“It all started with a Scotsman who just couldn’t hold his tongue!”
This is rather a long tale, enough for a book or indeed a Netflix series… but I’ll do my best to give you the gist.
It all started with a Sc otsman who just couldn’t hold his tongue! “Why does that ring a bell?” says my Madeiran girlfriend
Robert Reid Kalley was born in 1838 near Trongate in the centre of Glasgow. The ambitious young Scotsman embarked on a medical career, becoming first a ship’s doctor then a GP in the to wn of Kilmarnock before, eventually, he and his wife relocated to Madeira due mainly to his wife’s poor health.
Kalley was appalled at the poverty and illiteracy he found on the mid-Atlantic island and decided to offer the disadvantaged his medical services for free, meanwhile overcharging his wealthier patrons. Soon he gathered enough funds to build a small hospital & pharmacy and open no less than 17 small schools scatter ed around the island that catered to children during the day and unlettered adults in the evenings. “What can possibly be wrong with that?” I hear you say!
An antique map of the island of Madeira by GH Swanston of Edinburgh, circa 1858.
Kalley in Madeira circa 1871
The magnanimous Kalley couldn’t resist proselytising his particular brand of Protestantism to the exclusively Catholic parishioners he was serving. So successful was he at converting the poorer classes to the Presbyterian brand, the Catholic church could no longer turn the other cheek!
“Kalley couldn’t resist proselytising his particular brand of Protestantism”
In 1841, the Catholic Bishop of Funchal decided to put a dampener on Kalley’s evangelistic ardour and forbade him to deliver religious lectures. In 1843, Scottish Bibles that he had widely distributed throughout the island were confiscated and meetings at his home, which were becoming increasingly popular, were forbidden. Kalley continued with his work in a more subdued manner, concentrating his efforts on the village of Santo da Serra.
The Scots Kirk in downtown Funchal, Madeira
Two years later, along with a newly arrived missionary, the Rev. William Hepburn Hewitson, Kalley founded the first ‘Presbyterian Church of Portugal’ in Funchal. This was a step too far for the Catholic hierarchy and he and his Portuguese followers were charged with blasphemy and heresy, which at the time were punishable by death! In 1846, all the schools he had founded were closed, the 2000 bibles he distributed, burned and a warrant was issued for Kalley’s arrest.
There are various alarming accounts of the following period and I’m not sure which to believe but it sounds like the situation became increasingly ugly with houses of the adherents vandalised and burnt, the new Protestant ‘Calvinists’ beaten up and perhaps even a death or two. One hesitates to accept that such behaviour could occur under the auspices of ‘diverse religions’ but, as we’ve witnessed through the centuries, this was more than likely the case!
Doctor in Disguise
The hapless Kalley, in fear of his life, sought sanctuary at the British Consul in Funchal and soon after escaped the island, dis guised as an old woman, a bit like Bonnie Prince Charlie at the tail-end of the Scottish Jacobite rebellion a hundred years before. As he set sail from Funchal harbour, Kalley looked back to see his house engulfed in flames!
The philanthropic physician took passage to the United States while his beleaguered followers, at least 2000 of them, perhaps more were also ordered to leave their Madeiran homes, most travelling to the islands of Trinidad & Tobago in the Caribbean to seek work as labourers in the recently established sugar plantations.
The New World
“Maderians prospered in the New World”
The story doesn’t end there! Protestant groups in the USA learned of the plight of the dispossessed Madeirans and invited them to join the burgeoning Presbyterian communities of Jacksonville and Springfield, Illinois, southwest of Chicago (not the same Springfield o f the modern-day cultural icon, Homer Simpson). But it was the same Springfield that saw the start of Abraham’ Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and politician. Lincoln’s wife, by the way, employed a Madeiran girl as a housemaid and she became a firm favourite.
The Maderians prospered in the New World! The family of film director, Sam Mendes whose films such as ‘American Beauty’, the James Bond movies, ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Spectre’ along with the most excellent ‘Road to Perdition’, was part of the diaspora. An area of Jacksonville became known as “Portuguese Hill” with around 1,000 Madeiran Portuguese living in this one area alone.
The indomitable Kalley meanwhile, travelled back to Europe, to Malta then later Beirut in 1851 where his ailing first wife died. He remarried the following year. Kalley and his new wife visited the Presbyterian settlements in Illinois sometime later. The good doctor continued his missionary work, establishing the first permanent Protestant church in Brazil, spending many years there and suffering similar resistance from the Brazilian Catholic Church - but never quite as vociferous as in Madeira.
Dr Kalley returned to Scotland in 1876 and spent a further 12-years communicating with the leaders of the churches he had helped to establish in Brazil, the Portuguese mainland, the islands of Madeira, Tobago, Trinidad and central Illinois. He had become a ‘spiritual father’ to these communities as well as a mentor to an entire generation of ministers and missionaries who emulated his sagacity, enthusiasm and dedication to the Presbyterian cause.
In Madeira, there’s not a lot to mark the man or his mission. The Scots Kirk next to the Municipal Gardens in Funchal is a charming building worth a visit if even just to look through the gates - the building and grounds are closed most of the week. Sunday morning’s the best time to get a look inside. There’s a children’s bible class at 11am on Sundays and the general service begins at noon.
I discovered, in the hall adjoining the Scots Kirk in downtown Funchal, a memorial stone in
honour of our evangelistic physician. Of course, in the pantheon of Scottish Protestantarianism, he is venerated for his tenacity and dedication to the cause. God rest his soul!