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Review of Nini Rodgers's Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1865

By Gera Burton


Author's Reply

Limerick, in decline after the siege of 1690-1691, revived in the mid eighteenth century by the West Indian provision trade, sugar and rum. The white Palladian building, right of the bridge, is the new customs house (now the Hunt Museum) and further right the Georgian suburb of Newtown Pery can be glimpsed.
(The Hibernian Magazine 1776)

Reviewing this book (332 pages of text), Gera Burton has written at length, summarizing its structure and content while adding further factual material and personal commentary. At certain points she would have liked more figures; one hundred and sixty seven sightings of Africans were recorded in eighteenth century Ireland (p.127). The reviewer felt that a comparative figure for Britain and other European countries would have been informative. Such figures could have been furnished, revealing the Irish number as tiny when measured against the contested figures for England - from three thousand to thirty thousand, with the latest estimate suggesting five thousand upwards (Myers, 1996: 31). In France, with a population more than twice that of England and Wales, four to five thousand has recently been posited (Peabody 1996:4). The fact that Ireland did not possess slave trading ports and was not an imperial metropole reduces the cogency of the comparison. Even more elusive is any exact quantitative assessment of the Irish merchants and captains involved in the Liverpool slave trade. The relevant material appears to be very sparse but further extended research could well reveal new sources.  The same is true of Bristol and London, the latter port busy with slave ships and Irishmen in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and as yet so far un-investigated. (There is certainly at least a PhD thesis in all this.)

Burton is also concerned that this book glosses over Cromwellian deportations to Barbados. The author however feels that she struggled hard with the problem of bond servitude and transportation to the West Indies in the seventeenth century doing what she could with the current printed evidence.   As far as she could ascertain no Irish historian since Aubrey Gwynn in the nineteen thirties has directly confronted the issue of Cromwellian transportation (Gwynn, 1931) Over the last decades Kerby Miller et al have brought about a revolution in historical knowledge of Irish emigration to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even more recently Mary Ann Lyons and Thomas O’Connor’s conferences and publications on the Irish abroad have produced similar understanding for continental Europe over an even longer time span. (Attending one such lively and informative conference, this writer was asked by a post doctoral scholar where her particular interests lay. When she replied ‘The Irish in the Caribbean’ he laughed and said, ‘You are on your own.’)  A new study of Irish migration across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, the era in which Caribbean destinations were at their most important, would be very challenging, the evidence scattered and diverse, yet this is an important project worthy of thought and investigation. Where thousands are carried away in ships there is usually some trace left in shipping or financial records - the early years of the slave trade, recounted by Hugh Thomas, make this clear.

When commencing research on Ireland, slavery and anti-slavery, the author began by writing Part 2, At Home, intending to produce a short work on the eighteenth century showing how Ireland was part of the ‘Black Atlantic’, its economy, society and politics affected by the export of provisions to the Caribbean and the import of slave grown produce, sugar and tobacco. It is still the case that the chapters focused on the eighteenth century contain more in-depth research than the others. However the lack of published material on Ireland’s involvement with slavery and anti-slavery suggested that a work extending into earlier and later times could at least provide a useful overview for interested scholars.

Producing a survey of two and a half centuries entails a high degree of selection, always a difficult process. It seemed apposite to avoid writing at length on any prominent figure who left Ireland in youth and made his name in England. This entailed the rejection Hans Sloane and Edmund Burke, the former often seen as the father of the British Museum, the latter as the philosopher of British Toryism. In the case of Burke, mounting interest by historians in the influence of his Irish background on his thought and career, caused the author to lift the ban. In Sloane’s case it remained. Born in County Down in 1660 he left Ireland to study medicine and produced the first natural history of Jamaica in which he commented on slavery as well as flora and fauna. The author now feels that a concise and compact survey of the Irish in Jamaica from 1655 to 1838 would have been a useful contribution to historical knowledge and could have made some use of Sloane’s writings. However, as the structure of the text had evolved, she could see no easy way of including such an account. Time of course was also a factor. Dublin contains Jamaican plantation records belonging to the O’Haras of Sligo and the de la Touche’s of Dublin which the author never managed to consult. Jamaica remains a rich and promising field for future researchers.

Commenting upon Part 3 ‘Emancipation,’ Burton is disappointed that more attention should not have been paid to the abolitionist R.R. Madden. Looking back the author agrees that she could have used the rich material which Madden provides more extensively. There were two reasons why she decided not to deal with his career at length. First she had already published an essay on this subject and did not want to repeat herself. (Rodgers, 2003:119-131). But again consideration about the structure of the book influenced the decision. Madden’s anti-slavery career was carried out within a British context and at this point in time (the late 1830s and early 40s) the author was eager to move on to the U.S.A, where the main struggle between slavery and anti-slavery was now taking place.

Throughout the work the author has attempted to use biographical material in order to convey important historical developments in an interesting manner. Perhaps this does not work as well as she had hoped, for Burton has reservations about the device and in John Mitchel’s case finds the material decidedly lengthy.  In chapter 13 ‘Famine and War’ the book deals with a place and time so important to the Irish that historians of migration and military historians have produced extensive research and publication. Discovering that many people in Ireland knew John Mitchel supported slavery with no idea why, and in search of a strategy which would allow her to survey work done by others while adding some degree of original research, the author decided to showcase the Mitchel family as Irish emigrants entering, and contributing to, the maelstrom of the slavery and anti-slavery conflict. The close of this chapter returns to Ireland to concentrate on the impact of the Galway professor, John Eliot Cairnes’ influential Slave Power, its Character, Career and Probable Designs (1863) followed by a description of the stimulus which the cotton famine gave to Irish linen.  Considering that chapters  11 and 12  already provided an account of the work of the HASS (Hibernian Anti-slavery Society) assessing its contribution to the international anti-slavery movement and its impact on Irish society, the author does not provide a detailed history of its downs and ups 1850-1865. Anyone interested in this topic should start their researches by reading D.C. Riach’s,  pioneering PhD. thesis ‘Ireland and the campaign against American slavery,1830-1860’ to which Ireland, Slavery and Anti-slavery 1612-1865 owes many debts.

In her review Burton takes a stimulating line in suggesting analogies between the position of the Anglo Irish and the crillos of Cuba. This of course could be extended to mainland Latin America where the existence of indigenous, dispossessed peoples would offer an even closer comparison with the Irish situation. On the Caribbean islands Arawaks and Caribbs had been eliminated. African slaves, like the Europeans who imported them, were newcomers not natives. Pursuing her comparison Burton asks if Lord Castlereagh had been born in Kingston would he have been considered Jamaican? The answer is ‘yes’. Any son born to a long established planter family resident in the colony,  when he went to school or university or visited England, would have been hailed as a Jamaican or West Indian and would have viewed himself as such.  The equation of Jamaicans with blackness is a post emancipation development. In the eighteenth century slaves were in a demographic majority on the island but many of them had been born in Africa. Even after 1807 the number of these was substantial.  The small group of elderly African intellectuals, slaves and ex-slaves, with whom R.R.Madden became friendly, prided themselves on being Muslim and Mandingo (Madden 1835: i 99-101, ii 183-189.) To return from the Caribbean to the Irish situation, Castlereagh’s Presbyterian forbearers had arrived in Donegal in 1629 and a century passed before they began their move into an Anglo-Irish, Anglican ethos. Born in 1769, for most of his life he thought of himself as Irish and was regarded as such. Only after he had eliminated the Irish parliament and achieved cabinet status at Westminster did he decide that he was beginning to feel English.

Ireland, Slavery and Anti-slavery depicts identity as a social construct, often multi-layered and hybridised, shifting with time and place. The book uses as a base line the contemporary eighteenth century view of Ireland’s population as consisting of ‘Protestants (members of the Church of Ireland), Catholics and Dissenters (Presbyterians) and the study seeks to delineate their religio/ethnic backgrounds and their privileged or underprivileged status.  It attempts to show how black slavery impacted on everyone from the rich and powerful to the poor and oppressed.

Burton quotes Rodgers’ definition of those considered suitable for inclusion in the study but is uneasy about the choice and would have liked a deeper analysis of ‘the contentious matter of “Irishness”.’ For the last forty years Irish historian (historians writing about Ireland?) have been working to amend the view of ‘the true Irish’ as a monolithic group ‘lacking agency’ which Burton puts forward, drawing upon post-colonial theory. Rodgers discusses post colonialism with regard to anti-slavery literature and here finds it an unhelpful mode of analysis (pp.254-255). Within the review she feels that at times it leads to confusion. At one point Burton notes the importance of urban growth in eighteenth-century Ireland, at another she states firmly that the island’s economy was ‘languishing in British control’. The text stresses that even without admission to the slave trade, within the imperial regulations laid down by Westminster, Ireland benefited from mercantile contacts with the slave plantation complex. The argument that Ireland was part of the ‘Black Atlantic’ is the thesis upon which this book is based.

Given the different approaches of reviewer and reviewed some degree of disagreement is inevitable and could prove fruitful. In the hope that Ireland, Slavery and Anti-slavery will stimulate further research, they are in complete agreement.

Nini Rodgers


- Cullen, Louis M,‘The Irish Diaspora of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’ in Nicholas Canny (ed.) Europeans on the Move, Studies in European Migration 1500-1800 (Oxford, 1994)

- Gwynn, Aubrey, ‘Cromwell’s Policy of Transportation’ in Studies, 20 (June 1931).

- Hart, William A. ‘Africans in eighteenth-century Ireland’ in Irish Historical Studies, 23:29, May 2002.

- Miller, Kerby A.,‘Scotch -Irish,black-Irish and real Irish: emigrants and identities in the Old South,’ in Andy Bielenberg (ed.), The Irish Diaspora (London, 2000).

- Madden, Richard Robert A Twelve Months Residence in the West Indies (New York, 1835). 2 vols.

- Myers, Norma, Reconstructing the black past: Blacks in Britain 1780-1830 (London, 1996)

- O’ Conner, Thomas (ed.) The Irish in Europe 1580-1815 (Dublin, 2001).

- Peabody, Sue, There are no slaves in France (Oxford, 1996)

- Riach, Douglas C.  ‘Ireland and the campaign against American slavery, 1830-1860’ (unpublished PhD. dissertation, University of Edinburgh,1975).

- Rodgers, Nini, ‘Richard Robert Madden: an Irish anti-slavery activist in the Americas,’ in Oonagh Walsh (ed.) Ireland Abroad, Politics and Professions in the Nineteenth Century (Dublin, 2003).



Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 28 August 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Burton, Gera, "Review of Nini Rodger's 'Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612-1865'" in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 241-248 (, accessed .


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