Belfast in the 1790s was a small industrial city, no more than a large market town. It was predominantly Presbyterian with Catholics making up only eight per cent of the total population of 18,320. It was a thriving well-built town dominated by a tight-knit entrepreneurial class. Volunteers, Whig club members and United Irishmen mixed socially and attended the same meeting houses.
Cotton was the main textile being manufactured although linen manufacturing was expanding to the extent that Belfast would soon replace Dublin as the main linen exporter.
Up until 1781 there was dissatisfaction at the fact that British commercial regulations hindered direct trade with the American colonies and Africa. In that year Irish ‘free trade’ was finally allowed and in 1786 a group of Belfast merchants considered launching a slave trading venture but abandoned the idea in the face of local criticism. The freed slave Olaudah Equiano, a professional abolitionist had in fact visited the city in 1791, as the guest of the United Irishmen among whose members were several fervent anti-slavery supporters.
In Britain the campaign against slavery was gathering pace and coincided with the campaign for political reform in Ireland where the Dublin legislature was subordinate to the Westminster parliament. Encouraged by the success of the French Revolution the principal agitators likened the situation in Ireland vis a vis Britain as a form of slavery and in 1791 the United Irishmen, an alliance of Catholics and Presbyterians, was established to agitate for reform.
This analogy with slavery presented some with a dilemma as Belfast had its own plantation owners, principally Waddell Cunningham and Dr Haliday respectively, the established commercial and intellectual leaders in Belfast. Both men owned sugar estates on the island of Dominica and Waddell Cunningham was reputedly the richest man in Belfast. He had gone to America in the 1750s and with a Belfast-based partner, Thomas Gregg, established a firm which by 1775, had become the largest shipping company in New York.
However, direct trade between Belfast and New York necessitated the use of only two ships per year and as a result the firm’s activities spread to the Caribbean where they brought rum, sugar and log wood to the colonies and traded between the islands with slaves featuring among the merchandise.
Cunningham made a fortune and purchased an estate in the Ceded Islands which he called Belfast. His partner and brother was appointed King’s Commissioner in the Ceded Islands in 1764, and spent the next twenty years in the West Indies. Later, back in Britain he 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 class of people in England.
Other Belfast firms, particularly those engaged in the wine trade, such as the Macartneys, Mussendens and Blacks occasionally sent ships to the Caribbean, and in the case of the Blacks who had a long established business based in Belfast and Bordeaux, the connection expanded into plantation owning as they purchased plantations in Grenada and Trinidad.
The Valentine Jones dynasty, wine merchants and rum and sugar importers in Belfast, had established a thriving agency in Barbados buying and selling to the planters, and in the same period the Ewing and Thompson families also ran merchant houses there. They were soon joined by the families of Cunningham, Whitla and Barbour - all of whom came from Waddell Cunningham’s native village of Killead in Co Antrim.
When Waddell Cunningham returned from America in 1766, he expanded his repertoire of interests to include general merchandising, land speculation, ship insurance, banking and even smuggling. While he also traded in Europe his Caribbean interests continued to develop and he became a partner in a sugar refinery and exported mules and coarse linen to the West Indies.
At every level of society there were men who had benefited, and continued to benefit, from the expanding slave economy and throughout the eighteenth century Belfast’s Caribbean trade adapted to changing conditions. When ‘free trade’ arrived in 1781, Belfast was able to import directly slave produce which previously had to be imported through Britain.
Belfast's trade with the West Indies was more important than its trade with continental Europe and the fact that the longest voyages leaving from Belfast were to the Caribbean meant that it was an important employer of local seamen, and as the West Indies offered little in the way of ship repairing Belfast established itself in that arena as well. Offshoots of this industry such as rope and sail manufacture flourished as a result.
Chandlers also provided soap and candles for the Caribbean market and there was an abundance of work for shoe makers producing especially broad fitting shoes for slaves. In 1783, there were around 224 shoemakers in Belfast and by 1791, this number had increased to 312. Only linen weaving employed more craft workers in the town.
Britain outlawed slavery in 1833, but then became involved in the opium trade – another lucrative business and no less reprehensible. Portrait of Captain Waddell Cunningham, 1730-1797
Captain Waddell Cunningham 1730-97 (c.1786) Robert Home 1752-1834
Photograph © Ulster Museum 2008
Reproduced courtesy the Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland
Waddell Cunningham (1730-1797), wealthy Belfast merchant, Presbyterian, leading member of the Volunteer movement, and a radical but eventual opponent of the United Irishmen. He made his fortune in New York actively trading with slave colonies, and owned plantations in Dominica. He was the leading proponent in 1784 of a Belfast based slave trading company. Knox family account book, Barbados 1796-1797
The entries refer to the purchase of rum, cotton and negroes all dealt with as commodities. The entry for 23 May 1797 shows that ‘sundry amounts [were] drawn to Lambert Blair and Co, negro adventure for expenses on negroes’ included the sum of £187.0.0 for ‘freight of 17 negroes to Barbados’, and ‘£50.0.0 for 25 gallons of rum’. The Lambert Blair Company was owned by a family who had emigrated from Ulster in the eighteenth century. CLICK here to enlarge
PRONI Reference D/1125/5. William Drennan letter to Martha McTier, 17 May 1806
Drennan discusses Waddell Cunningham’s plan to carry on the slave trade in Belfast ‘which Tom [Thomas McCabe] had knocked up completely’.
This letter provides the crucial relatively contemporary evidence of the confrontation between McCabe and Cunningham. CLICK here to enlarge