by Ian McCall

Chapter 9 - MARY SLESSOR: Christianity and the Economic and Political Changes

While in the early days of intrusion of foreign interests into West Africa it was true to say that the flag followed trade, it is also valid to claim that that order of precedence applied equally to the Cross as to trade. The advent of the missionaries to the area drained by the River Niger and surrounding areas had a political and economic effect just as the coming of the slavers and then the palm oil traders had. Political, economic and religious forces interacted to challenge or use the traditional authority structure of the people of the south of the country. The life of Mary Mitchell Slessor, a legend in her time, is a useful proxy for the influence of the missionaries in the period up to the First World War.

Mary Slessor worked in a jute mill in Dundee before being accepted to do missionary work in Calabar. Such was her faith and commitment in an era when Christianity was closely prescribed that she quickly established herself as a good learner, and by force of her personality became a fully fledged missionary in her own right. She entered an area where European traders did not dare to go. It was against this background that Mary Slessor worked on the Cross River and surroundings, often under conditions so arduous that most men would have buckled. All her travel was by water or on foot, indeed barefoot like the locals. Diseases were rife, superstition and inter-tribal war prevailed and human sacrifice was a commonplace.

Her work took her, a solitary white woman, into the lands of the Okoyong reputed to be the most westerly outpost of the Bantu tribes. They were openly addicted to witchcraft and animal and sometimes human sacrifice, usually on the death of a chief. They were utterly lawless and contemptuous of authority. They enslaved their Ibibio neighbours in incursions into their territory. Theft was common. To survive in the struggle of life a man needed to possess wives and children and slaves. If, through incompetence or misfortune he failed, he was regarded as lawful prey of the nearest chief. Different groups fought each other and were only united in common enmity of other tribes. They hated the Calabar people because of their wealth and power arising from their favoured position near the coast for trading of produce directly with the European buyers and a state of chronic war existed between them. This underlined the desire of the people of the interior to have direct trading access to the coast for their palm products which were frustrated by the Efik chiefs on the coast who did everything in their power to maintain their monopoly of trade with the European houses established in Calabar. All efforts to bring them together in the interest of trade had been in vain. Messages from the Consul were ignored or treated with contempt.

Mary Slessor is particularly remembered for having saved the lives of twins who until her coming, were seen as the product of juju and were killed by being stuffed head-first into calabashes and abandoned while the mother was driven into the bush to die. ‘May you have twins’ was a curse too terrible for a woman to hear in the Efik country. She travelled quickly to any village where the birth of twins was rumoured to have occurred. Over her lifetime she saw, largely through her own efforts, the suppression of this practice. She saw that the mothers were cared for and the twins saved put into good homes in a village called Ikunetu. In the process she faced up to kings, mobs and natural hazards until she eventually won them over and gained a place in their hearts as Ma Akamba - the Great Mother.

But it would not do her justice to remember her only as the saviour of twins. She also campaigned against witchcraft practices. The tribes believed that all people died naturally through old age. Any sudden and premature death they ascribed to a juju put on the deceased, and possible offenders were required to take the ésére or Calabar bean to establish their innocence. The practice was known in the local pidgin as ‘chopping nut’. This was taking a concoction of bean pounded and mixed with water which then became a lethal blend. The people believed it would kill the wrongdoers and establish the innocence of those who vomited it up. It was a refined version of another trial by ordeal - the custom of putting the hands of person suspected of having committed a crime (which had a flexible interpretation) into a pot of boiling palm oil. If the hands blistered the person was innocent. If not, a suitable punishment was meted out including not only the loss of the limb but sometimes even the head. The only chance for the accused undergoing the ordeal of the bean lay in fixing the witch doctor so that the latter gave the person undergoing the ordeal an extra-heavy dose to produce the emetic effect that indicated innocence. Mary Slessor intervened in a number of cases where the bean was about to be administered. Such instances were to resurface temporarily in 1951 nearly 40 years after her death. When the death of a chief took place, slaves were sacrificed to the gods and this practice she opposed with all the strength of her being.

Eventually she was so successful in her missionary work that she prevailed on the Okoyong and the Ibibios to call a truce in their wars. This opened up the trade in palm oil to the Okoyong who now had access via the designated buyers of the coastal chiefs or the intermediaries who sold to them, to the Calabar beaches or ‘factories’ as they were sometimes called. (The name was adopted by the British from the Portuguese term feitorias, originally coastal enclaves leased to the Portuguese by local rulers, to which they were confined after being thwarted, in their bids to penetrate inland, by disease, the adverse climate and the skill of the Africans in deterring them). The economic benefits were such that it was unlikely that they would be given up and a return made to the old ways of internecine warfare. It reinforced, as far as the European missionaries were concerned, the view that commerce, when allied to Christianity, assisted in the civilising of the local peoples whose callousness and cruelty as they saw it were unacceptable. They found nothing that was attractive in native life and beliefs and countered it with the preaching of a Christianity in all its simplicity in the belief that nothing else would be effective. The opening up of trade also enabled the women she had saved from death to become self-supporting by participating in the process of preparing palm kernels for sale to a trader selling to intermediaries in touch with traders from the coast.

It became Mary Slessor’s ambition to take her missionary zeal beyond the Ibibio country to the country of the Aro, an Ibo-speaking tribe although with lighter skins than was usual for the Ibo . She tried to persuade the Foreign Missions Committee of her church to do so. As funds were short she determined to press on herself without calling on the church to bear the cost. In 1891 she had been invited by the Governor to become a magistrate in the Native Court where her intimate knowledge of the language and the customs of the people would be invaluable. The people coming to court would have someone who knew their ways intimately and whom they trusted to give a fair judgment. For their part the District Commissioners would have a load removed from their shoulders. She accepted on condition she received £1 a year for herself, the remainder of the stipend to be used in the enhancement of her mission. Government officers, whose upbringing and traditions were so very different from her own, spoke of the joy of her naturalness and delightful sense of humour.

In fact, she never did achieve that ambition to work away from the Cross River area in the adjoining Ibo territory, to fight the abomination as she saw it, of the shrine of the Long Juju at Arochuku, situated in a well-guarded gorge and destroyed by government soldiers in 1901 before her plans could be implemented. The Long Juju was a shrine of the Aro people, famous throughout the Ibo lands and beyond, where supplicants came to ask for the juju’s protection or for its assistance against their enemies and from which many did not return, to the awe of friends present who saw the colour of blood in the water and thought the supplicant had been devoured by the juju. In fact a colouring of animal blood or red camwood dye had been put into the water. The Aro enslavers sold their victims into slavery either locally or to Arab and other slavers from the North continuing to exercise their centuries-old trade after the cessation of the transatlantic traffic - the Tuareg, for example, who were herders who moved with their camels and their goats in search of pasture, had no word in their language for work, anything resembling labour being done by black slaves. On special occasions such as the death of a juju priest, the Aro held cannibal feasts when hundreds were slaughtered. The victims were regarded as sacred and those who ate their flesh partook of the great god Chuku’s power. The Long Juju had shown the Ibo at his worst and yet demonstrated that he was commercially acute and had cleverly developed two lines of activity, trade and religion, and made them serve each other. It is ironic that the Mary Slessor Memorial Home, a place where young women were trained for marriage with emphasis on African crafts, eventually found permanent quarters in Arochuku, home of the Ibo adopted god, for Chuku was said to have been originally an Ibibio god whom the Aro had taken for their own. A new area had been opened up for trade and law and order on the Cross River. It rose to a large extent on the foundations which the missionaries had laid over years of labour and sacrifice.

Mary Slessor continued with her work nearby setting up rest homes where exhausted missionaries could regain their strength, supporting her ‘children’ who had been rescued from almost certain infanticide, fighting for the dignity of women like the mothers of twins and widows who were subjected to intolerably harsh customs such as having to remain in their houses sometimes for years without washing, changing their clothes or combing their hair, dispensing justice and creating places of worship at minimum expense, participating herself in their erection. When she was asked if she had ever had lessons in making cement she replied ‘No, I just stir it like porridge; turn it out, smooth it with a stick, and all the time I keep praying “Lord, here’s the cement; if to Thy glory, set it”. and it has never once gone wrong’. She would receive latterday recognition of her worth by her compatriots in the issue of a commemorative ten pound note in the new millennium by the Clydesdale Bank. It would carry her likeness on the front of the note and on the back a map of the area around Itu which includes places mentioned in this book and an artist`s representation of her work.

While Slessor’s work was an outstanding example of fortitude sustained by an unswerving faith, love of her fellow humans and an iron constitution, it nevertheless typified the outlook of the missionaries who poured out to the coast of West Africa from the 1850s onwards. Her own organisation was started by Hope Waddell in Calabar under the aegis of what was to become the Church of Scotland. He negotiated the protection of its missionaries with the British government before setting foot in the country. Although that protection was more illusory than real given the circumstances of life in the bush at the time and the great distances administrative or other law enforcement officers had to travel, often on foot, it meant that administrators were required to look to the interests of the missionaries where their work or their persons were threatened. The canons of their faith were at odds with the local religions and the spirit of the age did not permit compromise. They had a mission to Christianise and overcome unacceptable practices like the offering of sacrifices and the viewing of certain animals as sacred. As E A Ayandele points out in his treatise The Missionary Impact on Modern Nigeria, they tried to stop many traditional practices like polygamy which represented traditional wealth, and they fought vigorously to free slaves who were also a part of the wealth creating system. Not least, they undermined the authority of some chiefs by opposing many of their beliefs and by edicts in their teaching, which caused in certain cases anti-missionary feelings among the chiefs. Where Christian missions had been long established, the government valued their efforts. It was the most Christian state of Egbe that was allowed to be independent up to the establishment of a single Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914 and it was only at the special request of the paramount chief that it was taken within the official administration at that time.

Where the locals had been Christianised, they were seen to be more amenable to the introduction of new ways. To that extent, the missionaries were the unconscious agents of British policy. Yet, as the administrative hierarchy was extended after the creation of a Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and a Protectorate and Colony of Southern Nigeria in 1900, and after the withdrawal of the Royal Charter from what had been the Royal Niger Company, to include districts under district commissioners, later designated district officers, the relationship between missions and administration became more and more strained. The values of the missionaries were not those of the administration and their moral and social programmes were sometimes perceived to undermine some of the work of the administration. Yet both the peoples ministered to, and the administrators, in terms of developing the new Protectorate and Colony in the south of the territory, benefitted from the work of the missionaries. The Church Missionary Society, the overseas arm of the Church of England, was instrumental in the establishment and growth of a cotton-growing industry in the district around Abeokuta in the Yoruba south-west and had a ginnery built to separate the cottonseed from the seedcotton to provide the cotton lint and oilseed that could be exchanged for money in the commodity market. They brought in an expert from the British Cotton Growing Association to assist in the direction of its cultivation. In Calabar, the Hope Waddell Institution provided training in the trades that serviced the local industry in south-east Nigeria including that for clerks and messengers, mechanics, carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, printers and tailors. Various skills to fit trainees for useful work were taught by the other denominations which arrived after the Presbyterian and the C of E missionaries.

The missionaries may have represented very different versions of the Christian faith but they had a great deal in common. They believed that the economic well-being of their own countries - this was perhaps most evident among the British missionaries - stemmed from the faith of their countrymen. They firmly believed that economic development together with Christian principles and the civilising effect of these, would lead to a better life for their charges. All peoples, they believed together with the governing elite, moved along a continuum from barbarism to the present civilised condition of the European. They readily accepted the other side of the equation whereby the native peoples gave in return their labour and raw materials, or their surplus as the euphemism of the time had it. That was the exchange at the heart of imperial thinking. It was the Christians who took the initiative in the cultivation of cash crops like cocoa, cotton and rubber and Christianity was associated with the wealth brought to the people as the farming of these crops increased and people prospered relatively to a degree unknown before this time. It was especially appropriate as these crops were beginning to be cultivated just when there was a depression in the palm oil trade. The missionaries had an important role in providing a foundation, together with traders and administrators, for the part that the commodities of cocoa, palm products, oil, cotton and rubber, plus groundnuts from the north, were to play in the later growth of the Nigerian economy.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003