‘A Lying Old Scoundrel’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Volume 11

Waddell Cunningham

Waddell Cunningham, one of the most successful businessmen in late eighteenth-century Belfast.

It is a popular belief that while slavery was at its height in eighteenth-century England, Ireland remained untarnished and uninvolved. Although it is true that ports like Belfast and Dublin, unlike Bristol and Liverpool, did not become prosperous on the back of slavery, it is still difficult to believe that Ireland could have remained untouched by such a major enterprise so close to its shores. Certainly, when abolitionism in Britain gathered force it was not confined to that island but gained many active followers in Ireland. Among the most prominent was Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell opposed colonial and American slavery even at the cost of weakening support for Catholic Emancipation and the Repeal of the Act of Union. Nor did he drop the issue after abolition had been achieved in Britain but, to the delight of American campaigners, switched his focus to the elimination of American slavery. He became, in the words of one commentator, ‘the single most important supporter that American anti-slavery had in Europe’.
During a debate on abolition in the British House of Commons in 1831, O’Connell reminded his fellow MPs that Ireland ‘has its glory, that no slave ship was ever launched from any of its numerous ports’. But he was wrong. For example, two Dublin-based ships, the Sylva and the Sophia, were recorded slaving in the Gambia in May 1716. The Africans being transported to Jamaica on the Sophia revolted, killing all of the crew except the captain. In July 1718 a Limerick ship, the Prosperity, transported 96 slaves from Africa to Barbados. And in 1784 Limerick became the first Irish port to attempt to promote a slave-trade company.
The point should not be laboured; it is doubtful whether direct Irish involvement in the slave trade was ever very substantial. Much more significant was the involvement of Irish merchants in provisioning the West Indian plantations. In fact, provisioning the Caribbean slave plantations proved to be one of the chief factors in the development of some of Ireland’s major ports. In effect, Irish merchants came to be almost as dependent on slavery as their colleagues in England, as the example of the port of Belfast reveals.

Belfast and Caribbean trade

The first merchants in Belfast were English settlers who arrived around 1611. But by the 1670s Belfast’s merchant community was mainly Scottish. As early as 1665, two of these Scottish merchants, George MacCartney, sovereign (or lord mayor) of Belfast, and his relative, Black George MacCartney, were exporting beef and fish to places like Cadiz, Tangiers, La Rochelle—and Barbados. Thus at a relatively early stage in the West Indian plantations Belfast merchants were already involved in trade.
Originally tobacco was the main crop grown in the West Indies. But the climate was less suitable in the Caribbean than in the continental United States. Around 1650 Barbados switched to sugar production, and other islands soon followed. Sugar production was labour-intensive, and initially the supply of workers was guaranteed through indentured servants from Ireland, Scotland and England, enticed by the offer of free passage and the promise of land at the end of their time of service. Prisoners—many of them Irish—were also transported, and there was a lucrative trade in kidnapping. Finally, some of the Irish sent to the Caribbean were in effect slaves, rounded up by Oliver Cromwell’s son Henry and transported.

The Navigation Acts

The concentration of agriculture on a single cash crop meant that the islands’ inhabitants were almost totally dependent on imported provisions. Belfast merchants, with trade links to the West Indies already established, were well placed to respond to the islands’ needs. In fact, the West Indian trade came as an economic godsend. A political priority in eighteenth-century Britain was, in the words of the royal instructions to Lord Robartes, viceroy of Ireland, to ‘endeavour to advance and improve that trade of that our kingdom [Ireland] so far as it shall not be a prejudice to this our kingdom of England’. The Navigation Acts of 1663, 1670, 1685 and 1696 were central to that goal. They required the use of English ships and crew in trade with the Caribbean, as well as the loading and unloading of cargo in English ports, thus effecting an English monopoly in such trade. Similarly, the Cattle Act of 1663 prohibited the export of Irish cattle to Britain.

Theobald Wolfe

Theobald Wolfe Tone-described Cunningham as a ‘lying old scoundrel’. (Madden, United Irishmen)

If fully enacted, these acts ought to have smothered the emergent Irish merchant class. But they were difficult to enforce; smuggling was rife. In addition, to the extent that the acts did work, no matter how weakly, they forced Irish merchants to build up alternative markets in continental Europe and Scandinavia. Finally, there was a loophole in the Navigation Acts which meant that the provisioning of English ships in Ireland was excluded. English ships loaded up on the surplus of Irish agriculture and Irish merchants came to dominate Caribbean trade.
By 1680 Ireland was providing over half the food imported into the British West Indies. It was the main source of salted beef and butter for the plantations. Also exported were pork, herrings, bread, cheese, beer, candles and low-priced linen. Galway was the first Irish town to take advantage of supplying the plantations on a large scale, but by the turn of the eighteenth century it was overtaken by Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Dublin’s specialism was the traffic in convicts and indentured servants, while Cork’s main export was beef; in fact, Irish beef was the largest single West Indian import until well into the eighteenth century. Belfast’s exports were linen, wheat, flour and salted fish.
Many of the most successful merchants in each of these Irish towns had paid employees and agents—often their own relations or in-laws—on the islands with which they traded; some owned plantations themselves. Their direct involvement in shipping slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean was slight, but some Irish firms—such as Kennedy, Mulherne and Co., based in Montserrat—did ship slaves between the Caribbean islands.

Thomas McCabe denouncing Waddell Cunningham's proposed Belfast slave-ship company in the Old Exchange, 1786. (J.W. Carey from Robert Young's Old Belfast [1895])

Thomas McCabe denouncing Waddell Cunningham’s proposed Belfast slave-ship company in the Old Exchange, 1786. (J.W. Carey from Robert Young’s Old Belfast [1895])

There were many benefits for towns such as Belfast from involvement in provisioning the Caribbean, and these were not confined to agriculture. The importation of sugar encouraged the development of a sugar-refining industry. Such industries as rope-making, meat-packing, flour-milling and the salting of beef and fish were highly dependent on West Indian trade. And, of course, linen production benefited; cheap Belfast linen was exported to clothe the slaves.

Waddell Cunningham

Suppliers and manufacturers grew rich on the trade. Among them was Waddell Cunningham, one of the most successful businessmen in late eighteenth-century Belfast. Born in Killead, Co. Antrim, in 1730, at an early age he emigrated to New York and became involved in trade. By 1755 he was involved in both legitimate business—such as exporting wood from Honduras—and the illegitimate business of smuggling. His ships also carried slaves between the islands of the Caribbean. He formed a partnership with his future brother-in-law, Belfastman Thomas Greg, and by 1775 their firm was one of the largest shipping companies in New York. Their business ethics were fairly flexible; they owned at least four armed vessels and were involved in privateering actions against Spanish and French ships during the Seven Years’ War. Simultaneously, they were trading illegally with the French in the West Indies, supplying weapons and ammunition, among other items. In 1762, nine of their ships were seized in New York, Jamaica and Gibraltar and only returned after the payment of large fines. And three years previously involvement in the illegal trade cost Cunningham a brief jail sentence in New York. When the Seven Years’ War ended, Britain took over the Windward Islands and Waddell Cunningham acquired a plantation on Dominica, which he called ‘Belfast’.
In 1765 Cunningham returned to Belfast and quickly became central to the city’s economy. Along with Thomas Greg he established a factory for the manufacture of sulphuric acid (used in the bleaching of linen) in Lisburn, as well as continuing to build up his Belfast-based trading empire. He owned his own ships and imported rum, herrings, hemp, timber, brandy, almonds, gin and chemicals for bleaching. His business contacts stretched from Antigua to Jordan, and from St Petersburg and Danzig to Holland and Spain. He was also involved, illegally, in shipping linen for uniforms to the American forces during their War of Independence. He established a sugar-refining business, had flour-milling interests, set up a scheme for breeding packhorses and mules for export to the sugar-cane plantations, developed new techniques for salting Donegal herring for export, started a bank, was involved in insurance, and still had time for smuggling tobacco!

Commander of Belfast’s Volunteers

Cunningham was equally involved on the political front. He was in command of the Belfast Volunteers and was one of the delegates at the Dungannon Convention in February 1782 which sought to further greater economic and political independence for Ireland’s bourgeoisie. He was the founding president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, as well as the first president of the Harbour Board. In 1785 he narrowly missed becoming the MP for nearby Carrickfergus, a seat chosen because, as a Presbyterian, he could not hold political office in Belfast.
Belfast at the time was rife with radical ideas encouraged by the revolutions in America and France. The Society of United Irishmen was formed in the city in 1791, at the height of Cunningham’s economic and political power. But unlike the more radical members of the United Irishmen, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Samuel Neilson, Cunningham was conservative on a number of aspects of political reform. As a gradualist he frequently crossed swords with the United Irishmen in Belfast. One such cause of dissension was Catholic Emancipation. The foremost radicals in the United Irishmen accepted the argument of Wolfe Tone that ‘the rights of man’ should be conferred immediately on their Catholic fellow citizens. Cunningham was less eager. When Tone was in Belfast for the formation of the United Irishmen in October 1791, he had dinner at the home of Samuel and Martha McTier; another guest was Waddell Cunningham. Tone noted in his journal that he and Cunningham had ‘a furious battle, which lasted two hours, on the Catholic question’. The following year Tone was again in Belfast for a meeting of Volunteer delegates. He records in his journal that during the night of 13 July 1792 he was awakened from his sleep by Samuel Neilson. They went to Cunningham’s room, where they found ‘delegates from the country corp, with Waddell haranguing against the Catholics’. Tone concludes by giving his opinion of Cunningham: ‘Waddell, a lying old scoundrel’.

Attempt to establish slave-trading company in Belfast

Cunningham was equally conservative in relation to another issue dear to the hearts of Neilson and Tone, the abolition of black slavery. As a result of the Navigation Acts an official slaving industry had not emerged in Ireland. But the acts were repealed in 1780, and in 1786 Cunningham called a meeting to explore the possibility of establishing a slave-trading company in Belfast. Also at the meeting was a radical, and later a member of the United Irishmen, Thomas McCabe, a jeweller. McCabe was known as ‘the slave’ after he hung a sign saying ‘An Irish Slave’ outside his shop in Smithfield in protest at raids by soldiers. The United Irishman Dr William Drennan recounted what happened at the meeting in a letter to his sister, Martha McTier (17 May 1806):

I had a letter lately from T[homas] McCabe to tell me of an association planned by Waddell Cunningham for carrying on the slave trade at Belfast to which he had got several subscribers, but which Tom had knocked up completely by writing in the proposal book: ‘May G— eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea’. I could not but smile at receiving this letter and anecdote in Mrs C’s presence.

The veracity of this story has been called into question. Thomas McCabe’s son Bernard told the story to Dr R.R. Madden, who included it in his 1846 edition of The United Irishmen: their lives and times. The story was reproduced in Robert Young’s Old Belfast, published in 1895, and embellished with an illustration by local artist J.W. Carey. Then, in 1926, S. Shannon Millin set out ‘to free the name of Waddell Cunningham from the charge of promoting a slave trade company’. His argument was that the story only saw the light of day in 1846, sixty years after the incident allegedly occurred; furthermore, Waddell Cunningham’s name was only linked directly to the incident a further fifty years later. Millin concluded that the story was undoubtedly apocryphal. But Dr Drennan’s letter to his sister is a much more contemporaneous piece of evidence and one which does mention Cunningham. Millin does not consider the Drennan letter. It would seem plausible to conclude that Waddell Cunningham was being true to form; the man who on at least one occasion advertised in the Belfast Newsletter the sale of ‘a Negro boy, about eleven years old’, who owned a plantation in Dominica until his dying day and whose fortune was built on servicing the system of slavery attempted unsuccessfully to establish a slave-trading company in Belfast at a time when the city’s radicals were agitating for the abolition of slavery.
Cunningham was a key representative of that section of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie whose self-interest inspired them to oppose the British government on behalf of greater economic and political freedom for their class, but did not extend to support for the emancipation of Catholics or the abolition of slavery. Tone and Neilson represented another section of that class, those whose commitment—even to the point of armed insurrection—to the ideals of the Enlightenment led them to argue for political freedom not only for their class but also for those in much less favourable circumstances than themselves, Catholics and slaves.

Bill Rolston is Professor of Sociology at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.

Further reading:
J. Agnew, Belfast merchant families in the seventeenth century (Dublin, 1996).
G. Chambers, Faces of change: the Belfast and Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce and Industry 1783–1983 (Belfast, 1983).
B. Rolston and M. Shannon, Encounters: how racism came to Ireland (Belfast, 2002).
T.M. Truxes, Irish–American trade, 1660–1783 (Cambridge, 1988).


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