Hidden Connections: The Abolitionist Movement in Ireland

‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea’

By the late 18th century, the anti-slavery movement was getting stronger and more vocal across Ireland.

Thomas McCabe, a Belfast radical, subsequently declared that he had personally ruined the plans of the town's leading firm of merchants, Waddell Cunningham, to start a slaving venture.

The anti-slavery movement was brought to Ireland by the Quakers whose belief in the equality of all people made them natural champions of the cause. In 1774, Quakers in Philadelphia and London decided to expel any of their members who owned slaves, both decisions influencing the Quakers in Ireland.

In 1787 English Quakers composed the majority of the new Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, who decided that they would have more chance of success if they focused on abolishing the slave trade, rather than slavery itself.

The MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, agreed to be their spokesperson in parliament and the campaign to abolish the slave trade was finally underway. The campaign was reported in Irish newspapers but, as Ireland had her own parliament in Dublin and no companies directly involved in the slave trade, it was difficult for sympathisers to participate. The Dublin Quakers, however, did what they could, packing a meeting of the city's chamber of commerce and voting in support of the London Committee.

The early efforts of the London Committee met with failure and when, in both 1791 and 1792, Westminster rejected motions to ban the trade, the most radical anti-slavery sympathisers turned to direct action.

They called on the public to stop buying sugar, which, they argued, would end slavery, as the plantation owners, unable to sell their crops, would be forced to free their slaves. This was not a new concept in Ireland. Throughout the century similar campaigns had been organised to stop people buying textiles from overseas in order to help the local textile industry.

JW Carey’s envisaging of the Belfast slave company meeting at the Assembly Rooms in 1784 

JW Carey’s envisaging of the Belfast slave company meeting at the Assembly Rooms in 1784

Carey’s drawing was undertaken in 1895 as an illustration for RM Young’s Historical Notices of Old Belfast (1896). Here Thomas McCabe, the self-styled ‘Irish slave’ and future United Irishman, denounces the plan of Waddell Cunningham and others to form a Belfast-based slave trading company. McCabe wrote, ‘May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea’. 

The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 10 November 1830

The Anti-Slavery Reporter

This is one of several issues covering the period 1827-1831 that belonged to the Pike family of Dungannon, Co Tyrone, (1734-1831). The Pikes were members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) who were more generally at the heart of the anti-slavery movement.

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PRONI Reference D/3491/5/2/B 

Thomas Russell, portrait

Thomas Russell

(from Richard R. Madden, The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times 3rd series. 2nd edition. 1860)

Russell, a leading United Irishman, was Librarian of the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge (later the Linen Hall Library) from 1794-1796. His Letter to the People of Ireland on the Present Situation of the Country was printed at the Northern Star press in 1796 and included a denunciation of slavery. He was arrested in the Library shortly after publication, and executed in 1803.

Bust of Dr James MacDonnell (Ulster Museum) 

Bust of Dr James MacDonnell

Dr James MacDonnell, pioneer Belfast doctor, radical sympathiser, but ultimately not involved in the United Irishmen. At the Belfast town meetings on reform in 1792 he made the most eloquent linkage between the call for the abolition of slavery and that for Catholic emancipation.Hidden Connections: click to view previous articleHidden Connections: click to view next article