The Irish and the Atlantic slave trade

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Volume 15

It was the Stuarts who introduced the Irish to the slave trade. Charles II returned to the throne in 1660 at a time when it was becoming clear that sugar plantations were as valuable as gold-mines. The Royal Africa Company (RAC) was established to supply slaves to the British West Indies in order to extend production. Irish names can be found among those working for the RAC. Among the most successful was William Ronan, who worked in West Africa for a decade (1687–97). A Catholic Irishman, he rose to become the chairman of the committee of merchants at Cape Castle in present-day Ghana, his career apparently unhindered by the ascent of William of Orange. In the seventeenth century Europeans saw slaving as respectable and desirable. It was conveniently accepted that Africans sold into slavery by their rulers were prisoners of war, who would otherwise have been slaughtered. Thus export to the Americas offered them prolonged life in a Christian society. It was a century later, when public sensitivities began to change, that such attitudes to the slave trade were called into question.

The French connection: Nantes
In Europe the connection between the Stuarts and Irish slave-traders was not lost with the throne. The defeated James II was conveyed from Ireland to France by Philip Walsh, a Dublin-born merchant, settled in St Malo, who would die on an African voyage. In 1745 Philip Walsh’s son, Antoine, provided Prince Charles Edward Stuart with an armed frigate, on which they sailed together for Scotland in a bid to restore the Jacobite line. Antoine Walsh could afford this political gesture because of the wealth he had made from the slave trade. Nantes (with its close-knit Irish community) had emerged as the kingdom’s chief slaving port, a starting-point for the triangular trade—manufactures for Africa (textiles, brandy and firearms), slaves for the French West Indian colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Domingue), sugar and tobacco for Europe.
Captains and crew did the voyaging; merchants (ship-owners and outfitters/armateurs) stayed at home, funding and organising. Prolonged loading in Africa was the most hazardous part of the operation. The climate was unhealthy and the slaves, still within sight of the shore, were at their most furiously desperate. Fear of revolt, which could be mitigated for the armateur by insurance cover, was rife among captains and crew.
By the early 1730s Antoine Walsh had shifted from slave-ship captain to slave-merchant. He never actually experienced revolt himself but his relatives and employees did. In 1734 L’Aventurier, outfitted by Walsh’s father-in-law Luc Shiell (O’Shiel), spent almost four months on the African coast, moving from port to port in search of slaves. At Whydah the captain went ashore to trade, leaving Barnaby Shiell, Antoine Walsh’s young brother-in-law, in command of a crew largely immobilised by fever and dysentery. The slaves rose, cut the ailing pilot’s throat and locked other invalid whites below hatches. At this point Barnaby Shiell, with five armed sailors, fired on the Africans. In the ensuing slaughter two crew and 40 slaves were killed. The result in commercial terms was the destruction of one-sixth of the cargo. Undeterred by this set-back, Captain J. Shaughnessy determinedly pursued his professional objectives, remaining at Whydah until he was finally able to sail with 480 Africans for St Domingue and Martinique. In the future both Shaughnessy and Barnaby Shiell would act as captains for Antoine Walsh.
After the Jacobite defeat, Walsh turned back to slaving, and immediately one of his ships became the scene of a slave revolt. His ironically named Prince d’Orange reached Whydah and took four and a half months assembling 245 Africans. As the ship got ready to sail, six women, one with a child at the breast, threw themselves overboard and drowned. A month later, off the island of San Thome, the remaining slaves rose and killed the captain and two sailors. The crew threatened to resort to firearms but the Africans took no notice and the result was 36 dead.
By the eighteenth century Africans were accustomed to guns. The desire to possess them was one of the factors fuelling the trade and bringing about political change as states grew stronger or weaker according to their access to firepower. But those Africans delivered to the ships as slaves were devoid of weapons. In 50 years, the only record of a successful slave revolt on an Irish Nantais vessel occurred in 1742, when the 350 slaves on Patrice Archer’s La Sainte Helène managed to get hold of guns from above deck, set the ship on fire and escape to shore, where the local ruler proved uncooperative in securing their return.
On board Walsh’s Prince d’Orange, Jean Honoraty (John Hanratty?) replaced the murdered captain and the voyage continued. For an experienced slave-trader it was a familiar professional set-back. As far as Walsh was concerned, the real danger to his ambitions had surfaced within Nantes itself. In September 1748 he launched the Société d’Angole, the first private joint stock company in France devoted to the slave trade. His aim was to eliminate the weak state monopoly, Compaigne des Indes (currently drawing most of its income from licensing independent operators), and to establish the Société’s own monopoly of French trade in Africa. Walsh had risen as an independent himself but now wanted to prevent the rise of other independents. His financial innovations in France were to be underpinned by novel arrangements in Africa. The company would have three large ships stocked with trade goods permanently stationed off the Angolan coast. Five smaller ships would make an annual Atlantic crossing to St Domingue, where they would deliver their cargo into a fortified slave-camp.
Almost immediately Walsh’s monopolistic ambitions were challenged in Nantes itself by the establishment of a rival joint stock company, the Société de Guinée, which proved more successful than its Angolan counterpart. In 1753, when Walsh’s company completed the period for which it had been designed, he did not seek to reconstruct it. After launching 40 voyages, his career as an armateur had come to an end. He left France a few years later to manage the family properties in St Domingue and died there in 1763, slave-trader turned planter/purchaser in a colony which was by then absorbing a shipload of Africans a week. In the eighteenth century Britain emerged as Europe’s greatest slave-trader, but the development of St Domingue meant that France became her greatest sugar-producer. This colony, which Walsh helped to build, was envied as the richest gem in the imperial New World, before the opportunity offered by the French Revolution caused it to implode into the Caribbean’s first black republic of Haiti.
Antoine Walsh’s greatest ambitions had not been achieved in Jacobite politics nor in establishing the dominance of his company over the French slave trade. Nor had he become France’s largest slaver: that position fell to an indigenous French family, the Mauntondons (60 voyages), who had begun life as shoemakers. Over the years Antoine Walsh had purchased over 12,000 Africans for export across the Atlantic, though not all of them had reached the Americas. No other family from the Irish community in Nantes could claim anything approaching such a score, although two others, the Rirdans and the Roches, emerged as significant armateurs. The Rirdan (O’Riordan) brothers, Etienne and Laurent, claiming roots in Derryvoe, Co. Cork, sent out eleven expeditions during the years 1734–49, purchasing just over 3,000 slaves. Between 1739 and 1755 the Roche family (their roots in Limerick, where they possessed marriage connections with Arthurs and Suttons) organised a similar number.

Bristol and Liverpool
By the end of the seventeenth century the RAC had lost its monopoly. This opened up the slave trade to individual British merchants, while banning Irish ports from launching direct voyages to Africa. Thus the equivalents of the Rirdans and the Roches (though not Antoine Walsh) can be found in Bristol and Liverpool. Bristol was Britain’s premier slaving port from the demise of the RAC until 1740, when Liverpool came to dominate the trade. In this expansive period the Frekes, an offshoot of the County Cork landowning family, could be found among Bristol’s leading slave-merchants. Their success over several generations was marked by their move into Queen Square, where they lived in an elegant new building looking out on a handsome statue of William III. Other Irish slave-ship-owners from the same era were Michael Callaghan and John Teague. By the 1760s they had disappeared, to be replaced by John Coghlan and James Connor.
In 1780s Liverpool there were slave-merchants with Irish names: Felix Doran, Christopher Butler, Thomas Ryan, James McGauley and David Tuohy. But the first four had all been born in that area; only Tuohy had arrived as a young man from Tralee. From the 1750s onwards he and his brother-in-law, Philip Nagle, captained ships to Africa. By 1771 Tuohy was able to write to a Stephen Fagan in Cork that he had ‘been in the African trade for many years in which I have made a pretty fortune’. He declared that he was now inclined ‘to go no more to Africa but follow the business of a merchant in Liverpool’. Though he gave up sailing to Africa himself after 1771, he continued to despatch ships for slaves. The men mentioned above were professional survivors and successes. In France and Britain many of those emerging as slave-merchants had begun life as captains in the trade. At least five captains died in Africa for every one who achieved the status of merchant.
Probably the most famous (or infamous) slave-ship today is Liverpool’s Brookes, designed to carry 600 slaves. It began its climb to notoriety in 1789, when the abolitionists produced a diagram of the vessel showing shackled slaves, arranged with mathematical precision, head to toe, layer upon layer, not an inch of space unused. This year it will reappear (22 March–13 May 2007) as ‘an installation’ in the British Museum, part of the bicentennial commem-oration of the abolition of the slave trade. During the American Revolution the Brookes was commanded by an Irish captain, Clement Noble of Ardmore. Confronted by an enemy privateer near Barbados, he armed 50 of his cargo and successfully repelled the attack. Commenting that the Negroes fought ‘with exceeding spirit’, he sailed on to Jamaica, where he sold them on the north coast at Montego Bay.
The number of Scots and Manx captaining Liverpool slave-ships exceeded those from Ireland. But among ordinary sailors the position was reversed and the Irish formed the most numerous non-English group—more than 12 per cent as against the Scots with 9.5 per cent. During the 1750s John Newton, later an Anglican clergyman and author of Amazing Grace, captained three voyages from Liverpool to West Africa. Already an evangelical, but still inhabiting a pre-anti-slavery world, he held services on board for the crew, never thinking of extending his religious ministrations to the Africans he was loading and shackling down below. His papers record them as numbers, while his crew names reveal an Irish presence: John Carren, John Megan, James Gallagher. Some of the Irish names presented Newton with greater difficulty. He had trouble in spelling Shaughnessy (Shestnassy) and even more trouble with Cooney (Cooney, Cunneigh and Coney), who took a female slave ‘and lay with her brute like in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I will impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83.’
Many captains and other officers have described the behaviour of common seamen. The crew themselves rarely wrote about their voyages. Two brothers from Ireland have left an account of such experiences, however. Nicholas and Blaney Owen came from an impoverished gentry background. Driven to seafaring by their father’s spendthrift habits, they spent six years in the slave trade, working first on Liverpool vessels and then deserting to a Rhode Island slaver, where the pay and conditions were better. In 1756 at Banana Island, south of Sierra Leone, their ship was seized by locals, angry because a Dutch captain had recently removed some of their free men. At first the Africans held the crew captive but later allowed them to wander off. The brothers eventually found work with an African-born mulatto who had developed a trading post manned by his wives, children and slaves. For commercial convenience, the Owens built themselves houses at separate points on the Sherbrow River. Nicholas started his journal, recording his past experiences and philosophising on his present isolation in an alien society, describing himself as a ‘hermit’.
There was, however, much in Nicholas’s lifestyle that was not eremitical; he lived with an African woman and was served by a team of four or five men who helped him to acquire and control the slaves he collected. Generally he referred to this African grouping as ‘my people’, and on one occasion as ‘my familey’. In Africa he felt that he had acquired something of the gentry lifestyle he had forfeited at home. But, as he very well understood, it was at the cost of staying there. ‘I find it impossible to go of without a dail of dangers and risque.’ When he was well and busy and trade was prosperous he was not discontented with his situation. But when he was ill it was a different matter. Shuddering with malaria, unable to supervise business, homesickness would strike. ‘I have not brought any trade this 2 months, not so much as a servela [a term for a little slave]’, he wrote. ‘I still long more and more for a return to my native country.’ Within three months he was dead. Blaney took over the journal to record his brother’s passing and his own grief. As the journal survived, Blaney may also have done so. The tale of the Irish brothers, one dying in Africa, the other returning without having made his fortune, encapsulates the experience of most slave-ship crewmen.

The West Indies
Across the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, a group of second-generation Irish emigrants were making fortunes from buying and selling slaves. Since the seventeenth century the Irish had been settling in the Leewards, a string of physically varied and politically diverse islands. Their first choice was St Kitts, until 1713 divided into French and British sectors, and within easy reach of Dutch St Eustatius, a volcanic peak known as the ‘golden rock’ because of its fame as a smugglers’ haven. The authorities, however, increasingly pushed the Irish out of St Kitts onto the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat, where they came to constitute some 69 per cent of the white population, ‘almost an Irish colony’. Their presence on nearby Antigua and Nevis was also statistically significant, representing around a quarter of all whites.
Slaves were arriving in huge numbers into the Leewards in the eighteenth century. A Cork man working as an overseer in Antigua in the 1770s, and writing later to defend the trade, described the arrival of the Guinea ships with slaves dancing, gay, hung with glass beads, as if celebrating a festival. He declared that ‘There are one thousand of Irishmen . . . who have been spectators of the merriment’. On Montserrat, Skerrets, Ryans and Tuites busied themselves in inter-island trading, buying slaves from British ships and then re-exporting them, along with cargoes of provisions from Ireland. Nicholas Tuite, son of a Westmeath settler, branched out beyond the Leewards, some four days’ sail to the Virgin Islands, where the Danes were developing their colony of St Croix.
While the Danes possessed the capital and mercantile expertise necessary for running such a venture, they did not possess manpower eager or suitable for planting their new possession. It was Nicholas Tuite who solved this problem for them, importing slaves and encouraging other Montserratians, supplemented by individuals from Ireland itself, to move there. Between 1753 and 1773 (the year after Tuite’s death) slave numbers are said to have trebled, from 7,566 to 22,244, while sugar exports rose from 350 to 8,200 tons. Tuite himself now owned seven plantations there and was part-owner of seven others. In 1760 he journeyed to Copenhagen, where Fredrick V appointed him chamberlain and paid tribute to his role as founder of Denmark’s Caribbean empire. Like Antoine Walsh, slave-trading and plantation-owning had made him the friend of kings.
Every group in Ireland produced merchants who benefited from the slave trade and the expanding slave colonies. All slave-trading voyages required minor investors. In the 1750s the Presbyterian McCammons of Newry put money into at least one Liverpool voyage and actually ended up owning a slave. Almost four decades later their cousins James and Lambert Blair, following up West Indian connections, went out to St Eustatius, where they set up as agents, their main source of income derived by purchasing slaves for the Stevenson plantation. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Napoleonic wars brought Britain the Dutch territory of Demerara. The Blairs, now with funds to invest, were quick to buy land in Demerara and stock it with slaves to develop sugar plantations. In 1833 Westminster emancipated the slaves, paying out £20 million in compensation to the plantation-owners for the loss of their human property. James Blair received £83,530-8-11 for his 1,598 slaves. He thus claimed for more slaves and received more money than any other slave-owner in the British Empire.

Ireland’s projected slave-trade companies
Merchants in Ireland’s ports and towns were well aware of the importance of the slave trade and the slave colonies. The eighteenth-century economies of Cork, Limerick and Belfast expanded on the back of salted and pickled provisions specially designed to survive high temperatures. These were exported to the West Indies to feed slaves and planters, British, French, Spanish and Dutch. Products grown on slave plantations, sugar in the Caribbean and tobacco from the North American colonies, poured into eighteenth-century Ireland. Commercial interests throughout the island, and the parliament in Dublin, were vividly aware of how much wealth and revenue could be made from the imports. The fact that mercantile regulations, laid down in Westminster, meant that ‘plantation goods’ only reached Ireland via British ports was a source of growing indignation. In 1779 the Dublin parliament and the Volunteers successfully worked together to make Britain’s American difficulty Ireland’s opportunity, demanding that Westminster repeal mercantile regulations to allow ‘a free trade for Ireland’.
The importance of enslaved Africans in furnishing these Irish gains is vividly illustrated in a commemorative print of 1780 entitled ‘Hibernia attended by her Brave Volunteers, exhibiting her commercial freedom’. At the centre of the picture a youthful Hibernia, barefoot and barebreasted, hair flowing in the breeze, lifts up both her arms to display a banner bearing the words FREE TRADE. Behind her two armed and uniformed figures stand on guard while merchant ships approach at full sail. In the foreground, flanked by tobacco barrels, are three figures, kneeling before Hibernia to offer gifts. On the left an Irish woman holds out cloths, presumably a reference to the right of Ireland to freely export her textile production. Beside her an American Indian offers an animal pelt. On the right a black slave, strong, sinewy and briefly draped, extends a neoclassical urn, its precious metal representing the untold wealth of Africa and America. These three ‘volunteers’ carrying riches to Hibernia recall paintings of the Magi and the Christ-child, that biblical scene in which, since the fifteenth century, one of the kings was invariably depicted as an African.
This newly won ‘free trade for Ireland’ was not restricted to Atlantic voyaging; it also allowed Irish ships to sail direct to West Africa—in other words, to enter the slave trade. By 1784 Limerick and Belfast had drawn up and published detailed plans for the launching of slave-trade companies. Both ports contained leading merchant families who had made fortunes in the Caribbean. Creaghs from Limerick can be found slave-trading down the century from Rhode Island, Nantes and St Eustatius, and plantation-owning on Barbados and Jamaica. In Limerick by mid-century John Roche (1688–1760) had emerged as the city’s foremost Catholic merchant, richer even than the Creaghs, supplying the West Indies with provisions, buying their sugar and rum, smuggling and privateering during wartime. A similar pattern was established by Thomas Greg and Waddell Cunningham in Belfast. Their activities in the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War enabled them to improve port facilities at home and to establish sugar plantations in the Ceded Islands.
Such experiences fed patriot ambition to make use of Ireland’s new commercial freedom to enter the slave trade. But these plans now proved economically and ideologically backward-looking. By the 1780s more accessible and attractive opportunities were emerging nearer home as Britain industrialised, while simultaneously the rise of an anti-slavery campaign was making a once-respectable trade reprehensible. The projected companies came to nothing.
The slave trade provided labour for the plantation colonies, and these colonies had an enormous impact on Ireland. They encouraged urban growth through the import of sugar and tobacco and the export of provisions. Commercial dairying and beef production changed life in the countryside, generating wealth for some and fostering agrarian unrest among others. By 1780 sugar, though not as inflammatory as tea in Boston, was playing a transforming role in Irish political life. Ireland was very much part of the Black Atlantic world.

Nini Rodgers is a retired lecturer from the School of History, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:
N. Rodgers, Ireland, slavery and anti-slavery 1612–1865 (Basingstoke, 2007).
B. Rolston and M. Shannon, Encounters: how racism came to Ireland (Belfast, 2002).
R. L. Stein, The French slave trade in the eighteenth century: an Old Regime business (Wisconsin, 1979).
J. Walvin, Black ivory, a history of slavery in the British Empire (Blackwell, 2001).


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