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Liberty's Call: Richard Robert Madden's Voice in the Anti-Slavery Movement (1833-1842)

By Gera Burton 


Prior to the events surrounding the Amistad affair, in order to highlight the corrupt practices of the colonial administration in Cuba, Madden wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Regarding the Slave Trade in Cuba’ (1839), which was published in Boston, receiving much attention. Penned in the form of an open letter to the outspoken, anti-abolitionist Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, Madden criticised the role of the US Consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, in the slave trade. [8] Widely circulated in the United States, the pamphlet denounced not only the Cuban administration but the role of US investment capital in maintaining an abundant supply of slave labour. Madden accused Trist of trafficking in slaves between Cuba and the Republic of Texas under the cover of the US flag. In retaliation, an anonymous correspondent with the pseudonym ‘Calm Observer’ launched a blistering attack on the Irishman, calling into question his credentials and motivation regarding the Amistad captives. [9] 

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon. This painting portrays the world’s first anti-slavery convention in London on 12 June 1840. The convention drew thousands of participants from several countries. The U.S. delegation, which numbered in the hundreds, included William Lloyd Garrison, Lucrecia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

On 12 June 1840, the world’s first anti-slavery convention in London drew thousands of participants from several countries. The US delegation, numbering in the hundreds, included William Lloyd Garrison, Lucrecia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. [10] The official register of delegates lists four representatives of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Association: Richard Allen, Richard D. Webb, Edward Baldwin, Daniel ‘The Liberator’ O’Connell, and Dr R. R. Madden, recently returned from Cuba. The doctor’s perspective as an eyewitness was particularly valuable, as it ran contrary to De Toqueville’s statements regarding the ‘benign’ nature of slavery in Spanish colonies. 

In his address, Madden presented a detailed account of the nature and operation of the slave trade in Cuba, published in pamphlet form and circulated widely. He described the blatant disregard for the cédulas (documents) supposedly in effect in Cuba for the protection of slaves as well as the system of coartación, whereby slaves could purchase their freedom in instalments. In fact, regardless of official decrees, at all times slaves remained at the mercy of slaveholders, who were under no obligation to accede to their slaves’ requests for coartación.

Also distributed widely that year was Madden’s translation of Juan Francisco Manzano’s poetry and Part I of his autobiography, published as Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba (1840). Manzano and Madden had developed a friendship in Havana and, although Juan Pérez de la Riva maintained that Madden was instrumental in procuring his friend’s manumission, I am unable to verify that this was the case. [11] The autobiography broke ground as it was, and remains, the only work of its kind by a slave from a Spanish colony. Considered the foundational work of Cuban literature, Manzano’s narrative did not appear in its original Spanish until 1937, almost one hundred years after the publication of Madden’s translation. In 1849, Madden published a comprehensive account of his experiences in Cuba entitled The Island of Cuba: Its Resources, Progress and Prospects. [12]

On 7 January 1841, Madden embarked for Gambia as Commissioner of Inquiry to conduct an investigation into the operation of slave settlements on the west coast of Africa. What he discovered provoked intense opposition, leading to personal attacks on his character, especially when an unexpected change in the government in London altered the political landscape. His controversial Report to the House of Commons exposed the ‘pawn’ system, in which British merchants took Africans as captives in pawn for debts; when the debts could not be discharged, the pawns lapsed into slavery. Published in 1842, the report also exposed the flouting of the government’s official anti-slavery policy by British companies engaged in supplying the slave trade. Once again, the courageous doctor battled powerful ‘monied interests’, this time with ties to the City of London.

When the new government appointed John Forster MP, an affluent West African merchant and slave-trade profiteer, as Chair of a House of Commons committee to investigate the report’s findings, including allegations of his own company’s participation in the illegal slave trade, it became clear that a cover-up was in progress. Committee members challenged Madden’s findings and criticised his methods, so that portions of the report were withheld from the British public.

Although the results of Madden’s investigation were undermined by a powerful opposition in the House of Commons, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society expressed its appreciation for ‘the fearless and impartial manner’ in which he had exposed the evils connected with the participation of British merchants in the slave trade and the ‘pawn’ system. The Committee further referred to the ‘unjust attacks to which [he had] been subjected by parties implicated in the transactions exposed and which [he had] so successfully refuted’ (Madden 1891: letter dated 31 March 1843). Perhaps the best vindication of Madden’s findings came from the veteran anti-slavery campaigner, Thomas Clarkson. Referring to the ‘cruel warfare [he had] to sustain’, the 83-year-old Clarkson acknowledged his victory over the ‘vile and servile agents’ and ‘unprincipled men who endeavored to thwart [him] in all [his] proceedings’ (Madden 1891: 117, letter dated 10 April 1843).

Sponsored by Buxton, the 1843 Slave Act extended the provisions of the 1824 Slave Trade Act and the 1833 Abolition Act. Section 2 specifically referred to persons held in servitude as pledges for debt, known as ‘pawns’, and ‘deemed and construed to be slaves or persons intended to be dealt with as slaves’. In effect, the act provided for the elimination of the ‘Pawn’ system and imposed penalties for offenders, closing the final legal loopholes exploited by unscrupulous merchants who fuelled the slave trade, making a mockery of the anti-slavery statutes. There can be no doubt that Madden’s controversial findings influenced the successful passage of the 1843 Bill.

Uncompromising on slavery and oppression, at times his opponents accused the ‘bookish’ Madden of being a fanatic. His fiercely independent approach caused one colonial official to remark that ‘he could not be bribed, cajoled, or coerced’. As noted by Leon Ó Broin, he considered it the peculiar duty of an Irishman accustomed to oppression at home ‘to favor by all means in his power the promotion of liberty abroad’ (O’Broin 1958: 322). Among his countrymen in Ireland, his work as champion of the oppressed in foreign lands received little recognition, due in large part to his status as a servant of the British Crown. While it is true that John Quincy Adams acknowledged the value of Madden’s testimony and that the Colonial Secretary, Lord John Russell, officially praised his efforts in the Amistad case, the valiant doctor’s subsequent struggle against the causes of famine and injustice in Ireland precluded him from receiving due recognition by Britain for his heroic contributions to the anti-slavery cause.

A staunch champion of human rights, whose remarkable efforts in other circumstances would have merited a knighthood, Madden was often viewed by British administrators in Ireland as ‘a mischief-maker and a danger to the peace of the community’ (Ó Broin 1958: 322). Notwithstanding his role as ‘the most indefatigable defender of the oppressed’ (Patrick Rafroidi) in the latter part of his career, the authorities on occasion went so far as to keep the elderly Madden under surveillance in his native city, regardless of the Whig connections that had previously afforded him protection (Emmet 1911: 268). Throughout his life he remained a strong voice for the poor and unrepresented of his country. By the time of his death in Dublin in 1886, the year in which slavery was finally outlawed in Cuba, his courageous work in the anti-slavery movement had long since been forgotten. 

Gera Burton


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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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