Today marks International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. The notion of slavery tends to bring us back to African slaves brought to America, however slavery continues as 21st Century problem. The Belfast Charitable Society of the 18th and 19th centuries found themselves caught in the controversy surrounding this abhorrent trade.
Much of the conflict regarding the differing views of slavery happened outside of the Poor House, however, when the freed slave Olaudah Equiano visited Belfast in the early 1790s, he was invited to speak at the Poor House and several other prominent locations in Belfast. Equiano lodged with Samuel Neilson, a Belfast Charitable Society member during his Belfast visit. He was on a tour promoting his autobiography based on his experiences as a slave. Equiano described being welcomed throughout Ireland ‘particularly in Belfast’.
The Belfast Charitable Society And The Slave Trade
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 utilised slave labour to harvest their crops such as sugar. Waddell Cunningham, a member of the Belfast Charitable Society is probably the best-known slave owner in Belfast as he attempted to open Belfast as a slave port. Waddell had gone to America in the 1750s and with a Belfast-based partner, Thomas Gregg, a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society, and established a firm which by 1775, had become the largest shipping company in New York. Both men made their fortunes and purchased an estate in the Ceded Islands which they called “Belfast.”
Later, back in Britain Waddell gave evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating the slave trade, declaring that the “negroes” in the West Indies enjoyed a much happier existence than the lower classes of people in England.
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 a founder 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.
In 1786, a group of local businessmen considered launching a new Belfast-based slave-shipping venture that 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. Thomas McCabe was another member of the Belfast Charitable Society, as well as a watchmaker and United Irishman. He is said to have stood at the foot of Donegal Street, near the Old Exchange Buildings, where he held up the prospectus for this proposed company, calling out – ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document’. The Northern Star, the paper of the United Irishmen movement and operated by another Belfast Charitable Society member, Robert Simms, 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 United Irishman 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 exporting foodstuffs from here to islands such as Barbados.
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’.
The proposal to create a slaving company in the town outraged Presbyterian ladies like Martha McTier, sister of William Drennan, and Mary Ann McCracken. Mary Ann, a member of the Ladies Committee of the Belfast Charitable Society and Martha formed the Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League. Mary Ann was vehemently opposed to slavery and as a result refused to eat sugar, a product of the slave trade. Mary Ann McCracken, as an old and frail lady in 1850s in Belfast, was standing by the gangway of ships that were heading for the southern ports of the USA where slaves still worked on the cotton plantations. She was there to hand out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants and sailors.
Last year the Department of Justice launched their campaign against Modern Slavery in Clifton House, given the large numbers of abolitionist who had served on our board. The campaign calls on us all to be aware of the possible signs that someone may need help and to report suspicions quickly and confidentially.
Whilst his article has explored the history of both the pro and anti-slavery movements in the past, it is important to remember that there are an estimated 40.3 million people enslaved across the globe today. A lot more needs to be done to tackle modern day slavery.