As part of Black History Month we have previously explored the story of Equiano, the freed slave and abolitionist, and William John Brown , an enslaved man who found freedom in Belfast. This article explores the abolitionist and pro-slavery elements within the town of Belfast in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Belfast had many wealthy merchants who owned land, estates and businesses in the West Indies in the 18th and 19th Centuries. As was the practice at the time, these estates and businesses would have exploited slave labour to harvest crops such as sugar and tobacco. Waddell Cunningham, a member of the Belfast Charitable Society is probably the most infamous advocate of slavery in Belfast as he attempted to open up the town as a slave port. Waddell had gone to America in the 1750s and with a business partner, Thomas Gregg, a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society. Together they established a firm, which by 1775 had become one of the largest shipping companies in New York. Both men made their fortunes and purchased an estate in the Ceded Islands which they called “Belfast.”
Other members of the Belfast Charitable Society were also involved in the slave trade. Dr William Haliday, a physician to the Poor House, owned sugar estates on the island of Dominica. Valentine Jones was another founding member of the Society. He imported rum and sugar into Belfast as well as running a wine merchant business. He had established a thriving agency in Barbados buying and selling to the planters. His eldest son, another Valentine, lived in the Caribbean for some 33 years and was elected a member of the Barbados House of Assembly.
Back in Belfast in 1786, a group of local businessmen considered launching a new Belfast-based slave-shipping venture that, in their eyes, might bring fresh prosperity to the town. Waddell Cunningham was the lead figure in this venture. For one local and radical citizen, this was anathema. On the night the prospectus was presented Belfast Charitable Society member Thomas McCabe attended the meeting and declared – ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document’. The venture never came to pass.
Thomas McCabe was not alone in fighting for the abolitionist cause in the town. The Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen movement which was operated by some members of Belfast Charitable Society, including Robert Simms and Samuel Neilson, would tell its readers that ‘every individual, as far as he consumes sugar products becomes accessory to the guilt [of slavery].’
William Drennan, visiting physician to the Poor House, and founder of the United Irishmen was responsible for helping to draw up a petition, which was passed around the town, collecting signatures against slavery. He hoped it would be a blow against those Belfast traders who sold such Caribbean products as molasses and rum as well as those who exported foodstuffs and shoes from here to the Caribbean. Not untypical of the toasts offered at Belfast dinners in this era was the one suggested in 1792 by Belfast Charitable Society member and the owner of The Belfast News Letter, Henry Joy – ‘to Mr Wilberforce and a speedy repeal of the infamous traffic in the flesh and bone of man’.
Next week we will look at the visit of Frederick Douglass to Belfast and the abolitionist activities of Mary Ann McCracken.