The United lrishmen & Hamburg

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), The United Irishmen, Volume 5

By 1795, the United Irishmen’s hope of bringing about change in Ireland by peaceful means had been shattered once and for all. French assistance to an Irish independence movement seemed to be the only way out of the vicious circle of growing popular radicalisation and government counter measures. Revolutionary France had already developed into a Mecca of republicanism since the early days of the Revolution. It had a magnetic attraction for radical movements, which had sprung into existence in Poland, Italy, Germany, as well as other countries, and which strove to translate French principles into action. Would-be republicans from all over Europe courted successive French governments, trying hard to get France’s attention for their respective home countries. Accordingly, the French Revolution, by triggering off political migration, planned and prepared as well as forced and unintentional, also led to a remarkable overlap of Irish and German history.

Hamburg’s special position

In the 1790s the north German city of Hamburg emerged as an important political crossroads on the Continent. It had traditionally stood out against the German background, had been a ‘special case’ in German history. Despite belonging formally to the German Reich from the ninth century, Hamburg always had an unclear relationship with the Reich and the neighbouring countries alike. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that the city officially became a Reichsstadt and received a seat and the right to vote at the Reichstag, the assembly of the representatives of the German Reich. Thus, Hamburg was the youngest, but also the biggest German Reichsstadt, with 130,000 inhabitants in 1794. Apart from a determined policy of neutrality, Hamburg’s sophisticated administration was an essential feature of its special position. The democratic character of the city’s politics as well as the extraordinary and comprehensive self-government of its burghers distinguished it from the rest of the Reich. Unlike many German and European states where hereditary nepotism and feudal regimes were still the order of the day at the end of the eighteenth century, Hamburg’s government represented a ‘democracy of the wealthy’. The city’s administration rested on a hierarchy along property lines. Since the government of the ‘most enlightened German city’ exclusively lay in the hands of its wealthy burghers, noblemen could not obtain civil rights in Hamburg, purchase property or participate in the city’s politics. Accordingly, the promotion of the city’s wealth had traditionally been imperative for the Hamburg authorities in order to preserve the political and economic basis of its livelihood. Therefore, the city’s politics were strongly influenced by its commercial relations. Favoured by its geographic position Hamburg served as a commercial nerve centre for half the continent. By means of the river EIbe, Hamburg was connected with the North Sea and the east German Oder towns (The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Kanal, connecting the rivers Oder and Spree, and thus the EIbe with the Oder, was opened in 1668). Moreover, it lay on the eighteenth century commercial routes between east and west, and north and south of Europe. The strength of its position in the world market was the fundamental basis of Hamburg’s prosperity. Accordingly, commercial and political relations with foreign countries were of great importance to Hamburg whose diplomatic representatives and mercantile fleets were to be found in most parts of maritime Europe. Furthermore, the city served as a residence for foreign merchants since early modern times. The admission of the first merchant adventurers in 1567 reflects the city’s openness to foreigners, which was to become one of the essential features of the city’s commercial development. It prompted a constant influx of merchants from the Netherlands, England, eastern Europe, Jews from Portugal, and from other economic powers of the time, trading with or alongside their German counterparts.
The revolutionary events on the Continent and the coalition wars changed the conditions of Hamburg’s politics and its economy alike—and enhanced the city’s special position. The establishment of the Batavian Republic in 1795 and the English naval blockade of the French and the Dutch coast brought about the elimination of Holland from the economic field. Hamburg then became the outstanding continental centre of trade and of the financial world as well as the only market for English transactions on the European mainland. Importantly, the city had very close commercial links with France too. In the course of the eighteenth century, France took the place of England as Hamburg’s preferred trading partner. Many of the city’s merchant houses opened offices in Le Havre, Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseilles, and other French cities, operating with their parent companies in Hamburg and establishing close economic as well as political links between the two economic powers. In the years of the First French Republic, the close relations with France were to play an important part in attracting foreign radicals who were seeking to contact the French.
The city’s great importance as a crossroads on the Continent also created the conditions for an interface of Irish and German history at the time of the French Revolution. Neutral Hamburg, half-way between France and lreland, proved to be a suitable starting point for French as well as Irish missions. The English naval blockade acted as a deterrent, since taking the direct route would have threatened the life and mission of any foolhardy agent. Thus, Hamburg offered the most suitable opportunity to  contact the French as well as to transmit information to them. lt accommodated one of the most important political outposts for France, with Charles Reinhard as an able representative and creator of French foreign policy. Encouraged by the favourable reception respective missions could expect on his part, Irish agents preferred using the Hamburg route.

Refuge for Irish revolutionaries

Arthur O’Connor and Lord Edward Fitzgerald’s trip to Hamburg in 1796 formed a prelude to future United Irish missions. From an Irish as well as from a French angle, the two Irishmen set an example, which was to come in useful in the following years. Thus, for instance Edward Lewins, who travelled through Hamburg on his way to France in the spring of 1797 in order to take up negotiations with France, gained a great deal from the connections Lord Edward had established in Hamburg in the year before. The relative tranquillity, however, that surrounded the early missions of Lord Edward, O’Connor and Lewins soon came to an end. Heightening tensions in Ireland, especially in Ulster in the first half of 1797 began to have an effect on the situation in Hamburg. Owing to largescale government countermeasures against the radical threat in the North, but also to frictions within the movement, United Irish migration started to mount rapidly. For the most part, it took the form of hasty flights rather than purposful political missions, since fleeing the country often meant the only way out for harassed United Irishmen, like Bartholomew Teeling, Alexander Lowry, Joseph Orr, John Tennent, Patrick and John Byrne, Anthony McCann, Thomas Burgess, the Revds. James Quigley, Magaulay and MacMahon, and importantly Samuel Turner, all of whom had left Ireland in the aftermath of the June crisis in 1797. Without exception, the known Ulster militants travelled via England on their way to Hamburg (including Cuxhaven as one of the Hamburg harbours), from where they eventually set out for France. Thus, a definite pattern of United migration was strengthened by 1797.

The arrival of Samuel Turner

Heightening tensions in Ireland and growing hysteria on account of the United Irish-French association jolted the British into action. Starting in the second half of 1797, London as well as Dublin began to gain a more detailed insight into the machinery of United Irish moves and even succeeded in smuggling an informer, Samuel Turner, into Hamburg, Europe’s outstanding communication nerve-centre. Turner, originally a leading light of the Ulster United Irish movement, sold his services to the Irish authorities shortly before leaving Ireland, and functioned as a spy in Hamburg until 1802-3. An intelligence network, however, was still not in operation in 1797. For the most part, tranquillity surrounded the work of Frazer, the English minister in Hamburg, whose accounts of United activities were only coming in dribs and drabs. It was not until the end of April 1798 that the British foreign ministry started to effectively react to the situation in Hamburg. A few days before he was replaced by Sir James Craufurd, Frazer was asked to ‘employ some confidential intelligent person for the express purpose of obtaining an accurate account of all the English and Irish now at Hamburg and of endeavouring to discover the nature of their connections and correspondence there’. However, it was not until Craufurd took office that new British policies started to be effective. Soon after his arrival in the city, he received clear-cut instructions on how to proceed. With a certain note of nervousness, Portland, the foreign secretary, outlined his ideas and told Craufurd that

there is no point which is so urgent, as that of your procuring the most accurate Information that can be had respecting the names and characters of his majesty’s subjects arriving or established there. This is more important at the present moment, as I have received such information as leaves no room to doubt that a constant and active intercourse is carried on between his majesty’s enemies and the rebels in Ireland by the means of agents continually passing and repassing, by the way of Hamburg.

In the following years, Craufurd carried out his task with meticulous care. With precision, he reported on radical activities, individual English and Irish travellers and hardly anyone escaped his observation. By the summer of 1798, he had set up a system of intelligence, involving a number of regular agents and payments in order to acquire information. To the satisfaction of his London superiors, Craufurd soon succeeded in making a considerable change in English policies in Hamburg, which from now on was becoming a dangerous place for United Irishmen.
The outbreak of the Irish rebellion in the second half of May drastically changed the situation in Hamburg. In the two years prior to 1798, some twenty United Irishmen had reached the city. Another twenty had arrived in the first half of 1798 alone, and in the wake of the rebellion itself the English minister Craufurd was faced with droves of Irish refugees flocking into Hamburg. Even allowing for the fact that Craufurd’s suspicions fell on any travellers from Britain or Ireland, the number of reports on suspected Irish radicals is large. While for many Irishmen Hamburg served as a temporary halting-place, some refugees preferred to stay in the city. This is confirmed by numerous accounts of radical activities in Hamburg. In the summer of 1798, many revolutionary clubs and associations sprang up in the city, mostly consisting of French and Irish émigrés, but also English and Scottish or local liberal circles. The Irish émigrés appear to have been occupied with establishing contacts with their United Irish brethren in Ireland and France, but apart from pursuing a specific Irish objective, these oddly assorted amalgamations appear to have been a melting pot for all sorts of anti-British feelings. Already by June, the United Irishmen in Hamburg had set up some sort of an Irish committee that was closely co-operating with French republican circles residing in Hamburg. In the first half of July, the Irish were busy in making preparations for the forthcoming anniversary of Bastille Day, which they deemed worthy of celebrating. It is impossible to give a clear account of the activities of the numerous nameless Irish refugees, who sought their salvation in flight to the Continent in the wake of the Irish rebellion. But it is plain that the rising stung the United Irishmen in Hamburg into action and that it had a catalytic effect on radical migration from British and Ireland. While some twenty United Irishmen had reached Hamburg between January and June 1798, another sixty arrived between July and December. Yet only about twenty of them are known by name or biographic detail. We can assume, however, that most of them did not stay in the city for any length of time, and only some twenty to thirty Irishmen at most appear to have been present at various points of time in the second half of 1798.

Napper Tandy’s arrest

In the year following the Irish rising, the United Irish issue in Hamburg reached its climax. In the wake of the French expeditions to Ireland, numerous rebel refugees trickled into the north German city. Among them were the veteran radical Napper Tandy, James Bartholomew Blackwell and William Corbet, all members of the shambolic Anacréon expedition to Rutland Bay, Donegal. Subsequent to a stop-over in Bergen, Norway, where they were joined by another United Irishman, Hervey M. Morres, they eventually reached Hamburg towards the end of November 1798, where, under British pressure, they were arrested. After monitering United activities in Hamburg for more than two years, the British government did not want to stand by and do nothing as in the years before. It put its full diplomatic weight behind the arrest of the Irish rebels to gain the upper hand in the contest for supremacy in the north German city. While London subsequently exerted all its strength to have the Irishmen extradited to Britain, France vehemently demanded their release. The free German city developed into a diplomatic theatre of war, involving the quarrelsome governments of France and Britain, but also the majesties of Russia, Prussia and Denmark who found themselves compelled to take the part of one side or the other. The Irish prisoners, mere pawns in that contest, remained in the dark (literally) in their Hamburg dungeons for almost a year until they were eventually handed over to the British minister on 1 October 1799.

Change in political climate

Some thirty Irishmen took refuge in Hamburg in 1799. The drop in arrivals, however, can only partly be explained by the deterrent effect of the Tandy episode. In fact, the decrease in the numbers of Irish émigrés corresponded with a waning wanderlust on the part of United Irishmen themselves due to an increased obsession with secrecy on the part of the movement’s new leaders in Ireland, as well as to the presence of a new government in France. At a time when peace was in the offing, the general political climate in Europe did not suit further United Irish-French relations and French foreign policymakers did not seriously contemplate elaborating new plans for another descent on Ireland. Hamburg, thus, lost some of its importance as a United Irish nerve centre for the exchange of information with the French. Nevertheless, Hamburg and Altona accommodated a number of United émigrés in the years subsequent to the Irish rebellion. Some of them also stayed for longer periods in what was to be their provisional place of exile, such as Garret Byrne of Ballymanus and Edward Fitzgerald of Newpark, Archibald Hamilton Rowan and William Sampson. Although United Irish émigrés kept a low profile after the trouble stirred up by the Tandy affair, the city continued to serve as a stepping stone for United Irish agents, who emerged after the reconstruction of the movement in 1798-9. Although relatively little is known about the political activities of United Irishmen in the city between 1799 and 1802, we know for sure that all important missions to and from France during that period went through Hamburg, namely William Putnam McCabe and George Palmer, Thomas O’Meara and Edward Carolan, Malachy Delaney and Robert Emmet. All the indications are that the city still accommodated some sort of a loose Irish organisation at the turn of 1800-1, that meetings were held and that the Irish in Hamburg were in correspondence with their United Irish brethren in Ireland as well as France.

The Peace of Amiens

The somewhat blurred overall picture of United Irish activities in the years after the rebellion changed in 1802. In the wake of the Peace of Amiens in March 1802, ending the European war which had hitherto determined the movement’s fortunes, the release of the Fort George prisoners in June gave a new impetus to United Irish affairs. Thus, the Despard Conspiracy of 1802 and Emmet’s rising of July 1803 were closely connected to the release of the old leaders and the chain of events which followed their arrival in Hamburg. Although the shaky state of peace diminished United Irish prospects of military assistance from France for the time being, it made it easier for Irish agents to travel between Ireland and France. With Britain’s navy no longer barring the way to French and Dutch ports, United Irish travellers enjoyed greater freedom of movement. Hamburg was no longer necessary for liaison with France and ceased to serve as the focal point for United Irish activity. Moreover, Sir George Rumbold, the new British minister in Hamburg since November 1801, paid little attention to United Irish doings. Since Samuel Turner also stopped feeding the British government with information, the activity of the United Irishmen in Hamburg by 1803 is obscure. Hamburg, a nerve centre for Britain’s intelligence network on the Continent for a number of years, became an intelligence backwater thereafter.

Paul Weber is a journalist working in Germany.

Further reading:

P. Weber, On the Road to Rebellion: the United Irishmen and Hamburg 1796-1803 (Dublin 1997).

M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution (New Haven, London 1982).

R. Wells, Insurrection: the British Experience 1795-1803 (Gloucester 1986)


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