I completed my PhD thesis, 'Irish Lives in the British Caribbean,' in 2018 at Macquarie University. I researched the lives of ten Irish settlers and sojourners in the Caribbean during the Revolutionary era to examine the Irish experience of empire—uncovering stories of slave traders, abolitionists, missionaries, planters and soldiers. My findings spanned Irish history, British imperial history and the history of the Caribbean and i'm still working out the best way to share my research. My Masters thesis also examined an aspect of eigtheenth-century Irish history—the reception in England and Ireland of news of an imperial naval victory—and was published in a special edition on Transnational Ireland in the Irish studies journal Éire-Ireland.
I maintains two blogs dedicated to my passion for history, one a personal site https://modhistorymusings.com and the other shares research and resources which illuminate the history of the Caribbean: https://caribbeanhistories.com
I reached a milestone in my post-PhD life this week, I finally submitted a book proposal to a university press. The proposal took ages, partly because the first press I chose to pitch to requires a very detailed proposal. Some presses just ask for a short summary of the proposed book, often followed up with a sample chapter. But to pitch to my favoured press, I had to write detailed summaries of each chapter, and more. I think this worked in my favour though, because it made me think hard about my argument and narrative, and how I would unfold those over the course of the book.
I also want to include a literature review in the book. I started out doing a lit review for my own purposes as I had a hunch about where I think the scholarship in the field should be heading, but wanted to assure myself that this argument makes sense, and that I’m right to say ‘no-one in the field is already doing this’. Cue a multi-week review of the literature. I now have a spreadsheet with a line for each 80+ publication in the field, including history and literary scholarship, in the English language, and covering Irish involvement across the Caribbean from the early modern era to about 1840. I also have a long roll of paper with my notes on how the field has progressed over the years.
There was more literature than I thought. Unfortunately though, most of it is behind the academic paywall. It’s either journal articles or chapters in edited collections. These collections are usually published by academic presses and the books are outrageously expensive, including this one that I contributed to. To access the articles and these edited collections, you really need access to a University library. There are a few monographs out there, but you need to know what you’re looking for to find them.
Literature reviews usually belong in theses, to show you’ve read widely and understand your field and to describe where your own work fits. But a comprehensive review hasn’t been published in my field, ever, and it’s a useful way of understanding the trajectory of the field. We’ll see whether my prospective publisher agrees to including a review in the introduction.
Researching women’s stories from the past – particularly at a micro level – takes determination and perseverance. Much as the women themselves required determination and perseverance to carve out a working life in a field of their choosing. Eliza Leslie was one such woman. A chapter of my book-in-progress focuses on Irish ‘humanitarians’ in the Caribbean in the early 19th century. I wrote about Rev. Hope Waddell and Dr. John Crawford in my thesis, but I’m excited to add Eliza for the book.
Eliza (nee McKinstry) travelled to Jamaica in 1835 with her husband, Rev. Thomas McKnight Leslie, baby daughter Anna and her mother, the widowed Mrs McKinstry. The Presbyterian community in Belfast gave them an enthusiastic farewell. Thomas was the first missionary to be sent abroad by the Ulster Synod, albeit as a member of the Scottish Missionary Society. Eliza had well-wishers too. According to the students of the Ulster Synod, she demonstrated “the triumph of Christian devotedness over the timidity and sensitiveness of the female character, in relinquishing the peaceful comforts and delights of home…for the trial and privations of the missionary field”. Apt words indeed.
After a journey of 46 days, Eliza and family arrived at Falmouth, Jamaica. It was less than a year since the end of slavery there – the majority of the population was now apprenticed, bound to work for meagre pay on the same properties they had toiled upon as slaves. It was on these plantations that the missionaries worked.
Thomas Leslie’s first posting was to cover for Rev. James Watson at Lucea, north-west Jamaica, while Watson was back in Scotland with his ill wife. Thomas, Eliza, Anna and Mrs McKinstry settled into a house at Green Island. But within weeks tragedy struck. Eliza’s mother came down with a fever and died on 31 July. A few days later Thomas fell ill. The family hastily moved to ‘Tomspring’, a property in the mountains where Thomas “almost fancied himself at home again, among our dear native hills”. But he succumbed to the fever and died a week later.
The expectation was that Eliza would return home to Ireland. That’s what missionary widows usually did. But Eliza bucked the trend and stayed in Jamaica to “follow that course of duty to which my dear Thomas and I had devoted ourselves, body and soul, and spirit, even until death”. As a woman, she couldn’t be a missionary, so she accepted an offer from Rev. Paterson to help he and his wife establish a mission station and school on the Cocoa Walk plantation. Rev. Paterson was a missionary with the Secession Missionary Society, supported by a congregation in Edinburgh. So Eliza and Anna moved to the south-east of Jamaica, and to Eliza’s amazement Rev. Paterson even paid her a salary! She worked hard in the school, teaching day and night every 6 days a week and caring for boarding students. The school catered for the formerly-enslaved men, women and children and accepted a small number of white and coloured children for boarding. Eliza reported back to the Irish Synod regularly, even though they’d stopped funding after her husband died. The SMS had a widows and orphans fund, but by the time Eliza was in Jamaica, those funds had evaporated. More on that in my book.
I was doing really well tracing Eliza through the archives, and became invested in her story: I scolded her for undervaluing herself as she questioned whether she really deserved a salary. I was proud of her efforts in teaching overflowing classrooms of eager students. I rejoiced as she pushed herself out of her comfort zone to appeal to the Irish synod and congregations for funds. I was happy for her when she remarried – because I knew that meant she could stay on in Jamaica to do the work she clearly loved. Rev. Paterson wrote in 1839 that “the Mission was deprived this year of the valuable services of Mrs. Leslie, the teacher of the girls’ school, who became the wife of one of the missionaries, changing only the scene of her labours”. And with that I lost all trace of Eliza.
During that 5 year window between being widowed and remarrying Eliza burst into the light in her own right. Despite the fact that SO MUCH of the labour on mission stations was carried out by missionaries’ wives, they rated barely a mention AT ALL. As soon as she remarried, her name disappeared from the archives. If only Rev. Paterson had said WHO she married! Unless I could go to Jamaica (or find an RA there… impossible), I wasn’t going to find any marriage records for her.
Then in a late-night googling session, I chanced upon the death notice for Anna Leslie, published in an Irish newspaper:
So now I knew who Eliza married – Reverend James Watson. He’d been in Jamaica since 1827. His first wife sadly died at Lucea in September 1837. Watson was a missionary until 1849 when he took the role as minister at the Scots Kirk in Kingston. He remained there for two decades. See this post by Dr Stephen Mullen on the Scots Kirk with an image of a memorial tablet to Rev. Watson. On 25 April 1868, the Rev and Mrs Watson (I assume this is Eliza), with Miss Leslie (Anna), left Jamaica. They evidently retired to Edinburgh. In an echo of her double bereavement back in 1835, Eliza lost her daughter and husband within days of each other in 1873. But that’s if Eliza outlived them. From what I can gather from my haphazard use of ancestry.com, I think Eliza was still alive in the 1880s. There’s some confusion among people researching Eliza on ancestry… she seems to be recorded as having been born in Canada which I think is highly unlikely.
Historically, Eliza is fascinating. She was a ground-breaking Irish woman who pushed herself out of her comfort zone to work on the mission field. In the context of Irish Presbyterianism at the time, she was no doubt incredibly devout and utterly convinced of her need to convert/save as many of the ‘heathen’ as possible. In the process of doing so, she taught probably hundreds of men, women and children to read and write. No matter what we might make of the religious aspect of her life, her influence was far-reaching in Jamaica. Equally, I imagine she had influence back in Ireland and Scotland too, as an early example of a Presbyterian woman working independently of a husband for a time. Women’s labour in the church and on the mission field was clearly indispensable, but unacknowledged. Eliza helped to change that.
I welcome comments, hints and tips about Eliza and her family!
‘True yoke fellow’ is a quote from Rev. Hope Waddell’s memoirs: Twenty-nine Years in the West Indies and Central Africa: a Review of Missionary Work and Adventure, 1829–1858 (1863).
On the 6th of March I learnt I’d been awarded a four-week fellowship by the Huntington Library in California to research the Black family papers. I immediately began planning a four-week stay in Pasadena in April 2021… but it soon became clear that Covid19 would prevent me travelling for some time. Happily, the Huntington has allowed fellowships to be deferred to the next academic year, so I hope to visit in late 2021. As well as the fabulous research opportunity and the amazing surroundings, I am so looking forward to the luxury of being an historian for a whole month with no interruptions.
I’m currently working on a book proposal based on my PhD thesis. There are some avenues of research that I’m keen to go down to ‘elevate’ my thesis, and one of those is exploring the Black family more broadly. John Black was a Belfast-born slave trader and plantation owner who lived in Grenada and then Trinidad. Rather than framing him as an isolated outpost in the Caribbean, the Huntington letters will enable me to better understand his venture to Grenada in the 1770s within the context of his well-connected Atlantic family. The letters might shed some light on his move to Spanish Trinidad in the 1780s too.
In the meantime, I need to get back to my book proposal. Wish me luck!
The COVID19 pandemic has forced public institutions & tourist attractions around the world to close their doors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit. If you’re interested in history, now’s your chance to do more than read historical novels or watch dodgy historical re-enactments on TV (not that there’s anything wrong with doing that). Many institutions and attractions have excellent online offerings, and others are working hard to make their collections open access (ie free). Most of us just never had the time to explore them before now.
I’ll update this page as often as I can. I hope that the links here can inspire you to explore historical sites, go down research rabbit holes or just wander around and forget about the walls around you for a while. Please let me know if you discover something wonderful via the links here, or if you have other links to share. Wishing everyone the very best, Jennifer.
Free Online Events – ongoing
Watch interviews with historians and join in with questions at The Public History Hour from the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1-2pm Australian Eastern Time.
Visit historian/hacker Tim Sherratt’s Ozglam Info page – it has reams of links to activities from Australian galleries, libraries, archives and museums.
One of my writing projects this year has been a biography of Sarah Bell, an Irish immigrant to colonial New South Wales who worked as the Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory between 1836 and 1843. My biography forms part of the St John’s Cemetery Project, an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.
The grave of Sarah Bell in Section I, Row E, No.8, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer McLaren, 2019.
Researching the lives of women in the past is challenging. During her tenure at the Factory, Sarah was a visible presence in the archives. As Matron, she was one of only a small number of women in the early colony of New South Wales with an official government role and salary. I managed to track her time at the Factory from government records and newspaper articles without too much trouble. Most of these documents (some press reports aside) were dry and functional—useful for piecing together details but revealing little about Sarah as an individual. One document was different however. In August 1843, Sarah felt compelled to write to the Factory’s supervising magistrate, describing the ‘outrageous and extraordinary conduct’ (her words) of the sub-matron at the Factory, and the effect this was having on her and her family. If you read my biography you’ll see that this letter was no dry work of officialdom.
Sarah’s early years and her life after the Factory were far more difficult to uncover. Genealogical details were hard to come by, although fortunately her death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the name of her father and where in Ireland he was from. I am very grateful to Sue Bell (one of Sarah’s descendants) for her research on Sarah’s origins. Sue published a fascinating blogpost about her quest to find Sarah’s birthplace in County Galway, Ireland.
In order to reconstruct the kind of life Sarah and her family led in the early colony, I followed Professor Noeline Kyle’s advice and searched for traces of the men around Sarah—it was often the men who were named in official documents or newspaper reports. I investigated the career of her husband Thomas at various government posts in Sydney, some of which came with living quarters for the family. Thomas’ legal travails were frequent fodder for the colonial press. Then I followed the trace of Sarah’s eldest son Joshua (later Sir Joshua), who was a long-serving member of the Queensland parliament. I even found a reference to Sarah’s daughter (Mary)’s fiancée in newspaper articles. Sadly he perished on board the Sovereign in 1847. Precious little of this research mentioned Sarah by name, but it all helped me to build a picture of her family’s life: where and how they lived; how their children were educated and cared for; the ins and outs of their work at the Factory; even the sadness of comforting a bereaved adult daughter.
Historians use biography to illuminate the past and to learn something new about the world our biographical subjects inhabited. This requires both a focus on the micro, or the individual life, but also on the context in which they lived. As Andy Wood has argued, the intensive nature of case studies (such as the St John’s biographies) often produces ‘fresh archival finds in which moments of contestation, embarrassment, anger and inversion…reveal something of wider social structures, sensibilities and understandings.' In constructing my biography of Sarah, I paired this focus on archival sources with an exploration of the spaces and places she and her family inhabited. The geopolitics of 1820s Ireland and colonial Sydney were the backdrops against which they lived their lives. But we learn a lot about Sarah and her world by zooming into the spaces her family moved through – workplaces at the Lumber Yards, Carters’ Barracks and the Factory; Joshua’s schoolrooms at Sydney College and the King’s School; the courtrooms of Parramatta and Sydney; and even the streets between the Factory and the children’s daycare.
The details inscribed on Sarah’s tombstone at St John’s Cemetery are sparse. But by combining archival research on Sarah and the men around her with research into the spaces and places they inhabited, I managed to uncover far more about Sarah—and colonial Sydney and Parramatta—than I expected.
Read the biography of Sarah Bell on the St John’s Cemetery Project site here:
 Hilary Golder, Politics, Patronage and Public Works: The Administration of New South Wales, Vol. 1 1842–1900, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005), p. 84.
 Andy Wood, ‘Small places, big questions: reintegrating social and economic history, c.1350-1750,’ in Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society, eds. J.P. Bowen and A.T. Brown (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), 251.
Master of my Fate by Sienna Brown, Penguin Random House Australia, 2019.
I found Sienna Brown’s debut novel riveting. I was completely swept up in William Buchanan’s journey from Jamaica, where he was born into slavery, to his arrival as a convict in Sydney in 1835. I relished the early chapters as Brown carefully recreated the rhythm and characters of the plantation. Then I couldn’t put the book down as William entered adulthood and began to buck against the chains of his enslavement. We know from the outset that he will be sent to Australia, but I desperately wanted to know whether William tasted emancipation in Jamaica first and why he was transported. What became of his family? How did his life in colonial New South Wales turn out?
The novel is based on a real man and a true story. When Sienna Brown came across William in the records at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, she recognised a kindred spirit, a lost man far from home. She too was far from her island home. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Brown moved first to Canada and then to Sydney. William’s story resonated with her own feelings of displacement.
She tells William’s story in three parts. Part One recounts his childhood and early adult life on Rock Pleasant, a sugar plantation. In Part Two, we follow William to Ginger Hill plantation, after Rock Pleasant (and its enslaved inhabitants) is sold. Finally, we travel to the colony of New South Wales with William on board a convict transport—his life in the ‘new world’ is also action-packed.
Brown narrates her novel through William’s eyes and in his voice. I’ll admit this voice grated with me initially, but as I became accustomed to it I recognised in it the voices I had read and ‘heard’ in my own research on Jamaica. In a post-script to the novel, Brown explains her process in attempting to emulate the plantation patois. She acknowledges that she has perhaps only partially succeeded, but she describes how she put her own twist on it, to allow William’s story to shine. As a novelist, I think we can allow her some leeway. Ultimately, the narrative voice works well.
Through William’s eyes, we witness the horror of plantation slavery and experience the intense inner conflict between survival instinct and compliance with the brutal rhythms of the plantation. But we see too, the desire for personal freedom—whether in a quotidian sense within the confines of the plantation, or the flight-of-fancy of true emancipation. Stories of runaway slaves, and the maroon Robert McKellar give us a glimpse of the possibility of escape, although perhaps not of true freedom.
Brown accurately evokes the minutiae of plantation life—the sound of ‘shell-blow’ that marked time; the alternating seasons of sugar cultivation; the remnants of African traditions and spirituality. Also the power dynamics at play within the enslaved community; between those who work in the Great House and those out in the fields. We even glimpse the conflict between the resident planter and his more liberal relatives visiting from Britain. We see, too, the slaves’ living arrangements and the nature of sexual relationships on the plantation—within the enslaved and coloured communities, as well as the planter urge to capitalise on his female property for economic gain.
Brown’s research on the wider context of Jamaica (and of course, Sydney) is evident throughout. I particularly enjoyed the way she weaved William’s story with the wider history of both places. In Jamaica the novel encompasses the spread of Christianity, hints at the debate over emancipation in ‘the Mother Country,’ and the influence of the charismatic Native Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Sydney, Brown beautifully evokes the emerging European city and the wilds of the surrounding bush that now heaves with traffic.
Finally, Brown respects her characters. Relationships are not sentimentalised, but nor is life an unrelenting horror. She hints at her own answer to the question of how the characters in her novel (and the real people that the story reflects) continually picked themselves up and carried on.
I recommend the book. If there is something I would have liked Brown to do differently it is to spend a little more time on the Australian part of William’s story—Part Three feels somewhat rushed in comparison to the pace of Parts One and Two, and we see less of the historical backdrop than we do of Jamaica. But this is a minor criticism, the book is a wonderful debut achievement.
In a recent article in The History Teacher, Dr Erica Johnson Edwards argued that the Haitian Revolution should be taught not simply as an extension of the French Revolution or as a part of the revolutionary Atlantic World, but as a world historical event in its own right. The article contains a useful review of the literature regarding teaching the Haitian Revolution, and clearly explains the pitfalls and benefits of different approaches. The History Teacher is an open-access journal – I recommend the article to anyone interested in thinking about what the Haitian Revolution can teach us.
by Nick Draper On Wednesday 8th May, I gave a presentation on ‘Slavery and Britain’s Infrastructure’ to staff at the National Infrastructure Commission’s secretariat in Holborn. The NIC was established in 2017 as an executive agency of HM Treasury with a charter to provide advice and make independent recommendations to government on national infrastructure priorities, […]
A couple of years ago I started a blog that I called ‘Caribbean Histories: Resources for learning about the Caribbean past,’ with the aim of sharing some of the amazing digital resources out there dedicated to Caribbean history. I also shared links to digital projects and collections, to exhibitions, academic research projects, books and audio content.
I’ve had a consistent core of visitors to the Caribbean Histories site, but have decided to collapse that blog into this blog. I’ve migrated all posts from the old blog over here and I’ll still share links to new Caribbean content – just look under ‘Caribbean History Resources‘ on the main menu for this site.
As always – please get in touch if you have any comments, want some direction with your research or if there’s something that I shared that helped you out.
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has just opened an exhibition entitled ‘Le modèle noir De Géricault à Matisse,’ which attempts to restore the identities and perspectives of black figures depicted on canvas but largely written out of history. This article from the Washington Post focuses on one artwork in the exhibition. The painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist has hung in the Louvre for decades under the title ‘Portrait of a black woman.’ In the new exhibition, the subject of the painting is named – it is entitled ‘Portrait of Madeleine’ because it is a portrait of an emancipated, formerly enslaved woman from Guadeloupe who worked in the home of the artist’s brother-in-law. The exhibition addresses France’s role in the slave trade and the manifestation of the debate over slavery in the arts of the period.