Mary Slessor lived from 2 December 1848 to 13 January 1915. She made her name as a Scottish missionary to Nigeria, where her strong personality won her trust locally and afforded her considerable success in promoting both Christianity and women's rights. Her life is celebrated on a Scottish £10 note issued by Clydesdale Bank.
Mary Slessor was born in Aberdeen, moving to Dundee at the age of 11 in 1859. Her father was a shoemaker who lost his job due to an addiction to alcohol and eventually found work in Dundee's jute mills. Mary's mother was a strongly religious woman who ensured that Mary attended church and that she kept up her education by attending school on a half time basis, after family circumstances meant Mary also had to start work in the jute mills. By the time she was 14, Mary was a skilled jute worker, now working from 6am to 6pm each day having finished her formal education.
While still young, Mary joined a local mission to the poor, working to instill Christian values in Dundee's deprived areas. There is a famous story of her forcing a group of local youths to attend Sunday School as part of a dare in which she refused to flinch as one of them swung a heavy metal weight close to her face.
In 1876 at the age of 28, Mary applied to be a missionary with the Foreign Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. She received training in Scotland before setting sail on the S.S. Ethiopia on 5 August 1876, arriving in Calabar in south-eastern Nigeria just over a month later.
The country she found was in a state of chaos. The colonial power, Britain, had seized control, but was more interested in the maintenance of trade than in the welfare of the Nigerians. The slave trade was still a recent memory in the country, and infanticide and human sacrifice still took place. Women's rights were next to non-existent. And disease was rife: Mary herself suffered from malaria.
Mary's determination steadily won her the respect of the Nigerians she came into contact with. Unlike most missionaries, she lived among those she worked with. She became fluent in the local language, Efik, and developed a deep knowledge of local customs and culture. Eventually the regional Governor offered her Membership of the Itu Court. Mary also adopted a number of local children rejected by their parents: twins were considered at the time in Nigeria to be cursed, and could even be sacrificed as a result.
By the early 1900s Mary was helping vaccinate Nigerians against smallpox. But she was also suffering from increasingly severe bouts of malaria. Her strength declined, to the point where a woman who once embarked on all-night treks through the rain forest had to travel in a hand-cart pushed by an assistant.
Mary died on 13 January 1915. She was given a state funeral in Nigeria and in 1953 her grave was visited by Queen Elizabeth. To Nigerians she is simply remembered as "Mother of All The Peoples".