forbidden to cycle, and in her last years she was pushed along in a kind of a light rickshaw when too feeble to walk. Much of her work was done by canoe, and when she was asked how she was able to endure the long voyages on the Creek, she confessed that she took as big a dose of laudanum as she dared, and tried to sleep it out.
VIII. The Happiest Woman in All the World
In 1912 her health seemed completely shattered, and her friends arranged for a short holiday in the Canary Islands. She consented in the hope that it might restore her strength for another year or two of service. It was the one perfect holiday of her life, and the story of it reads like an idyll. Everybody conspired to surround her with love and care. She was a child in money matters, and her little cash box was passed on from Duke Town to the boat, from the boat to the hotel, and back again to Duke Town without suffering any diminution in its contents. She on her part made friends everywhere. A frail little old lady, with a face wrinkled like yellow parchment, she endeared herself to all by her simplicity and sympathy and love of fun. "What love is wrapped round me," she wrote. "It is simply wonderful. I can't say anything else. ...Oh, if I only get another day to work. I hope it will be more full of earnestness and blessing than the past."
Shortly after her return to Calabar she received from the King the silver cross of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, an honour, as the official letter stated, "only conferred on persons professing the Christian faith who are eminently distinguished for philanthropy." The presentation was made at Duke Town, and Mary was glad to escape back to the Creek, declaring she could "never face the world again after all this blarney."
Her mind was ever busy with new projects. She founded an industrial home for women and girls near Itu. She sent urgent appeals home for new workers. She pressed the advantage of using motor cars to increase the mobility of the missionaries. If they were profitable for Government work, she argued, why not for Christ's work? For herself, she kept moving incessantly from place to place until at last she persuaded every town of any consequence in the district to receive a Christian teacher. On the surrender of Ibam, the last town to hold out, she sat down on the floor of her hut, and leaning her back against the mud wall, she wrote to her friends in Scotland that she was "the happiest and most grateful woman in all the world."
Her long day of service was almost done. The last blow was the war. The news reached her at Odore Ikpe, her farthest outstation, five miles beyond the head of the Creek, where she was building a house. After reading of the invasion of Belgium and the retreat from Mons she tried to rise from her seat but found she had lost the power. Her native girls put her to bed where she lapsed into unconsciousness and seemed on the point of death. Thoroughly alarmed the girls had her carried the five miles to the Creek and put into a canoe which took her down to Itu. Here she lay on the ground at the landing place till the doctor came down and had her carried to her house. Under his care she rallied for a time. But the war was ever in her thoughts like a nightmare. "Oh, if I were thirty years younger," she cried, "and if I were a man!" She persisted in returning to her work, though when conducting service in the little church she had to remain seated and to lean hard on the communion table. This she continued to do by sheer force of will even to the last Sunday of her life.
She died on Wednesday, the 13th of January, 1915, just as the dawn was breaking. Her body was taken down the river by loving hands and buried in the cemetery on Mission Hill at Duke Town. As the procession approached the grave amid the wailing of the people, an aged native woman struck the right note.
"Kutua oh, kutua oh," she exclaimed. "Do not cry, do not cry. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Ma was a great blessing." It was a simple but perfect eulogy. Mary Slessor was indeed a great blessing. She gave to heathen Africa a new conception of womanhood, and to the world at large an imperishable example of Christian devotion.
From The Missionary Heroes of Africa by J. H. Morrison. New York: George H. Doran Co., ©1922.
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