Sometime in 1788 or 1789, three companies of the British 47th Regiment arrived in Bermuda from New Providence, the Bahamas. This would prove significant for Mary Forbes, a young lady from St. George’s, who was just approaching her 18th birthday. As she wrote in her diary, “…gay, thoughtless, full of life and vivacity, I felt my freedom and enjoyed it…. The new comers soon obtained introduction to the leading families of the island, and greatly increased its gaieties.”
“Gaieties” no doubt meant a plethora of balls and parties which Mary attended for over a year before becoming, as she puts it, “sensible of the attractions and attentions of one of the officers.” His name was Lieutenant Thomas Winslow, a Loyalist American, who was, she claimed, “not only to the most admired and beloved officer in his regiment,” but also a man “whose station in life and whose personal excellence were worthy of her confidence.” However, his attentions did not sit well with Mary’s mother, “alarmed” at the idea of her daughter marrying a soldier since such a union would inevitably involve being separated from her child. Indeed, she had already discouraged other military suitors. In 1790 she tried to end the relationship with Thomas by sending Mary off to Riddell’s Bay to stay with an aunt. Fate was not on her side. Mary explained in her diary: “One day a gentleman came out to dinner. In the course of the conversation, he casually mentioned that orders had come from New Providence for Lieut. Winslow to join the regiment there. This intelligence went like a dagger to my heart. In vain I strove to disguise my feelings, — bursting into tears, I left the table. Then was I convinced that my heart was not my own. I retired to my room to reflect upon my course. I knew,” she wrote with a touching naivety, “the Governor could not interpose, nor had the Colonel in command power to detain an officer under orders from head-quarters. My happiness was at stake. Great was my distress, intense my agony of mind. Who could prevent his going?”
At this point she had an answer which would be her recourse for the rest of her life: “The thought suddenly occurred to me, — God can! In a moment I arose, locked my door, and fell upon my knees before Him, It was my first prayer! In the simplest form of words imaginable, I earnestly pleaded with the Lord not only to prevent his going, but to give him to me as my husband. The prayer was offered — the request was made, — and I arose from my knees with a spirit as light as a feather.”
She rode into St. George’s, attended by her servant, and met with her suitor who immediately proposed. “The next morning — a licence having been procured — we met at the house of my friend, Judge L, and from thence, accompanied by two of the officers and the wife of one of them, we went to the house of the clergyman of the parish, where I was united in the bonds of holy wedlock to the man of my choice, the beloved of my heart. The first emotion of my mother, when the intelligence was broken to her, was distress; the second was love.”
Nevertheless, her mother’s forebodings came true. Mary’s marriage to a soldier did indeed mean separation from Mrs. Forbes so that the closeness of their relationship would depend on the many letters they wrote to each other. But those letters were to prove important. Mary’s life may well have remained in total obscurity but for two reasons. First, she wrote those letters, as well as copious others to friends and relations, while keeping a faithful diary over the course of her 80-year-long life. Second, her diary and letters did not die with her, thanks to her tenth child, Octavius Winslow, who used them as a basis for his biography of her, Life in Jesus, A Memoir of Mrs. Mary Winslow based on Diary Correspondence and Thoughts. Diaries and personal correspondence are like gold to historians since they can bring to life details of the past that might otherwise be unrecorded. That is why, for example, Samuel Pepys’s diary is so well loved for its intimate minutiae of seventeenth-century daily life. Mary’s writings are similarly valuable for information not easily found elsewhere. However, it must be born in mind that Octavius’s main aim in publishing his memoir was to reveal his mother as a deeply religious Christian wife and mother, a perfect role model for dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. A converted Christian and evangelical preacher himself, he drew heavily on her devotional writings about her ongoing personal relationship with “my Redeemer” to illustrate the importance of faith and the reality of Christ’s love. As William Zuill says in Bermuda Journey, “Apart from its references to Bermuda, the book has a curious interest as a sample of vocal piety that was so common a year ago.” The language can therefore be sometimes difficult to negotiate. Still, the book does give us vivid glimpses of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and an insight into the harsher realities of life such as sea travel, fire, the scourge of slavery in Bermuda, childbearing and caring, poverty, and the constant threat of illness and disease.
To start at the beginning of her life, Mary was born to Robert Forbes (see sidebar) and his wife, Mary, née Rush. During the 1770s the family lived at Brick House Wharf which was on the site west of the White Horse Tavern (stretching from what is now 34–40 Water Street). A much loved only child, she was eventually taught by a tutor hired from Scotland, thus having within her reach “the highest literary advantages,” which might explain her prolific outflow of writing.
But her early life had its share of dangers. Later, as a converted evangelical Christian, she would believe that she survived them thanks to divine providence. One example happened after she nearly died at the age of five and her parents took her to England during the Anglo French War because of an illness her father suffered. “Our vessel was a light barque, carrying a few guns, and but ill furnished for severe conflict with the enemy. On entering the Channel, and midway between the English and French coasts, a ship of war hove in sight. It was towards night, and as she appeared to bear down upon us, our captain prepared for action. My mother and I were hurried from the cabin to what was thought a place of greater safety below. My father remained on deck. All was confusion above us. I was astonished at being thus suddenly removed from my comfortable berth to the dismal quarters beneath the decks.”
But the French warship did not turn out to be the danger, as Mary records. “We had not been long there, when I observed a boy come occasionally to the place of our imprisonment, and with a large horn in his hand take something from out of a barrel, having first fixed a lighted candle upon its edge and leaving it there. Observing, as I sat upon my mother’s lap — who was too absorbed in anxiety to notice the circumstance — that the piece of candle was nearly burnt to the edge, I got down, put out my hand and took it away, saying ‘Mamma, this will burn the barrel.’ It was a cask of gunpowder! Had I not re- moved it at that moment, or, in removing it, had a spark fallen from the lengthened wick, the vessel and all on board must instantly have been blown to atoms.”
“What a wonderful preservation from instantaneous and eternal destruction,” she later wrote, reflecting back on the experience, “for it is not supposed that there was a single person on board who knew the Lord!” Afterwards their ship managed to cross the Channel undetected.
Returning to Bermuda via Antigua they yet again narrowly missed being burnt alive when the mansion where they were staying on the island caught fire in the middle of the night. A few minutes after they fled the house, “the flames bursting from every part, had completely enveloped the house; the roof fell in with a tremendous crash, and in a short time the beautiful mansion, which a few hours before had been the brilliant scene of festive hospitality, was now a mass of smouldering ruins.”
(Many years later Mary would write to her mother about another fire, again thanking God for keeping her safe. Her account reminds us how dangerous night lighting was before the advent of electricity: “I awoke just in time to save myself and family from being burnt. It was occasioned by a spark falling from the rushlight upon the dressing-table, which set fire to the wainscot and the table, which were burning when I awoke. I extinguished the fire, opened the door to let the smoke escape—for both rooms were filled—without alarming the family, and retired to bed again to meditate on the goodness of God to such an unworthy creature.”)
Octavius cites another dangerous event in Mary’s early life when describing a hurricane that struck while approaching Bermuda on a voyage she had taken with her aunt from New York. “The prospect, as they neared the cluster of islands, was surprisingly lovely. The blue hills in the distance — the tall cedars — the coral shore stretching into a trans-parent ocean — the gentle breeze blowing from the land laden with a thousand perfumes — the blue sky above — and the whole panorama bathed in the warm beams of a southern sun, gave to the entire scene the enchantment of a fairy land.” The ensuing storm reminds us how suddenly weather could change and how sea travel could be extremely unpredictable and dangerous. “All were prepared for going on shore, waiting but the pilot to come off and conduct them in. But ere an hour had passed, the sky grew dark, storm-clouds gathered, a fearful hurricane, common in these latitudes, suddenly arose, and the vessel, driven out again to sea, threatened every moment to founder…. In a few moments the masts were cut away, and the deck, washed by the mountain waves, was swept of everything but the caboose. It was an appalling spectacle. Every face gathered paleness, and despair seized every heart. Vessels making for the same port were seen to go down into the yawning billows with all sail standing. As the sea made a complete breach over the vessel, the officers and crew were compelled to take refuge in the cabin, waiting their expected and almost certain doom. The helm was lashed, and the dismantled hulk, which a few hours before was gallantly steering for her port, was now tossed like a log upon the ocean. The first long dreary night was one of horror.”
After a few days, the weather calmed and they were able to salvage rigging and masts, refit as best they could and limp their way home where they were “received by their friends as those whom the sea had given back from the dead.” It is likely friends and families of the passengers could have watched the ship floundering in a storm and being carried back to the open sea.
When Mary was just 11 another disaster struck: her father died in 1785. Perhaps being a widow and alone was the reason her mother was opposed to an engagement with Thomas. In any case we don’t read much more of Mary’s early life until her elopement as described above.
After her marriage, she left Bermuda with Thomas, eventually staying in England, and for a while lived the life of a military wife. In 1795 she had her first child, Thomas, and over the course of 19 years went on to have 12 more. (Three died before their first birthday. Octavius as a young child had a brush with death. His nurse apparently inadvertently gave him the wrong medicine but he survived against all expectation.) However busy Mary must have been, she kept in constant touch with her mother and therefore with Bermuda. Certainly she did not lose interest in the island’s social realities. One early letter to her mother is on the subject of slavery. Octavius introduces it by explaining: “Familiar as Mrs. Winslow was, from childhood, with this species of servitude, she yet never was wholly reconciled to the monstrous principle of holding property in man. On reaching her age of majority, she found herself the owner of two domestic slaves; but although lapsing to her by inheritance, it will appear that she was ill at ease in her possession.”
She already knew her husband’s views on the subject because of an incident that happened in Bermuda. (Cyril Packwood includes it in Chained to the Rock.) According to Octavius, “A poor free negro man hastened one day to Captain Winslow, in the greatest distress, and informed him that his wife and children, who were slaves, were on the eve of being sold to another master, with the prospect of their removal from the island, and in all probability their separation from him for ever. He came to request his sympathy and aid in rescuing them from so distressing a fate. His appeal met with a cordial and instantaneous response. Not a moment was to be lost. Seizing his sword and adjusting it as he passed through the streets accompanied by the anxious Negro, Captain Winslow hastened to the auction mart. The sale had commenced. There stood the poor trembling woman and her children, for whom a large sum had already been offered. Captain Winslow instantly became a competitor. The contest grew warm. Observing his determination to purchase, the price rose to an enormous sum.” At this point, the “terror-stricken” father approached him, and told him not to continue bidding because he could not afford to repay the money. But Thomas did continue. “At length victory decided in his favour, and he bore in triumph the slave-wife, mother, and little ones, restoring them FREE to the delighted and grateful husband and parent.”
When Mary was told of her inheritance, she wrote to her mother, “I wish, my dear mamma, to give my two Negroes, Ben and John, their freedom. I cannot bear the idea of having slaves. But if you think it most for their good to keep them in my service, I will have their freedom made out, so that at my death they may not be liable to be sold or made slaves. I sometimes think, that to give such a poor creature as John his freedom now, (in other words to cast him off,) he would soon go to ruin. But still I would desire so to manage things as to make him free whenever he can maintain himself, and to secure his freedom now in case I should be called home.” (By “home” she means death.)
Mary did this before the British Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 and her position against slavery would continue for the rest of her life, particularly when she went to New York and witnessed American anti-slavery meetings.
As mentioned previously, Christian evangelism became central to Mary’s life shortly after her marriage when, jaded with balls, she experienced a conversion. After her family moved to Pentonville, London, and attended St. James’s Episcopal Church led by the Reverend Thomas Sheppard, she became increasingly concerned evangelism was not a strong movement in Bermuda. Long before Mary was born, George Whitfield had preached in Bermuda in 1748. Nine years after she left Bermuda, she no doubt heard from her mother that George Stephenson preached to slaves on the island in 1800 and was imprisoned for it. By August 1813 she wrote to her mother: “I am trying very hard to send you a dear gospel minister to be settled in St. George’s; and I do earnestly entreat that you all will endeavour, if I succeed in obtaining one, to procure him a place to preach in until he is enabled to build a chapel. The Lord has blessed me, and I think I am called in duty to lay out what He has given me for His glory, I think I can spare fifty pounds a year to aid the minister until he is sufficiently established, and draws around him a congregation who will be able to afford him a proper maintenance…You must give me a part of the garden, if you think proper; or, if that cannot be, I must purchase a piece of ground in the town. A chapel must be built where my God will be glorified and souls won to Christ.”
What is extraordinary about this is she suffered a complete reversal of fortune in 1815. Her husband lost investments to such an extent Mary was forced to take her children to live in New York. He was to join her after he recovered from an illness but he died. At the same time their youngest child died of the measles in America. Yet amidst all this turmoil, she must have contributed the financing she had promised.
By 1820 the Reverend Henry Cross arrived in Bermuda and in June of that year laid the cornerstone of an independent chapel on Clarence Street in St. George’s. Octavius incudes in his memoir a letter Cross wrote to the London Missionary Society on April 1, 1821, describing how he officially opened the chapel “under peculiar circumstances of gratitude and delight towards Him who conducts all things after the counsel of His own will.” Apparently, a ship carrying many passengers and several Methodist parsons was sighted off the island “hoisting signals of distress.” They had left Liverpool for the United States six months previously and were starving. “…[F]or four months they had been on the allowance of five potatoes per day,” Cross wrote, “and for three weeks the Missionaries had scarcely a drop of water in their mouths: such were the cries of many children on board, that they were obliged to deny themselves what they could only obtain from the clouds, to satisfy the thirst of the little ones.” The ship eventually was anchored off the island and the Reverends Duncan Dunbar and Mr. Grey attended the opening to give thanks.
Once again, we have an account of the dangers of sea travel. No wonder many years later she was to worry about her mother travelling back to Bermuda from America where they were both able to meet for a few months: “When I fancy her, aged, feeble, and, perhaps, ill, on a tempestuous ocean, and exposed to all the discomforts of a voyage, I can but weep and pray. Pray for her I do, and that is my only comfort.”
The new chapel lasted only until 1824 when according to the Bermuda National Trust’s Architectural Heritage Series St. George’s, Reverend Cross died and the church was abandoned.
What became of Mary herself and her 10 children? She remained in New York for some time, struggling alone with her children. A family historian, D. Kenelm Winslow recorded their plight: “Mary had the youngsters out on the streets of New York selling matches and newspapers as soon as they were old enough for such tasks. She set them to any job they could tackle, gathering them around her at night for scripture reading followed by a good sound evangelical harangue and prayers.” They lived in New York until 1820, visited England for four months and then returned to New York for some years. Once again, she returned to England to be with some of her children. As mentioned already, she made yet another voyage to America where she met her mother, as well as some of her children who had stayed in America. Quite how she managed to afford these voyages is unclear.
Octavius was far more interested in describing her devout faith than her financial situation. Perhaps her husband had property in America. In addition, her mother, a businesswoman in her own right (see sidebar), may well have helped out. Later, three of her sons, including Octavius, became ministers and they perhaps may have helped her as well. Mary outlived her husband by 30 years but never married again. She died in England, Octavius and other family members at her bedside.
Forbes Family Sidebar
A memorial plaque inside St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s reveals the affection and admiration the people of St. George’s felt for Mary Winslow’s Scottish grandfather, Dr. George Forbes. It stresses both his compassion and range of talents:
To the memory of George Forbes, MD.
A fingular complacency of manners
Joined with many ufeful talents
And eminent virtues
Render’d highly eftimable
Bleff’d with a convivial difpofition,
In the cheerful hour of focial feftivity
He throne irreprehenifible
An agreeable companion,
Ever affiduous in furthering good humour
And the enjoyments of fociality.
Friendly to mankind,
His endeavors to mitigate the evils of life,
Which he ore himfelf with temper & philosophy,
Were not alone confined to the Healing Art,
Long exercifed by him with much Reputation;
But were likewife exerted
In compofing differences
Restoring ancient friendfhips interrupted
Peace, harmony, and a mutual good undertfanding
Among His fellow-men.
Having acquitted himfelf with approbation
In the feveral relations of life,
As he had lived repected and beloved,
So he died
Lamented and regretted for thefe virtues
And many others,
Tho’not enregifter’d on this marble,
Are for ever engraven
On the memory of his furviving friends.
He died Jany 9th, 1778 Aged 68
Dr. Forbes came to Bermuda in 1734, shortly after graduating from the University of Aberdeen in “phisick and surgery.” He fell in love with Mary Jones, the daughter of Francis Jones, who was a socially eminent merchant, councillor and militia general. They married in 1737 and lived near Brackish Pond, Devonshire, where their first son, Francis, was born. According to the Bermuda National Trust’s St. George’s, George bought land from a surgeon, George Ramsey, and built a house, now known as Banana Manor (4 Blockade Alley) in the Georgian style. He went on to have five more children there: Robert, Thomas, James, William and a daughter, Ann, who married a Hinson. George became known for his wide interests but perhaps chiefly for introducing smallpox inoculation to the island. He bought property on Smith’s Island where he built a mansion known as Forbes House, a summer retreat from epidemics. Apparently he had a cabin built there to house and quarantine smallpox victims arriving in Bermuda. In addition to Smith’s Island, he also bought property on Paget Island. While practising medicine, he additionally served as councillor and on the vestry from 1752; he was justice of the peace, chief justice in 1749 and for a short period president of the council. All the while, he was a passionate gardener.
Francis and Robert both trained as doctors at the University of Edinburgh, while the other sons became businessmen abroad. James was unsuccessful and returned with a mental illness. His sister, Ann, became his guardian. Robert practised medicine in Bermuda and bought the extensive and expensive Brick House Wharf on Water Street from fellow Scot, Robert Dinwiddie. There he lived with his wife, Mary, née Rush, and his only child, Mary. After Robert died in 1785, his widow married a schoolteacher called William Grant but he died three years later. Interestingly, she ran her own shipping firm during the 1800s, with a stock of up to £3,500.
George’s eldest son’s son, also Francis, became a lawyer. By 1810 he was attorney general of Bermuda. Eight years later, he was appointed chief justice of Newfoundland; he then became chief justice of New South Wales, Australia.