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Ireland and Slavery: Framing Irish Complicity in the Slave Trade

The first instalment in this two-part series, which focused on dismantling the ‘Irish slaves’ myth, made three critical assertions: first, that the attempt to draw equivalence between Irish (and British, Scottish) indenture and African chattel slavery was “untenable, and callous in the extreme” and “almost always deliberately concocted at source through flagrant manipulation of numbers and chronology”; secondly, that the narrow channels in which the ‘debate’ has been confined obscure important developments in the evolution of ‘race’ and ‘race-making’ in the plantation societies of the Americas; and third, that although indenture and racially-based slavery for life were not “comparable in terms of scale or importance in generating the economic foundations that would launch global capitalism,” it was also mistaken to regard them as ‘galaxies apart’: they were “distinct but related forms of exploitation at the birth of the modern world”.

In the article that follows I want to turn to a related question, and one that has drawn attention as controversy over the ‘Irish slaves’ myth has raged on social media: Irish complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. On 12 June the Irish Times published an article penned by Ronan McGreevy under the headline ‘Many Irish were implicated in the slave trade and the legacy lives on’ [since altered: the online version is now headed ‘Links to slave trade evident across Ireland’]. McGreevy’s piece reiterates some of the same points made in a similar article that appeared in the (London) Sunday Times several years earlier, quoting independent historian Liam Hogan and citing the database compiled by researchers at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London. Some of this has since made its way into social media, including a post by Hogan himself on Medium and a widely-shared blog from Waterford entitled “Tainted by the Stain of Original Sin: Irish Participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade”.[1]

Individually and cumulatively these convey a strong impression that ‘the Irish’ were deeply implicated in the slave trade, and it is this assertion that I want to explore in some depth below. Readers will recall that while acknowledging the important work that has been done in countering the ‘Irish slaves’ myth, I expressed reservations about the ways in which trends in Irish history writing over recent decades have shaped the discussion. In particular the dismissal of Ireland’s colonial subjection as either overdrawn or insignificant, and the framing of this discussion in narrow terms of national identity rather than the wider framework of social relations and class conflict, combine to impede an honest reckoning with the past.

An Obscenely Unequal Society

These problems are conspicuous in the way Irish complicity in the slave trade has been framed in the coverage noted above. It is impossible, for example, to spend more than an hour digging in to the Irish connections highlighted in the UCL database without being knocked over the head with the obvious fact that those slaveowners ‘resident’ in Ireland who were compensated by the British government after emancipation represented, overwhelmingly, the cream of the Anglo-Irish elite, drawn from the (Protestant) landed gentry and with a large proportion of them playing prominent roles in overseeing British colonial administration in an Ireland then under fairly intensive military occupation. A considerable number of them were drawn from the officer class in the British military – at the time almost exclusively the preserve of sons of the landed aristocracy – and most were large landlords, often owning more than one estate in Ireland alongside residences in London and often multiple plantations in Britain’s sugar colonies in the Caribbean. One could hardly find a more perfect illustration of the “close interrelationship between the ascendancy/gentry and membership of the Anglican Church, British army garrison and [Britain’s] Irish administration,” though the close correlation between Irish slave-owning and the elaborate nexus of British power in Ireland goes completely unacknowledged.

While it is this class that benefitted most directly from slave-owning, two important qualifications are in order. First, there are wider layers of Irish society that profited indirectly from the transatlantic slave trade – merchants and big farmers, others engaged in selling provisions to, and purchasing the staples generated by, slave labour in the colonies. Secondly, even among slave owners, there are exceptions to this profile – a layer of Catholic elites who also found their way into slave-owning, and whose role we will discuss below. But the arresting fact so conspicuously absent from every recent discussion of Irish complicity is that the same unrepresentative Irish elite which benefited directly from the exploitation of African slaves in the British sugar colonies was simultaneously engaged in the exploitation of a desperately poor landless majority in Ireland – with a vast military machine at its disposal in both locations to enforce its rule.

While it is possible that the omission of this aspect of Irish complicity can be put down to lack of depth in popular treatment of the subject, its far more likely that the historiographical context touched upon in the first essay has shaped, in profound ways, the packaging of Ireland’s relationship with transatlantic slavery. In places Hogan has pushed back against the notion that ‘the Irish’ were uniformly immersed in transatlantic slavery, though little of this nuance has made it into popular discussion. He has been quoted as suggesting that the reluctance to acknowledge an Irish role in slave-trading is rooted in a ‘post-colonial’ aversion to acknowledging the “dark side” to Irish history, but readers are justified in being sceptical about the bona fides of an establishment on both sides of the border which devotes such considerable energy to denigrating the revolutionary tradition in Irish history.  Conservative trends in academic writing noted earlier find more crass and heavy-handed expression across mainstream print and television media, and are rarely subject to criticism.

Three major, interrelated problems mar the discussion of Irish complicity in the slave trade: a deep aversion to acknowledging the effects of colonial rule in Ireland that coincides, neatly enough, with a framework that emphasises Ireland as an imperial power in its own right: thus the assertion among revisionist historians of an ‘Irish empire’ in the nineteenth century, at a time when the country did not enjoy even limited self-rule. At many levels this is a complete absurdity, and although beyond the scope of this article, it’s worth considering the political context in which such an assertion has managed to gain traction.[2]

A third major defect, not unrelated to these, is the conflation of the conditions facing Ireland’s landless majority with that of an ostentatiously wealthy ruling class, whose opulent lives contrasted so sharply with the circumstances confronting ordinary people. The distinction made later by James Connolly between the Irish rural and urban working classes and the ‘rack-renting’ landlord and ‘profit-grinding capitalist’ is pertinent here. As one reflective daughter of the gentry recalled, until its fall in the late nineteenth century Anglo-Irish landowners presided over a “feudal” order, usually ensconced behind high walls in the Big House, and inhabiting “a world of their own[,] with Ireland outside the gates”.[3] Absent a frank acknowledgment of these vast disparities, the framing of Irish complicity in transatlantic slavery rests on a complete obliteration of class in 18th and 19th century Ireland – at the time an obscenely unequal society, and one perched in 1834 (the year Britain compensated former slaveowners) on the very precipice of mass starvation.

Ruling Ireland at the Height of the Slave Trade

As the profile of Irish slave ownership suggests, the profits accruing from involvement in transatlantic slavery were distributed unevenly, with those at the top of Irish society taking the lion’s share. Overwhelmingly these individuals were drawn from the landed gentry, which after the Cromwellian transformation commencing in the mid-17th century hailed overwhelmingly from Protestant and settler backgrounds. Land ownership provided the “fulcrum of colonial power” for more than two centuries afterward, and by the third quarter of the 17th century the sectarian dimension to land ownership was clearly established, with consequences that would endure down to the present day. In a country whose population were overwhelmingly Catholic, more than 95 percent of land was in the hands of an Anglo-Irish elite whose ascendancy dated to the Elizabethan, Cromwellian, and Williamite conquests. A substantial proportion of these were absentee landlords, living most of their time either in England or in the British colonies, including the West Indies.[4]

There were, of course, enlightened individuals among this class who treated their Irish tenants and labourers with a degree of paternalism, but on the whole they saw themselves as a socially and culturally distinct class, and as unapologetic agents of British colonialism in Ireland. They recruited their ‘loyal retainers’ and the most influential personnel on their estates either from the settler community or directly from England. John Scott, the future Earl of Clonmell, captured the landlords’ acute sense of separation when he wrote, in 1774, that a “man in station [in Ireland] is really like a traveller in Africa, in a forest among the Hottentots and wild beasts”.  While a “cautious man” might “subdue and defend himself…he must be eternally on the watch and on his guard against his next neighbours”.[5] Thomas Carlyle, the pro-slavery propagandist who dreaded the advent of mass democracy in Britain, noted a “kind of charm” in the “poor savage freedom” he observed among rural labourers in the west of Ireland, concluding that the area was “as like Madagascar as England”.[6]

The massive English garrison stationed in Ireland functioned largely as an instrument for the imposition of gentry rule. In 1834 – the same year Britain enacted slave compensation – an observer in Tipperary noted the “array of bayonets” that gave Ireland the appearance of “a recently conquered territory, throughout which an enemy’s army [has] distributed its encampments”. It was not only their numerical strength that was striking, but the military’s function. The whole machinery of law and order was at the disposal of the landed elite and, to a lesser extent, the established (Anglican) Church. Magistrates, bailiffs, police inspectors and court officials were largely drawn from among its closest allies, and almost reflexively the gentry treated this repressive apparatus as its own. They had “ready access” to the colonial administration in Dublin Castle, evident in the request from one Mayo landlord (at the height of the Famine) that a police barracks be erected on his estate “to assist in the collection [of] rent”.

Increased desperation in the early decades of the nineteenth century saw police and military deployed regularly to suppress agrarian unrest and enforce evictions, and a number of bloody confrontations marked the ‘tithe war’ of the 1830s, including the deaths of fourteen civilians at the hands of militia at Bunclody in 1831 and of eleven policemen the following year in Kilkenny. Between 1800 and the outbreak of famine the government enacted some 35 Coercive Acts aimed at containing agrarian violence.[7]

Ireland’s Catholic Elite: an ‘Underground Gentry’

Despite the preponderance of the Anglo-Irish elite at the top of society, it’s mistaken to view Ireland’s social order in this period in purely sectarian terms, and even the direct spoils of slave-holding extended beyond the settler elite. Despite Cromwell’s triumph, elements of the deposed Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman nobility had survived with their privilege largely intact. A small number – seeing which way the wind was blowing – converted to Protestantism. But a more substantial Catholic elite comprised of assimilated ‘Old English’ and elements of the fallen Gaelic clans had, despite being excluded from the highest levels of power, made their peace with British rule in return for holding on (often as middlemen) to some of their formerly considerable property.

At a time when the masses of the Irish peasantry were mostly un-churched and only nominally committed to far-distant Rome, this Gaelic and especially Old English elite provided the lay leadership for Irish Catholicism. Closely tied to the hierarchy, they financed an ambitious programme of church-building, overseeing Catholic education and sending their sons off to colleges and seminaries on the European continent: it was almost exclusively from their ranks that the church appointed bishops. The Catholic elite looked back obsessively – ‘almost to the point of neurosis’, Kevin Whelan observes – to a Gaelic ‘golden age’ when they had dominated Ireland, and while they sought restoration, increasingly they pursued an accommodation with British power – pledging loyalty to the Crown in return for a relaxation of laws restricting public worship and excluding them from the professions and elected office. Ironically, their influence seems to have been left most unimpaired in Connacht where, having avoided Cromwell’s worst excesses, “the flower of the Catholic gentry” flourished.[8]  This explains the inclusion of large Catholic landowners like Galway’s Peter Daly among the list of slaveowners compensated by London.[9]

The “elemental conservatism” of this small Catholic ‘underground gentry’ intensified under the strain of revolutionary upheaval in France, heightened again by the social discontent unleashed in the 1798 United Irish rebellion and, in the early 19th century, by increasing agrarian polarisation across Irish society itself. These tensions brought landed Catholics – “totally out of sympathy with political radicalism” – into ever-closer collaboration with British rule in Ireland. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries they walked a fine line between exploiting the disaffection of the Irish peasantry to further their own class ambitions and straining to ensure that the upheavals unleashed against English ‘invaders’ did not spill over into attacks on property: above all, Nicholas Canny writes, they were averse to “revolutionary action [which] would have placed their own lands and positions in jeopardy”.[10] This dynamic – controlled mobilisation confined within the narrow channels of the constitutional question – provided a template that would underpin Irish nationalism up to the present.

Though it is beyond the scope of this article, the resident Catholic gentry’s involvement in transatlantic slavery was mirrored in the more substantial activity of its counterparts in exile on the European continent. In France especially, the “tight-knit expatriate communities” (mainly Old English) driven by Cromwell’s triumph to relocate from Galway, Cork and Waterford to port cities like Nantes and Bordeaux formed a ‘mercantile littoral’ that was deeply engaged in slave-trading – particularly in French-controlled San Domingue (Haiti). Whelan describes them as an Irish “nation in waiting”, and there were fragments of the same groups further south in Spain and in the regiments dispatched for the task of empire-building by Catholic Europe, but their power was fading by the late eighteenth century.

To the extent that Catholic Ireland can be said to have shared in the profits of slavery, this was concentrated mainly among the big merchants and provision suppliers in southern port cities – an aspiring (minority) Catholic bourgeoisie which came increasingly to resent the political domination of the landed elite, both Protestant and Catholic. Overwhelmingly the former’s fortunes (and the Irish economy more generally) were tied to an expanding British domestic market rather than provisioning the slave colonies. Nini Rodgers suggests, plausibly, that the growing prosperity attending their involvement in slavery helped bolster the confidence of this rising middle class in pushing aside the Catholic gentry and assuming leadership in seeking an extension of Catholic rights.[11] Still, their role in the broader story of Irish involvement in transatlantic slavery is a strictly subordinate one: they owed their position almost entirely to the commercial connections that came their way through the British empire, and by the late eighteenth century even British traders were losing their West Indian markets to cheaper American suppliers.

At a very general level it is no doubt true that, as Rodgers asserts, “every group in Ireland produced merchants who benefitted from the slave trade,” but as we move down the social order these benefits become less impressive. Perhaps it makes sense to include the “ordinary sailors” manning Liverpool’s transatlantic fleet among slavery’s beneficiaries, or to assign complicity even to townspeople who consumed slave produce, like sugar; but their stake in maintaining slavery hardly compares with those at the top of Irish society.

The Irish Peasantry: A Stake in Slavery?

British involvement in transatlantic slavery intensified dramatically after the establishment of the Royal African Company in 1672, and by 1760 Britain had overtaken its European rivals as the foremost among those countries involved in the ‘triangular trade’. At its most profitable in the peak years of the second half of the 18th century, nearly 70% of British tax revenue came from tax on goods from its colonies, and after 1800 slave produce – American cotton especially – played an essential role in fuelling the dramatic industrial expansion bolstering Britain’s position in the global economy.

Although it is unquestionably the case that some of the wealth generated during the years between 1760 and British abolition in 1833 made its way to Ireland, it’s important to recognise that its impact was highly uneven. While this period is viewed by economists as an “expanding age” for the Irish economy, this expansion was marked by a striking paradox:  the concentration of land in the hands of a small minority meant that while agricultural “production continued to increase…so did the extent of poverty”. This “contradiction rested,” Ó Tuathaigh suggests, on the uneven distribution of “the rewards of increased output”.[12]

The notion that Ireland as a whole benefitted from slavery is impossible to square with extensive evidence that all through the period between the late eighteenth century and the onset of famine, conditions for the largest cohorts of Irish peasants  – small farmers, cottiers and labourers (who, combined, formed a majority of the overall population) – declined steadily, year on year. In 1791, 85% of houses in Ireland were “of the poorest condition” – most of them one-room mud cabins with dirt floors. Explosive population growth fuelled increased competition for meagre plots of mostly poor land, and desperation combined with the landlords’ profit-motive to drive further sub-division. A major survey of British government reports concludes not only that “the majority of the Irish people [were] miserably poor”, but that “they retrogressed rather than progressed during the first half of the nineteenth century”. This varied by region – with Ulster somewhat insulated by the custom of tenant right and much of western seaboard, by contrast, marked by “a condition of continuous and deep poverty” – but the general trend is clear.

Far from feeling any tangible lift in their circumstances under the impact of slave commerce, the mass of the Irish people were moving further into immiseration, and would in the late forties face a ravaging hunger almost completely unprotected. Alice Elfie Murray offered a poignant description of conditions in Connacht on the eve of the Great Hunger:

The Connaught labourers sometimes hired land for potatoes from their neighbours, [or] took possession of a portion of the waste ground[.] When their potatoes were planted they were often forced to leave their homes and beg in some neighbouring district. Even in Connaught, however, there was a great dislike to begging, and the peasantry were ashamed to be seen by their neighbours supporting themselves in this way. It was rare for any of them to go harvesting in England [as some 35,000 elsewhere in Ireland did annually], for they could not manage to raise the few shillings necessary for the journey. The small occupiers were nearly as destitute, and when their neighbours did not assist them they often died of starvation, as nothing would induce them to beg. There was no season of the year in which the Connaught peasants were sufficiently supplied with food. Their diet was simply inferior potatoes called ‘lumpers’ eaten dry, [and] small farmers were often forced to bleed the one cow they possessed when their stock of potatoes was exhausted. [13]

This desperation manifested in one of two ways: localised, collective violence carried out by peasant ‘secret societies’ or (probably more commonly) a fatalistic acquiescence to their circumstances on the part of the powerless majority. An English visitor to Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century noted the sharp contradiction between the “language” of “liberty” and a “situation” approximating “slavery”: a “long series of oppressions,” Arthur Young wrote, “have brought landlords into a habit of exerting a very lofty superiority, and their vassals into that of an almost unlimited submission”:

A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottar dares to refuse to execute.  Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission.  Disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness, he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broke if he offered to lift his hands in his own defence.  Knocking-down is spoken of in the country in a manner that makes an Englishman stare.  Landlords of consequence have assured me that many of their cottars would think themselves honoured by having their wives and daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live.”[14]

Liam Hogan has written movingly about conditions on the eve of the Famine, when the extravagance of the covered ‘sedan chair’ that ferried robed judges back and forth to high court through the streets of Limerick coexisted alongside the “ejected tenantry from the surrounding counties” who “make a run to the cities in search of food” but ended up, many of them, as “living skeleton[s]…bones all but protruded through the shirt…literally starving” in the town’s dank cellars.[15] Nini Rodgers, comparing the circumstances of Irish cottiers and labourers with those of antebellum slaves in the US upper South, suggests that in purely material terms the former had it worse.[16] This is, of course, a highly problematic comparison: slavery’s burden can hardly be reduced to material deprivation, and in many ways the late antebellum years were extremely traumatic for slaves in the upper South, as families were being dispersed and kin sold south and westward to feed the voracious demand for labour opened up by cotton expansion. But as an indicator of the oppression confronting a desperate majority in Ireland it offers a corrective to facile assertions about Irish complicity in slavery. Overwhelmingly the benefits of Ireland’s involvement in transatlantic slavery went to the same class that presided over the misery that culminated in the horrors of famine and mass starvation.

Frederick Douglass, Slavery and the ‘Cause of Humanity’

The difficulty of focusing public outrage on the singular horror accompanying racially-based slavery without losing sight of other forms of inequality was one that we face not only retrospectively – as in the current discussion around indenture and chattel slavery – but one that abolitionists faced in their own time. The escaped slave Frederick Douglass was shocked by the conditions he encountered during visits to Ireland in the mid-1840s. “I see much here,” he wrote in March of 1846, “to remind me of my former condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift up my voice against American slavery, but that I know the cause of humanity is one the world over.” He wrote movingly of finding it painful to walk Dublin’s streets, then “almost literally alive with beggars, displaying the greatest wretchedness – mere stumps of men, without feet, without legs, without hands, without arms…pressing their way through the muddy streets…casting sad looks to the right and left, in the hope of catching the eye of a passing stranger[.]”[17]

And yet, despite all this, Douglass was (rightly) unwilling to draw an equivalence between these dire circumstances and the predicament of his own people in the American slave states. His co-agitator Henry Highland Garnet faced the same dilemma in Belfast where, when thousands came to hear him speak at Newtonards, he baulked when asked by the Presbyterian moderator to denounce ‘tenant slavery’ in Ireland. Their hesitation stemmed from a number of sources, including a tendency to accept the laissez-faire outlook of their day, which held that failure to rise under ‘free labour’ conditions was the responsibility of individuals rather than anything systemic in emerging capitalism. Marx had pointed toward an alternative framework when he insisted that “the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world”, but circumstances made any deeper exploration almost impossible at the time.

By far the main impediment to acknowledging a connection between chattel slavery and other forms of exploitation under capitalism was the regularity with which slavery’s apologists tried to bundle false sympathy with the predicament of poor whites into a racist defence of human bondage. There are close parallels, of course, in the far-Right’s attempts to concoct a ‘white slaves’ myth to counter the surging global protests against racism. Douglass pinpointed the dynamic precisely when he observed that “a large class of writers…are influenced by no higher motive than that of covering up our national sins[;] and thus many have harped upon the wrongs of Irishmen, while in truth they care no more about Irishmen, or the wrongs of Irishmen, than they care about the whipped, gagged, and thumb-screwed slave. They would as willingly sell on the auction-block an Irishman, if it were popular to do so, as an African”.

In a situation where pro-slavery ideologues were trying to convince the public that the slaves ‘had it good’, Douglass and others were compelled, for obvious reasons, to focus on exposing the singular brutality of slavery. From our perspective more than a century and a half later, its clear that abolition ended slavery but left deeply embedded racism and global exploitation intact. The systemic inequalities that continue to block the possibilities for human freedom – and which today threaten our very survival – are felt most acutely by workers who carry the stigma of race carried over from the birth of our modern world. But their fate and ours are bound up together, no less than they were in 1840.

Notes.

[1] Liam Hogan, ‘Following the money — Irish slave owners in the time of abolition,’ Medium (13 Oct 2018); Cliona Purcell, in Waterford Treasures (9 June 2020).

[2] On the impact of renewed armed conflict after 1969 on nineteenth-century historiography, see Christine Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion, pps. 2-5.

[3] Patrick J. Duffy, “Colonial Spaces and Sites of Resistance: Landed Estates In 19th Century Ireland,” p. 376: http://mural.maynoothuniversity.ie/5594/1/PD_Colonial.pdf.

[4] Duffy, 371; Terence A.M. Dooley, “Estate ownership and management in nineteenth- and early twentieth century Ireland”: http://www.aughty.org/pdf/estate_own_manage.pdf.

[5] Kevin Whelan, “An Underground Gentry: Catholic Middlemen in Eighteenth-Century Ireland,” in The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism, and the Construction of Irish Identity, 1760-1830, p. 35.

[6] Duffy, p. 381.

[7] D. Byrne, cited in Duffy, pps. 376-7; violence at Bunclody and Kilkenny, p. 378.

[8] Whelan, pps. 10-11, 17, 46-48; Nini Rodgers, Ireland: Slavery and Antislavery, 1612-1865, p. 95.

[9] A single Co. Antrim family – the McGarel brothers from Larne – claimed for nearly 3 times as many slaves (3546) as all nine Galway claimants combined.

[10] Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine, 1798-1842, p. 10; Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British: 1580-1650, pps. 444-5; 521.

[11] Rodgers, Ireland: Slavery and Antislavery, pps. 158, 173.

[12] Ó Tuathaigh, pps. 2, 124.

[13] Alice Effie Murray, History of the Commercial and Financial Relations between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration, p. 366; figures on seasonal labour from Donald MacRaild, Irish Migrants in Modern Britain, 1750-1922, p. 24.

[14] Arthur Young, A Tour In Ireland, 1776-1779, pps. 166-7: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22387/22387-h/22387-h.htm

[15] Hogan, “The 1830 Limerick Food Riots,” The Irish Storyhttps://www.theirishstory.com/2016/02/23/the-1830-limerick-food-riots/#.XwtEXJNKj1I.

[16] Rodgers, Ireland: Slavery and Antislavery, pps. 315-6.

[17] Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, March 1846:  https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/support12.html.

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