Friday, 16 February 2007

Belfast threw out slavery plan

Arthur Strain
BBC News

Peter Hain has apologised for the involvement in the slave trade of Northern Ireland, or as it was back then, simply Ireland.

While there was opposition to slavery across the island there were also men who made fortunes out of the exploitation of slaves.

Part of Belfast's commercial and industrial advances of the time were linked to trade with the slave economies of the West Indies.

Waddell Cunningham, founding president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and first president of the Harbour Board, numbered among those who made fortunes from slavery and tried to set up a slave company in Belfast.

A player in the trading of West Indian commodities, not only did he deal in the produce of slave labour but he was intimately involved in the trading of slaves within the islands of the Caribbean.

Following the Seven Years War he acquired a plantation of his own in Dominica, which he renamed Belfast.

He attempted to establish a slave trading company in Belfast in 1786.

For one radical Belfast citizen, Thomas McCabe, such unscrupulous commercial ambition was to be resisted.

He stood near the Old Exchange at the foot of Donegall Street and tore up the prospectus for the proposed company calling out: "May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document."

Historian Eamon Phoenix said Belfast had less to apologise for than ports like Liverpool or Bristol.

But the city did enjoy rum and sugar, the fruits of the trade in the Caribbean and did trade with tobacco producing areas in the southern slave owning United States.

"There was a very, very strong pro-abolition and anti-slavery movement in Belfast which chimed with the kind of reception of the French revolution in the city in the 1780s 1790s associated with the rise of the United Irishmen," he said.

There were also anti-slavery advocates who visited the city and were warmly received.

In 1791 freed slave Oloudah Equiano stayed in Belfast and toured Ireland, promoting his book on his life as a slave who had been stolen from Africa as a child.

The radical newspaper the Northern Star noted in April 1792 that anyone who consumes sugar products "becomes accessory to the guilt" of slavery.

In much the same way Fair Trade products are being promoted today anti-slavery advocates of the time urged the boycott of sugar from slave plantations.

One of the opponents of slavery in the Belfast showed steadfast opposition to the practice.

Mary Ann McCracken - sister of the United Irishman Henry Joy - was a founder member of the Belfast Women's anti-slavery society.

There are descriptions of her as an old lady of 88, in the Victorian Belfast of the 1850s, standing by the gangway of ships headed for the southern ports of the USA where slavery was still practised and handing out anti-slavery leaflets to those boarding.

In a letter to a friend she wrote: "Belfast, once so celebrated for its love of liberty, is now so sunk in the love of filthy lucre that there are but 16 or 17 female anti-slavery advocates and not one man though several Quakers ... and none to distribute papers to American emigrants but an old woman within 17 days of 89..."

Christian agencies Tearfund and the Evangelical Alliance held a conference in the city to celebrate the anti-slavery vision of local Christians 200 years ago.

Northern Ireland historian Philip Orr, who spoke at Thursday's event, said Mr Hain appeared to be ignorant of local opposition to slavery.

"Everyone has some kind of guilt but Peter Hain was absolutely ignorant of the significant role played by many Belfast Christians in trying to prevent a slave trading company being founded in Belfast - in fact they were successful."

2007 commemorates the 200th anniversary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

This Act outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire and made it illegal for British ships to be involved in the trade, marking the beginning of the end for the transatlantic traffic in human beings.

It would be another 30 years before slaves in the empire gained their final freedom.

Story from BBC NEWS: