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Africans in eighteenth-century Ireland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

W.A. Hart*
School of History and International Affairs, University of Ulster at Coleraine


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About noon on Sunday 19 October 1777 there was a stir of attention in one corner of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. As the Freeman’s Journal reported,

A female black and child... was so closely pressed by the multitude of people crowding round, and staring at her, that being much affrighted, in vain she endeavoured to retire, the child was so terrified as to burst into tears, and notwithstanding such evident signs of fear, it was with the utmost difficulty a few reasonable persons could extricate her from the crowd and get her safe out of the walks.

It is easy to visualise the scene: the intimidating presence of the Sunday crowd building up around the pair, the frightened mother, the weeping child clinging to her. The story is told sympathetically; it is a minor incident but, one might think, revealing. It seems, on the face of it, to show that a single black woman and her child were a rare sight in eighteenth-century Dublin. But then the next sentence in the newspaper report turns that assumption on its head:

Had she in any manner differed from others of her colour and country so common to meet with, it might have been some apology, to gratify curiosity; that not being the case, it reflects both scandal and ignorance on the company, and the more so, as the time and the place considered, much better behaviour might be expected.

In the writer’s view, what was wrong was not simply the rudeness of the Dubliners in letting their curiosity get the better of them, and the distress this caused, but the fact that it was out of all proportion to the object that provoked it. There was not the excuse that black people like this particular mother and child were a novelty. On the contrary, they were ‘common to meet with’.

Research Article
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2002


1 Freeman’s Journal, 23–25 Oct. 1777.

2 For a general overview see Debrunner, H.W., Presence and prestige: Africans in Europe (Basel, 1979)Google Scholar. Works dealing with particular countries are McCloy, S.T., The negro in France (Lexington, Ky., 1961)Google Scholar, and de C.M. Saunders, A.C., A social history of black slaves and freedmen in Portugal, 1441–1555 (Cambridge, 1982)Google Scholar. The extensive literature on black people in England is summarised in ch. 1 of Myers, Norma, Reconstructing the black past: blacks in Britain, 1780–1830 (London, 1996)Google Scholar, which also contains a bibliography.

3 Edwards, Paul, The early African presence in the British Isles (Edinburgh, 1990)Google Scholar (inaugural lecture at the University of Edinburgh, published as an Occasional Paper by the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh); Evans, June, ‘Africans/Caribbeans in Scotland: a socio-geographic study’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1996)Google Scholar.

4 Reports were compiled of the numbers of black people in the different regions of France, but complete figures were not computed: see McCloy, Negro in France, pp 51–2.

5 Contemporary estimates of the black population in eighteenth-century England are discussed in Myers, Reconstructing the black past, ch. 2. Myers provides her own estimates, based on court and parish records. She puts the figure for London as being between 5, 000 and 10, 000 and suggests another 10, 000 for the rest of England as a whole.

6 There is need for caution here. Terms like ‘black man’ and ‘black fellow’ were often used in Ireland, particularly in the early eighteenth century, to denote dark hair or complexion. Thus James Carleton, who deserted Rook’s regiment of foot on 28 July 1709, described as ‘a middle sized black Man, long thin coal black Hair, of a very pale countenance, an Inniskillenman’ (Dublin Gazette, 2–6 Aug. 1709), is clearly not to be counted as an African.

7 Pue’s Occurrences, 7–11 June 1757.

8 Dublin Journal, 4–6 Oct. 1791.

9 According to McCloy, who studied the 1777–8 totals and other official records, a figure not much above a thousand seems the likely upper limit for the number of black people in France at any time in the eighteenth century (McCloy, Negro in France, p. 52). A more recent study of black people under the ancien régime gives the estimate made by the French Committee of Legislation in 1782, of between 4, 000 and 5, 000 as the ‘highest acceptable figure’, but without meeting the arguments that led McCloy to reject this as fantastic (Peabody, Sue, ‘There are no slaves in France’: the political culture of race and slavery in the ancien régime (Oxford, 1996), p. 4Google Scholar).

10 Interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano (6th ed., London, 1793), pp. 358–9. Equiano figures prominently in Edwards, Paul and Walvin, James (eds), Black personalities in the era of the slave trader (London, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and in Braidwood, S.J., Black poor and white philanthropists: London’s blacks and the foundation of the Sierra Leone settlement, 1786–1791 (Liverpool, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the background to Equiano’s visit to Ireland see Rodgers, Nini, ‘Equiano in Belfast: a study of the anti-slavery ethos in a northern town’ in Slavery and Abolition, xviii (1997), pp 7389CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The parish registers examined systematically for the presence of black people were those for the following Church of Ireland parishes in Dublin city: Christ Church, St Anne’s, St Audoen’s, St Catherine’s, St John’s, St Luke’s, St Mark’s, St Michan’s, St Nicholas Within, St Nicholas Without, St Patrick’s, St Paul’s, St Kevin’s, St Thomas’s and St Werburgh’s. Some of the surviving registers for parishes in Belfast, Cork, Kinsale and Waterford were also inspected.

12 Fryer, Peter, Staying power: the history of black people in Britain (London, 1984), pp 6970Google Scholar, quotes a description of a wedding involving black families from the St James’s Evening Post, 19–22 Mar. 1726. A Dublin newspaper (Dublin Journal, 21–25 Feb. 1726[/7]) similarly reprinted a description of the funeral of a black woman, with many black mourners, at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, London, in February 1727.

13 Fryer, Staying power, p. 69.

14 Dublin Journal, 26–28 Aug. 1783.

15 Ibid., 10–14 Aug. 1756.

16 Ibid., 13–16 Mar. 1762.

17 “Belfast News-Letter, 14 Sept. 1762.

18 Cork Journal, 15 Mar. 1762.

19 “Dublin Mercury, 11–13 Aug. 1768.

20 For this distinction between a slave-owning and a slave society see Morgan, P. D., ‘British encounters with Africans and African-Americans, circa 1600–1780’ in Bailyn, Bernard and Morgan, P. D. (eds), Strangers within the realm: cultural margins of the first British empire (Chapel Hill, 1991), pp 163-4Google Scholar.

21 Dublin Journal, 21–23 Nov. 1769.

22 Dublin Mercury, 10–12 July 1770; Freeman’s Journal, 17–19 July, 4–7, 11-14 Aug. 1770.

23 Bath Chronicle, 16 Mar. 1769.

24 Londonderry Journal, 13 June 1786.

25 Belfast News-Letter, 23 Feb. 1773.

26 Bath Chronicle, 16 Mar 1769; Cork Evening Post, 6 Apr. 1769.

27 ‘Leinster Journal, 8–11 July 1767.

28 For example, the reference to a ‘Black-a-moor Kettle-Drummer’ in the 1779 riding of the franchises in Dublin Evening Post, 26 July 1783.

29 Hibernian Journal, 10–12 Mar. 1773. A second performance was advertised but did not take place (Dublin Journal, 27–30 Mar. 1773).

30 Rachael Baptist, for whom see below, pp 30–31.

31 Dublin Journal, 4–8 Apr. 1758.

32 See below, pp 29–30.

33 Freeman’s Journal, 19–21 Aug. 1783; P.R.O.N.I., T/3765/J/l/2/3.The debate which preceded his being allowed to vote seems to have revolved around the claim that he had married a Catholic rather than the colour of his skin.

34 Freeman’s Journal, 21–23 Apr. 1785.

35 Ibid., 27–30 May 1786. Not everyone regarded the prospect with such equanimity. A correspondent of the Dublin Chronicle in 1788, significantly a former magistrate in Jamaica, wrote that he would rather see ‘the heads of the whole [black] race piled upon each other, than to see even the lower rank of British subjects, contaminated by this African taint’. His views were promptly denounced by a ‘Lover of Humanity’. (Dublin Chronicle, 26–29 Apr., 6–8 May 1788, and subsequent issues)

36 Belfast News-Letter, 5–8 Sept. 1786.

37 Hammond, J. W., ‘George’s Quay and Rogerson’s Quay in the eighteenth century’ in Dublin Hist. Rec., v (1942-3), p. 50Google Scholar.

38 Dublin Journal, 17–20 June, 13–15 July 1780.

39 Ibid., 7–10, 10-12, 11-14 June 1783.

40 Ibid., 19–21 June 1783.

41 Freeman’s Journal, 12–14 June 1783.

42 Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Oct. 1783. Horace Hone painted a miniature of Ben Ali, which Ben Ali took with him on his departure (Dublin Journal, 11–13 Nov. 1783).

43 Freeman’s Journal, 12–14 Aug. 1783.

44 Ibid., 11–13 Nov. 1783, 16–19 Sept. 1786.

45 Ibid., 21–23 Sept. 1786.

46 Sir Jonah Barrington’s story of Dr Ahmet Borumborad shows that the case of Ben Ali was not unique (see Barrington, , Personal sketches of his own times (3 vols, London, 1827-32), i, 230-42)Google Scholar. So also does the following: ‘It is the fate of this country to be eternally the dupe of schemers and imposters, Mr Omer, Mr Ducart, J. Wynn Baker, and the Irish Turk, have successively and successfully played on our simplicity and credulity’ (Belfast Mercury, 9 Mar. 1786, quoting the Volunteer Journal).

47 Freeman’s Journal, 20–25 Mar. 1783.

48 Ibid., 3–5 June 1783.

49 Dublin Journal, 24–26 July 1783.

50 Freeman’s Journal, 19–21 Aug. 1783.

51 Dublin Evening Post, 6 Sept. 1783.

52 Freeman’s Journal, 19–21 June 1787.

53 Dublin Journal, 10–13 Feb. 1750.

54 For Rachael Baptist’s performances between 1750 and 1756 see the index to Boydell, Brian, A Dublin musical calendar, 1700–60 (Blackrock, 1988).Google Scholar

55 O’Keeffe, John, Recollections of the life of John O’Keeffe (2 vols, London, 1826), i, 66Google Scholar.

56 Finn’s Leinster Journal, 21–25 Nov. 1767.1 have not so far been able to corroborate any details of her English performances from an independent source.

57 Ibid., 5–9 Dec. 1767, 5–9 Mar., 30 Mar. - 2 Apr. 1768.

58 Ibid., 5–9 Dec. 1767.

59 Ibid., 16–19 Dec. 1767.

60 Limerick Chronicle, 23 Oct. 1768.

61 Cork Evening Post, 4 June, 9 July 1770.

62 Belfast News-Letter, 27 Oct. 1772.

63 Londonderry Sentinel, 18 Oct. 1834. I owe this information to Nuala McAllister.

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