Ireland and the ‘£20 million swindle’

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2021), Volume 29

Irish names in the Legacy of British Slave-ownership (LBS) database (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/).

By Sylvie Kleinman

‘I do not envy his father his £79,000’, said Daniel O’Connell of the young William Gladstone to abolitionists in London in March 1838, ‘nor the feelings aroused in his breast’ when hearing of the famishing negro on his estate. They were petitioning parliament to end the failed apprenticeship system, one of three measures in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies (1833), a click away on the online Irish Statute Book (http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/). Anyone registered as a slave on 1 August 1834, aged six or upwards, was now classed as an ‘apprentice’ and owed a former owner 45 hours (unpaid) work per week. Second, the ‘industry’ of the apprentices would be promoted during a four- to six-year transition towards emancipation, and they would receive food, clothing, lodgings, medicine and education (namely religious). Indolence would be punished but whipping (especially of females) became unlawful. Yet any moderately attentive teenager, ploughing through the arduous language in this age of the tweet, will observe that just over half of the Act deals with money: the third measure was financial compensation for the ‘persons hitherto entitled to the services’ of the manumitted slaves, i.e. their former owners, or their beneficiaries.

Above: Daniel O’Connell—tabled a motion in 1837 ordering accounts of all sums paid by the commission established in 1833 to compensate slave-owners. Published in March 1838, this parliamentary ‘return’ became a major source for the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database.

O’Connell’s parliamentary ‘return’ a major source for the LBS

In May 1833 O’Connell saw the government plan for ‘a loan of 15 millions and a working out of this loan by the Negroes. It will never, never do’, he wrote. The ‘Price of Freedom’ (the title of a recent BBC documentary, incidentally) rose to £20 million, 40% of national expenditure in 1833, equivalent to c. £1.7 billion today, and only repaid by the British taxpayer in 2015. The ‘20 millions’ were incessantly referenced throughout the 1830s, especially after reports of many violations of the spirit and letter of the Act, and even new cruelties. Nevertheless, the money had been paid. ‘I call it swindling’, O’Connell had declared. He had tabled a motion in 1837 ordering accounts of all sums paid by the Compensation Commissioners established in 1833, naming the awardees for the nineteen colonies. Published in March 1838, but still buried in institutional libraries, this parliamentary ‘return’ became a major source for historians like Nini Rodgers, and then the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) database, which credits O’Connell.

Gladstone senior had actually received £106,769 (c. £80 million today) for 2,508 slaves on nine plantations in Jamaica and British Guiana, his son’s towering career carried by this and earlier profits. But who has heard of Charles McGarel of Larne, whose staggering award surpassed Gladstone’s? He received £135,076 for 2,777 slaves, also in British Guiana, a colony about which we know far less than about Jamaica. Are we to pity Eliza Elvira Glenn of Limavady, awarded £64 for her slave in Trinidad? In March 1831, the Dublin MP George Moore, of 14 Hume Street, presented a petition to the House of Commons from ‘Bankers, Merchants, and others’ in the Irish capital ‘connected with the West Indies’. This probably included Thomas Wilson, merchant of North Wall, later Dublin agent of the commissioners and an awardee in LBS. Not objecting to abolition while deprecating ‘sudden’ measures possibly ‘injurious’ to the slaves, they prayed the House ‘not to interfere with planter property’ and called for ‘full and fair compensation’.

Thomas Fowell Buxton

Moore’s petitioners were part of the global West Indian ‘Interest’ who led a formidable counter-campaign to that of the abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton, Wilberforce’s successor in 1823, despite the declining fortunes of the Caribbean slave economy. Michael Taylor’s incisive work on the ‘Interest’ locates the turning-point for abolition in 1829, when the Tories imploded over Catholic Emancipation, triggering the Whig government. Wellington, a formidable ally of the Interest, features in many contemporary visual satires. O’Connell entered the House at this pivotal moment; though he lamented the absence of a native parliament, he paradoxically distinguished himself in the imperial one. The Interest even unsuccessfully courted O’Connell.

Buxton says little about O’Connell but clearly considered him a leading abolitionist, as did many contemporaries. The driving force behind the Act, Buxton merits some recognition in Ireland. Owing to an anticipated (but contested) Irish inheritance, he entered Trinity College in October 1803, graduating in 1807. He wrote home about the Emmet rebellion and joined a volunteer corps to help suppress it. Studious and strategically avoiding billiards, he flourished in the competitive environment and earned thirteen premiums and the College’s highest honour, the Gold Medal. In 1805 he joined the ‘Hist’; not initially confident, he rapidly distinguished himself, winning four silver medals. After returning to England, he never pursued further studies but became a powerful orator. Though he had declined, Buxton cherished the memory of the electors of Trinity asking him to stand as their parliamentary candidate.

Buxton and O’Connell both sat on the 1836 select committee of enquiry into the conditions of the apprentices and questioned R.R. Madden, as well as W.E. Gladstone. Madden went to Jamaica as a special magistrate to oversee implementation of the Act, but resigned and publicised grave concerns. Buxton enquired, inter alia, about whether the new system equated to slavery (‘no difference’), about alleged cruelties and about the hardship suffered by heavily pregnant working women. The opinion was heard of the Westmeath-born planter Fitzherbert Batty, attorney general of Jamaica in 1832, who disputed the food and clothing allowances. O’Connell questioned Madden about female corporal punishment, whether local societies favoured the planters, and the injustice felt by ‘the negro’ owing to the prejudices of locally connected magistrates, often planters with no legal education. Our perceptions of Madden have been shaped by the partial use of sources. An unconditional abolitionist (see HI 15.3, May/June 2007, pp 24–9), his credibility in 1836 rested on both his recent experience and his own family ‘connections’ to Jamaica. The property of his wife Harriet Elmslie’s father, John, was so lucrative that (after shares to her thirteen siblings) he had left her £30,000 in a trust, but Madden’s maternal great-uncle had owned two plantations, one named Derry. Enquiring about a potential claim, he discovered that he had mixed-race cousins, one a male who had been sold into slavery.

‘Champion of the Slaves’

LBS is open-access, though its data are complex as they have been drawn from many sources and are constantly updated. The LBS map of Dublin features a glitch which suits us in the pursuit of facts beyond the ‘Shelbourne Four’ débâcle. A pointer on the location of the hotel indicates a hit for a compensated slave-owner. In fact, the obscure barrister Espine Batty (brother of Fitzherbert) lived around the corner at 59 St Stephen’s Green; he was compensated to the tune of £4,891, while Fitzherbert received nearly double that amount. Karst de Jong, researching the Irish in Jamaica, documents the latter’s career and that of his Irish Catholic successor, one O’Reilly. He evidently discusses Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo. Governor of Jamaica (1834–6) overseeing implementation of the Act, Browne is remembered as a ‘Champion of the Slaves’ (see HI 26.1, Jan./Feb. 2018, pp 22–4) in a discussion omitting his award of £5,525 for 286 slaves in 1835. Yet he supported apprenticeship and free blacks, clashing with the plantocracy and publishing an influential pamphlet on Jamaican apprenticeship. It is facile to have a go at the La Touches and their banking dynasty, but we need to ascertain the Irish residences of Peter and William Digges La Touche, whose pay-out was split with a third awardee. Did they leave legacies in our built heritage, and what charities did they and their womenfolk support during their slave-owning years? This exercise need not apply to Sir George Fitzgerald Hill, 2nd Baronet, present when Theobald Wolfe Tone (a fellow graduate of Trinity) was identified among French prisoners at Buncrana in 1798. After Tone cut his own throat, postponing his execution, Hill stated privately that he would have sewn up his neck to finish the business. Governor of St Vincent, then Trinidad, at the time of abolition, he troubled himself to submit a claim for a single slave, receiving £64 0s 1d.

HOWE PETER BROWNE, 2ND MARQUESS OF SLIGO
‘Champion of the Slaves’, who oversaw the implementation of the emancipation Act as governor of Jamaica, Browne was awarded £5,525 for 286 slaves in 1835. (NPG UK)

Women

Of a total of 92 claims, seventeen applicants were women, fifteen of whom were successful. Women, while divested of traditional forms of hegemonic and military power, could still own chattel property. Among the grandees, a portfolio like that of Anna Maria Poore (née Massy-Dawson) and after 1840 of Carysfort House, Blackrock, is unsurprising. Her ‘capital’ amounted to 461 slaves. The language is apt, if repulsive. For how many skivvies, maids, grooms, gardeners or governesses did she provide employment in Ireland? Nick Draper of LBS is cautious about generalisations, and in a forthcoming publication estimates that the number of individuals with a connection to Ireland may be closer to 200. He documents the projection of victimhood in a claim on behalf of Mary Ann McCorry, orphan inheritor of the Antrim Valley estate in Dominica; she was ‘destitute of means of education and dependent on precarious subsistences’. One third of the females owned from one to six slaves, prompting less of a top-down approach: how reliant had they been on an annuity?

We await a robust analysis of the c. 84 successful claims with primary addresses in Ireland. Brian Kelly (Platform, HI 29.1, Jan./Feb. 2021) found it ‘obvious’ that ‘overwhelmingly’ they were Anglo-Irish élites, with many army officers. This sounds a bit agenda-driven, even if only a minority of names appear ‘native’ rather than ‘Saxon’, to use the abhorrent language of the day. In fact, only a handful of awardees are titled; the vast majority were probably of the merchant and professional class, another profile that leaves records. And there are monied Catholics: Edward Sheil, brother of the nationalist Richard Lalor; a Lynch of Galway; James Kelly of Newtown House, Abbeyknockmoy, Co. Galway; and others still obscure. Among the higher tranche of female awardees, Cecilia Blake was a niece of Valentine O’Connor, wholesaler of Bachelor’s Walk and owner of a sugar estate. A founding member of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and subscriber to the Bank of Ireland, he had been a delegate to the 1792 Catholic Convention. Historians stress the importance of the outward provisioning trade, the importation of slavery-derived produce, and how instrumental these were in the fortunes built by Catholics in the eighteenth century, but is this really mainstreamed into the national narrative? Tone wrote that his maternal grandfather was captain of a vessel in the ‘West Indian trade’; presumably Catholic like his daughter (Tone’s mother, a Catholic convert), he was active before abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

Today our reflex is to ponder the implications. Researching Grattan’s iconic speech of April 1782, I stumbled on a press notice of the Anna Caterina, which had arrived in Dublin port ‘with slaves’. If this was exceptional, let it be properly demonstrated. In September 1792, Charles Abbot (later chief secretary) recorded in Derry that two cargoes worth £27,000 and £11,000 in tea, sugar and rum had just docked. How much labour did such cargoes provide on this island, before one asks whose assets it inflated? Can we map sugar bakehouses, fish-salting and meat-curing, and describe and illustrate these processes in schoolbooks? The Dublin ‘Interest’ petitioning via Moore led activities which left records. The list ends alphabetically with Richard Beavor Wynne of the Hermitage, Sligo, grandfather of that much-cherished patriot Dr Kathleen Lynn, ‘hitherto entitled’ to the services of 91 slaves; one wonders whether she knew.

Above: ‘As you called for the dance Sir, I hope you won’t have any objection to pay the Piper.’ ‘Eh!—O—Yes—All to oblige the big Gentleman in the broad brimmed hat—Go to him—.’ The ‘20 millions’ were incessantly referenced throughout the 1830s, as in this cartoon by Irishman John Doyle (‘HB’), ‘NEW WEST-INDIA DANCE, to the tune of 20 Millions’, published 18 June 1833. (NPG UK)

While it does seem that most of the Irish awardees were Protestant, so too were the disempowered labouring masses of England. O’Connell was surrounded by Irish Quaker, Unitarian and Evangelical abolitionists, but also Anglicans drawn from the highest ranks of English society. Offering his experience as an ageing champion of civil and religious liberties, he called on them to agitate ‘for the Negro’. In public memory he is identified with American slavery and the iconic meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1845, yet the Liberator’s rousing abolitionist speeches of the 1830s were reported where we least expect it—the front page of the Belfast News-Letter. Nor did we think to find an ageing Major Sirr, repenting for past cruelties, chairing a Friends abolitionist meeting at the very meeting-house where Douglass would later speak.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography will be updating relevant entries but, beyond personal profiles, many strands merit further exploration as well as greater projection to the public, namely in schools and through heritage sites. LBS is also only a snapshot of slave-owning in the British colonies. Many Irish prospered in French, Spanish and Portuguese commercial and slave ports such as Nantes, but equally settled in many slave economies. They left their footprint in lucrative sugar islands like St Domingue, which Finola O’Kane is documenting. Another study would be straightforward enough, and that is the transfer of Irish place-names across the Atlantic. The toponomy of Jamaica has many Hibernian echoes, starting with ‘Dublin Castle’; seemingly this was more prevalent than among English or Scottish planters. Finola O’Kane is researching Irish plantation landscapes (including St Domingue). Scrutinising the 1749 inventory of Kelly’s Pen in Jamaica, owned by an ancestor of Sligo’s, she came across values and names of slaves, including ‘a man called Dublin’. To date, very little—if any—debate here has been slave-centred. What of his day-to-day life, or that of his emancipated great-grandchildren? We may have no statues to topple but there is much history to be written.

Sylvie Kleinman is Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin.

FURTHER READING

F. O’Kane & C. O’Neill (eds), Ireland, slavery and the Caribbean: interdisciplinary perspectives. Studies in imperialism (Manchester, 2014).

C. O’Neill, ‘Not so innocent’, Dublin Review of Books 131 (March 2021) (https://www.drb.ie/essays/not-so-innocent).

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