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Liberty’s Call
Richard Robert Madden’s Voice in the Anti-Slavery Movement

By Gera Burton



Dr. Richard Robert Madden was an unlikely choice for Special Magistrate who devoted himself to the anti-slavery cause.


The early decades of the nineteenth century in Britain witnessed major legislative changes in the area of human rights. After 1807, when Britain’s parliament abolished the slave trade in its colonies, the government signed a number of anti-slavery treaties with Spain outlawing - if not the ‘odious institution’ of slavery itself - trafficking in human beings. By 1829, the Whig government had passed the Catholic Emancipation Act; four years later, under pressure from nonconformist religious groups known as ‘the Saints’, the parliament finally banned slavery throughout the British Empire. To ensure compliance with the 1833 Emancipation Act, the administration dispatched Special Magistrates to the ‘sugar colonies’ of the West Indies. Among these men was the Irishman Dr. Richard Robert Madden, a rather unlikely choice for such an assignment. This article examines Madden’s role in the international campaign to abolish slavery at a key moment in the movement’s evolution


On the recommendation of Whig contacts in the anti-slavery movement, including William Wilberforce’s successor, Thomas Fowell Buxton, Madden was among the first Irish Catholics appointed, after the 1829 Act removed barriers to the employment of Catholics in the British public service. [1] Although he had no legal background, as a medical practitioner, Madden had witnessed slavery in the Middle East under the Ottoman Empire, making him uniquely qualified for what would become the first in a series of dangerous human rights missions. A native of Dublin with a thriving medical practice in London’s fashionable Mayfair, Madden abandoned his career as a physician to devote himself full-time to the anti-slavery cause. In October 1833, accompanied by his English wife, Harriet, he boarded the Eclipse at Falmouth and set sail for the British West Indies. 

A painting of Jamaica representing what the island looked like when Madden, and the other five Special Magistrates, landed there in November 1833; their arrival provoked intense hostility from planters.

Madden was one of six Special Magistrates who landed in Jamaica in November 1833, where their arrival provoked intense hostility from planters. No sooner had the select band set foot on the island than they experienced rumblings underground, described by Madden as ‘a harbinger which was considered an appropriate introduction for persons with our appointments’ (Madden 1835: 80). These earth tremors did indeed foreshadow the effect the newcomers’ mission had on the island’s status quo.

Any expectations they might have entertained regarding the reception awaiting them were shattered by the headlines in the local newspapers. According to one editorial, the Secretary of State, Lord Stanley, had sent a crowd of ‘sly, slippery priests from Ireland’ to support themselves on the poor colonists. The press embellished their reports with a biblical reference labelling them as ‘strangers, plunderers, and political locusts’. Interference on the part of these newcomers was disrupting the peace of the island by promoting ‘disorder and confusion’ with their ‘insidious practices and dangerous doctrines’ (Madden 1835: 33).

Among the enslaved population, however, the reaction was altogether different. From their perspective, the magistrates were sent to the island as saviours who would deliver them from bondage. There was a palpable sense of excitement, as everyone eagerly anticipated Emancipation Day, set for ‘the 1st of August’ of the following year.

Losing no time, Madden was officially sworn in as Special Magistrate by Lord Mulgrave and settled into his duties in St. Andrew’s parish, an area of approximately 455 square kilometres just north of Kingston. [2] From there he transferred to the City of Kingston, the island’s commercial and administrative centre, when this important region was placed under his jurisdiction.

A painting of the city of Kingston around 1833. Kingston was Jamaica’s commercial and administrative centre where Madden was officially sworn in as Special Magistrate by Lord Mulgrave.

Madden’s tenure was marked by illness, controversy, and violence. Within nine months of their arrival, yellow fever and other tropical diseases caused the untimely demise of four of the special magistrates who had accompanied Madden on the Eclipse. Evidently, the Irishman’s medical training and standards of hygiene inoculated him from the ravages of disease as he adapted to the unfamiliar climate.

On what he later described as the proudest day of his life (Madden 1891), Madden was present for the historic Emancipation Day Proclamation, delivered by Lord Mulgrave, in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on 1 August 1834. Far from disturbing the peace of the island as the authorities had feared, slaves celebrated the occasion with church services and ‘a quiet and grateful piety.’ [3] According to the provisions of the Emancipation Act, by way of compensation, the government had earmarked £20 million (more than £800 million in today’s currency) to be paid to former slave owners for loss of ‘property’. Slaves younger than six years of age were to be freed, while those six years and older were required to serve a term of apprenticeship designed to teach them how to behave in freedom, or, as the Act stipulated, ‘to accustom themselves, under appropriate restraints, to the responsibilities of the new status’ (Temperley 1972: xi). Under threat of corporal punishment, house slaves were required to serve a period of four years; praedial slaves had to serve a period of six years, in what amounted to little more than a system of modified slavery.

During one of his numerous trips around the island, Madden set out for St. Mary’s Parish to find the location of a small plantation property known as Marley that had once belonged to a distant relative long since deceased. At the end of an exhausting day’s ride in the verdant mountains, whose heavily wooded areas and limestone soil had sustained countless runaway slaves, he discovered what appeared to be the abandoned remains of the old Marley plantation. Making his way along the narrow, mostly overgrown path, he encountered three women, former slaves, who had been living in the dilapidated old house for many years. To his astonishment, the two younger, middle-aged women turned out to be the daughters of Madden’s great-uncle, Theodosius Lyons, the previous plantation owner. He could even see a strong family resemblance, and the elderly woman was their mother. As the story unfolded, the sisters described how, following the sudden death of the plantation manager, their younger brother was sold to pay off the debts of the estate.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Burton, Gera, "Liberty’s Call: Richard Robert Madden’s Voice in the Anti-Slavery Movement (1833-1842)
" in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 199-206. Available online (, accessed .


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