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Not so Innocent

Ciaran O’Neill

An Irishman’s Life on the Caribbean Island of St Vincent 1787-90, Mark S Quintanilla, Four Courts Press, 160 pp,  €45, ISBN: 978-1846827914
An Ulster Slave-Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Jonathan Jeffrey Wright, Four Courts Press, 160 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846827365

One of the more perplexing aspects of our viral, vitriolic, internet of history is that we can now see – in real time ‑ evidence of how individuals weaponise and warp historical narratives in a social context. They will sometimes do so to bolster their political views, or to discredit another person’s. Sometimes both. A meme can be created, of course, but only bias confirmation or emotional resonance can lead to it being shared millions of times. In this world of “usable” pasts, the fictional history of “Irish slaves” has been a clear winner online since 2016. As part of a widespread campaign of disinformation associated with the recent rise of white supremacist thinking, websites such as 4chan, 8kun (formerly 8chan), Reddit, and the social networking service Twitter have become powerful engines of racist propaganda aimed at discrediting both the history of enslaved peoples and contemporary political movements such as Black Lives Matter. It is the great misfortune of Irish historical subjects to be somehow bound up in all this. The term “Irish Slaves” has been shared millions of times – and by lots of Irish people, not just the hyphenated kind. And yet there aren’t many slaves in our recent history, or there are so few recorded as to make it likely that there are far more slaveowners than slaves hidden in the history of Irish people.

Thanks to pioneering work by Liam Hogan, the widespread and chilling political effect of this particular meme is now reasonably well-established in the public mind. The all-too-real historical phenomenon of the Irish slaveowner, plantation manager and overseer, however, has been lost in this debate. The online world has no use for an Irish person with a whip in his hand. This suits no contemporary agenda and thus far – Nini Rogers aside ‑ Irish historians have collectively failed to establish knowledge of this phenomenon in popular culture.

This makes the publication of two books on Irish slaveowners by one of the best Irish publishers in the business all the more impressive. Released almost simultaneously, Mark S Quintanilla’s richly annotated and well-edited An Irishman’s Life in the Caribbean Island of St Vincent 1787-90 is joined by Jonathan Jeffrey Wright’s remarkable account of John Black in An Ulster Slave-Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic. Quintanilla’s subject is Michael Keane, a Catholic attorney and estate manager based in the Caribbean island of St Vincent for the most active twenty-five years of his professional life. Wright’s subject is a different sort of fish. He reveals the work of John Black, of Grenada and Trinidad, a major slave-owner and an established member of the Trinidadian plantocracy. His letters to his brother George, based in the suburbs of Belfast, reveal the life of a wealthy Presbyterian trader. Striking as the titles are, they chart lives that were neither exceptional nor outliers.

How should we think of these Irish slave traders? Were these Atlantic lives, lived to Atlantic moral codes, and therefore of no consequence to any debate about Ireland’s colonial past? Over the past thirty years or so there has been a radical rethink of the Caribbean and its centrality to the British and Irish economy. What happened far away in the West Indies may once have seemed very disconnected from our own island story, but the energy and momentum of bustling port towns like Newry, Cork, and Dublin cannot be explained without it. In fact the legacies of slave-owning are legible in the landscapes of Irish estate houses, in civic buildings constructed from the profits of slave-powered rum and sugar plantations, and in a plethora of subsidiary Irish industries now lost to posterity, much like the stories of the merchant families that were enriched by them. In Scotland and England such work has been more deeply entrenched. The sugar barons of Edinburgh and Glasgow have been made visible, building on pioneering work at the Slavery Museum in Liverpool, and in Bristol, another port that funnelled the profits of the slave economy back into Ireland and Britain.

We need not look very far to see our opportunity to reinterpret that past. The beautiful resort town of Westport is popular with tourists and natives alike. It is, according to many recent surveys, the best place to live in Ireland. Well-connected to Dublin by rail and bus, but remote enough to enjoy a perch on the re-commodified Wild Atlantic Way, Westport has a concentration of beautiful eighteenth and nineteenth century stone buildings that stand out in Ireland for their aesthetic consistency, against a backdrop of Cong and Maamtrasna: suggestive of a different history. A warm outpost of beauty on the west coast, the great house of the estate is Westport House, once the property of the Browne family. But this is a place that is made beautiful by human misery, slavery, and pain. Not Irish pain, or misery, or slavery mind. Westport’s development rests on Jamaican money, on sugar plantations that once lay with the O’Kelly and later the Browne family on whose estate lands the town of Westport was built. The Jamaican plantations came into Browne hands in 1752, and enriched them until 1820 and 1841, when they were sold. Westport House was significantly enlarged in 1778. Its doors are made of Jamaican mahogany.

A visit to the house, however, will inform the visitor that the Brownes were at the forefront of the abolition campaign in Jamaica, where the 2nd Marquess of Sligo was governor up to and during the abolition debates 1834-37. The exhibition tells us that he is remembered as the “champion of slaves”, which just goes to show how useful a particular moment in time can be when one wants to justify something heinous. The idea that Browne was at the forefront of the abolition campaign is a rank overstatement of his interest in this debate, which he shamelessly endorsed out of political nous rather than from any real altruistic impulse. In any case, this did very little to eradicate his responsibility for the generations of exploitation that had happened during the period of his family investments in the West Indies. It is not as if he gave the people of Jamaica back their money or atoned for the generations of enslaved people that were worked to death under his family’s watchful Irish attorneys and overseers.

Larne is not generally considered to be as lovely as Westport and yet it too is an Irish slave town. Indeed it is more obviously so. When the compensation claims of Irish slaveowners came in the mid-1830s the impact on the Antrim town was made quite clear through the legacies of the McGarel family. Charles McGarel was born 1788 and was the son of a local innkeeper. He somehow made his way to Demerara Essequibo (later British Guiana) at precisely the moment that Dutch assets were transferring to British and Irish ownership in the late 1790s and early 1800s, and from that point built a fortune in collaboration with David Hall, which remained a going concern until the 1840s. McGarel had a share in up to twelve different plantations and thousands of slaves in this period. Back at Larne he converted these liquid assets into physical ones, purchasing a large estate at nearby Magheramorne, funding a local school, cemetery, almshouses, and building by far the most impressive building in the town – its Town Hall (1869). On his death in 1879 his heir, James McGarel Hogg, rebuilt in grander style a house on the estate at Magheramorne, which is currently listed for sale for £975,000 (December 2019). All of this was built on the profits of Irish slave ownership.

Wright and Quintanilla know this very well, and indeed they reference the work of the forebears of Irish planter history, from the first exploratory articles by Aubrey Gwynn and the history of the “emerald isle” of Montserrat by Don Akenson to the doctoral work of Orla Power, as well as the life work of the doyen of Irish slavery history – Nini Rogers. The imperial element appears very strongly too – from the work of David Dickson on the Old World Colony of Cork City and its hinterland, or Tom Truxes on Irish-American traders, and in more recent work by Finola O’Kane Crimmins at UCD on the connections we can discern between the Irish estate and the colonial estate. There is by now such a critical mass of scholars working on the issue from both a British World and Atlantic History perspective that it now threatens to spill over into Irish historiography at long last. Courses on slavery and anti-slavery are taught at Maynooth, and in Trinity, having been pioneered at Queens. There is enough of a murmur to take notice, and now the source material is expanding.

Wright’s book makes a major contribution. The research on the Black family is exhaustive and the seventy-page introduction to eleven heavily annotated and contextualised letters is a significant contribution to Irish imperial history. He also has a compelling and villainous central character in John Black, an à la carte Presbyterian who arrived in Trinidad under a cloud of debt, never resolved. Black married Bonne Clotilde, a West Indian-born Creole, and proceeded to prop up one of the most scandalous governors in British imperial history: Thomas Picton. Black’s support of Picton – a man so awful a method of torture is named after him – was of course predicated on his own sinecure and personal profit. Black’s high-flown rhetoric and prose does little to cover up his base motives, and through his most profitable periods in Trinidad he gossiped, corrupted, and pirated with the worst of the island’s traders. His own personal wealth fluctuated, but at all times he was rich, and those riches were at all times extracted from the labour of enslaved peoples. Wright gives that problematic relationship a lot of air time, and rightly so. In his letters Black maintained that no estate provided such a “healthful situation” for slaves as his, but the evidence of his territorial expansion in Trinidad belies that claim. His largest plantation was called Barataria (an ironic literary reference to the fictional territory granted in Don Quixote) and was a theatre for the misery of 180 enslaved people at the peak of its operations in 1802, making it one of the biggest sugar plantations on the island, generating about £6,000 a year for its owner. It is clear from his letters that the people that he owned were to Black nothing more important than commodities, to be traded like a barrel of rum and with no more than equivalent thought given to them. Every indication is there that Barataria was in fact a brutal place to work, recording losses of thirty-six lives in just one half-year of operation between June 1802 and January 1803.

Quntanilla’s work on Michael Keane, operating out of St Vincent – some 176 miles north – opens up a network of Catholic and specifically Dublin-based trading houses. The families of Greg and Cunningham, and Dublin stalwarts like the Leonards, Maupays, stand out. Quasi-pirates like Henry Haffey of St Eustatius, the Crosbies of Antigua, and Francis Martin of Antigua all appear in fleeting side profile throughout his otherwise rambling letters. Keane is a minor figure, in some ways, a handler of estates and correspondence for larger houses with whom he appears to regularly quarrel. He seems less of a villain than Black, but without these kinds of runners in the Caribbean the careers of major players would never have been so profitable for so long. Catholic Irish planters and attorneys were especially useful as liminal actors between ceded islands like Dominica and Grenada, which, like Trinidad, had majority Catholic populations handed from France and Spain to a Protestant-majority British imperial machine ill-equipped to deal with them. Here, a Catholic figure like Keane could easily correspond through Catholic networks in nearby French colonies like Martinique and Guadeloupe, even while being shuttered out of a Protestant colony like Barbados. In the empire any Irish person could find a place, from Ulster Presbyterians to South Munster Catholics.

All of which leads us back to the “Irish Slaves” narrative, and how best to tackle it. These two excellent books point the way. The more that historians dig to uncover uncomfortable and complex evidence such as that made visible in these two books the better. The more that Irish publishers work hard to bring them into print, the more visible and credible that counternarrative can become. It may not be viral content to rival the meme factories of 4chan or Reddit, but it can form the basis for it. To date no major Irish cultural institution has ever invested in an exhibition about Irish slaveowners, or the more passive part played by so many Irish people in the eco-system of slavery, or the consumption of its profits. The ten-year research centre set up by Nick Draper of UCL on legacies of British slave ownership has no Irish equivalent. There is no historian of Africa, or enslavement, tenured in the Irish university system. Ireland is too comfortable with its own narrative of sufferance and victimhood, though President Higgins has set an interesting precedent in 2017 by acknowledging the Irish role in suppressing indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand. His idea that we should be “unblinking in our gaze” about how Irish people inflicted injustice on others as well as experienced it themselves is a compelling one. It is time for us to be more honest about those peoples we have ourselves oppressed.


Ciaran O’Neill is Ussher lecturer in nineteenth century history at Trinity College Dublin.



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