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!
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.
Fierce Girls is a podcast aimed at primary school girls, produced by ABC Radio in Australia. Each episode narrates the story of an Australian girl or woman—some historical figures, some in the recent past—who has somehow pushed beyond boundaries and achieved more than was expected of her.
The episodes are narrated by well-known Australian women, and include sound effects and some voice actors playing the role of the protagonist. This is at times a bit grating to the adult ear, but the variety of voices seems to keep children interested and propels the narrative along.
The standout episodes for me have been the historical ones—about World War II spy Nancy Wake, pilot Nancy Bird-Walton and ground-breaking Olympic swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie. Episodes about more recent events include Jessica Watson’s solo sailing voyage around the world and Cathy Freeman’s (brilliant!) run at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. I’ve mentioned a number of sportswomen and girls here, but Series 1 also covered social activists, indigenous women and women in education and the arts.
I recommend the podcast for children and adults—and I would say it is certainly not just for girls. The themes and issues raised (subtly) are universal. Children can spot a ‘moral of the story’ a mile away. For the most part, this podcast manages to tell great stories in an engaging way, raise some questions, and provide good fodder for discussion afterwards. Australian boys deserve to know about the exploits of these fierce girls just as much as Australian girls do.* We’re all in this together!
Series 2 is currently in production.
*Also no reason why this podcast wouldn’t translate internationally.
The Irish Passport, hosted by historian Tim McInerney and journalist Naomi O’Leary, is now into its second series. The aim of the podcast is to tie current events in Ireland to the history and culture that explain them. As a result, there is an underlying thread of politics to the series—think Brexit (primarily!) and more recently the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution.
McInerney and O’Leary do a brilliant job, however, of unravelling the misconceptions which often swirl around Irish history and culture. In Series 1, the podcast investigated Britain’s ‘knowledge gap’ about Ireland, and in so doing provided a potted history of British/Irish relations going back hundreds of years. They also delved into the 1916 Easter Rising, the Great Hunger, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the recently uncovered scandal at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Other episodes focused on cultural issues such as the Irish language and folklore.
A word of warning about The Irish Passport—the episodes are long! Most episodes are about an hour long, although recently McInerney and O’Leary have begun publishing shorter Halfpint episodes, available only to subscribers.
I highly recommend the podcast for anyone interested in understanding the deeply complicated history of the island of Ireland, and its relationship with Britain, Europe and the Atlantic world. As well as providing a solid grounding in Irish history and culture, the podcast will entertain you. The hosts may be rigorous in their research, but they are charming in their delivery. After a while, I suspect most listeners don’t mind the hour+ running time!
While doing some background research on the indigenous people of St.Vincent, I came across a great online exhibition on the King’s College London website. “The Paradise of the World:” conflict and society in the Caribbean” was originally held at KCL in 2011, but is now available as an online exhibition. This is such a great way to share resources and information—I love seeing exhibitions migrate from the real world to the online arena so that researchers can make use of the content for years afterwards.
‘Chatoyer, the Chief of the Black Charaibes in St Vincent with his five wives,’ from Bryan Edwards, The history, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (London, 1807).
The exhibition drew largely upon the holdings of the historical library collection of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and explored the history of the Caribbean region from the sixteenth century to 1900. Because the exhibition is based on British documentation and literature, the exhibition clearly approaches the Caribbean form the perspective of British interaction with the region. The exhibition provides an overview of Britain’s relationship with Spain as it relates to the Caribbean, international rivalry, the sugar trade and revolts and revolution in Jamaica and Haiti. and the development of the sugar industry and trade. In relation to indigenous peoples in the Caribbean (which is how I stumbled across the exhibition), there is a very good overview of indigenous peoples of Guyana and St.Vincent as well as some material on Jacques Du Tetre’s interaction with indigenous people in the region and his writings. Finally, the exhibition covers emancipation, and nineteenth century Caribbean colonial life.
This exhibition would be very useful for introductory research on the Caribbean (particularly the British Caribbean), and it includes a number of primary sources such as books, artwork and documentation which are available online. Click here to go to the KCL exhibition.
In 2015, the BBC in Britain screened Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, a 2-part documentary series, presented by David Olusoga. The series won a BAFTA TV award in the ‘Specialist Factual’ category in 2016. The documentary was produced in conjunction with the team at University College London who created the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database. This database has been very useful in my own research, and I’ll write more about it in another post.
Britain abolished slavery in 1834—’abolition’ as it’s called, is an event which is celebrated as a defining moment in Britain’s history, and rightly so. But abolition came at a price. The government of the day introduced a compensation scheme – not for the slaves, but for the slave-owners who lost ‘property’ (i.e. their slaves, who they counted as assets). The compensation scheme paid out £17 billion in today’s money to 46,000 slave owners. The slaves received nothing. The British bureaucracy responsible for the compensation scheme kept meticulous records, which are today held in The National Archives in London.
The TV series uses the records of the compensation scheme as a starting point to examine the development of slavery in the British world. Olusoga travels to Barbados and to the counties of Britain, exploring the human and financial impact of slavery. The series is well-researched, and provides an excellent overview of Britain’s links with slavery, particularly as it drew to a close in the nineteenth century. The research of the UCL academics featured in the programme, and Olusoga’s work translating this history for the screen is so important—Britain’s slave-owners and their enslaved Africans are so often forgotten in the rush to congratulate the abolitionists and emancipationists in Britain’s past.