By Ciaran Crossey
Saturday 6th June saw substantial Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Belfast and Derry, with other small protests held around then in Omagh, Enniskillen and other towns. These protests highlighted the fact that the majority of people here are opposed to the racism that led to the death of George Floyd in the US, as well as Stephen Lawrence in London, among numerous others.
The second thing that has been highlighted is the hypocrisy of the politicians here – they can light up Stormont in solidarity with BLM, but who directed the police to fine the anti-racist protesters? This hypocrisy is just a part of the routine in Northern Ireland, where we are led to believe that – today and always – the establishment has been opposed to racism, including slavery. Tell that to the 59 who were rescued from modern day slavery here in 2018.
Historically, the image is put forward that our hands are clean, that Belfast never benefited from slavery, unlike Liverpool and Bristol. As I say, hypocrisy. I’ll give a few examples where well-known people, from both sides of the sectarian divide here, who engaged in and supported slavery.
Ulster’s supporters of slavery
Let’s start at the bottom – Andrew Jackson is commemorated at his ancestral house outside Carrickfergus. His claim to fame – while born of poor County Antrim parents, he rose to wealth and the Presidency of the USA. That’s great, if we ignore his 161 slaves or his call to expand slavery into the Western Territories the United States expanded. Records show he beat his slaves, including doling out a brutal public whipping to a woman he felt had been “putting on airs.” In a newspaper advertisement in search of a ‘runaway’ slave, he offered an extra $10 for every 100 lashes doled out to Tom, a 30-year-old slave who escaped in 1804. Is it really surprising that he is admired by Trumps, who was the first sitting President to visit Jackson’s grave?
A hero of Irish nationalism, John Mitchel has recently come in for some long delayed criticism. Born in county Derry and brought up in Newry, he was a leader of the Young Ireland movement in the mid-19th century, who ended up deported to Australia, escaping from there to Confederate America. He authored a famous book, Jail Journal, detailing his time of incarceration and his escape to America. Once there, he became editor of a paper and an advocate of slavery, with one infamous line where he refers to black people as “innately inferior”. In fact, he argued that the US should be “proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade.” During the Civil War he supported the Confederates, losing two sons in that war.
The fact that he was a hero of the fight for Irish independence has resulted in his support for slavery being pushed to one side. At least four GAA clubs are named after him, along with the memorial statue in Newry. The local council today may move to remove that statue from public display, but as recently as 2007 took no action when asked to consider the issue.
Belfast’s connection with the slave trade
Belfast was a small town when, in 1781, the Westminster government removed restrictions on trade from Belfast to America and Africa. Within five years, there was an attempt to establish a slave trading company in Belfast, but thankfully it failed. One of the major forces behind that move was Waddell Cunningham, a leading, liberally inclined, businessman. He was one of the Presbyterians who were supportive of the opening of the first Catholic church in the city.
But, away from his ecumenical inclinations, Cunningham was primarily a profiteer. He went to America in the 1750s, formed a shipping company which operated around the Caribbean, trading goods and slaves between the islands. Along with other prominent local businessmen, he set up a sugar estate on Dominica, called Belfast. As usual, the cargo included slaves.
The rapid expansion of Belfast shipping to the Americas and the Caribbean saw the establishment of shipbuilding, the ropeworks, and even a growth in soap making and shoemaking. The shoemakers in Belfast numbered 224 in 1781, yet eight years later there were 312. This growth was directly in the supply of shoes for the slave trade.
In 1833, after slavery was abolished across the British empire, the government compensated the slave-owners and not the slaves, transferring huge sums of money to already wealthy people. A compensation fund of £20 million was set aside for slave-owners, estimated to be the equivalent of 40% of the national budget.
One hundred and eighty people with Irish addresses were ‘compensated’, including the the La Touche family of bankers and property developers in Dublin. Two members of the La Touche family received almost £7,000 (the equivalent of €1.1 million today) in compensation for the 385 slaves they owned in Jamaica. Charles McGarel from Larne ran various businesses in what became Guyana and became involved in the slave trade. Among the ‘charitable’ things this businessman did with his blood money was to build Larne Town Hall, which bears his name.
Revolutionaries stand in opposition
The forces that did oppose slavery were not ‘the great and the good’, but the revolutionaries associated with the United Irishmen. Famously, Thomas McCabe, a United Irishman, stood up to Cunningham’s attempt to form a Belfast-based slave trading company, of which he wrote, ‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea’. Similarly, Mary Ann McCracken – sister of Henry Joy – was a campaginer against slavery into her old age, proclaiming that “America, considered the land of the great and the brave, may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the slave.”
The North’s connection with slavery is more complex than it is often presented. People from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds supported and profited from slavery, while others from both communities opposed it. The capitalist class in Belfast did benefit from the slave trade, and connections with it spurred the city’s growth. Just as with the capitalists of today, of all backgrounds, they were driven first and foremost by profit, not the wellbeing of their fellow human beings. While slavery has largely been abolished – through struggle – the inequality and oppression built into this system remains. It’s time the whole system went!