Tag Archives: Women

‘True yoke fellows’ – women on the mission field in Jamaica

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).

A letter from Mary Williamson to her former owner: History Workshop

History Workshop has published an 1809 letter written by a formerly enslaved woman, Mary Williamson, to her former owner in Jamaica. I know from my own research that uncovering the voices of women in the Caribbean past is extremely difficult, and it is even more so when it comes to enslaved women. Take a look at the letter over on the History Workshop website here

Review: Marisa Fuentes, DISPOSSESSED LIVES

Professor Park's Blog

Sometimes the best thing a book can do is make you feel guilty. That is certainly the case with the book I’m gisting today.

There were more enslaved women in the colonial port town of Bridgetown, found on the western edge of Barbados, than any other demographic group. So why do they receive such little attention? Marisa J. Fuentes, in her provocative book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (UPenn Press, 2016), argues that the traditional archive was constructed in such a way to inflict perpetual violence upon women. Until that narrative is disrupted, historians continue to partake in this original sin. Fuentes’s book is, she explains, an attempt at “redress” (12). Dispossessed Lives follows the stories of a handful of women in the eighteenth century through the lens of documents that only peripherally mention them: a runaway named Jane, a mulatto brothel, an enslaved woman who was…

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Finding women in the archives

Late last year I attended a public lecture by Dr Noeline Kyle, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, who has been working with and supporting family historians for many years. Dr Kyle discussed her recently published book Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. This is an update of her 1986 book We Should’ve Listened to Grandma. The lecture was directed at the family historian, so there was plenty of practical advice—which gave me lots to think about in researching my own family history, but also with my PhD project in mind.

My great great grandparents. Source: Judy Deane, Ancestry.com

Finding Florence is essentially a guide to finding women in the archives, with a focus on the women who didn’t make newspaper headlines. The book contains long lists of public records to search for traces of women in the past, such as educational archives, and government record-keepers for women who might have worked in the ‘female’ professions of teaching, healthcare and social welfare.

I was particularly interested in Dr Kyle’s discussion of what she calls a “circle strategy.” As women can be largely absent from the archival record, she suggested investigating the biographies of close siblings, parents, other relatives such as cousins, and friends, neighbours and work colleagues. This may be a laborious task, but as Dr Kyle said, our ancestors often lived in close proximity to extended family and community members—so newspaper obituaries (for example) for neighbours and relatives  might yield a nugget of information about a woman we know little else about. So too, the records of primary schools, community and religious organisations. The book would be of great use to researchers in Australia, as well as the UK and Ireland, as Dr Kyle has experience of researching in archives for all of these locations.

I went to the lecture with a friend who’s done extensive research into her own family tree, far more than I have. The budding historian in me was thrilled to hear her say that Dr Kyle’s lecture had made her realise why she’s found it so much harder to gain a clear picture of her female ancestors, than for the men in her family tree. Students of history will be familiar with the project of social history to raise marginalised groups (whether on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, ability etc) from obscurity. Whether consciously or not, non-academic, hobbyist family historians seeking to elucidate the lives of their female ancestors, are chipping away at the obscurity that many women have suffered at the hands of official histories, and archival practices of the past. Just another reason why family history is such an admirable pursuit!

Noeline Kyle, Finding Florence, Maude, Matilda, Rose: Researching and writing women into family history. Published by Unlock the Past, 2014.http://www.gould.com.au/Finding-Florence-Maude-Matilda-Rose-Women-FH-p/utp0321.htm