Hidden Connections: Slavery and the archives at PRONI

Slavery and the archives at PRONI

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast holds great quantities of historical documents and historians and students who wish to research and write about the important events in history make sure that they examine these documents in considerable detail in order to shed light on their topic of research.

Slavery and its eventual abolition is one such topic and careful research will reveal a wealth of information on the subject, mostly in the personal papers of people who lived at that time and whose documents are held in PRONI.

For example, among the Castlereagh Papers (PRONI reference D/3030) you will find documents relating to Viscount Castlereagh’s term as Secretary of State for War in the Colonies in 1807 and as Foreign Secretary in 1812 in which references to slavery and the slave trade proliferate. In this same archive there are even letters to Castlereagh from William Wilberforce, Member of Parliament for Hull, who, along with Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, spearheaded the anti-slavery movement in Britain. (PRONI reference D/3030).

The Belmore family papers (PRONI reference D/3007) contain references to the second Earl of Belmore’s term as Governor of Jamaica (1828-1832). Although slave trading had been abolished, slavery itself still existed. This was a turbulent period in the island’s history.

There were 300,000 slaves in Jamaica owned by a relatively small white population and with a growing movement towards emancipation led by Baptist and Methodist clergymen trouble was inevitable. One group of slaves, believing that emancipation had been granted by the British government but that their owners were obstructing it, rebelled in December 1831. This rebellion is regarded as the most dangerous and destructive in the island’s history.

The archive contains official dispatches from the Colonial Office to Lord Belmore and a royal proclamation denying false reports that the slaves in the West Indian colonies were about to be emancipated. In addition there is the correspondence of Major-General Sir Willoughby Cotton, commander of the forces in Jamaica, and a proclamation from Lord Belmore offering pardon to the rebellious slaves who had given themselves up or returned peacefully to their owners.

Among the correspondence relating to slavery in the Abercorn papers (PRONI reference D/623) there is a letter from the Marquess of Abercorn to William Wilberforce about the slave trade and the draft of a speech on the abolition of the slave trade. There is also further correspondence relating to the East African slave trade and an alleged diplomatic involvement in the slave trade in Morocco is to be found in the Dufferin and Ava archive. (PRONI reference D/1071/H/B/C/95/61).

Other documents containing references to slavery and its abolition are those relating to Belfast’s eighteenth century radical reformers. See, for example, the William Drennan papers, in particular a body of correspondence between William Drennan, a Presbyterian doctor, his sister Martha and her husband Samuel McTier in which they discuss the issue of slavery. (PRONI reference T/765).

The voice of the ordinary man and woman is far from silent on this emotive topic. There are numerous letters written by Irish immigrants to America and the West Indies some of whom are witnessing the phenomenon of slavery and slave trading at first hand. Many are sympathetic to the plight of the slaves; others appear to be deeply insensitive describing their own ‘gay social life’ and the auctioning of slaves in the same breath.

Grace McGrath
August 2007

Slave Rebellion in Jamaica, December 1831

The Belmore family notebook 

The Belmore Family Notebook

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Slaves rose in revolt encouraged by reports that emancipation had been granted by the British Government but was being withheld by the plantation owners. The Second Earl of Belmore was Governor of the island at the time.

This notebook was owned by the Belmore family, listing the names of slaves – and the ringleaders - absent from their estates during the rebellion. Martial law was declared throughout the island.

PRONI Reference D/3007/G/1/66

The Jamaican rebellion 

Details of the numbers of slaves in rebellion

Details of the numbers of slaves in open rebellion on the island of Jamaica in 1831, and the number of 'estate works' destroyed by fires started by them. The cost of the damage came to £667,000.

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PRONI Reference D/3007/G/1/7

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