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).