Over the past couple of weeks people across the world have taken to the streets in protest against the death of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. This is not a new phenomenon, and unfortunately since the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2012 following the killing of Trayvon Martin, countless protests have taken place across the world against systemic racism and the danger it poses to the black community. Racism is not a new concept, but for the first time in history social media and smartphones mean that more of it is getting filmed and the struggle is more visible than ever before. Modern racism has its roots in the four centuries of mistreatment since the first African slaves were captured and brought to the West Indies and America by European colonisers. In his second inaugural address to the nation US President Abraham Lincoln criticised the slave trade which propped up the cotton and sugar industries in the Americas, referring to them as ‘original sin’, a stain that lay over the nation. During the famous Gettysburg address in 1863 Lincoln and his supporters celebrated ‘a new birth of freedom’ for all Americans which would come from the end of the America Civil War and the abolition of slavery – but now, 157 years later, inequality remains.
For a very long time the Irish have placed a certain amount of pride on the fact that whatever our ancestors might have done, there was no slave trade in Ireland. Daniel O’Connell in particular was vocal about the history of oppression in Ireland and the tangible links we bore to black enslaved Americans – even introducing famous orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’. This long-held belief though, as we understand it today, is grossly untrue. Many Irish men and women profited off the back of the Atlantic slave trade, managed slave-run plantations and actively participated in the enslavement of African people.
Slavery began in the British Isles in the seventeenth century under Charles II. During this period in European history, sugar was experiencing a major boom in trade and it soon became clear that sugar was as valuable as gold in the right circumstances. Unfortunately it also became clear that because of the labour-intensive farming practices necessary for sugar it could prove difficult to turn a profit. To fix this issue the Royal Africa Company (RAC) was established with the intention of taking slaves to western sugar plantations. These slaves were branded in the centre of their chests with the company logo to prevent them escaping and in order to assuage any guilt they might have felt these early slavers told themselves that the captured men and women were prisoners of war. In Ireland we were not permitted to set up a rival company or an East India company but this did not stop Irish involvement. Many went to England to seek their fortune on the slave-ships and at home some smugglers got involved in the trade. Here in Waterford there is a strand which was often used for smuggling known locally as ‘Trá na mná gorm’ (beach of the blue women – blue because black skin referred to the devil and women because most African slaves would have been wearing kaftans which would make them look feminine from a distance) which has long been thought to be a reference to smuggled slaves being docked there while they were moved to the west coast to board another ship to the Caribbean.
Limerick historian Liam Hogan has spent much of his career attempting to challenge the long-held notion of what is known as the ‘Irish Slave Myth’, the idea that the Irish were subjected to slavery as much as Africans were. While it is true that
many Irish people were sold into indentured servitude during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are key differences between indentured servitude and slavery, for one, slavery is a lifetime bond, a total removal of one’s rights outside of their existence as the property of another human being while indentured servitude was generally reserved for Catholics and was only for a limited time (usually five to seven years). For the most part, Irish people chose this fate though some were certainly sold into servitude against their will and it is difficult to assess how many might have ‘chosen’ it without feeling as though they had no other option. They were always freed though, and that is the key difference.
One of the most prolific Irish slavers was David Tuohy, a native of Tralee, Co. Kerry who moved permanently to Liverpool in 1771 after some years of travelling back and forth. Tuohy personally captained four slave voyages before 1772, a triangular trip which involved sailing from Liverpool port south to Africa to steal men, women and children from their homes and then sailing on to the Americas where these imprisoned people were sold. Conditions were appalling on these cargo ships with passengers packed in so tightly they were practically on top of one another while chained in place. Disease abounded, particularly dysentery, scurvy and various fevers. The heat was almost unbearable and water supplies were at a minimum which meant that many did not survive the passage west and their bodies were simply thrown overboard. Many others threw themselves overboard rather than face life on the plantations and drowned in the ocean. After captaining these voyages Tuohy settled in Liverpool and became a merchant, though one of his products was slaves and he became the part owner of ten slave ships. He sent his ships to the Windward, Ivory and Gold coasts, the Bight of Benin, and especially Angola and then sold the kidnapped people in Jamaica, Barbados, St. Kitts, Antigua, Dominica and Grenada.
Tuohy though is just one example. While there are certainly many Irish people who were directly involved in the trade, it was far more common for them to have a secondary role, particularly in providing provisions. In most large towns and cities in Ireland the Protestant Ascendancy and Catholic elite controlled most of the trade, with the Catholic middle class taking over as the eighteenth century advanced and butter, beef, pork and leather were huge industries in Ireland. These were very cheaply made here and could be sold to plantations to feed the masters and overseers for a massive profit. The Waterford triangular trade to Newfoundland before the West Indies almost certainly provided the salt cod which became the staple food of enslaved populations and in exchange for these products Irish ships purchased slave-farmed sugar by the tonne, taking it back home to sweeten their tea. Belfast made shoes for enslaved people and across Ireland tenants were evicted from their land to make more room for the cattle who would produce the butter and beef sent to support these plantations.
Another Irishman with links to the slave trade is James Jackson who was born in Ballybay in 1782. He was involved in the Society of the United Irishmen which aimed to unite Irish people of all religions and establish an independent Ireland. He
later emigrated to America, settling in Alabama where he became active in state politics and in 1830 he became President of the Alabama Senate. He prospered and acquired the Forks of Cyprus, a large cotton plantation with hundreds of
African American slaves. One of the many children that James fathered with his slaves was named ‘Queen’. Her mother’s name is not known. Queen’s grandson was the renowned American writer Alex Haley, the author of Roots. His novel Queen: The Story of an American Family was inspired in part by his grandmother’s early life as a slave and how she began to realise that her owner, James Jackson of Ballybay, was also her father.
This is not to say that all Irish people were content to sit back and accept slavery as a necessary evil, and in fact many were strongly and vocally against it. In the 1790s the Society of Friends, often called Quakers, eliminated slave-owning in
their community a
nd began a faith-wide boycott on goods produced with slavery such as sugar and cotton. The movement soon spread and abolitionists sprang up through the British isles calling for an end to this inhumane treatment. Shopkeepers across the British Isles declined to stock sugar, explaining that they would only continue when they had access to a source that was “more unconnected with Slavery, and less polluted with Human Blood”. At its height, the movement had 400,000 supporters boycotting slave-produced goods in Britain alone, and while support waned, the Quakers of the world continued their protest until the abolition of slavery in America.
Few in Ireland though were more vocal on the subject of slavery than Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell went so far as to refuse to ever set foot in America – even for fundraising – until the stain of slavery had been wiped from the country saying – ‘so long as it is tarnished by slavery, I will never pollute my foot by treading on its shores’. O’Connell’s views on this matter lost him support both at home and abroad, with Americans resenting an Irishman telling them how they ought to behave and some
more conservative supporters who had business interests in America feeling uneasy with his anti-slavery speeches. Even within the Young Irelanders there was discontent as some believed O’Connell ought to concern himself solely with domestic matters and leave the struggles of another race to their own countrymen – but O’Connell remained undeterred. In 1829 he declared that ‘of all men living, an American citizen, who is the owner of slaves, is the most despicable’.
When the British government finally outlawed slavery in the colonies in 1834 they agreed to pay £20 million in reparations to slave-owners for the loss of their property. This move outraged O’Connell who stated that the individuals receiving this payment should be named publicly. Almost 100 of the claimants were Irish with wealthy Dublin banking family the Diggs La Touches receiving £7000 for their 396 slaves on their Jamaican plantation. The La Touches had 500 slaves in 1818 but were clearly not ‘good’ slave-owners as deaths were reported among them by way of ‘eating dirt’ either due to malnutrition or an effort to end their suffering.
Sugar was not the only commodity with deep connections to slave labour either, tea and coffee both directly and indirectly contributed to suffering during this period. Due to the fact that coffee became most popular sweetened, as well as the fact that the labour was difficult, the coffee industry developed ties with the slave trade. Slaves were used in coffee-production in Yemen and on the island of Reunion the French kept at least 10,000 slaves for processing coffee beans. By the latter half of the eighteenth century coffee production had equaled (and in some areas even surpassed) the sugar industry in many places in terms of value and profit and this was largely due to increased dependence on slave labour. Debates in parliament in the 1840s reinforced the idea that Ireland would quite happily support foreign industries, but not the slave trade – from Brazil for example Ireland imported several shipments of coffee every year but Brazilian sugar was banned on account of the slave labour they utilised. Unlike coffee, tea has never been directly linked with slavery though the European taste for sweetened tea did contribute heavily to the slavery industry during the eighteenth century.
The stain of original sin which Abraham Lincoln referenced all those years ago has not been completely wiped from the modern world and even here the legacy of this brutality scars the landscape with monuments and homes of those who directly
profited from the slave trade still standing on our streets. It is not unheard of in Ireland when the subject of racism in America comes up to hear someone utter the phrase ‘Well, the Irish were slaves too’ and while it is indisputable the the Irish have suffered historically and feel a certain kinship with the Black American experience, a statement like this is offensive at best and dangerous at worst. While the Irish were sent to the Caribbean by the thousands as indentured servants, to compare seven years of servitude to a lifetime spent as little more than chattel seriously undermines the history of black struggle. Racism is not a monster of the past and today around 40 million people are enslaved worldwide from individuals in forced marriages to child labourers that prop up the modern chocolate industry. We cannot rewrite history or begin to make amends for it, but we can confront our past and the role our ancestors played, we can use this knowledge and educate ourselves, and through that we can change the future.
The Irish Slave Myth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_slaves_myth
Liam Hogan, The Irish and the Atlantic Slave Trade, https://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/the-irish-and-the-atlantic-slave-trade/
Liam Hogan, Following the money – Irish slave owners in the time of abolition, https://www.thejournal.ie/readme/irish-slaveowners-compensation-1587899-Jul2014/
The Tuohy Papers at the British Online Archives, https://microform.digital/boa/collections/5/volumes/26/the-tuohy-papers
Read the blog here with imagery: https://waterfordtreasures.wixsite.com/wattreasuresblog/post/tainted-by-the-stain-of-original-sin-irish-participation-in-the-atlantic-slave-trade?fbclid=IwAR344bDoS-lH_c392MIp45VP0lekbiRzRg4lhW50hXL-C6Y55-tSXpIitlM