“Struggling against oppression’s detestable forms”

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), The United Irishmen, Volume 15

In 1842 Richard Robert Madden published the first volume of what would prove to be one of the most influential sympathetic accounts of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. The United Irishmen: their lives and times (7 vols, 1842–6) had an immediate impact on nationalist opinion. When the Young Ireland weekly The Nation was founded later in the year, for example, editor Thomas Davis mined the book for historical authority. Meant as a counterweight to the prevailing loyalist/Tory version of the rebellion that had blamed the 1798 uprising on sectarianism and popish riot, Madden’s book portrayed the United Irishmen as principled ideologues with a sophisticated, French-style Jacobin ideology. This description of the ’98 rebellion as a glorious failure of republican gallantry was, of course, dear to the self-image of Davis and company.
The United Irishmen was Madden’s first major essay in Irish history but it was not the only book he wrote and published. Two other works of note were travel diaries based on his experiences as a British government anti-slavery administrator in the West Indies during the 1830s. A twelvemonth’s residence in Jamaica (1834) described his responsibilities and challenges as a special magistrate during the transition from slavery to the ‘apprenticeship’ system in Jamaica in 1833. Similarly, The island of Cuba (1849) recounted his experiences as an anti-slavery official in Havana between 1836 and 1839. When a ship of Cuban slaves hijacked the Amistad in 1839, Madden travelled to New Haven, Connecticut, as an expert witness in the court case, where he argued successfully on behalf of the slaves. The following year, he addressed the General Anti-Slavery Convention in London on the subject of slavery in Cuba.
Taken together, these three books offer many colourful anecdotes and tales of adventure to any reader willing to plough through their sometimes-verbose prose. But what is most interesting about them is that in these works Madden expressed his belief that the enslavement of Africans in the sugar colonies and the subjugation of Catholics in Ireland were interlocking parts of the wider problem of oppression. Given the currently less-than-flattering historiographical picture of the Irish diaspora and the subject of slavery, these ruminations on the topic of universal freedom by an Irish nationalist offer a useful foil to the well-known pro-slavery beliefs of nationalist leaders such as John Mitchel. They also broaden our knowledge of Irish abolitionism, which tends to be dominated by the ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell.
In explaining his motive for writing The United Irishmen, Madden told Sir William Napier that ‘the struggle against [oppression’s] detestable forms, whether in the West Indies or on the shores of Africa, served me as an apprenticeship to the cause of general freedom’. What comparisons did Madden draw between the oppressive colonial systems in the Caribbean and Ireland?

Madden was born in 9 Wormwood Gate, Dublin, on 20 August 1798, in the midst of the United Irish rebellion. That very day, his home was raided by a ‘privileged banditti’ of armed yeomen under the command of Dublin’s chief of police, Major Henry Charles Sirr. Madden would later write that an interest in ‘the Irish insurrectionary movement of 1798’ had thrived as ‘a sort of ruling passion’ throughout his life, a fact he attributed to ‘the circumstance of my having been ushered into the world in that memorable year in the midst of a rebellion’. His father, Edward, was a Catholic silk manufacturer who, despite having fathered 21 children, was still sufficiently well off to be able to afford to send the youngest, Richard, to study medicine in Dublin. By April 1820 Madden had completed his apprenticeship when, under the threat of consumption, which had killed two of his brothers, he moved to Paris to begin practising medicine. Just 21 years old, he arrived in France with ‘eleven guineas wherewith to face the world’.
Madden spent much of the 1820s travelling, practising medicine and writing. The early years were spent on the Continent (Paris, Rome, Naples and London), followed by a three-year sojourn between 1824 and 1827 in the Middle East (Smyrna, Constantinople, Candia and Alexandria). Towards the end of the decade Madden published two books based on his experiences abroad: Travels in Turkey, Egypt, Nubia and Palestine in 1824–27 (1829) and a three-volume novel, The Mussulman (1830). In 1828 he moved to London, opened a surgery in the fashionable Mayfair district and married Harriet Elmsie, an English Protestant whose father owned a plantation in Jamaica. In England Madden found the abolitionist movement in full swing, and he soon met many of the British Anti-Slavery Society’s leading lights, including Wilberforce, Clarkson and Bright. In the words of his son Thomas More Madden, the doctor ‘threw himself [into the abolitionist movement] with all the ardour of his nature, the leading characteristic of which was an intense love of justice and a hatred of oppression in whatever clime or on whatever race it might be exercised’.
If the 1820s can be characterised as a period of travel and writing, the 1830s were the acme of Madden’s anti-slavery activity. With the help of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, he got a job with, and spent the majority of the decade in the service of, the British government’s colonial office around the Atlantic Ocean. The posts all involved ensuring the implementation of Britain’s various anti-slavery treaties and acts of parliament in Africa and the Caribbean. When slavery was abolished in the British West Indian colonies in 1833, Madden and 29 others were sent by the British government as special magistrates to oversee the transition to the ‘apprenticeship’ system. The magistrates faced many challenges, both natural and man-made, during their time in Jamaica, and though hired to go out for twelve months Madden lasted only nine. By then, four of his colleagues had died (most likely of yellow fever) while three others had resigned. After being personally assaulted in the street by an enraged white merchant, Madden resigned his post in Jamaica on the grounds that ‘I found the protection of the negro incompatible with my own’.
Two years later the British government hired Madden again, this time to travel with his wife and son as superintendent of liberated Africans in Cuba and judge arbitrator in the international court for the suppression of the slave trade in Havana. Spain and Britain had signed bilateral agreements in 1820 and 1835 under which Spain (then in need of Britain’s friendship and cash) had agreed to abolish the slave trade, though not slavery itself, in its Caribbean colonies. But Madden found widespread corruption and illegal slave-trading. ‘Justice is bought and sold in Cuba with as much scandalous publicity’, he declared, ‘as the Bozal slaves are bought and sold in the barracones [barracks for newly imported slaves awaiting sale]’. Madden’s zeal for implementing the new laws prompted the Spanish authorities to officially complain to the colonial office, but the Whig foreign secretary, Viscount Palmerston (a friend of Madden’s), assured the Spanish minister in London that ‘Dr Madden has given indisputable proof of that anxiety and assiduity in the discharge of difficult duties, without which he would not be fit for the appointment he holds’. While in Cuba, Madden fell in with a community of Creole literati, including a recently liberated slave named Juan Francisco Manzano, whose poems Madden would later translate and publish.
Madden spent his free time in Havana writing his sympathetic history of the 1798 rebellion. Full of language emphasising the ‘inhumanity’ and ‘oppression’ of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy’s misgovernment of Ireland, The United Irishmen would prove to be his magnum opus. Based on years of researching documents on the subject that had been sent to him from Ireland and the United States, and relying on moral support and correspondence from exiled ’98ers such as William James MacNeven, Madden’s book castigated the Protestant ascendancy’s conduct during the 1798 rebellion. In Madden’s words, the book aimed at

‘. . . preventing the possibility of a recurrence to the system of misrule which prevailed in Ireland in times past, by exhibiting the evils of bad government—the necessitated agency of spies, mercenary informers, and sanguinary adherents—by exposing the wickedness of exasperating popular irritation, or fomenting rebellion for State purposes, and then employing savage and inhuman means to defeat it.’

Having initially feared, while in England, that Repeal agitation would lead to bloodshed, Madden came to trust the Young Irelanders and developed a relationship with them. In fact, he was at one point so closely identified with the organisation that he was followed around by a detective.
Few Irish nationalists at the time saw the Irish as having common cause with black victims of colonial oppression. Here, crucially, Madden was different. He saw the Irish question as part of a wider, international dilemma of oppression. In particular, The United Irishmen highlighted the linchpin connecting Madden’s anti-slavery work and his subsequent nationalist writings. In the dedicatory letter, Madden referred to the addressee, a Dr James Johnson, as being one of

‘. . . the men who are needed to stand forth on all occasions which call for the defence of the rights and liberties of their fellow men,—not of those alone of one class, or of a particular creed or country, but of all, by whatever name they are called, whether English, Irish, Scotch, the far-off people of Africa, Affghanistan [sic], or Hindostan [sic], or those of our borders.’
Madden’s watchword was freedom, of which his battles against the subjugation of Irish Catholics and the enslavement of Africans were two important elements.

Privileged local ascendancy
For Madden, the main enemy of freedom was not imperialism per se but government by a privileged local ascendancy. In his mind, ‘every ascendancy, wherever and however established, must of necessity, exhibit the same course of evil action, whether the distinction of class be founded on creed, race, or colour’. He portrayed, in emotive language, ‘those times of terror [in Ireland] for the people subjected to that power [the Protestant ascendancy] which domineered over the Government itself, perverted justice, and sacrificed the true interests both of Church and State, to its own inordinate ambition and selfish aims!’ This interpretation of Ireland’s problem as being the exclusion of Catholics and the consequent abuse of power by a Crown-backed Protestant junta was a classic representation of the ideology of the United Irishmen leadership in the 1790s.
But the Irish case was not unique. The problem of privileged ascendancy was something that Madden had also encountered as a government official in the 1830s in both Jamaica and Cuba, where the colonial planter and merchant classes were strongly opposed to the work of British government anti-slavery officials. In Jamaica, for example, he found the local courts ‘utterly opposed to impartial justice’ in cases where ‘the question of the power of those of a privileged complexion came before a jury of the same favoured class of the community’. In Cuba, a Spanish colony, Madden found the situation even more difficult. The system to abolish the slave trade and to treat the praedial (rural field) slaves properly, he complained, ‘was never framed with any reasonable prospect of its being enforced, it has never been enforced, and, what is more, it never can be enforced against the planters who are the transgressors of it; because, in fact, these are the men entrusted with the execution of it’. The local administrators, officers of justice and sindicos (protectors of slaves’ rights) were all planters and steeped in ‘base corruption’. There were five or six dreaded barracones, for example, ‘within pistol shot of the country residence of the Captain General of Cuba [Miguel Tacon]’.

Imperial government
Madden’s opinion of the imperial governments themselves, however, was more ambiguous and seems to have depended on his various positions in relation to the power structures he encountered. In Jamaica, where he was an official of the London administration, he applauded ‘the efforts of the British government in favour of the slaves’, although he elsewhere admitted that it was that very government that had introduced slavery to the colony. His writings on the 1798 rebellion likewise tend to portray the problem not so much as one of bad British administration but rather of a Protestant ascendancy ‘which domineered over the Government itself’. In a July 1845 letter to James Stephens, under-secretary of the British colonial office, however, Madden did lay some blame on the British government, charging that ‘the cruelties perpetrated on the people of Ireland in 1798 were the result of the iniquitous measures which Clare and Castlereagh [chief secretary for Ireland] . . . were mainly responsible for’.
Madden viewed the conduct of the Spanish government towards Cuba in a much less forgiving light. Given the vast wealth accrued from her sugar colonies in Cuba, Madden was well aware that Spain had only reluctantly signed the anti-slave-trade treaty with Britain. In his mind, Spain’s policy towards the slaves of its colonies was duplicitous. The ‘humane arrangements, duly detailed in the Royal Cedulas’, were, according to Madden, ‘set forth in legal books, with all the solemn mockery of Spanish law’. Madden’s view of imperial government was ambivalent but he was no anti-colonialist. In the dedication of his book The island of Cuba to British colonial office under-secretary James Stephens, he praised the latter for having a ‘strong sense of the obligations of imperial power towards the interests of humanity and justice’.

In the wake of the publication of The United Irishmen: their lives and times, Madden was accused in some quarters of having glorified the United Irishmen and thereby encouraged violent rebellion. As non-violence was a critical element of anti-slavery’s moral crusade, Madden was quick to deny having encouraged the use of physical force. His experience, based on travels both near and far, had convinced him that rebellion only left people worse off than before. The book was calculated, he claimed, ‘to convince the people of the folly of entering into secret associations, with the ideas of keeping plans against oppression unknown . . . to which misguided patriotism is exposed to temptations to treachery on the part of associates’.
Yet for all his claims of objecting to the use of violence by the oppressed, there was a strain of morbid fascination with the topic in his writing. Madden wondered aloud, for example, ‘how long might it take to goad the [Jamaican slaves’] feelings of secret discontent to the phrenzy of some overt outrage, whose violence might afford a pretext for a lawless retribution, under the name of forms of martial law?’ Likewise, in Cuba, Madden’s relationships with Creole discontents led him to conclude that

‘[i]f England could have been induced in 1837 to guarantee the island of Cuba free from the intervention of any foreign Power, the white inhabitants were prepared to throw off the Spanish yolk, to undertake the bona fide abolition of the slave-trade, and to have passed some measures for the amelioration of slavery…The great apprehension that was entertained was of the slaves,—of their taking advantage of the revolution to get rid of all the whites, both Spaniards and Creoles.’

Madden’s language of violent resistance to oppression, however, came to full bloom in his history of oppression in late eighteenth-century Ireland. A ‘famishing peasantry’ who are ill-treated by their landlords, wrote Madden, ‘are the most violent, ungovernable, driftless and vindictive in their character than those that are excited by any other species of oppression . . . so it always will be with the turbulence of a people who have been trampled upon by the proprietors of the soil, as those of Ireland had been’.
Bearing in mind Madden’s belief in the duty of good government, it could be argued that, in referring to the phenomenon of agrarian secret societies in Ireland such as the Whiteboys, he came very close to justifying violence when he wrote that the unfair system of rents and tithes ‘drove the persons thus beggared, and deprived of house and home, to those acts of violence and desperation which usually follow in the footsteps of distress and ignorance’. It is indubitable that non-violence was a key plank in the abolitionist platform and that Madden faithfully ascribed to this central tenet. But given that the urge to ‘preserve and vindicate’ the memories of the rebels of ’98 had been ‘a sort of ruling passion’ since childhood, it is also plausible that he maintained a guilty delight in the thrill of battle.

One senses a hint of frustration, at times, in Madden’s writing. In The United Irishmen he wrote that ‘there cannot be one measure of detestation for murderous persecution in a distant land, and another for the same wickedness in our own’. In Madden’s mind it was counter-intuitive, hypocritical and un-Christian for the British public and government to focus on one field of oppression abroad while ignoring another on their doorstep:

‘I could not understand that sort of philanthropy which battled for the interests of humanity and justice when they were outraged only in the persons of black men; which made the world ring with the echoes of cart whips and the cries of slaves who were four thousand miles away; which had one set of nerves exquisitely sensitive to the sufferings of men who were victims to the cupidity of the West Indian planters, and another callous and insensible to the wrongs of those whose persecutors were Orangemen.’

Irish historians are only beginning to address questions of race and empire in a meaningful way. So far, the results have tended to suggest that Ireland’s Catholics, especially the Famine era’s poor migrants in urban America, were imbued with blue collar racism while its nationalist leaders were unable to see beyond their own concerns with ‘breaking the connection with England’. This cursory examination of Richard Robert Madden, however, has shown that there were nineteenth-century Irish nationalists other than Daniel O’Connell who saw the subjugation of Irish Catholics as part of a universal, global problem of oppression.

Cian McMahon is a PhD candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University studying the Irish and race in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world.

Further reading:
G. C. Burton, Ambivalence and the postcolonial subject: the strategic alliance of Juan Francisco Manzano and Richard Robert Madden (New York, 2004).
N. Ignatiev, How the Irish became white (Harvard, 1995).
L. Ó Broin, An Maidíneach: staraí na nÉireannach Aontaithe (Dublin, 1971).
N. Rodgers, Ireland, slavery, and antislavery, 1645–1865 (New York, 2004).


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