|"...you would almost think he was an English boy with dyed skin...he has beautiful dark eyes and long lashes...and such a roguish look when he smiles. "|
May Allen was born in London in 1835 and stayed there until the age of 11 when her family moved to the North Shropshire village of Prees. Her father, the Archdeacon John Allen, took up residence at St. Chad's Church in the village, and May spent a happy childhood there, learning much from her influential father and being stimulated by the constant stream of visitors from the outside world.
At the age of 35, May decided to become a nurse. She followed in the footsteps of her younger sister Margaret and went to train at Kings College Hospital in London. Her studies completed, May went to Scarborough where she got the position of superintendent at the Convalescent Home for Ladies.
It is while in Scarborough that historians believe she found inspiration to become a missionary. She heard a speech by Edward Steere, the third Bishop of Central Africa, about the Universities Mission to Central Africa and the slave trade, and decided to follow the call.
In 1875, at 40 years old, May convinced her father that she really should go to Zanzibar as part of the mission. And Bishop Steere had a particular job for her in mind. As a missionary May Allen would have been expected to help convert the heathens to following a new and Christian life. But the Bishop also needed female missionaries to work with their Arab counterparts, as well as the sick-and-suffering women and children who had been rescued from the slave traders.
Unlike the transatlantic slave trade involving West Africa, which the British abolished in 1807, it wasn't until 1873 that Sultan Barghash agreed to sign a treaty to stop the slave trade between Amman and Mozambique. In the years 1807-1873 the slave market in Zanzibar was the largest of its kind in the world.
By the time May arrived in Zanzibar, late in 1875, the slave market had been bought by a wealthy missionary and turned into the headquarters of the Universities Mission to Central Africa. It was from here that May began to treat the rescued slaves.
"I have already had a black patient in my hospital, a released slave girl, belonging to the mission whose toe has been crushed. She is a very good patient and I hope is going on well. Today we have two black boys with bad legs, so we are beginning to work."
This is an extract from the first letter May sent back home to her father in Prees. He had it published in the Eddowes Journal, one of Shrewsbury's oldest newspapers, along with 66 other letters she sent back to Shropshire during her time in Africa. It is through these letters that we learn all about May's exploits in Zanzibar. They have been studied by local historian Yoland Brown, who herself grew up in Zanzibar, and who has written a book about May Allen from her home in Ruyton-XI-Towns.
May spent 12 years in Africa, looking after rescued slaves and helping to translate the bible into Swahili. Yoland Brown believes that May found the Africans she lived and worked with full of interest and very lovable - It was a period of her life she was incredibly proud of.
After leaving Zanzibar, May went to Palestine and continued her good work there for a further 22 years. She finally returned to England in 1909 at the age of 74, having seen and achieved more than most Victorian ladies. Her ties with Shropshire however were long since broken.
Ironically May settled in Bristol for her final years, a city built on the profits of the American slave trade. But her retirement was not to last and she was found unconscious in her room on 14 May 1912. She passed away four days later in the presence of her sisters. May's grave can be found at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol.
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Our thanks go to Ruyton XI Towns author, Yoland Brown, whose research uncovered the almost unknown story of May Allen. Zanziba, May Allen and the East African Slave Trade by Yoland Brown is released by Eleventowns Publishing.