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The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview 

By Nini Rodgers



In the early eighteenth century, families from Connacht and Munster, Archdeacons, Kellys, and Bourkes, established a tradition of Irishmen holding the Jamaica’s highest legal offices. Coming from a Catholic background, to achieve these positions they had to conform to the established church, but Protestantism in the Caribbean was always less severely demanding than in the mainland colonies. Legal office opened the way to the easy acquisition of land for plantations so that all these families emerged as rich slave owners. In 1752 the heiress Elizabeth Kelly, daughter of Denis Kelly of Lisaduff, County Galway and Chief Justice of Jamaica, married into the Brownes of Westport, County Mayo, thus aiding their rise to Viscounts of Altamont and Earls of Sligo. Irish names on the island continued to mount among the substantial planter class, O’Hara, O’Conner, Talbot, Coulthurst, Herbert, Gregory, Martin, Madden, Forde, Richards, Dobbs, and de la Touche.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Ulster Presbyterians, famous for settling as Scots-Irish in Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, also appeared in the Caribbean. Some were wealthy merchants who invested in plantations, Delapps from Donegal and Dublin in Antigua and Jamaica and, from Belfast, Blacks in Grenada, and Gregs and Cunninghams on Dominica. Others worked as overseers or as commission agents, selling Irish linen and provisions, expanding into slaves, hoping that their fortunes would eventually rival those they had formerly served.

The most striking case here was that of the Blair brothers from Newry. In the late eighteenth century James and Lambert Blair left Newry to set up an agency on Saint Eustatia. Their 1790 accounts reveal that the largest items of purchase for their planter clients were slaves for a Mr. Stevenson (Blair 1793:24). By the turn of the century when the British took Demerara from the Dutch, the Blairs had amassed enough capital to invest in the rich, wet, black soiled lands of the new colony. After emancipation, when the government paid out £20 million in compensation to the plantation owners for the loss of their slaves, James Blair junior received about £83,530 for his 1,598 slaves. As such, he received more money than any other slave holder in the British Empire (Higman 1967: 12).

In the eastern Caribbean, Queely Shiell vindicated Montserrat’s reputation as an Irish island by claiming for 920 slaves, a number far in excess of anything the island’s largest planters in previous times (the seventeenth-century Dutch Waads and the eighteenth-century English Wykes) had ever amassed. Indeed this claim meant that tiny Montserrat produced the largest single compensation package in the Leewards (Sessional 1837/: Montserrat).

Slaves cutting cane on a plantation established by the Delapps of Donegal,
from Ten Views of the Island of Antigua by William Clarke, 1813
(The British Library)

However, the majority of those claiming and collecting under this compensation scheme were small property owners possessing ten slaves or less. Defenders of slavery complained that its abolition would hit the most vulnerable hardest. Men, drawing up wills, preferred to bequeath land to their sons and moveable property (slaves) to female dependants. Thus, widows and spinsters were often left with few resources, save the ownership of slaves, who served them and could be rented out to bring in an income. Irish names supply evidence of this point. Examples from two parishes in Jamaica show Brigit Garvey received compensation for eight slaves; Elizabeth Anne Carroll seven; Jane Welch, Elizabeth Geoghegan, Anne O’Meally, and Eleanor Tierney six each; Elizabeth Anne Sherlocke, Elizabeth Slevin, and Mary O’Sullivan five; Rebecca Fergus, Elizabeth Burke, Cecelia Jane Murphy, Mary Anne Connolly four; Ann Rattigan three; Mary Anne B. Hennessey, two; Jane Boyle, Brigit Dillon, Mary Curtin one (Ibid: Jamaica). Again, the lists of names on Montserrat and Antigua reveal examples of a similar situation.

Throughout the British West Indies, records for the eighteen thirties attest to the tenacity of Hiberno-Caribbean connections. In 1833 the Earl of Sligo (direct descendant of Elizabeth Kelly and John Browne) claimed for 286 slaves and received about £5,526 in compensation. In 1834 he was appointed Governor of Jamaica with Dowell O’Reilly from County Louth serving as his Attorney General. O’Reilly’s appointment reiterated the Irish legal presence on the island. Unlike his predecessors, the passing of Catholic emancipation in 1829 meant that he could take up his judicial appointment as a Catholic.  

Island-Hopping in the Caribbean

The Irish had nonetheless never limited their Caribbean destinations to British colonies. In the early 1670s a visitor came upon a settlement of one to two hundred Irish on Guadeloupe living ‘much as they do at home in little huts, planting potatoes and tobacco, and as much indigo as will buy them canvas and brandy and never advance so far as sugar planting’(Cullen 1994:127). This group may not have made such social progress but certainly next-door on Martinique there were families who had done so. Kirwans, Roches, Lynchs and Skerrets sought ennoblement from the French Crown in the eighteenth century, claiming to have left Ireland for the colony in the seventeenth century. Social absorption for Irish Catholics in French and Spanish colonies was relatively easy. In the late seventeenth century, John Stapleton and his wife Helen Skerret left Ireland for the newest and largest French colony, Saint Domingue, where their success as planters enabled them to move to France, buying a property in Nantes (Holohan 1989: 29).

To make this journey in reverse became more common as the Irish merchant community on the Atlantic coast found itself at the centre of France’s slave trade and sugar imports. In the second generation, Galway Butlers, now in La Rochelle, sent two sons to Saint Domingue where they established extensive plantations (Ibid.: 97-100).

The most famous Irish merchant family to use wealth gained in France to establish plantations in Saint Domingue were the Walshes. Antoine Walsh worked as a slave trader from 1730 to 1753, during which period his ships carried some 12,000 slaves across the Atlantic. In 1753 he retired from that trade and left to settle on the family plantations on Saint Domingue, where died in 1763 (Rodgers 2007: 106-112). His immediate heirs remained in the southern province of that colony, among other grand blancs, successful Hiberno-French planters, Sheil, O’Gorman, Rourke, Macnamara and Plunket (Van Brock 1977, 13:89-104).

Back in France, money from the slave trade and plantations helped to fund the Irish college in Nantes and Walsh’s regiment in the Irish brigade, which received its name from Antoine’s nephew, coming from a new generation determined to put trade behind them. Despite enormous losses in both areas during the upheavals of the Revolution, these families survive today in France as titled and chateaux-owning.

Antoine Walsh and Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland, from the picture hanging today in the library of the Chateau of Serrant. Wealth gained in the slave trade made it possible for Walsh to supply Charles Edward Stuart with the shipping which conveyed him from France to Scotland.
(Thomas 1997:192-193)

In eighteenth-century Saint Domingue, Stapletons, Butlers and Walshes were grand blancs. Yet Saint Domingue’s swiftly expanding plantation economy, which made France the greatest sugar producer in the Caribbean, offered opportunities to men of modest means as well as to wealthier investors, thus creating a class of petit blancs engaged in small holding, overseeing, trade and artisan activities, and all employing slave labour. Given the existence of a substantial Irish presence in the Atlantic ports (at once long established but also continuing to receive young, impecunious arrivals from home) the development of a group of Irish petit blancs is a likely but as yet an un-researched topic in Irish-Caribbean studies.

Irish Mariners in the Antillean Sea

Irish sailors constitute another historically neglected group with significant Caribbean ties. We know that in the closing years of the eighteenth century some twelve percent of the crew on Liverpool slave ships were Irish (Behrendt 2005). Sailors making the direct voyage from home to the Caribbean must also have been numerous. From the seventeenth century onwards, the Munster ports achieved international importance as the final point for taking on water and victuals before the Atlantic crossing. Since the West Indian islands furnished little in the way of material for naval repairs, eighteenth-century Cork was organised to produce sailcloth and rigging as well as provision for British, French, Dutch, Danes and Bremeners setting out on the Atlantic crossing.

Captains, unexpectedly short on crew, must also have used Munster as a point of last resort. Scattered evidence of Irish people sailing the Caribbean suggests a wide social spectrum. The County Kerry poet Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-84) wrote his only work in English in Port Royal, Jamaica. His encomiastic poem to Admiral Rodney was perhaps embarked upon in the hopes of gaining his discharge from the British naval vessel on which he was a rating. Of the pirate fraternity, Anne Bonny from Cork was sentenced to death in 1720. Disguised in male clothing, according to Daniel Defoe, she was ‘as forward and courageous’ as any of her calling. Unlike her male colleagues, she was reprieved from hanging on the grounds of her pregnancy (Applby 1991: 64).

Irish Inter-Racial Marriages and Affairs

In 1775, nineteen-year-old Charles Fitzgerald, naval officer, brother to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and third son of Emily, Duchess of Leinster, wrote to his mother with literary panache that ‘the jet black ladies of Africa’s burning sands have made me forget the unripened beauties of the north’. A few months later he followed this up with the news that she could look forward to ‘a copper coloured grandchild’ (Tillyard 1995:331).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodgers, Nini, 'The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 145-156. Available online (, accessed .


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