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

By Orla Power



Ruins of an eighteenth century plantation house on the northern coast of St. Croix
(Orla Power 2006)

Overall, it is clear that the Irish community was adept at maintaining familial alliances while liaising with Danish officials and merchants of various nationalities when required. Both Baker and Tuite spoke some Danish. However, where language barriers existed, solutions were readily found and adopted. Hardware goods imported for the sugar and rum producers ‘Bodkin, Skerrett and Ferral’ did not have corresponding Danish nomenclature. As such, in the official records, a degree of syncretic interaction is apparent. For instance, a technical apparatus relating to the distillation process, such as the Swan Neck, [16] was directly translated as a ‘Svan Halse’. Similarly, articles associated with the production of ‘Killdevil’ such as ‘Killdevil pans’ were prefixed, in Danish, by the phonetic ‘Kieldyvel’. [17]

Apart from involvement in the principal trade in sugar to the Danish metropole, Irish individuals at Saint Croix often used sugar and rum in transactions with traders from other islands. For instance, Theobald Bourke imported 28 fads of unrefined and 20 fads of refined sugar from French Granada in March 1760. [18] Similarly, Captain John Kennedy exported 18 fads of rum to the Dutch Saint Eustatius in May of that year. [19] Irish merchants trading to New York, Montreal and beyond matched such inter-island trade, and reveal the global reach of mercantile operations on the island.

The Metropole

McCusker describes a complicated financial exchange zone which existed between Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Hamburg. For example, a London merchant who wished to purchase a bill on Copenhagen would have had to negotiate through Hamburg or Amsterdam, as there were few or no bills for sale on Copenhagen (McCusker 1978: 81). This shows the extent to which Copenhagen was dependent on other European capitals in the ambit of international trade. It is probable that this was a factor that influenced the prevalence of non-Danish nationals in positions of influence in Copenhagen. Danish reliance on European finance ensured opportunities for well-connected individuals within the Atlantic World who were willing to engage with unfamiliar territory.

Overall, without London, the Irish Atlantic mercantile world would have floundered (Truxes 2006). Contacts frequently tied to a merchant’s familial network furnished financial services to clients in far-flung regions. Individuals such as Isidore Lynch and John Kirwan, both of Galway families, managed bills of exchange and sourced venture capital as required. Given that London was one of the most important markets within the international sugar industry, allegiances with influential brokers involved in the trade were an essential aspect of maintaining and appreciating one’s wealth and affluence. It was common for planters who had ‘over-wintered’ in the Caribbean to return to the metropole for a few months in the spring. [20] This was regarded as a time to socialise, reinforce business arrangements and to enjoy the trappings of success. Soon after her return to London in July 1757, Mary Ryan and her sister bought assorted silks at Mr Palmer’s on Ludgate Hill (Yorke 1931: 98) and her husband, John Baker, met Nicholas Tuite at Lloyd’s coffee house and later dined at Mr Kirwan’s (Yorke 1931: 105).

(Orla Power 2006)

However, as the Irish presence at Saint Croix gained in significance, Copenhagen came to join London as another metropole on the Irish-Caribbean horizon. Trips to London also became opportunities to meet Danish representatives of the King. [21] In 1760, John Baker and Nicholas Tuite both travelled to Copenhagen where Tuite ‘drank chocolate with the Imperial Minister’ (Yorke 1931: 142). Theobald Bourke, who composed his will in Copenhagen in 1770, was granted a ‘Facultas Istandi’ by King Christian VII at his Royal Palace at Christianborg (Will Bourke). Similarly, the will of Laurence Bodkin and his wife Jane was recorded in Danish and registered in the Chancery Rolls at Copenhagen in 1763 (Will Bodkin). Meanwhile, Nicholas Tuite was accorded a special honour by the Crown and his son, Robert was granted the status of Chamberlain to the King of Denmark (Yorke 1931: 62). The Irish presence at Copenhagen can also be appreciated in the fact that the sugar refinery of ‘Selby and Company’, belonging to Nicholas Tuite’s grandson Charles Selby, was one of the top five producers in Copenhagen at the end of the eighteenth century (Sviestrup 1945: 88).

In examining the role played by Irish individuals in the rapidly expanding and changing Caribbean marketplace of the eighteenth century, it is necessary to focus on the commercial relationships based on kinship, together with those which lay beyond traditional familial ties. Overall, the methods and motivations that engaged and built alliances with ‘the other’ are essential in our understanding of the region during this time. In concentrating on the kinship network alone, it would appear that all roads led to London. However, by searching for alternate spheres of influence and the ways in which the network adapted to suit the rigours of the Caribbean market, it is possible to chart the Irish journey on the fringes of the familiar. Such an approach may further elucidate the duality of commercial liaisons displayed by Irish settlers at Saint Croix. Similarly, in using this approach, it is hoped to shed light on the settlers’ own sense of identity, perceptions of ‘otherness’ and notions of ‘Irishness’.

Orla Power
National University of Ireland, Galway


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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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