Ireland’s complicitous role in the black slave market, dating from the 1600s, has surely been acknowledged by historians, but no one until now has undertaken an immersive reconstruction of the role of that small green island in the busy “black Atlantic” of the slave trade.
Before the abolition of slavery by the British crown in 1833 and by America in 1863 — and certainly well before the success of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic — many enterprising Irish merchants and property owners got rich in the Black slave market.
Fortunes were made by an oppressed people on the backs of an oppressed people; even today, the historical irony of the situation is difficult to fully take in.
Before 1833, the Irish had distinguished themselves as energetic players in human trafficking; and Ireland’s profits from cotton, tobacco, indigo, and sugar products stimulated a feeble Irish economy and thrust forward its urban growth, particularly in such hubs as Dublin and Belfast, as well as in Limerick and Galway.
For a while, many Irish were prosperous and Ireland had become a new member in the booming economic system of the Black slave trade.
When the British crown granted Ireland “free trade” in 1779, many Irish got rich fast. Montserrat in the Caribbean, for example, a British possession from the mid-seventeenth century, was full of Irish and Irish planters who eventually created the island’s Irish Creole identity. Charles II’s Governor of Barbados described Montserrat as “almost an Irish colony.”
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Dr. Nini Rodgers, an honorary senior research fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast, and who was a recent guest speaker at Glucksman Ireland House in New York and at Notre Dame University, has done an important service for Irish studies in her new book, “Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1825,” published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Not only does this closely researched monograph position a controversial subject in wholly new and necessary ways, but it also demonstrates a measured methodology in the classic mold.
Drawing upon such primary sources as merchants’ letter-books, slave trade statistics, census data, newspapers and pamphlet literature, parliamentary debates, planters’ wills, legislation, and selected polemical writings and speeches, Dr. Rogers has given us the yield of her dedicated researches on a highly complex subject.
She wisely organizes a daunting range of information with two large intersecting paradigms: the economic and the moral. Economically, Ireland was deeply invested in the slave trade, and the island’s growth and participation in the larger European theater resulted at this time from an infusion of new monies from Ireland’s slave trade activities. As Rodgers explained to this writer and to a riveted audience at Glucksman Ireland House, slavery was so interwoven with daily life at this time, in America, in Ireland, and in Britain, that it was difficult to “escape” some involvement.
Said Rodgers: “Mary Shackleton Leadbeater’s father had the sons of West Indian planters among his pupils at his proper Quaker school in Ballitore Village, County Kildare. And the great Irish statesman and orator, Edmund Burke, when as MP for Bristol, defended (early on) the British crown’s African Company which ran the British slaving forts in West Africa.
“Burke’s brother, Richard, had an official appointment in the West Indies, and he owned at least 11 slaves and tried unsuccessfully to boost his family’s fortunes by acquiring a large sugar plantation on St Vincent. Maurice “the Hunting Cap” O’Connell, cousin of Ireland’s famous emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, sent out one of his nephews to Jamaica.
“Hunting Cap O’Connell lived by buying and selling slaves on the island. And at the very time that Dan O’Connell was joining the anti-slavery society in London, his brother back in Kerry was saying he would have been ruined be failing butter prices if the West Indies market had not held up. Overall, Ireland had become part of the global economy, an economy heavily dependent on slavery.”
But from a moral point of view, slavery was undermined, and eventually outlawed, owing to the force of public opinion whipped up by fierce abolitionists in Ireland, England, and the new United States.
Rodgers gives special attention to anti-slavery agitation created by such public personalities as Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, William Wilberforce, Edmund Burke, and, to a lesser extent, by such Quaker women writers as Mary Birkett in Dublin and the prolific Mary Shackleton Leadbeater in Kildare, a prot