Eva Stuart Watt (center) with her sister and mother

Evangelical Christians living in Ireland in the early to mid-twentieth century would have been well acquainted with the name of Eva Stuart Watt (b. 1891). Eva grew up in Kenya and later moved to Ireland where she became a prolific author, artist, missionary advocate, and founder of Young Ireland for Christ mission in Dublin. Eva has a story of her own, but the story of her parents, Stuart and Rachel Watt is a forgotten part of the early missionary history of Kenya. It was recorded by Rachel Watt in her book In the Heart of Savagedom.

Rachel Eva Harris was born in 1862 in Newry, County Down, N. Ireland. Her father died when she was three years old, but despite this misfortune, she grew up in a loving, perhaps, indulgent environment. Although she attended a Presbyterian church, she remembered that her minister did not preach the necessity of regeneration of heart, and spiritual matters were not discussed in the home. Her first interest in salvation was piqued when she was visiting family friends and was pressed to attend church with them. There, she felt the preaching to be “very personal” and for the first time, “felt that [she] was not what [she] ought to be.”

This gospel impression never left Rachel; indeed, it would often manifest itself both in “yearning and confusion.” Sometime later she met Mr. Stuart Watt at the home of a friend. After a conversation that evening, Stuart was concerned for the state of Rachel’s heart, and he pursued the matter by escorting her home and sharing his own testimony, impressing on Rachel her need of a Savior.

James Stuart Watt

Stuart was saved at the age of nineteen. He was born in Gilford, about sixteen miles north of Newry but it appears that he, like Rachel, had little religious training. Stuart was introduced to the gospel through a friend. At first, he resisted, but realized that “there was a transforming power in religion, of which, up to that moment, he had been entirely ignorant.” He spent the next twelve months searching, asking questions of men from all religious backgrounds and classes, in order to find the answer to one great question, how might sins be forgiven? As a successful businessman in Belfast, in the tea trade, he attended the first meetings of D.L. Moody’s Belfast crusade in 1874 and was converted to Christ. From the beginning of his Christian walk, Stuart was very much interested in the foreign field but discouraged by his family, and so left off pursuing that interest.

It was through that first encounter with Stuart and his persuasive gospel pleading that Rachel was brought to saving faith in Christ. Rachel later wrote, “if I had known I was going to be laid hold of for Missionary work, I should have been quite unwilling to accept the invitation. However, I went, and there met the young man, who in the providence of God, was afterward to be my husband.”

Carlisle Memorial Church (Methodist) in Belfast, where Stuart and Rachel were married

Five years after their meeting, Stuart and Rachel were married at the Carlisle Memorial Church (Methodist) in Belfast. As time passed, and Stuart felt increasingly the call to the mission field, he broached the subject with his wife, and it was openly discussed between themselves and friends for some time. But their plans were met with protest. “One loving friend,” Rachel wrote, “said to me quite affectionately, ‘My dear, if you break up this comfortable home you will never have one like it again.’” But, Rachel concluded, “I had greater faith in my Savior’s promises than in the prognostications of my best-loved earthly relatives.”

As time went on, both Stuart and Rachel “felt intensely the great responsibility of [their] undertaking, but the burden was very much lightened by the assurance that [they] had a definite message from God to deliver to the heathen. [They] were determined to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” And so, despite the obstacles, they applied to the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society (CMS) and were soon appointed to work in Equatorial East Africa, as lay missionaries.

Bishop James Hannington (1847-1885)

The Watts arrived in Zanzibar in 1885. Zanzibar island was a major Arab slave-trading hub but had come into British control during the British attempts to end the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. By the late 1800s, Zanzibar was a major international trading center with, among others, British, French, German, and American embassies. By 1885 present-day Kenya and Uganda had been opened up to some degree. Germany had taken control of areas of East Africa in present-day Tanzania. Once in Zanzibar, the Watts set about the task of hiring porters from the coast and packing up all their goods and food items. Much of their food stores had come with them from Britain and would need to last them for the journey and also a few months more while they planted and established their own farm. They had also brought along beads and materials with which they could trade with the chiefs and tribal groups along the way.

It was no easy task, and not for the faint of heart, but with Stuart’s organizational skills and their mutual dependence on the Lord they set out. Their destination was Mamboia Station in German East Africa, where the CMS had already an established mission. As they prepared to start off, late in October 1885, they received word that Bishop James Hannington had been murdered along with 40 of his porters as they made their way to Uganda. The news of Hannington’s death was a great blow to the missionary endeavor and an indication of how treacherous the journey inland could be. Rachel wrote that many thought the news should have been kept secret from her, fearing it might unnerve her, “but the Lord gave me strength,” she wrote, “to go forward in his name.”

Stuart Watt with his porters speaks to a group of tribal warriors

The trail was long, monotonous, and dangerous. The track was narrow and winding through the bush and they traveled single file for most of the way. “From about nine o’clock in the morning till three in the afternoon the sun gleams like a veritable ball of fire … if there is any earthly thing for which one craves more than another it is a draught of clean cool water.” Of course, the lack of water was another difficulty. When it could be found, it was warm and muddy; it had to be strained and boiled and cooled before they could drink it—a tedious process that only lengthened the travel time. Along the way Stuart became ill, and then their infant son. Stuart recovered but the child died of dysentery at Semagombe. At that time many were superstitious and would not allow a white man to be buried near the villages. The Watts had to quickly bury their own child without anyone knowing—they emptied one of their cases, lined it, and placed the child in the case. One of the porters took the case and buried it that night after sundown. Rachel wrote, “Those mothers and fathers who have lost a little child will be able to enter into our feelings on the night in lonely Africa when we had to bury our dead in the jungle.”

Rachel, who had been quite well during the long trek, was attacked with malaria as they came close to their destination and was carried in a hammock on poles to the Mamboia mission station. She gradually regained strength and was able to join Stuart as they set about the work of the mission. It was during this time in Mamboia that the Watts first met the Wakamba people who had migrated from the north during a famine and had settled with the Wasagara. They would later settle in Wakamba country, east of present-day Nairobi, but their first years in East Africa were among the Wasagara.

From the very beginning, Rachel was very much engaged in the work along with her husband. She was astute, focused, and studied how she could be “better prepared for conveying to them effectually the Message we had come to deliver.” She also recorded what she was learning from the tribes and their belief systems. This particular tribe, the Wasagara, believed in a Supreme Being, and in a future state, and would lay sacrifices of grain at small shrines to this unknown God.  She notes that while their lifestyle is extremely simple and far-removed from modern European life, there was really little difference:

“The whole world is kin…..they have the same inexpressible desire which we ourselves have experienced, to look into futurity and get a vision of what is beyond; the same consciousness of sin and guilt; the same ardent longing; the law is written in their hearts and they have an anxious groping after peace and pardon, which is evident by their desire to supplicate the Almighty through those offerings of the fruits of the earth, after the manner of Cain.”

Rachel and her husband were also innovative visionaries. The mission station, they felt, was too far out from the villages and they wasted too much energy in simply traveling back and forth down the hills. So, they decided to build a sub-station in the valley. They had settled in the low-lying bush, living in a tent, surrounded at night by wild animals when Stuart became ill. Rachel was the only possible nurse, and, she wrote, “God alone knows the terrible anxiety I suffered during those long, dark nights, or can measure their unutterable loneliness.” The next few months were an exhausting pattern of building and illness, travel, and searching for the ideal healthy place for a building. They finally were able to build a house near a fellow missionary, Dr. Baxter.

Stories from these years, in the district of Viangi, made for interesting conversation in later years. Surrounded by wild animals, they could hear the lions and leopards on their verandah in the evenings. But more than anything, those years brought home horrors of the gospel void. On one occasion, Stuart rescued a woman from becoming a human sacrifice. At another time, a runaway slave took refuge with them, soon followed by the Arab slave traders looking for him. Through all of these events, Stuart sought to share the gospel and a new way of living according to the Almighty God. It seems however that little was accomplished; illness plagued them, and they were forced eventually to return to England for a time.

Still struggling with their health, the doctor recommended a healthier climate. They spent a year at sea and eventually settled in Australia, where they recovered their health completely and also found some financial success. They bought investment properties and a home, with “nice grounds and a fruit garden, to which we were both much attached.” Stuart was able to travel and had many opportunities to witness and engage in ministry.

Despite the success in business and investment, their recovered health, and the opportunity to serve the Lord in Australia, the burden of the unreached in East Africa never left the Watts and they were determined:

Should God in His goodness restore us to health, we would return to East Equatorial Africa, unconnected with any Society, and open up Missionary work in some of those great tracts of country which were as yet sealed against the Gospel, where no Missionaries had yet endeavored to enter.

This created a great conflict in their lives, and they discovered that it was much more difficult to give everything up the second time and face the hardships with a sense of realism! “It seemed so hard,” Rachel wrote, “to think of breaking up our home, and going back to the sorrows and hardships of heathendom.” They’d had another little boy and girl since settling in Australia, and the thought of their young children dying of fever, or some other trauma was nearly too much for Rachel’s mother-heart.

Memories burned in her mind—memories of loneliness, illness, wild animals, the near-death of her husband, and the death of their first child. The obstacles seemed greater this time as well. They were no longer with the Church Missionary Society, and to go with no mission support or salary seemed an impossible task.  They gave themselves to many prayers and found a clear answer—the Lord who called them would provide and protect and she was able to know the peace she had sought.

I saw that the Lord was able to bear me over every obstacle and to help me in every difficulty and trial if I would only trust myself to Him. I decided to follow the leading of God and to make ready for Central Africa as soon as possible.

…to be continued