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“…when we hold people captive with chains of unforgiveness.”

By Patrick Van Roy On July 8th, 2020

Guest Post Seimi

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The tearing down of statues and the removal of certain names from certain buildings has, as all here know, been in the news quite a lot recently. The reasons given for each removal may differ, but generally speaking, it is those individuals who were slavers or deemed to have been racists whose monuments are being removed.

For the most part, this campaign seems to be centred around England and the USA, whose connections with the slave trade are well documented. England’s three main slaving cities were Bristol, London and Liverpool. The last of these was late in joining the slave trade, but would quickly become the slave trade capital pf England. In 1792, London had 22 transatlantic slave ships, Bristol had 42, but Liverpool had an incredible 131. 1 in 5 of the slaves which were transported from England to the colonies passed through Liverpool. One Quaker, travelling around England giving abolitionist talks, was almost killed in Liverpool by a gang of sailors who had been hired to assassinate him. This man, Thomas Clarkson, used an illustration of an actual slave ship from Liverpool, the Brookes (named after its owner, Joseph Brookes, and shown above), on posters and pamphlets, to show the terrible conditions in which slaves were transported across the ocean to be sold in America and the west Indies.

The Brookes made 10 transatlantic slave trips, transporting 5,163 African slaves, of which 4,559 survived. That’s over 10% of the human beings transported on this one ship died on the journey.

It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America between 1525 and 1866. 2 million never survived the journey.

Of course, the USA and England were not the only countries involved in the slave trade. The Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Danish, the Belgians and the Portuguese were all heavily involved. In fact, the Portuguese transported a higher volume than the English.

The Irish connection with the slave trade goes back to at least 1687, when one William Ronan began working in West Africa, where over a 10 year period he rose to become chairman of the committee of merchants in what is now Ghana.

Belfast had two factories which made clothing and shoes for slaves, but no slave ships or slave market. It did however have slave owners, the most famous of which was probably Waddell Cunningham, a merchant with sugar plantations in the New World, and joint owner of the largest shipping company in New York. Ironically he was also the founding president of the Belfast Charitable Society.

In 1786, a group of merchants, led by Cunningham, tried to open Belfast as a slaving port. Already an important shipping port, the opening up of the docks as a slave port would bring huge wealth to the growing town (it wouldn’t receive city status for another 102 years). They produced a document, a prospectus, which they asked the merchants of Belfast to sign. They hadn’t bargained on the Presbyterians of Belfast. 

Belfast Presbyterians were a radical people. Just 2 years before this, they had helped fund the building of the first Catholic church within the town limits. Their members included many United Irishmen who, in 12 years time, would lead a failed revolt against the English.

One of their members was a mill owner from North Belfast, called Thomas McCabe. He is said to have stood in the Old Exchange, at the foot of Donegall Street, the prospectus in hand, and called out, “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document!” 

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Apparently nobody signed.

 

The Northern Star, a newspaper founded by the United Irishmen, wrote, “…every individual, as far as he consumes sugar products becomes accessory to the guilt [of slavery].”

Henry Joy McCracken, son of the founder of the Belfast Newsletter (the oldest English language newspaper still in print in the world) and United Irishman, gave a toast at a dinner in 1792, “to Mr Wilberforce and a speedy repeal of the infamous traffic in the flesh and bone of man.”

Belfast never became a slave port, and I take a little pride in that fact.

But here’s the thing: why do I take pride in something which I did not – could not – have been involved in? Had Thomas McCabe not said what he did; had the Northern Star not printed what it did; had McCracken not made that toast – had Waddell Cunningham succeeded in his dream of making Belfast a slave port – would I have felt a sense of shame? No, of course I wouldn’t, just as no-one in Liverpool in 2020 spends their day feeling shame for what merchants in their city did nearly 300 years ago. Nor should they.

It’s a very convenient pride I feel. Pride that my city, back then, did not go the route of so many others. But that does not erase the fact that people such as Cunningham existed in Belfast. 

I don’t believe any statues of Cunningham exist. But if one did, I would be opposed to its removal. I understand the reasoning behind the campaign to remove certain statues – those which provide a false narrative, e.g. some Confederate statues, or ones which glorify the slave trade, like some of the ones in Belgium. But statues are reminders of the past, not statements of today. A statue from the 1750s or the 1890s or almost any date you may wish to mention, does not in any way reflect a community or city today. It signifies what was, not what is. And if what was was not very nice, it should remain as a reminder that we weren’t always as tolerant of our fellow human beings as we say we are today.

51 Responses to ““…when we hold people captive with chains of unforgiveness.””

  1. Heart-warming seimi against a background of vicious brutality
    They only gave McCabe a blue plague, he needs a statue commensurate with his stature 😉

  2. Cheers, PaTroll.

  3. Superb post

    Belfast Presbyterians were a radical people

    Indeed, it’s a shame that their radicalism was neutered by the Orange Order after 1798.

    Being Belfast natives we of course know of the social and political radicalism of McCracken although I find it sad that his great social reformer sister, Mary, is generally cast in his shadow.

    Ffrom Henry Joy to Barney Hughes and all in between the history of radical agitation and social reform and philanthropy in Belfast is rich and I for one am extremely proud of it.

  4. sorry for the delay

  5. Brilliant article Seimi. Genuinely informative and interesting. I Couldn’t agree more with your analysis and views on the topic of statue removal too. A standing ovation from me 🙂

  6. That was really interesting Seimi. Thanks.
    As a scouser, I do have a strong interest in Liverpool’s history.
    I recognise those plans for storing slaves in ships from my trips to the Liverpool International Slavery Museum at the Albert Dock.

  7. Dave

    Liverpool may well have given us the Beatles, but the rest of the country will never forgive you for inflicting Cilla Black’s singing voice on us 🙂

  8. Great stuff, Seimi. Informative and thought-provoking. I agree with your ulitimate analysis also.

  9. Paul

    Ffrom Henry Joy to Barney Hughes and all in between the history of radical agitation and social reform and philanthropy in Belfast is rich and I for one am extremely proud of it.

    As am I. The point I was trying to make in the end was – for every Henry Joy or Barney Hughes, there was a Waddell Cunningham or a Buck Alec Robinson, but we feel no shame about them, which is right. We also don’t pretend they didn’t exist, which is also right. I wouldn’t be in favour of an attempt to wipe either from history.

    sorry for the delay

    You and your gallivanting! 🙂

  10. I’d disagree that removing statues removes history. I think it is possible to remember what happened without honouring what happened.

  11. Interesting. Though I think there are some statues that were erected with an intent to intimidate or push a triumphal narrative that orderly removal by governments after due consideration are appropriate.

  12. Colm,

    Liverpool may well have given us the Beatles, but the rest of the country will never forgive you for inflicting Cilla Black’s singing voice on us 🙂

    I agree with you 100% mate, but to be fair the Beatles, specifically Paul McCartney are partly responsible for Cilla Black singing career. She was the the coat girl at the Cavern club, and Paul used to get her on stage at the end of the night to sing. So my father informs me. He also told me he asked Cilla Black out on a date and he told him to f*** off. Personally I don’t blame Cilla.

  13. Dave

    yes I know the coat check at the Cavern story. I presume Paul asked her on stage to sing at the end of the night to help clear the customers out fast 🙂

    PS – interesting about your dad and Ms Black. So if things had worked out differently Cilla could have been your mum !!

  14. For every Henry Joy or Barney Hughes, there was a Waddell Cunningham or a Buck Alec Robinson, but we feel no shame about them, which is right. We also don’t pretend they didn’t exist, which is also right. I wouldn’t be in favour of an attempt to wipe either from history

    Correct on all points.

    Incidentally, with the reference to ‘Buck Alec’ I wonder how many of the Americans here are aware of him? He was a unionist gunman, boxer, USC cop and legend has it, Al Capone’s body guard.

  15. Colm,

    I didn’t realise I told that story before mate, and yes, Cilla’s voice would certainly clear me from the room.

    PS – interesting about your dad and Ms Black. So if things had worked out differently Cilla could have been your mum !!

    I never thought of it like that before. That blew my mind a little bit. 😁

  16. Mahons,

    Interesting. Though I think there are some statues that were erected with an intent to intimidate or push a triumphal narrative that orderly removal by governments after due consideration are appropriate.

    I totally agree.

  17. Dave

    No I wasn’t saying you had told that story before, only that I knew that Cilla had been the coat check girl at the Cavern. She banged on about it enough in interviews 🙂

  18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Robinson

    My brother and I interviewed a barber in the New Lodge who, as a young boy, met Laurel and Hardy when they visited the city. They were getting a haircut in his father’s barber shop, and whilst there, they asked could they meet ‘the Lion Man,’ meaning Robinson, who kept 2 toothless lions, which he would walk around the streets.

  19. Interesting. Though I think there are some statues that were erected with an intent to intimidate or push a triumphal narrative that orderly removal by governments after due consideration are appropriate.

    I alluded to this in the post, though I used the ‘false narrative’ of some confederate statues as an example. But yes, it’s a fair point.

  20. Men like Jefferson and Washington did own slaves, but the statues of them were not erected to glorify their slave ownership.

    The statues of Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis etc were almost all erected to glorify their role in the Confederacy.

    They were built mostly in two waves, post reconstruction, to signify their opposition to the rights that black Americans in the South had gained after the Civil War, and in the 40s – 60s era to signify opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

    I think it is appropriate to remove almost all Confederate monuments, but be much more selective with other statue/monument removals.

  21. that were erected with an intent to intimidate or push a triumphal narrative

    gonna have a helluva lot of statues then that fit those parameters
    Perhaps a statue to Diane Abbot as first black women in parliament to serve for 33 years 😉

  22. kurt – Behave 🙂

  23. caught me colm ..lol
    yes i was trying to flush out someone who’d been on the loo far too long
    its the environment see I’m protecting against green-house gases 😉

  24. Kurt

    Perhaps a statue to Diane Abbot as first black women in parliament to serve for 33 years 😉

    I totally agree Kurt. And as an added bonus it would certainly help metal sales in our struggling bronze industry.

  25. exactly Dave, what’s not to like , all we need is a suitable erection site

  26. Thanks for an enlightening article which is a delight to read. I did not know of Buck Alec Robinson who seems to be have been an infamous character. I note that Paisley carried his coffin. Birds of a feather.

  27. Glad you liked it, New Yorker.

  28. Interesting point also, Seimi, about Belfast being, somewhat fortuitously, on the right side of history and how this adds to civic pride for current generations.

    Building a shared narrative is important and is something that Belfast (for obvious reasons) doesn’t really have.

  29. //but Liverpool had an incredible 131. 1 in 5 of the slaves which were transported from England to the colonies passed through Liverpool.//

    But was that a significant figure in total? I thought most slaves were transported from Africa straight to the Americas.

    //The Irish connection with the slave trade goes back to at least 1687, when one William Ronan//

    Hmmmmm .. had Cromwell not been transporting captured Irish people to the Americas about 40 years previously? Also, just 20 years prior to that again, hundreds of people in Baltimore were captured by Barbary pirates led by a Dutchman and sold as slaves in North Africa.

    To be honest, I find it hard to get very angry about the traffic of slaves from Africa 200 years ago, especially when the reasons why that issue should emerge so violently in 2020 are rather murky and very suspect. This is an American issue and part of the insane polarisation and hype that seems to have overwhelmed the political discourse in that country. There is no need to import it to politically more sane places.

    We are Irish and Europeans. The injustices and brutality of the American slave trade, terrible as they were, are so far back in history and so remote as to be of little more than academic interest today, like the use of child labour around the same time. They also completely pale into insignificance compared to the widespread slavery that happened in Europe in the recent past. You say 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the Americas as slaves. But probably over 13 million people were enslaved for work by the Nazis in just 6 years. Some were treated somewhat better, some much worse than 19th C slaves.
    Then there was the even worse crime of the millions sent to camps and simply murdered. After the war, around 13 m Germans were ethnic cleansed from their homes in Eastern Europe, of which around 2 million died en route, the same number as died in the Middle Passage.
    Then there are the millions of people enslaved by Stalin, very many of whom worked and died in conditions that would have made the cottonfields look pleasant.

    All that took place within the lifetime of my parents.

  30. But really good post, Seimi 🙂

  31. i don’t think you can compare Noel
    those atrocities are over and were part of Nazim and Stalins purges
    the blackmans experience today is not fixed up and set right esp in America
    his life is cheap compared to whiteman, and we see that in the stats and the killings by law enforcement on the puniest of grounds. Its a disgrace .

  32. “I thought most slaves were transported from Africa straight to the Americas.”

    It was known as triangular trade. So slaves would be bought in Western Africa and brought to the Caribbean and the Americas, where they would work in plantations growing cash crops. Those cash crops would be sent to cities in Europe where they would be unloaded and developed into goods. Those goods would then be loaded onto the ships and sent to Western Africa where they would be used to pay for more slaves. And so on and so on.

  33. kurt

    That is an exaggeration. There is a problem with the police and black people in the USA but it isn’t as if the police are driving around at random slaughtering black people without consequence. the USA is a vibrant open democracy with a great deal of publicity, activism and investigation whenever a police killing of an unarmed person occurs. I agree with Noel, the current trend for comparing the situation otday with the slave trade f hundreds of years ago is specious and the idea that the ‘cultural cleansing’ of historic symbols will do anything to address modern policing and social problems is ludicrous.

  34. Thanks Noel 😂
    I mentioned Ronan because he was one of the first documented Irishmen who actively took part in African slavery.
    Cromwell was English, and the prisoners were Irish, so that doesn’t really count.
    And the inhabitants of Baltimore were overwhelmingly English settlers, who had bought the land. In all likelihood they were set up by McCarthy, the local Irish landlord, so he could steal their land.
    The reason I used the African slave trade was because the issue is about America today, and the connection between the African Americans and, well, Africa.
    I also wanted to show that in Belfast, at least, they didn’t go for the idea of selling human beings for profit.
    Can you put away the red pen now, please? 😂

  35. the blackmans experience today is not fixed up and set right esp in America

    The reason I used the African slave trade was because the issue is about America today, and the connection between the African Americans and, well, Africa.

    The wrongs of removal of Africans (captured and sold by…..?) from Africa should be righted conclusively…….by monetary compensation dependent upon return to Africa.

    https://www.informationliberation.com/?id=61577

    A heavily-armed self-described “Black Militia” group marched through the streets of Georgia on July 4th and held up cars to demand “reparations” from white people and the media couldn’t care less.

    So ‘reparations’? Sure – but you’ve got to go back to Africa 🙂

  36. Colm I just don’t want the USA 3rd world policing over here. And they are literally going round gunning down black people . It’s been all over the news last few months !

  37. Well by the same token Allan hopefully you’ll stay in Scotland . We don’t want you down here . Good night

  38. Kurt,
    There are problems with some police officers in the USA, but they are not ‘literally going round gunning down black people.’
    That’s sensationalist and completely untrue.

  39. Seimi

    I believe some people in Ireland, north and south, became quite wealthy because they owned outright or had shares in slave plantations in the Caribbean. And, when slavery was outlawed they received enormous compensation for ‘loss of business’. Years ago I saw a BBC program narrated by a black scholar in England who has conducted extensive primary research on the subject including the compensation. As I recall, many of the quite wealthy families in all parts of the UK and Ireland were beneficiaries of the depraved business of owning slave plantations. So, while Belfast admirably did not become a slave trading port, if one were to research the derivation of the wealth of some NI and RoI families it is possible it was from ownership of slave plantations.

  40. New Yorker

    Yes, certainly some Irish people profited directly from the slave trade. Waddell Cunningham for example, who was the richest man in Belfast during his day, owned slaves in America, as did many of his peers. Also, there were, as I mentioned, two factories making clothing and shoes for slaves, in Belfast. Whoever owned them (and it may have been Cunningham himself) made profit from slavery.
    It would be interesting to see if any businesses/families today owe their fortune to the sale of human beings.

    Noel et al

    I’m not sure if you have seen this before. These are the descendants of Irish people who settled on Montserrat, in the West Indies. Listen to the names and the accent:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jfip96k1cE0

    This clip says the Irish were sent there by Cromwell, and befriended the African slaves, but a later Channel 4 documentary about the same island (presented by now-President, Michael D. Higgins) suggests that the Irish came here to escape oppression, but became the slave owners! The truth may well lie somewhere in between.

  41. It is also worth remembering the Irish sacrifice in bringing it all to an end as well. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought for the Union Army to end slavery in the United States. That”s roughly the same number that fought for Britain during the pointless First World War.

    Yet in Ireland there are movements to commemorate the First World War and the Irishmen who fought in it, but no real movement to do the same for the US Civil War.

  42. It is also worth remembering the Irish sacrifice in bringing it all to an end as well. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought for the Union Army to end slavery in the United States

    While the point is taken I wonder how many of them did for economic reasons as opposed to ideology?

  43. Sure, but similar nuance is rarely applied to other conflicts. How many people wanted to stop the Nazis and how many wanted a steady pay packet?

  44. The question could be asked of most international conflicts with maybe the exception of the Spanish Civil War but in the case of the ACW I suspect that immigrant economic hardship was more a driving factor than anti-slavery ideology.

  45. Over 200,000 Irishmen fought for the Union Army to end slavery in the United States.

    But were they not emigrants,who would simply have been considered to be Americans . It wasn’t as if they were volunteers who would return back to Ireland after the conflict.

  46. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Americans_in_the_American_Civil_War

    Very many of those Irish who fought for the union did so because they were drafted into it, because they volunteered. There was a huge violent opposition to the draft in NY.

    There were Irish who fought for the confederacy, Including six Irish born generals

  47. I’m not sure it changes things from a commemorative point of view. Who are more worthy of commemoration? Irishmen, who didn’t return home, who fought for economic reasons for a cause worth fighting for, or Irishmen, who did return home, who fought for economic reasons for the cause of the King winning a cousinly pissing contest?

  48. Seamus

    I am not saying anyone is unworthy of commemoration – I am just making a distinction between people who travel to another country to volunteer for a cause for ideological reasons, to help the people living there but who have no intention of staying there, and individuals who live in a country and are taking part in its own internal conflict but happen to have been born elsewhere.

  49. I know that is the distinction you are making Colm. I just don’t think it is that great a distinction. I think the greater distinction is the two causes, one worthy of commemoration and support, the other not.

  50. //Over 200,000 Irishmen fought for the Union Army to end slavery in the United States.//

    It’s always risky assigning motives to people joining large armies. Very often they do it for pay, for the uniform, to impress the local girls, for travel and adventure, or simply to escape a humdrum existence back home.

    There was a continuous – by today’s standards – anti-black trend among Irish nationalists. Some of the Young Irelanders were pretty bad, and a lot of the Fenians were as bad or worse; the Clan na Gael types, and Tom Clarke and his crowd in the US.

    In a way it was like today: there was a certain competition for the limited amount of sympathy available for oppressed peoples.

  51. I don’t disagree. But as has been said that nuance could be applied to every other war, and the people who fought it, in modern history.