Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

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

By Orla Power



When John Baker, a Protestant, married Mary Ryan in 1746, she continued to attend Catholic service (Yorke 1931: 62). Their daughter Patty was also raised as a Catholic and attended a Catholic Girls’ school at Lille, France. Difficulties seemed only to arise within the community when individuals actually converted to Protestantism. In 1751, Mary Ryan’s niece Elizabeth chose to elope with a Protestant, Mr. William Coventry Manning. The disharmony that resulted when she conformed to the Church of England did not subside and her father John became stoutly ‘resolved against a reconciliation’. [6]

Indeed, the desire to have one’s daughters marry well was a determining factor in several of the wills relating to Irish families at Saint Croix. The preceding examples of mixed-religion marriages reflect the economic and social necessity of forging alliances with ‘the other’, while simultaneously maintaining a clear sense of family heritage. The Galway families in Saint Croix reflect this in their wills.

The Danish fort at Christiansted, St. Croix
(Orla Power 2006)

In his 1777 will, Theobald Bourke’s bequeathed a substantial amount of money to his heirs on the proviso that they marry with the consent of his executors or himself. Should they contravene this request, they were to be allocated a paltry maintenance for their lifetimes, and the remainder of their original inheritance was to be divided among those siblings who had not transgressed in such an impractical fashion (Will Bourke).

Similarly, Laurence Bodkin’s substantial estate was also shared out amongst his children. However, his female offspring Catherine and Ann were threatened with absolute economic isolation should they neglect their daughterly duties, and marry without consent (Will Bodkin). In the ambit of the Irish-Catholic West Indian experience, daughters were precious commodities and served to unite and reinforce partnerships and business ventures both within the community and beyond it.

One of the more traditional methods of maintaining Irish mercantile alliances was access to a Catholic education. Certainly, European education for boys was an essential rite of passage for many West Indian heirs. Given the restrictions on Catholic education in Ireland the boys, who were often as young as seven, were frequently sent to colleges in France and Belgium. Saint Omer’s and Bruges were the favoured establishments for those who could afford them. What is particularly interesting, however, is the fact that sons of merchants based in the West Indies often studied accounting and business with their cousins, whose fathers were engaged in trade in London, Dublin, Nantes and Spain. This certainly had an impact on the strength and structure of the Irish business network at home and abroad, fostering what could be described as an ‘Old Boys’ Club’ mentality and reinforcing its elite nature.

During the 1730s and 1740s, the school of choice was Saint Omer’s, a Catholic academy in Belgium. Thomas Skerrett of Ireland, Robert Tuite (Nicholas Tuite’s son) and James Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland were all enrolled at the school in 1739. Michael Murphy and Charles Farrill, both of Montserrat, also attended Saint Omer’s during this period. The second generation of Irish Caribbean scholars seemed, for the most part, to have attended the school at Bruges. During the 1760s and the early 1770s, the Bourkes, Ryans and Farrills, all of Saint Croix, were enrolled at the school. Their schoolmates included Edward and James Lynch, whose address is listed as the ‘West Indies’ and Francis Farril of Philadelphia. Michael and Robert McGrath of Ennis, County Clare were their contemporaries, as was Thomas Lynch, son of the infamous merchant and trader, Isidore Lynch of London. [7]

Once accepted into the Irish network, it was important to maintain the position. This can be appreciated in the manner with which the Cruzan plantocracy married and educated their children. However, in order to expand their ambit of trade, it was important to find alternate ways of forging alliances that were more suited to the unpredictable Caribbean environment.

Beyond the Network

Nicholas Tuite’s ability to gain access to the Irish mercantile network and to expand his business beyond its scope reflects his capacity to engender bilateral trust by alternate means. Possessed of a shrewd business intuition and an affable nature, Tuite chose prospective business ventures - and the personnel required to make them a success - very carefully. Renowned for assisting earnest individuals to purchase properties or invest in trade ventures, Tuite perceived such assistance as a ‘leg up’ rather than a ‘hand out’, stipulating that the loan be re-paid in full, usually on favourable terms (Will Tuite). ‘Money,’ as the saying goes, ‘makes money’, and by offering individuals the opportunity of sampling the sugar trade, Tuite forged lifetime friendships and enduring loyalties. John Baker, unable to afford land in the Leeward islands, was in 1751 offered a share in a plantation on ‘very favourable terms’. [8] As a result, Baker considered himself ‘forever indebted’ to Tuite. [9] Similarly, individuals such Francis Finn and William Dalton, both of Saint Croix, bequeathed money to Tuite for the purchase of a memorial ring. In Dalton’s case it was to be worn ‘as a remembrance that I was not insensible of the disinterested benefits he has [Tuite] been pleased to confer upon me’ (Will Dalton).

Preserving a position within a familial network was essential in order to engage with and succeed in the world of Atlantic commerce. However, in order to secure business transactions above and beyond the security of the family bond, it was essential to have the skills with which to inspire trust and a sense of fraternity. Assisting individuals to make their fortunes was one way of ensuring lifetime devotion. It was also essential that an individual was both knowledgeable of the international market and approachable enough to act as an advisor. Such an individual ensured he remained informed and ready to take advantage of changing markets.

Entertainment, hospitality and friendship were a fundamental part of business networking in the West Indies. During Christmas 1751, Governor Heyligger and his wife from the Dutch island Saint Eustatius spent a fortnight at the Baker residence. [10] The following Spring, Baker visited Heyligger at his home on the Dutch island of Saint Martin. [11] Similarly, on a visit to Saint Croix, Baker dined at Mr.Tuite’s residence with Judge Schuster and Judge Hazelberg (Yorke 1931: 52).

Accordingly, the important role of alcohol is clear in the large consignments of Madeira wine imported into Saint Croix for personal consumption. As the century wore on, the beverage became associated with increasing sophistication and ‘good taste’. In 1752, Baker remarked to his brother that he would like the West Indies ‘particularly the hospitality of the place: even the most greedy people…are not niggardly in that point or in their living’. [12] In this light it is not surprising that the hospitable Nicholas Tuite, master of the international business realm and the art of conversation, made a special provision to bequeath the following to his wife: ‘…all my Wines Rum Brandy Beer Ale Cyder and all other spirituous Liquors together with the provisions and stores belonging or for the use of my said houses in England for her sole use and as her own property for ever…’ (Will Tuite).

Trans-national Trade at Saint Croix

Although recognising the importance of hospitality and friendship in the building of trans-national alliances, the Irish group at Saint Croix were very much of their time, particularly in relation to slavery. In examining customs records relating to the period, it is clear that the Irish community considered their African labourers as commodities. The slaves’ introduction to society at Saint Croix is listed alongside consignments of routine items required for management of the plantations. Such stark inventories reflect the absence of any need to forge partnerships or build alliances with individuals considered as plantation ‘stock’.

During 1760, Laurence Bodkin imported a large number of Africans to Saint Croix from various locations. On the 3 June, a vessel skippered by Jacob Dischington imported a cargo of 22 male slaves, 36 females, 29 girls and 14 boys directly from the Guinea Coast for which he paid 318 rixdalers. [13] In July of that year, Henry Ryan imported 18 men, 13 women, 12 boys and 2 girls along with a quantity of cement from Montserrat. [14] Meanwhile, on 26 May Mathias Ferrald exported bread, rice, 1000 floor-tiles and 16 slaves to Puerto Rico. [15]

The settlers’ wills also reflect their attitude towards African slaves. Laurence Bodkin bequeathed the sum of 1,700 rixdalers to his nephew, either to be given him when he turned 18 or ‘to be laid out in Negroes for his use’. William Bourke, Bodkin’s godson, was to be given a smaller sum because he had already been given ‘…one Negro woman and one child…[the] Negro woman nam’d Bella is worth 500 rixdollars’ (Will Bodkin). It could be said that the highly competitive nature of the sugar trade underpinned the settlers’ reliance on chattel slaves. Writing in 1762, William Dalton desired that ‘…immediately upon my demise I desire that my little Negroe boy Joseph have his freedom.’ Given that the will was not proved until 1779, it is certain that Dalton’s slave was no longer a ‘little Negroe boy’ (Will Dalton).


1 - 2 - 3 - 4


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 .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information