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
Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast by Marjoleine Kars. London: Profile Books, 2020. Paperbook publication 3 November 2022, £10.99. ISBN 9781800812284.
Unputdownable! I’m not the first to say that this book is a model for how academic history can reach a wide audience. First and foremost a narrative; underpinned by exhaustive research. A significant work of history: Kars tells the story of the 1763 rebellion by thousands of enslaved people in Berbice (part of modern-day Guyana) that lasted for almost a year. The narrative is fast-paced, detailed and encompasses the different ‘characters’ involved – enslaved, plantation proprietors, Dutch colonial ‘masters’. Kars has excavated a huge amount of primary source material, largely in her native Dutch language. In telling the story of the rebellion, she provides a comprehensive history of Berbice and the people who lived there – ‘Amerindians’, Europeans and enslaved. Using her research and personal experience of the environment, she writes evocatively of the Berbice River and the surrounding forest and marshes. Be warned though, the horrific violence of slavery and the fight to overcome a rebellion are recounted in unflinching detail.
Londa Schiebinger, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century World. Stanford University Press (2017). 256pp. From US$25 paperback. ISBN 9781503602915.
This book analyses the eighteenth-century Atlantic world medical complex, when an experimental culture emerged in the British and French Caribbean. I was interested to read this because a central figure of the book is A.J. Alexander, a plantation manager on the Bacolet plantation in Grenada, with close connections John Black, one of the men I am writing about in my book. Alexander tested medicines that the enslaved used to treat a disease called Yaws. As well as carrying out his own experiments, Alexander was testing African cures transported to the Caribbean. Schiebinger ask though, whether these remedies were actually developed by the original Caribbeans, Arawaks, Tainos and Galibis, and taught to the enslaved? Essentially then, the book considers the question of circulation of knowledge in the Atlantic world. The book also digs into the ethics of experiments on enslaved people.
This is a fascinating read for its content but also for the style of writing. Schiebinger takes us on her journey of discovery, experimentation and results. As Sarah Schuetze wrote in her extended review, the book can be read as a historian’s version of a lab report, with the author as scientist conducting experiments with research she’s amassed throughout her career.
Malcolm Campbell, Ireland’s Farthest Shores: Mobility, Migration, and Settlement in the Pacific World Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2022, 291pp., $US79.95 (hardcover), ISBN9780299334208.
I was sceptical of the notion that the Pacific could be called ‘Ireland’s farthest shore’ – it’s a bit of a stretch but it does help to move the focus of the Irish diaspora away from the Atlantic – which is often seen as the only site of Irish diasporic experience.
Building on his earlier comparative work on Irish settlement in California and Eastern Australia, Campbell offers a comprehensive study of the ways that Irish-born and descended people have participated in the making of the Pacific world as we know it today, and the way the Pacific world has made them. Book covers seventeenth to late nineteenth century, dealing with Irish mobility; focus on the Pacific Anglo-world; and transnational themes. Also provides great overview of touchpoints of Irish history through the nineteenth and early twentieth century: radicalism, protest and dissent; faith and religion; nationalism; war and revolution.
My full review published in History Australia 19:3 (2022): 618-9.
A New History of the Irish in Australia by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2018. Pp. 436. A$34.99 paper.
Not a comprehensive survey, but the strength of the authors’ collaboration lies in the breadth of topics they cover (some new to Irish Australian scholarship), and the variety of methodologies they adopt in doing so. Authors argue the diaspora is a complex, multi-national, multi-generational network, and the Irish who moved through this space from the 1790s to the mid-twentieth century were a complex people. Under the three headings of ‘Race’, ‘Stereotypes’ and ‘Politics’, the authors tease out the contradictions inherent in the Irish diasporic experience in an Australian context.
The New History makes a serious contribution to the field of Irish Australian studies, to Australian history, and to Irish diaspora studies more broadly. The book showcases a variety of methodologies, uncovers new sources, and generously highlights numerous opportunities for further research. The authors deliver new perspectives on questions relevant to Australian history, such as the encounter on the frontier, and crime and mental health in colonial Australia. They also remind historians that the pervasive nature of stereotypes should not be overlooked. As Rónán McDonald wrote in his epigraph for the New History, Malcolm and Hall provide a necessary corrective to the false unity of the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’. In their hands, the multifaceted nature of Irishness and the Irish experience in Australia is carefully traced, without overlooking the commonalities of experience with other groups in Australia’s past.
My full review published in History Australia 50:2 (2019), pp.278-9.
Andrew Mackillop, Human Capital and Empire: Scotland, Ireland, Wales and British Imperialism in Asia, c.1690-c.1820. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021, 344pp., hardback, £85.00, ISBN9780719070723.
This book makes a very strong contribution to Irish historical scholarship – must-read for students and historians working on Ireland’s diaspora, its relations with Empire and with its closest neighbours. Uses Irish, Scottish and Welsh involvement in the English East India companies (EIC) to explore the ‘multiple pathways into empire’ and the impact of the returning personnel, capital and ideas. First few chapters are a great resource for histories of EIC; each chapter of the remainder of the book provides new data about Irish participation in the British Empire, as well as about Ireland itself, its cities and regions. Mackillop pays close attention to the distinctive characteristics of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. By using the EIC as his case study, he manages to recast the British and Irish Isles as ‘an accretion of expanding regional, national and supranational communities and cultures’.
An easy read for an academic work – great uncluttered prose, consistent framework throughout, wealth of data.
My full review to be published in volume 22 of the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies (AJIS).
Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgway (Eds), Country House Collections. Their Lives and Afterlives. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2021, 334pp., hardback, €50.00, ISBN9781846829758.
A pleasure to read – beautiful illustrations, reproductions and photographs. Excellent scholarship but would also serve as a lovely coffee table book. 14 essays in the volume: 6 chapters each on English and Irish topics, and one on country house collecting practice in America and Lithuania. The themes are broadly: ‘Assembling and Dispersing’ and ‘Contexts and Reinterpretations’. Lots to interest social, cultural, art historians of Ireland; much to spark new research projects among the essays. My challenge to the field is to historicise collections against backdrop beyond Ireland – what of the houses built and filled by the families who amassed a fortune further afield in colonial pursuits and transatlantic slavery? How did this ‘newer’ money impact the country house milieu in Ireland?
My full review to be published in November 2022 in Irish Studies Review.
This is just a short note to say I’ve launched a newsletter – the Irish Caribbean Lives Newsletter and I’d like you to subscribe!
The newsletter is designed to share my research finds, stories, musings and probably stumbling blocks as I work through my manuscript. I’ll share my writing and publishing process and recommend books, media or events that I hope will interest readers. I thrive on community, accountability and deadlines. I’ve benefited from the connections I’ve made with descendants of some of the Irish people I’m researching, as well as genealogists and historians around the world. With this Newsletter I aim to give something back to that community and obtain some much-needed motivation to complete the manuscript:)
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!