Empire, inequality and Irish complicity in slavery

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Platform, Volume 29

It is difficult to make the case that more than a tiny fraction of the population shared in any consequent prosperity.

By Brian Kelly

Above: George Berkeley—Trinity College, Dublin, is considering removing his name from one of the libraries on its campus because the eighteenth-century philosopher was once a slave-owner.

Among its most salutary effects, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has compelled a reckoning with the formative role of slavery in the birth of our modern world. This is evident not only in the fact that much of the wealth that propelled ‘the West’ to a position of global supremacy rests on the stolen labour of Africans, or in the ways in which concocted notions of white superiority/black inferiority became entrenched in ‘common sense’ assumptions about race, but also—crucially—in illuminating the ways in which our commemorative landscape continues to venerate those who profited from the human bondage. Overnight, controversies that had simmered away behind closed doors have been drawn out into the clear light of day, becoming—in the US, the UK and elsewhere—part of an intense public conversation that has drawn in tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.

Laurence Fenton (HI 28.5, Sept./Oct. 2020, Platform) raises important questions about how Irish society can best take part in and learn from this vital conversation. His piece reflects ongoing concerns expressed by Liam Hogan and others, whose research has been critical in countering malicious attempts to juxtapose Irish and African American suffering. Emanating mainly from an emboldened American far right and grounded in ludicrous claims about ‘Irish slavery’, these efforts are aimed—transparently—at denying the persistence of systemic racism and undermining demands for social justice and an end to police violence. In a world where growing inequality has been accompanied over recent years by an alarming rise in racism and xenophobia—including on our own doorsteps—I share Fenton’s concern that Ireland cannot afford complacency, and that the shameful treatment of immigrants and refugees, north and south, affords little basis for self-congratulation.

In important ways, however, Fenton’s piece shares with other recent commentary a problematic approach to understanding Irish complicity in transatlantic slavery. An article in the Irish Times earlier this year (headlined ‘Many Irish were implicated in the slave trade and the legacy lives on’) conveyed the impression that slave-owning was widespread across eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Ireland, and that broad sectors of Irish society profited from the provisioning of slave colonies and the sale of slave produce. The same assumptions permeate almost everything else written for popular consumption before or since. The country was, in the estimation of a Waterford blogger, ‘tainted at birth’ by the ‘original sin’ of slavery.

This popular treatment, in which ‘the country as a whole’ stands indicted in the slave trade, rests on a recent historiography which demands that we set aside Ireland’s colonial subordination in Britain’s global empire and imagine, instead,  ‘an alternative history’ where Irish ports are ‘as enmeshed with slave money as Bristol or Glasgow’, or (even more fancifully) to build conjecture around what might have happened if ‘the Irish ran the world’. Cumulatively, the combined effect of these framing devices—the deep entanglement of an undifferentiated ‘Irish people’ in the slave-trade and the conspicuous prominence of counterfactual assertions about an ‘Irish empire’—is to lead us away from Ireland as it actually existed at the height of the transatlantic slave-trade and usher us into one that differed in no significant respects from the imperial metropole.

These have some utility, perhaps, in countering any notion that ‘the Irish’ carry some genetic immunity from racism—if such a notion exists anywhere. But their more significant effect is to obscure the fact that, overwhelmingly, the same unrepresentative Irish élite that 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. In other words, it was more than mere coincidence that the vast inequalities permeating the slave societies of the Caribbean had their essential counterpart in the obscene disparities that marked Irish society all through the same period, and which of course culminated in mass starvation on a catastrophic scale.

It is impossible to spend more than an hour digging into the Irish connections highlighted in the database on Legacies on British slave-ownership cited by Fenton without being knocked over the head with the obvious fact that those slave-owners ‘resident’ in Ireland represented, overwhelmingly, the cream of the Anglo-Irish élite, drawn from the (Protestant) landed gentry and with a large proportion of them playing prominent roles in British colonial administration in an Ireland then under intensive military occupation. A considerable number 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 the Caribbean. Inexplicably, however, this close correlation between Irish slave-owning and the elaborate nexus of British power in Ireland goes completely unacknowledged in both academic and popular commentary.

There were enlightened individuals among this cohort, 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 Clonmel, 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’.

While it was this class that benefited 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 substantial farmers, and others engaged in selling provisions to and purchasing the staples generated by slave labour in the West Indies. Secondly, even among slave-owners, there were exceptions to this profile—a layer of Catholic élites (Kevin Whelan’s ‘underground gentry’) who also found their way into slave-owning. In France and Spain exiled remnants of the former Gaelic nobility staked a prominent claim in the spoils of human bondage.

Even if we acknowledge in its broadest dimensions, however, the ways in which transatlantic slavery manifested itself in pre-Famine Ireland, it is difficult to make the case that more than a tiny fraction of the population shared in any consequent prosperity. Indeed, the peak years of the slave-trade were marked by economic decline in Ireland. Desperation among the rural poor, who in Sir Walter Scott’s estimation endured poverty ‘on the extreme edge of human misery’, fuelled chronic agrarian unrest, and maintenance of these inequalities required a garrison at times exceeding 100,000 troops, who functioned across the island as an arm of the landlords’ power. 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’.

Facing up to Ireland’s role in transatlantic slavery will, as Laurence Fenton and others have suggested, require confronting some uncomfortable truths. But we should embark on that project with some acknowledgement that, though their differences were considerable, the racial hierarchies permeating the slave societies of the ‘New World’ and the deep inequalities that marked eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland were complementary manifestations of a hierarchical social order that we have not yet overcome.


Brian Kelly is a Reader in US history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and former director of the After Slavery Project.


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