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Beyond Kinship
A Study of the Eighteenth-century Irish Community
at Saint Croix, Danish West Indies

By Orla Power




The Irish trading post, and its associated sugar plantations on the Danish island of Saint Croix during the eighteenth century, is fascinating in that it reflects a cultural liaison unusual in the study of the early modern Irish diaspora. Although the absence of a common religion, language or culture was indicative of the changing nature of Caribbean society, the lack of a substantial ‘shared history’ between Ireland and Denmark encourages us to look beyond conventional notions of the organisation of Irish-Caribbean trade. The traditional model of the socially exclusive Irish mercantile network, reaching from Ireland, England, France and Spain to the Caribbean colonies and back to the British metropole, although applicable, does not entirely explain the phenomenon at Saint Croix. Instead, the migration of individuals of mixed social backgrounds from the British Leeward Islands to Saint Croix reflects the changing nature of the kinship network in response to the diversification of the Caribbean marketplace.


View overlooking Saltriver Bay, St. Croix. Henry Ryan,
a planter from Montserrat and St. Croix, owned the land in the foreground c. 1760
(Orla Power 2006)

At the height of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) between the European colonial powers, the Irish community at Saint Croix in the Danish West Indies was responsible for some 30 per cent of official Danish sugar exports from the island [1]. The upheaval created by the inter-continental war created a myriad of opportunities within the ambit of inter-island and international trade. Skilled in the art of commerce and diplomacy and fortified by well-established familial connections overseas, the Irish group at Saint Croix were poised to take advantage of uncertain times. Originally from the British Leeward Islands, this group of Irish merchants and planters, while not overtly discriminated against, were nonetheless excluded from gubernatorial positions and held in mistrust by the British establishment. [2] Their strategy to partake in the sugar industry depended on developing kinship networks, which also served as a platform from which to establish other kinds of business and trade alliances in unfamiliar territories.

This article will show how the venture at Saint Croix reflected the changing nature of the kinship network, together with the increasing requirement to formulate alliances beyond the security of kinship itself. This phenomenon is illustrated by a brief synopsis of Irish inter-colonial and transatlantic trade as conducted at Saint Croix. Finally, the concept of the ‘metropole’ is examined within the context of the sugar trade. The islanders did not always consider London, which acted as a focal point for Irish kinship networks, as the hub of their Atlantic world.

The Irish Kinship Network

Studies of Irish mercantile communities overseas during the early modern period are heavily influenced by the concept of the ‘Kinship Network’.[3] In this way, the mercantile expertise of the many Irish families involved in international trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be appreciated by the extent to which they were represented in the major ports of France, Spain, the West Indies, England and North America. Encompassing a geographically disparate group of individuals, such networks enabled Irish merchant families to engage in long-distance trade that was heavily reliant on complex credit arrangements. Reliance on trusted local contacts was essential in the functioning of the commission system and allowed the movement of commodities throughout the Atlantic world without the need for specie. During the eighteenth century, the Irish mercantile community was organised around London, the hub of the international sugar trade. [4] The ability to rely on kin to pursue communal family interests ensured stability and consistency within frequently volatile Atlantic markets.

An Irish Cosmopolitan Venture

The Danish West Indian and Guinea Company purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733 with the expectation of competing in the global market for sugar. Denmark, slow to appreciate the economic significance of sweetness, made a belated attempt to engage in the trade and opened Saint Croix to all-comers. This proved to be an ineffective strategy. By 1747, the Company was in difficulty. As a result, negotiations were initiated to persuade the King of Denmark and Norway to purchase the island. Eventually, in 1754, the Crown took over Saint Croix, making it a free port and ensuring a favourable market in Denmark for the island’s produce. Since Denmark remained a neutral country, the island prospered in trade and sugar throughout the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) (Westergaard 1917: 130).

By 1747, a group of Irish merchants and planters with family connections in Ireland, Montserrat and London, had begun to purchase land at Saint Croix. Astute property speculation, skilful plantation management and the shrewd use of international contacts sustained the Irish interest on the island. By the 1760s, this group had become a formidable presence both on Saint Croix and in Denmark. [5] Those involved were of varied social origins and included some members of Galway merchant families, along with others who were of a more modest background.

Theobald Bourke, John Skerrett, Laurence Bodkin, all merchants of Galway families, were from Montserrat. Similarly, Henry Ryan, a skilled planter who was not a member of the Galway network, was also from Montserrat. Another associate, John Baker, a solicitor, was married to Henry Ryan’s sister Mary. Accepted into the Irish community, he was also well respected within the British Leeward islands and served as Solicitor General from 1750 to 1752. Mathias Farrall, also from the British Leeward Islands but not originally associated with the Galway families, was a merchant and planter. Finally, Nicholas Tuite, the director of the operation, was a merchant whose origins lay in County Westmeath. Coming from a land-locked county, Tuite’s family was not traditionally associated with international trade. However, by marrying Ann Skerrett, the daughter of a successful Galway family based on Antigua, he gained entry to the socially exclusive Irish mercantile oligarchy.

Operating within the Network

Although Nicholas Tuite did not initially belong to this core network of Irish mercantile families, he clearly had something to offer the Skerrett family. Cullen has noted the difficulty experienced by those not associated with international trade in penetrating the mercantile network (Cullen 1984: 71). Originally involved in the inter-island sloop trade with his brother, Richard, Tuite appears to have amassed sufficient funds to marry the daughter of a well-connected individual. Such a match may reflect an increasing strain in the Irish network, and could point to the short supply of suitable spouses of the appropriate religion and social standing within West Indian society.

The importance of ‘marrying well’ is also reflected in the choice of partners for Tuite’s own daughters. Tuite’s eldest daughter Eleanor married the wealthy Thomas Selby of Middleton in Northumberland. His other daughter Anne married Thomas Stapleton, a member of the Irish merchant community in France, who was also well connected in the British West Indies. Meanwhile, another daughter Winifred Tuite married Justin McCarthy of County Tipperary, who had made his reputation in French army service and was made Count in 1776.

While describing several strategic marriage alliances outside the Irish circle in Bordeaux, Cullen points out that Irish-Catholic expatriates did not tend to marry outside their religion (Cullen 1980: 55). However, this was not entirely true in the West Indies where business and social interactions among Catholic and Protestant merchants were not uncommon. In fact, it appears that in the West Indies in general, where there was a limited pool of individuals of similar social standing, mixed-religion marriages occurred with remarkable frequency.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Power, Orla, 'Beyond Kinship: A Study of the Eighteenth-century Irish Community at Saint Croix, Danish West Indies' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 207-214. Available online (, accessed .


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