Meeting Report: Heroine or Harlot: Eliza Smith and the New Abbey Refugees

26 February 2016
Members' Night
Stuart McCulloch

The meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the 26 February was Members' Night and the speaker was Stuart McCulloch. Stuart is the Society's Membership Secretary and is a researcher and history lecturer in South West Scotland.

The title of his talk was Heroine or Harlot: Eliza Smith and the New Abbey Refugees. Stuart came to live in the Manse House at New Abbey and, whilst looking through the graveyard, he saw a large gravestone for Captain James Murray, who was the illegitimate son of Eliza; the size of the headstone hinted at the esteem and wealth James enjoyed during his 56 years of life. Stuart decided to research the lives of Eliza and James. This led to the recent publication of a biography of Captain James Murray, entitled A Scion of Heroes. However, the talk focused on James's mother, the enigmatic Eliza Smith.

James's grandfather, also called James, was at the Battle of Quebec under Wolfe and it was in James senior's arms that the victorious General died. James senior later became the Governor of Canada and, while there, arranged for his troublesome illegitimate son, Patrick, to join The 60th Foot, the Royal American Regiment. The regiment was posted to Jamaica but later moved to St Augustine in Florida and whilst there was caught up in the American Revolution. In 1778, Patrick had a son, James Murray (the Captain James Murray in New Abbey graveyard) by Eliza Smith, the central character of our tale. It is not clear why Eliza was in Florida. Nevertheless, the family were caught up in the Siege of Savannah when the French joined with the American States in the War of Independence. By 1781 refugees were fleeing from the thirteen US States to Florida, where the people wanted to remain British. At the time a British Army Colonel, James Grierson of Larbreck, Dumfriesshire, was murdered when he was captured and his son, Thomas, and James Murray were among the refugees who fled to New Abbey in 1781.

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed. Florida (which had been Spanish until 1763) was ceded back to Spain, and those British who chose not to remain under Spanish rule were offered inducements by the British Government to settle in either Nova Scotia or the Bahamas. In 1784, Eliza came to Nassau in the Bahamas with her three remaining children: these were not her natural children but rather were probable orphans of war adopted by her. However, the Bahamas became so full of refugees that, around 1786, Eliza sent the children to New Abbey, where her family, the Stewarts of Shambellie, resided. There they joined Thomas Grierson and James Murray.

Who was Eliza Smith? Was she a loving and caring mother or heartless hussy? She adopted children in need but also sent them away at an early age. She mixed with the Aristocracy and was a successful businesswoman but she was also a slave owner who once offered a reward of ten dollars for the return of a runaway slave. On the other hand, a Doctor Minns, who was born in the Bahamas and came to Britain to train as a doctor, was the grandson of a slave released by Eliza in 1810, and became the first black Mayor in Britain. So —, Heroine or Harlot?