frontiers also provided areas where the colour line might
waver. Edward Marcus Despard, from a military family in
Queen’s County (present-day County Laois), spent the
greater part of his professional career in Jamaica. After
the American Revolutionary War, he fought in Honduras,
where he led forces that comprised Native Americans and
Afro-Caribbeans. Appointed Superintendent on the Muskito
Coast (later British Honduras) in 1787, he fell foul of
the ‘Bay men’ who protested to Westminster that he treated
‘the meanest mulatto and free Negro’ as though he was a
white man (Burns 1965: 541).
London, Despard failed to get another official appointment
and ended up in the debtors’ prison, where he read Tom
Paine and took to radical politics. He joined the United
Irishmen and attempted to recruit United Britons and so
co-ordinate a republican risings in both countries. In
1797 suspicion of his activities resulted in his arrest
and internment. In 1803 (the year of Robert Emmet’s
rebellion in Ireland), he was hanged for organising a plot
to assassinate King George III (O. DNB 2004, 15: 906).
Despard’s story, individual and dramatic, reflects the
tensions created by this revolutionary period. In the
1790s, the French colony of Saint Domingue was to see
these factors played out at their most extensive and
outbreak of revolution had caused quarrelling among the
propertied groups in the colony - grand blancs, petit
blancs and property-owning mulattoes. The desire of
these groups to follow their own interests in order to
dominate the wealthy colony had given the slaves the
chance to rebel. In this situation, Victor Martin O’Gorman
(born County Clare, 1746) emerged as a leading figure.
Starting his career in the Irish Brigade, he had become
aide-de-camp to Count d’Argout, governor general to the
French colonies in America, a position which enabled him
to acquire a substantial plantation in Saint Domingue’s
southern province. In 1790 he was elected as one of the
colonial representatives despatched to Paris to serve in
the National Assembly.
assembly man and soldier, he helped to organise the Irish
brigade (now officially known under the new constitution
as Eighty-Seventh, Eighty-Eighth and Ninety-Second
regiments of infantry) to form part of the expeditionary
force to put down civil war in Saint Domingue. In 1792
Dillon and Walsh’s regiment fought and lost an engagement
against a rebel army (largely of African origin) in the
southern province at Les Plantons. During this engagement,
O’Gorman armed and led a group of his own slaves as did
his planter neighbour, the resident ‘milord’ Walsh, who
was caught, tortured and beheaded by the rebels.
of this defeat was received by the colonial assembly, they
declared it ‘the finishing stroke to the whole colony’.
Captain Oliver Harty of the Berwick regiment was then
appointed acting commander of the southern province and
organised a campaign to avenge the loss at Les Plantons.
For this deed, he was lauded by the southern provincial
assembly as ‘a good and brave patriot’ and denounced by
his critics for conducting a massacre of old men, women
and children. A new governor, Sonthonax arrived from
France and assessing the situation in the colony came to
the conclusion that the rebel slaves would in fact make
the best republicans. He thus removed Harty from his
command, declared slavery illegal, and appointed Toussaint
L’Overture, an African Creole general and former slave
from a Butler plantation, as commander and chief.
Europe, the Irish Brigade persuaded the Prime Minister
William Pitt the Younger to support the Bourbons by
fighting with the French. Their offer was accepted. The
leaders of the brigade had hoped to fight in Europe but
instead became part of the British invasion of Saint Domingue. Victor Martin O’Gorman fought with General
Maitland against the French colonial government which had
emancipated the colony’s slaves, leading a unit known as
O’Gorman’s Chasseurs Noirs (black hunters) dedicated to
restoring slavery and monarchical rule in Saint Domingue
(Hayes 1949: 232). This campaign, stretching from 1794 to
1798, ended in the defeat and withdrawal of the British,
by which time savage fighting and rampant disease had
annihilated the Irish brigade.
of Saint Domingue had driven Britain to employ people of
African origin as combatants. The exigencies of war now
required that this policy be extended as French activity
in the Leewards and Windwards led to the development of an
eastern Caribbean front. In 1795, to the unease of the
British planters, eight West India regiments, drawing on
Afro-Caribbean recruits, were established. All
commissioned officers, who of course had to pay for their
appointments, were white, and half of these were Irish or
Scots (Lieutenant-Colonel John Skerret was the commander
of the Eighth Regiment). While the rank and file were in
the main black or mulatto, each regiment was constructed
around a nucleus of European corporals, sergeants and
Incomplete copies of enlistment books which survive
suggest a heavily Irish presence. The first fifty-two
names and backgrounds of those enlisted in the Fourth West
India Regiment show fifty-one whites, the majority of them
coming from Cork, Dublin, Tipperary, Galway and Waterford.
Some of the older sergeants had from eighteen to
twenty-nine years experience under the belts (Buckley
1979: 31). So in the eighteenth and early nineteenth
century, we see a common pattern of Irish being used as
white buffers. As bonded servants, the Irish worked close
to, but in distinct groups from, Africans. Personal
contact might result in friendship and good feelings, but
on the whole the Irish held and benefited from the
existence of the colour line.
Regimental Colours, Fourth West India
Caribbean never achieved iconic status as a destination
for Irish emigrants.
For Catholics who stayed put service with
the kings of continental Europe was common. The West
Indies, when remembered at all, struck a sinister note as
a place of sentence for the transported. Yet for some, it
had become home and for others a springboard for migration
to mainland America. For Ulster Presbyterians, for
example, North America became the Land of Canaan. The
Antilles was often a place of opportunity; through
Caribbean activities, Antoine Walsh and Nicholas Tuite
became the friends of kings. Sugar and slaves shaped urban
development in the expanding ports of Cork, Limerick, and
Belfast and in Dublin their existence impacted on
Ireland’s parliamentary politics (Rodgers 2007:119-196).
seventeenth to the nineteenth century the Irish could be
found at every level of white society in the Caribbean,
one that by the twentieth century was ebbing away. In the
case of the other Europeans (Spanish, French, British,
Danish and Dutch) remnants of their presence remained
among the islands, recorded sometimes in a reduced but
lingering governmental presence, more obviously in
architecture and language. However, the Irish, working
through the empires of others, have left no such visible
marks. Their one memorial is the names they planted – only
possible to discover in Cuba, Trinidad, Saint Domingue,
and most noticeable in the Leewards and Jamaica. These
surnames are now sometimes borne by descendants of
Africans, occasionally carrying a genetic imprint from the
original owners from generations past.
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