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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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"A Contagion of Liberty": Richard Robert Madden in the Caribbean

Gera Burton (University of Missouri-Columbia)

Although recognized for his work on the ground-breaking Lives and Times of the United Irishmen (1842-1846), Richard Madden’s extraordinary contributions as a champion of humanitarian causes have received scant attention either in Ireland or abroad. Little has been written about Madden’s background and experiences leading to his commitment to help eradicate the “odious institution.” Having witnessed the horrors of slavery firsthand as he traveled throughout southern Europe and the Middle East, the Dublin native spurned a lucrative career as a physician in London to devote himself full-time to the anti-slavery cause.

Following his tenure in Jamaica as a judge on the Mixed Commission Courts, established in the wake of the abolition of the slave trade in 1833, Madden was posted to Cuba under an 1835 Anglo-Spanish agreement. Even before he set foot on the island, the Cuban authorities attempted to block his appointment. In spite of his reputation as a staunch abolitionist—causing him to be labeled “a dangerous man” by Cuba’s criollo elite—he became the island’s first Superintendent of Liberated Africans, with responsibility for emancipating Africans kidnapped and illegally transported to Cuba.

From the outset, Cuba ’s administration under the Captain-General, Miguel Tacón, endeavored to thwart Madden’s efforts to ensure the safety of Africans emancipated under the terms of international treaties. Despite the enormous pressure to turn a blind eye to the blatant corruption and flouting of the law, one official concluded that Madden “could not be bribed, cajoled or coerced.” He labored tirelessly to expose the colonial regime’s collusion with slave traders, merchants, and plantation owners, ensuring that he would remain at loggerheads with the Cuban authorities.

Madden’s travels in Cuba provided opportunities to visit ingenios where he witnessed firsthand conditions on the sugar plantations. This experience prompted him to refute de Toqueville’s findings regarding “the benign nature” of slavery in Spanish colonies. Documenting his account of the atrocities, he wrote: “I could not believe the evidence of my senses.” Some of his most graphic descriptions of Cuban slavery later appeared in verse form.

In Cuba , he joined Domingo del Monte’s literary circle, where he became acquainted with Juan Francisco Manzano, the island’s slave-poet and author of the Autobiografia. In 1840, Madden would publish an English translation of Manzano’s work, along with some of his poetical compositions, as Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, almost one hundred years before the work was published in the original Spanish.

This paper examines Madden’s efforts to eradicate slavery in the Caribbean , including his exposure of the flaws of the so-called “apprenticeship system” designed to replace slavery. It also discusses Madden’s role in the Amistad affair, and the circumstances surrounding his address at the first World Anti-Slavery Conference in London in June 1840.

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

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