TOWARDS the end of the 19th century, the continent of Africa was being carved up by the European powers who were in the business of empire building. Whatever you think of such colonialism, there was a class of immigrants to Africa – usually white and European – who made a big and welcome difference to the lives of many native people in territories across the continent.

They were missionaries from various Christian denominations in several countries, including Scotland, who risked their health and sometimes their lives to try to convert African people to their religion.

In these secular days we might consider their interventions to have been merely a by-product of imperialism, but if you accept that combating practices such as cannibalism and witchcraft was a useful activity then such missionaries must be lauded.

One of the greatest of all African missionaries was a Scottish woman who single-handedly challenged and changed bizarre native cultures in what is now Nigeria, as well as converting thousands to Christianity and promoting better treatment for women.

Mary Slessor’s most important work was to combat the practice of twin infanticide in areas where multiple births were considered evil. That she did so almost by the force of sheer personality made her triumph all the more memorable.

She is rightly revered here and in Africa and elsewhere as a truly remarkable Christian.

Born on December 2, 1848, in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, Slessor was the second child of seven of an alcoholic shoemaker father and a mother who was a weaver and a millworker when the family moved to Dundee. Her father and two brothers died when she was young and by the age of 14, Slessor was a millworker like her mother, also Mary.

Her mother was a devout Presbyterian and Mary later recalled in one of the thousands of letters that she wrote from Africa – our main source of information about her – that: “We would soon have thought of going to the moon as of being absent from a service and we throve very well on it too.”

Having gained a rudimentary education at the mill school, Slessor decided to augment her lessons with bible study. In 1874, on hearing of the death of David Livingstone the previous year, she decided she wanted to become a missionary.

She applied to the United Presbyterian Church and its foreign mission board took her on. In 1876, aged 27, Slessor sailed to Africa where she started her work in the Calabar region of what is now southern Nigeria. With her red hair and bright blue eyes, she stood out from the crowd and was an immediate object of fascination to the African people.

Slessor was desperate to play an active role in caring for the people and quickly learned the local Efik language. She also soon developed a healthy respect for the Efiks and their leisurely approach to life.

She wrote: “There was no rushing forward, no anticipating, no fretting over what might be, every day’s duties were done as every day brought them, and the rest was left with God. ‘He that believeth shall not make haste’.”

Slessor worked tirelessly, helping to build new churches and homes and preaching to the people, yet also suffering homesickness and something much worse – malaria.

She wrote at the time: “Calabar needs a brave heart and a stout body, not that I have very much of the former, but I have felt the need for it often when sick and lonely.”

Less than three years after arriving in Nigeria she had to go home to Scotland to recuperate, but Slessor was anxious to return to Africa and confront a number of issues which she viewed as particular evils. These included the practice of slavery, the belief that when a village elder died his wives and servants had to be killed to accompany his soul in the afterlife, and the terrible slaughter of twins due to the ancient belief that the parents had committed great sins and the children should be abandoned to die in the jungle.

According to Slessor’s biographer, WP Livingstone, on her return to a new post in Calabar: “The first sight she saw on entering her new sphere was a human skull hung on a pole at the entrance to the town. In Old Town and the smaller stations of Qua, Akim, and Ikot Ansa, lying back in the tribal district of Ekoi, the people were amongst the most degraded in Calabar.”

Slessor took charge of the mission in that area and by 1882 two inspectors from the mission board were able to report: “Her labours are manifold, but she sustains them cheerfully – she enjoys the unreserved friendship and confidence of the people, and has much influence over them.”

Now began the work for which she was most famed – saving the lives of twins. Livingstone recounted: “As soon as twins were born they sought to obtain possession of them and gave them the security and care of the mission house.

“Some of the mission compounds were alive with babies. It was no use taking the mother along with them. She believed she must be accursed, for otherwise she would never be in such a position. First one and then the other child would die, and she would make her escape and fly to the bush.”

Yet slowly but surely, Slessor educated the local people to leave aside their culture of death. She confronted many chiefs, witch doctors and elders over the issue and none ever harmed her personally, such was the love of the people for her. Her work spread to the Okoyong district where male missionaries had been killed by local tribesmen. Sessor not only survived but converted hundreds.

However, in swift order two of her sisters and her mother died back in the UK. Mary was inconsolable. She wrote: “I, who all my life have been caring and planning and living for them, am left, as it were, stranded and alone.” There is no one to write and tell all my stories and troubles and nonsense to. Heaven is now nearer to me than Britain, and no-one will be anxious about me if I go up-country.”

Typically, on the night she heard of her mother’s death Slessor conducted her regular prayer-meeting, feeling that her mother would have wished her to do so.

She found other people to write to, and Livingstone states: “Miss Slessor wrote numberless letters, many of them productions of six, ten, twelve, and fourteen pages, closely penned in spidery writing, which she called her “hieroglyphic style.” She had the gift, which more women than men possess, of expressing her ideas on paper in as affluent and graceful a way as in conversation.

“Her letters indeed were long monologues, the spontaneous outpouring of an active and clever mind. She sat down and talked vivaciously of everything about her, not of public affairs, because she knew people at home would not understand about these, but of her children, the natives, her journeys, her ailments, the services, the palavers, all as simply and naturally and as fully as if she were addressing an interested listener.

“But it was essential that her correspondent should be in sympathy with her. She could never write a formal letter; she could not even compose a business letter in the ordinary way. Neither could she write to order, nor give an official report of her work.

“The prospect of appearing in print paralysed her. It was always the heart and not the mind of her correspondent that she addressed. What appeared from time to time in the Record and in the Women’s Missionary Magazine were mainly extracts from private letters, and they derived all their charm and colour from the fact that they were meant for friends who loved and understood her.”

Some correspondents came to visit her. One was the redoubtable Victorian writer Mark Kingsley.

In Travels in West Africa, she wrote her eye-witness account of the missionary: “This very wonderful lady has been eighteen years in Calabar; for the last six or seven living entirely alone, as far as white folks go, in a clearing in the forest near to one of the principal villages of the Okoyong district, and ruling as a veritable white chief over the entire district.

“Her great abilities, both physical and intellectual, have given her among the savage tribe a unique position, and won her, from white and black who know her, a profound esteem. Her knowledge of the native, his language, his ways of thought, his diseases, his difficulties, and all that is his, is extraordinary, and the amount of good she has done, no man can fully estimate.”

In recognition of her standing, Mary was made a magistrate by the local governor general. Now Judge Slessor, she had the power behind her to try and stop to the practice of killing on charges of witchcraft.

The crusade worked. Mary was able to write home “about the condition and conduct of our people”. She continued: “Raiding, plundering, the stealing of slaves, have almost entirely ceased. Any person from any place can come now for trade of pleasure, and stay wherever they choose.

All the while Mary was looking after numerous children she had adopted, only to lose four of them during a smallpox outbreak.

“Heartrending accounts,” she wrote, “come from up-country, where the people, panic-stricken, are fleeing and leaving the dead and dying in their houses, only to be stricken down themselves in the bush. They have no helper up there, and know of no Saviour. I am just thinking that perhaps the reason God has taken my four bairns is that I may be free to go up and help them. If the brethren say that I should go I shall.”

Slessor’s hair had darkened in the sun, and on a visit home where she gave many talks about the missions an observer wrote: “She was a most gentle-looking lady, rather below the average height, a complexion like yellow parchment,and short lank brown hair: a most pleasing expression and winning smile, and when she spoke I thought I had never heard such a musical voice.”

Her story spread. WP Livingstone wrote: “A more notable person than she realised, she was sought out by a special representative of Reuters Agency and interviewed. Her story of the superstitious practices connected with the birth of twins in West Africa had the element of horror which makes good ‘copy’, and most of the newspapers in the kingdom next day gave a long description of these customs and of her work of rescue.”

Slessor had one last visit home but missed her adopted and cared-for children so much that she cut short the trip. She wrote: “How could I leave the bairns in this dreadful land? I do not think I could bear the parting with my children again. If I be spared a few years more I shall have a bit of land and build a wee house of my own near one of the principal stations, and just stay out my days there with my bairns and lie down among them.”

And that is what happened. Heartbroken by the outbreak of the First World War, she visibly declined. Slessor caught a fever in late 1914 but carried on working so much that she weakened and died at 3.30am on the morning of January 13, 19215.

A fellow missionary wrote: “There was no great struggle at the end; just a gradual diminishing of the forces of nature, and Ma Akamba, ‘The Great Mother’, entered into the presence of the King.”

She was gone but is never forgotten.