Belfast's links to slavery: a shameful legacy

8 Jan 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Jan 2021

Shackles: Pic credit Pixabay

In the past few months there have been a series of controversies as historians and researchers have exposed links between historic buildings, monuments and slavery.

Later this month the focus will shift to Belfast when renowned broadcaster Professor David Olusoga delivers an online lecture on the ‘Legacies of Slavery’ to launch the Mary Ann McCracken Foundation on behalf of the city’s oldest charity, the Belfast Charitable Society.

Whilst there has been much written about slavery and colonialism in the English context (the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the National Trust’s research into links with buildings it manages, the controversy over the Rhodes statue at Oriel College Oxford) there’s been comparatively little about Ireland.

Perhaps this is because Ireland was the first colony of empire and therefore people imagine that there’s nothing to see here, and so we should move on. But there’s plenty to see and much to reflect on, not least in Belfast.

In the 18th Century the British built a commercial empire based on maritime trade. And Irish merchants were not slow to cash in. In his definitive study Eighteenth Century Ireland, Ian McBride points out that by the 1750s the Galway families of Kirwans, Lynches, Frenches and Skerretts all had established businesses in Antigua and members of the latter two were also in St-Domingue as sugar planters and traders. He also quotes an account of two Irish Dominicans who arrived on the tiny island of St Croix in 1759 to find 250 Irishmen on the island, some planters, some merchants and “about 100 lads of our country” as overseers on the plantation.”

But for Belfast the trade with the West Indies was “a vital stimulus in the transformation of a small market town into a significant port and manufacturing centre.”

This accelerated in the 1780s when Britain granted Ireland free trade. This meant that the products of slave labour – tobacco from Virginia and sugar and rum from the West Indies could be imported directly to Belfast and these commodities, together with cotton were critical to Belfast’s economic take-off.

A number of individuals grew very rich as a result. Waddell Cunningham, the first chairman of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce was reputedly the wealthiest of all of them.

He had emigrated to America as a young man and got involved in the shipping industry, carrying slaves between the islands of the Caribbean.

British victory in the Seven Years War (1756-63) marked the zenith of its Empire with the expulsion of the French from America and the seizure of French and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. Waddell was able to acquire a plantation on Dominica which he called “Belfast”.

Back in Belfast he is said to have attempted to have set up a slave-trading company in 1786.

Other entrepreneurs made their fortune from selling West Indian produce. They included Valentine Jones whose family had a bonded warehouse in Winecellar Entry (now White’s Tavern) selling Caribbean rum. His son was based in Barbados and owned a 167 acre plantation.

The sugar trade was especially lucrative in the 18th Century (it has been compared with today’s oil business). Belfast’s sugar refining centres were clustered around Sugar House Entry (which ran behind what is now the Northern Whig building.)

The town’s shoe makers also had a bonanza – making special shoes for slaves – by 1791 there were 312 cobblers out of a population of just over 18,000.

The Atlantic trade also led to a boom in the shipping industry, boosting the port and ship building as well as associated industries – rope and sail making.

However those who made their money from slaving interests did not get everything their own way. Belfast also had a strong, and influential abolitionist movement which was given support by the owner of the News Letter Henry Joy. He was reputed to give the following toast at dinners: “to Mr Wilberforce and a speedy repeal of the infamous traffic in the flesh and bone of man”.

The United Irishmen, inspired as they were by the French Revolution were vociferously opposed to slavery. Their newspaper the Northern Star was unequivocal: “every individual as far as he consumes sugar products becomes an accessory to the guilt.”

This led to many prominent citizens boycotting sugar and rum.

The disastrous 1798 rebellion put paid to the United Irishmen whose forces were crushed both at Antrim and Ballynahinch. Their leader Henry Joy McCracken was executed but his sister Mary Ann  lived on – establishing herself as the city’s greatest social reformer through her work at Belfast’s Poor House (now Clifton House).

She died in 1866, aged 96 after a life-time of philanthropy, campaigning for social justice and the abolition of slavery (which finally ended in the US in 1865).

Deep into old age she was still handing out abolitionist leaflets at Belfast docks and was as ferocious as ever in condemning the evils of slavery. In the 1850s she wrote that America “considered the land of the great, the brave, may more properly be styled the land of the tyrant and the Slave . . . Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates, for the good cause paying 2/6 yearly, not one man, tho’ several Quakers in Belfast, and none to distribute papers to American Emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89.”

Whilst Mary Ann McCracken lived to see the abolition of slavery in America she would be devastated to know that today there are estimated to be more than 40 million people in modern slavery – some of whom are far closer to home than they were in her lifetime.

This brings an added urgency to Professor Olusoga’s talk. Slavery is not just a legacy issue.

The Mary Ann McCracken Foundation was set up by the Belfast Charitable Society (BCS) to celebrate Mary Ann’s life and to build on her legacy today.

The Foundation has two main objectives:

  • To advance education of the public about the life and works of Mary Ann McCracken, a leading social reformer and philanthropist.
  • In the spirit of the legacy and work of Mary Ann McCracken; to advance education, to prevent or relieve poverty, to advance human rights and promote equality.

The talk takes place on January 20 from 7.30pm – 8.30pm. Registration is via donation and details can be found here.



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