Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery

To a postgraduate history seminar at UCC. Nini Rodgers (Queens University Belfast) on Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1865. She’s just had a book published.

From the 17th century, ports all along the Atlantic seaboard from Copenhagen to Cadiz participated in the slave trade. But not in Ireland.  Why not?  Britain didn't allow free trade for Ireland until 1780, following Irish free trade agitation in the 1770’s by Irish merchants.  This engraving from 1780 celebrates the campaign’s success. It depicts Hibernia waving a Free Trade banner and attended by her brave volunteers.

1780 : Hibernia attended by her brave volunteers
exhibiting her commercial freedom
The brave volunteers in question being an American Indian presenting an animal pelt, an indeterminate woman presenting a bolt of cloth, and most valuable by far, a black slave presenting a golden urn which we can presume contains sugar or the profits thereof. Sugar was the 18th century oil, taking over from spices and gold.

In the background standing watch over proceedings are two British soldiers, while a merchant vessel flies an ensign sporting a harp surmounted by a crown.

Because Ireland was prevented under British law from participating in the slave trade, Irish slavers traded from Bristol, Liverpool or Nantes. 

The domestic Irish merchant class never, in the event, succeeded in participating in the slave trade, which was abolished in the UK in 1807. Their attempt to enter the trade came too late. By 1780 Liverpool had the market sewn up.  They did try to set up slaver companies in Belfast and Limerick but they didn’t get off the ground.  By 1780 the slave trade was economically old fashioned.  Better things to invest in supplying industrialised Britain. Moreover, ideologically, the slave trade was becoming suspect at this time. 

Nini spent a few minutes on the Irish attitude to slavery. Anti-slavery not a popular movement in Ireland.  In the US, poor Irish immigrants were quite keen to join in a slave-owning society, liked having someone to look down on, were pro-slavery.  Thought it hypocritical that there should be all this hullabaloo about slavery whilst the Irish were left to starve in the Famine, and were treated worse than slaves in New York.  I must return to this sometime.

One postgrad complimented Nini on her book and commented that this is the way Irish history should go. We need to disentangle ourselves from victimology and recognise that we have a history like any other nation, with heroes and villains, exploiters as well as exploited, he said.

I have fuller notes, the above is just a taster.  I forget how I came to hear about this seminar, and it was far from clear that I was actually meant to be there, but the organiser made me most welcome.  1807 strikes me as being a very odd date to choose to abolish the slave trade. I really must look into this subject some more.

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