An Irish slave in Antigua

“Mulatto Jack” was an Irishman kidnapped in Ireland and sold into perpetual slavery in Antigua. Sixteen years later he was imprisoned as a suspect during a slave conspiracy in 1736.

What does his plight tell us about Ireland’s historical relationship with the Black Atlantic?

In October 1736 a cadre of enslaved people in Antigua allegedly planned to free the colony’s slave population by overthrowing the British slavocracy that had enchattled and exploited tens of thousands of people for over a century at that point. This was to be achieved by blowing up Governor William Mathew and leading members of the most powerful planter families of the colony during their annual ball commemorating the coronation of George II on 11 October.

According to the colony’s investigators this gunpowder explosion, to be ignited in the cellars beneath the ballroom, was one of the agreed signals for various units of armed slaves to march on the harbours, forts and towns killing all before them. However, the ball was postponed until 30 October and in the meantime the conspiracy was uncovered by the planters who investigated after they became suspicious at the “insolence” of many of the slaves which had allegedly increased “to a very dangerous pitch”.

This slave conspiracy narrative was obtained by the planters via the private interrogation, torture and (ultimately) the testimony of the enslaved. Thus if, or to what extent, the planters exaggerated or embellished the details of the slave conspiracy remains a subject of debate. What followed this “discovery” were months of brutal, sadistic tortures and the horrific executions of those convicted or suspected of involvement. In total eighty-eight enslaved people were publicly executed. Six were gibbeted alive. Five were broken on the wheel. Seventy-seven were burned alive. Most of the victims’ remains were decapitated and their severed heads placed on pikes in public view as a warning to the rest of the slave population. The final executions involved the burning alive of eleven enslaved people on 8 March 1737. The historian David Barry Gaspar has noted that “there was a stronger inclination towards vengeance than justice” on the part of the judges who seemed “convinced there was a plot before the trials even began.” Indeed as Vincent Brown has explained, the violence the planters inflicted upon their slaves was “used more to dramatise the power of masters than to construct a community governed by recognizably just laws and punishments.” It could be argued that even discussing “justice” in relation to a slavocracy is an absurd exercise. After all almost eighty people were nailed to the ground and burned to ash despite not committing a single violent act. As was customary in Antigua, each owner of the executed was later paid “compensation” out of the public treasury for the loss of their “property” and the cost of this mass murder was so great that it almost bankrupted the colony.

The discovery of an “Irish slave”

On the 30 December 1736, in the midst of this bloodshed, three of the colony’s investigating commissioners submitted a report to Governor Mathew which included a request for advice about “a person called Mulatto Jack” who

“…was brought before us as a criminal slave concerned in the plot, but he alleged that he was free born in Ireland and stolen thence and sold here as a slave. We think he proved his allegation, and we submit it to the legislature whether this mitigates his crime.”

According to Gaspar he had been kidnapped in Ireland around 1720 and was thus enslaved in Antigua for approximately sixteen years. How did Jack “prove his allegation”? Did he have an Irish accent? Did he speak Irish or did he talk about his family and community back in Ireland? That he convinced a group of planters in the midst of a slave conspiracy trial suggests that his was an irrefutable claim. He was kept imprisoned for at least four months, until April 1737, when the council decided not to prosecute him as he had already “suffered great hardships” but only on the proviso that his owner, Col. Crump, sent him immediately back to Ireland. At this point his name leaves the known historical record.

Jack’s case highlights aspects of Ireland’s relationship with the Black Atlantic

1. It raises questions about racial identity in the “home nations” and the contradictions and conflicts within the planters’ ideologies. Jack was kidnapped as a ‘free born’ person and sold into slavery, but so were most of those that were forcibly shipped to the Americas from West Africa. It appears that Jack’s plight was sympathised with because he was Irish born, and in the eyes of the Antiguan planters at this moment, freeborn Irish subjects, regardless of their skin colour, were not to be enslaved. Gaspar however sees Jack’s release and transportation back to Ireland as less about an act of compassion and more the deportation of a potentially troublesome individual against whom they had weak evidence. This is a pertinent observation as Jack had been enslaved in Antigua for nearly two decades, so why did they only decide to address his “great hardships” at this point? He was one of a number of slaves deported from the colony rather than executed, thus convenience and expediency do seem to be the key factors.

2. Irish people made up a notable portion of the white population of Antigua since its colonisation by the English in the early 17th century. Most of those were likely voluntary migrants as it was not a known destination for those forcibly transported to the Anglo American colonies during the 1650s by the Cromwellian regime. However it is possible that some of those who were exiled in Barbados, Bermuda and even Virginia may have made their way to Antigua and the other Leeward Islands (especially Montserrat) if they survived their indenture.

A petition was issued by Colonel Christopher Kaynell the Governor of Antigua in 1656 that requested English servants (prisoners of war or penal law), but if they could not be procured, then Scotch and Irish servants would do.

“Considerations upon the above proposals by order of 16 April 1656, for keeping afoot the island of Antigua. All arms and ammunition, of which a supply to be sent, and clothing outward bound, and all commodities imported for five years to be free of customs. English servants to be sent over “as prisoners and the like, if not, Scotch and Irish.”

There is no evidence to suggest that this was followed up on and the Cromwellian transportation policy of sending Irish vagrants to the colonies was revoked in March 1657. According to William Stapleton’s census by 1678 approximately 26% of the white population in the colony was Irish (360 men, 130 women and 120 children) while a 1702 statute in Antigua identified Irish people as ‘home nations’ colonists as opposed to ‘aliens’

“that the Number of Aliens thus admitted to settle among us, shall not exceed the One-fourth of English, Scotch, Irish, and Cariole [Creole] Subjects.”

While most of the Irish in 18th century Antigua were servants and merchants, there were also some Irish planters and slave owners in the colony, hailing from diverse political, social and religious backgrounds, bearing family names such as Browne, Burke, Gaynor, Delap, Nugent, Lynch, Murphy, Skerrett, Tuite, Nihell, and Kirwan.

This continued into the 19th century and when slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834, the following Irish surnames were present among the slave owners based in Antigua who claimed compensation payments; Buckley, Burke, Byrne, Collins, Corbett, Curtin, Doyle, Halloran, Keane, Kelly, Lynch, Malone, McCarthy, O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Loughlin, O’Shaughnessy, Ryan and Shiell.

3. It highlights the presence of Africans or people of African descent living in 18th century Ireland. W.A. Hart estimates their number to have been about 2,000 and that many would have been servants or de facto enslaved. Slave sale adverts even appeared in Irish newspapers: “A Neat beautiful black negro girl, just brought from Carolina, aged 11 or 12 years, speaks good English; to be disposed of.” (Dublin, 1768) Black Irish people were also part of the free population and undoubtedly some intermarried with white Irish. But as Jack’s story makes clear, due to the colour of their skin, they and their families were at risk of being kidnapped in Ireland and shipped across the Atlantic and sold into chattel slavery in the colonies. Racial slavery had been adopted from Iberian slave systems by planters in the Anglo American colonies since the early 17th century and as these plantations became increasingly lucrative, and the slave population grew, the laws grew in severity, the racism more absolute, the paths to freedom narrowed exponentially. By 1740 the South Carolina slave code starkly announced that “it shall be always presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo, is a slave…”

4. That Jack was kidnapped in Ireland and sold into slavery reminds us of the significant Irish trade with the plantations. Throughout the 18th century many hundreds of ships left Irish ports to directly trade with the various European slavocracies in the West Indies. Antigua in particular was heavily reliant on the importation of Irish provisions from the late seventeenth century on. The Roche and Kelly merchant families of Limerick exported countless tonnes of provisions to Antigua and their contact in the colony, Lawrence Nihell, was also from Limerick. This was one side of the trade between Ireland and Antigua. Planters paid for the import of Irish provisions (beef, butter, pork, &c.) with slave produce (rum, sugar) and this slave produce was sold by grocers all over Ireland. This import of provisions from Ireland was crucially important as it allowed the slavocracy to maximise the growth of cash crops for export.

In 1719–1720, likely the year that Jack was kidnapped, over 10% of all the ships that docked in the main port in Antigua had travelled directly from Ireland or stopped there to pick up provisions. According to Thomas Truxes the nearly nine thousand barrels of beef landed in Antigua that year “accounted for one-fifth of Ireland’s plantation export of that article.” Around this time, Irish provisions ships were also known to engage in clandestine slave trading with Antigua, with one trader noting that it was common for such vessels to “buy Negroes out of our ships in the Road…which Negroes they carry to Antegua and sell there…”

In 1733, just three years before the slave conspiracy, most of the beef, pork, butter and herrings purchased by planters in Antigua was exported there by Irish merchants. It is thus no coincidence that when the planter elite in Antigua wrote a public defence of their mass execution and torture of slaves, it was published not in the Metropole, but in Dublin, Ireland. By 1770 the Irish market absorbed nearly 90% of Antigua’s total rum exports and during 1774 alone over 100,000 gallons of rum were imported to Dublin from Antigua. This lucrative trade relationship continued into the early 19th century and on a single day in February 1809 the house of O’Connor and More had alone imported “757 hogsheads, 206 tierces, and 19 barrels of sugar from Antigua, bringing to the revenue near 17,000l.”

It was amidst this transatlantic trade in provisions, slave produce and enslaved people, that Jack was kidnapped by Irish merchants because of the colour of his skin and sold as just another piece of valuable merchandise.

5. It recalls how some Irish people were directly involved in the slave trade. Due to the imposition of navigation laws Irish merchants were precluded from directly engaging in the transatlantic slave trade (in Ireland) but many became successful slave traders in English and French slave trade hubs such as Liverpool, Bristol and Nantes. Most notable in Liverpool was David Tuohy. He was from Tralee, Co. Kerry and he settled in Liverpool in the 1750s. He captained at least four slave trading voyages from 1766 to 1771. In 1766 he sailed Sam, a Boston built vessel, from Liverpool to West Central Africa. There he bought 284 African people, there were 32 Middle Passage deaths during the voyage across the Atlantic, and the survivors were sold in Barbados and Grenada. In 1767 he sailed the Sally and on this occasion the 234 surviving slaves were sold to planters in Antigua. On the same ship in 1769 he sailed to the Windward Coast, where he bought 200 African people, and then to the Gold Coast where he bought a further 130 people. This time 87 of his victims died during the middle passage and he sold the survivors at Grenada. A 26.4% death rate. In 1771 he sailed the Ranger to West Africa. He purchased 257 people. 47 died during the Middle Passage and he sold the survivors at Barbados and Antigua. By that point he had made enough money to become a slave ship owner and thus he became a part-owner of ten Liverpool slave ships from 1772 to 1786.

Further Reading

  • The laws of the island of Antigua; consisting of the acts of the Leeward Islands, commencing 8th November 1690, ending 21st April 1798; and the acts of Antigua, commencing 10th April 1668, ending 7th May 1804 (London, 1805) URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008596255
  • Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2008)
  • Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies: Vol. 43, Antigua (17 January 1737)
  • David Eltis, The British Transatlantic Slave Trade before 1714: Annual Estimates of Volume and Direction, The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion (University Press of Florida, 1996)
  • David Barry Gaspar, Bondmen and Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua (Duke University Press, 1993)
  • David Barry Gaspar, “A Mockery of Freedom”: The Status of Freedmen in Antiguan Slave Society Before 1760, New West Indian Guide 59, no. 3/4 (1985): 135–48.
  • W.A. Hart, Africans in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 33 (May, 2002), 19–32
  • Liam Hogan, Exaggeration and the appropriation of the torture of enslaved Africans in the “Irish slaves” meme, Medium (2015) URL: https://medium.com/@Limerick1914/we-had-it-worse-eebe705c41a
  • Natasha Lightfoot, Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation (Duke University Press, 2015)
  • R.C. Nash, Irish Atlantic Trade in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 42, №3 (1985), 329–356
  • Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612–1865 (Palgrave, 2007)
  • R.B. Sheridan, The Rise of a Colonial Gentry: A Case Study of Antigua, 1730–1775, The Economic History Review New Series, Vol. 13, №3 (1961), 342–357
  • The Tuohy Papers, Slave trade records from Liverpool, 1754–1792, British Online Archives/ Liverpool Record Office URL: https://microform.digital/boa/collections/5/volumes/26/the-tuohy-papers
  • Thomas M. Truxes, Irish-American Trade 1660–1783 (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • Natalie A. Zacek, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands, 1600–1776 (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi https://ko-fi.com/liamhogan