She may have died 100 years ago, but the story of Mary Slessor the Dundee jute mill worker who became a missionary in Nigeria has been retold for a new generation of readers.
Bruce McLennan, a semi-retired history teacher based in Claverhouse, has chronicled the life of the adventurer in his new book Mary Slessor: A Life on the Altar for God. Born in Aberdeen in 1848, the second of seven children, Mary’s family moved to Dundee when she was a child, and from the age of 11 she worked for the Baxter Brothers as a weaver while receiving basic schooling part-time.
Despite this, she went on to become a world-famous missionary saving abandoned children and resolving community disputes in the Calabar region of Nigeria until her death at the age of 66 in January 1915.
For Bruce, it was reading a biography written shortly after her death by William Pringle Livingstone that inspired him to start researching Mary’s life.
He said: “My book is part narrative and partly an analysis of her character. When Pringle was writing that first biography, he had access to a lot of her papers and probably had communicated with her.
“But I wanted to go into her spiritual life and her strengths as a missionary.”
According to Bruce, one of Mary’s many admirable qualities as a religious evangelist was that she committed herself to learning the Efik language, which was spoken by the people she worked with.
She also founded a number of schools, some of which are still in operation, such as the Hope Waddell Training Institution where Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, was educated.
“She had some amazing experiences,” said Bruce. “She successfully settled further inland than other Europeans before her, where tribes had a rivalry like the Scottish clans did, but much more violent.
“The amazing thing was that she was never harmed.
“According to records at the time, a white doctor had been killed and eaten when he attempted the same thing.”
One of the activities that made Mary famous in her own lifetime was her devotion to saving children who had been left to die by their families and communities.
Bruce said: “The belief of the tribal people in the region at that time was that if twins were born, one was the product of relations with the devil, so they killed them both.
“One of the main things Mary did was to try and save as many of these twins as she could.”
At one point, she was quoted as saying she had saved 51 children and she even adopted some of them including a boy she named Dan and a girl called Janie.
However, Bruce is keen to put her achievements in the context of the Christian missions to Africa.
He said: “Others saved children and built schools as well, it wasn’t something she started, but she seemed to have a heart for it. Her legacy was that she inspired people.”