Philip Orr on Belfast’s Resistance to the Slave Trade – ‘No Blood Drops on the Sugar’

orr&mallonToday ‘Belfast’s Generosity to the 4 Corners of the World’ was celebrated at City Hall, with a reception where the Lord Mayor presented the first-ever ‘Unsung Heroes’ Awards.

(Click here to learn about the unsung heroes and their work.)

The event was incorporated into the 4 Corners Festival and featured an address by historian Philip Orr, ‘No Blood Drops on the Sugar,’ about how the citizens of Belfast resisted the city’s further incorporation into the slave trade.

This is the full text of Orr’s address – an example of remembering some of the positive actions of past citizens, with a view to inspiring the current generation to act with similar generosity and imagination.



The African slave trade is one of the grimmest features of human history and by the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the sea-going European empires such as Britain were ‘up to their neck’ in it. This was probably the largest, most sustained, forced migration in history, involving the transport of millions of African men, women and children to the New World to work on sugar, tobacco cotton and other plantations as the mere possessions or ‘chattels’ of their owners. It has been estimated that by the 1790s there were 480,000 slaves at work in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.

The trade in slaves was lucrative and merchant cities such as Liverpool and Bristol owed much of their wealth to it. It should not surprise us that some people in Ireland – a European island and part of the British Empire -were also involved. Some mariners captained or crewed slave ships, some merchants owned big estates on Caribbean islands. Considerable wealth was created in Ireland by the sale of Irish agricultural produce to estate managers in the West Indies, enabling them to feed their slaves – this was especially feasible after the granting of ‘free trade’ status to Irish merchants by the 1780s.

The story of William Wilberforce’s struggle to abolish the trade in slaves throughout the empire is well known, but it is less well grasped that the argument about slavery was carried out on the streets and in the civic venues and the newspapers of Belfast, which in the last two decades of the 18th century was a growing merchant town and port. Many prominent local citizens in this intensely Presbyterian town took a firm stand against slavery and helped prevent a slave-trading company from being set up here.

An editorial of the Belfast News Letter in 1786 read as follows –

‘That the Africans are an inferior link in the grand chain of nature is a prejudice, which has been indulged in and propagated by Europeans, especially in modern times, from considerations peculiarly sordid and contemptible; the fact is that the mental faculties of the negroes are by no means of a subordinate description to those of any other men.’

In using the words ‘sordid’ and ‘contemptible’ the editor was referring of course to the slave trade.

Keeping black servants had been practised in 18th century Ireland as it had been elsewhere. However, we do know that of the several hundred Africans who lived in Ireland by the 1780s, some occupied more elevated social roles and possessed status. There were examples of white men with black wives and more commonly black men with white wives – after all, ports like Belfast, where ships regularly docked, would have had a degree of diversity in the population. While such marriages were out of the ordinary there is no record of mixed marriage meeting with racially motivated disapproval.


One of the town’s most dynamic citizens in the 1790s was Thomas Russell, the first paid librarian of the institution we now know as the Linenhall Library. In 1796 he wrote a ‘Letter to the people of Ireland’ dominated by a call to the local citizens to turn their backs on the trade. He described it as ‘that horrid traffic which creates and perpetuates barbarism and misery and prevents the spreading of the civilisation and Christian religion in which we profess to believe.’ He asked if local men and women knew that ‘hundreds of thousands of miserable Africans are dragged from their innocent families and there treated with such a system of cruelty, torment, wickedness and infamy that it is impossible for language to express the horror and guilt.’

Russell famously refused to eat ‘sweetmeats’ which contained sugar icing, claiming that every time he looked at a lump of sugar he could see a drop of African blood. And Russell was not alone. Many other men and women in his circles refused to eat products that incorporated Caribbean sugar. William Drennan, whose father was minister of a Presbyterian Church in Belfast’s Rosemary Street, wrote to his sister Martha saying ‘I should like to see family resolutions drawn up and subscribed to by some of the matrons of Belfast most famous for conserves and preserves.’ In other words, Drennan hoped that Belfast women would use only what we would call ‘fairly traded produce’ in their kitchens – and that they would teach their children to follow in their footsteps.

Drennan was also responsible for helping to draw up a petition which was passed around the town, collecting signatures against slavery. He hoped it would be a blow against those Belfast traders who avidly sold such Caribbean products as molasses and rum and exported foodstuffs from here to islands such as Barbados.

Not untypical of the toasts offered at Belfast dinners in this era was the one suggested in 1792 by the owner of The Belfast News Letter, Henry Joy – ‘to Mr Wilberforce and a speedy repeal of the infamous traffic in the flesh and bone of man’. At the General Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the same year, the gathering passed a motion which called on all church members to support those activists who would ‘rescue from a state of slavery and wretchedness, an oppressed race of our fellow creatures.’ The radical local paper, The Northern Star would tell its readers in the same year that ‘every individual, as far as he consumes sugar products becomes accessory to the guilt.’

Of course as the Presbyterian Church well knew, some people in the town were already benefiting from slavery, even though they did not possess a fleet of slave ships in Belfast harbour. Local linen was exported to the British colonies as clothing for slaves. One rich Belfast citizen, Waddell Cunningham, had not only traded in the Caribbean but owned a plantation there, on which slaves worked. Another local businessman, Thomas Gregg, had devised a new method of curing herring and he exported barrels of the produce to Barbados as suitable food for slaves. In 1783, a Belfast firm of shoe makers devised a broad fitting shoe which was to be worn by Africans while working on the plantations.

In 1786, a group of local businessmen considered launching a new Belfast-based slave-shipping venture that might bring fresh prosperity to the town. For one local and radical citizen, this was anathema. He was the watchmaker Thomas McCabe. He is said to have stood at the foot of Donegal Street, near the Old Exchange Buildings, where he held up the prospectus for this proposed company, calling out – ‘May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man that will sign this document’. The story may owe something to legend as well as fact but it chimes with the mood of a town and its hinterland where reformist and radical views were increasingly popular and where by 1798 a bloody rebellion by the United Irishmen would break out against British rule.

The proposal to create a slaving company in the town outraged Presbyterian ladies like Martha McTier and Mary Ann McCracken who formed the Belfast Women’s Anti-slavery League. Slavery also outraged members of the Volunteer movement in Belfast, who had been influential in gaining greater independence for Ireland within the empire and who, in this dynamic northern town, often expressed egalitarian and revolutionary views. They organised Bastille Day celebrations on the streets of the town in the early 1790s, and raised a large flag as part of the procession, on which had been painted a picture of a chained slave. It was followed by another banner which asked – ‘Can the slave trade though morally wrong, be politically right?’

In truth, Presbyterians and their allies were tapping into a tradition of radical democracy and opposition to slavery that went back to the earlier decades of the 18th century when the Saintfield-born, Killyleagh-educated Francis Hutcheson had become Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. Hutcheson’s friend Tom Drennan was of course the father of William Drennan. .The philosopher’s writings on ethics were quite clear in their condemnation of the wrong done when one group of human beings claims unbridled ownership of – and superiority to – another.

In his System of Moral Philosophy, published posthumously in 1755, he had stated that all people have the right to life, natural liberty and freedom of judgement. He had argued that the moral laws that guide human behaviour ‘prohibit the greatest and wisest of mankind to inflict any misery on the meanest or deprive them of any of their natural rights’ and that ‘no endowments, natural or acquired can give a perfect right to assume power over others, without their consent ‘.

In arguing thus, Hutcheson rejected the view put forward in ancient times by Aristotle that some men are naturally born to subjection and some are naturally marked out to rule. For Hutcheson ‘the natural sense of justice and humanity’ abhorred this thought. And he insisted that nothing should ‘change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all right.’

Troubled by the moral rationale offered by slave-trading Christians – who often referenced the legitimisation of slavery in the Bible – he went on to remark that it was strange ‘in any nation where a sense of liberty prevails (and).. the Christian religion is professed’ that ‘custom and high prospects of gain can so stupefy the consciences of men and all sense of natural justice’ so that ‘they can hear such computations made about the value of their fellow-men, and their liberty, without abhorrence and indignation.’


But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the movement in late 18th century Belfast for what we would now call ‘fair’ or ‘ethical’ trade was the presence in Belfast of Ouladah Equiano, a freed slave who had written about his experiences. He had been born in that part of Africa now known as Nigeria and at the age of 10 he had been sold into slavery. In the course of a resourceful response to his enslavement he had managed to gain his own freedom, to be educated and to receive baptism as a Christian. His written accounts of his life were selling widely throughout Britain.

In 1791, Equiano came to Belfast to lodge with the woollen merchant and political radical, Samuel Neilson. He stood at the quays with copies of his autobiography in his hands and delivered talks at such well-known landmarks as the Charitable Institute – known to later generations as Clifton House. During his stay he sold numerous copies of his book.

Within his account there was much to shock the conscience of the reader. Equiano described how he and his sister had been tied up by slavers, with their mouths gagged to stop them crying, and then how they had been placed in sacks and carried on board the slave ship. During the start of the voyage, the two children comforted one another, then they were separated and never saw each other again. Refusing to eat during the voyage, Equiano was flogged mercilessly on an hourly basis until he did so. One fellow-slave was flogged so severely that he died of his wounds and was tossed over the side of the ship like a piece of rubbish. Other Africans jumped over the edge in their iron manacles in order to drown, rather than face the torment of the voyage and the savagery of their white, Christian captors.

Equiano not only narrated such events with clarity but he punctuated his discourse with intense appeals to the reader – ‘oh ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God who says onto you “do onto all men as you would men should do onto you”’

As we know, the campaign of William Wilberforce would bear fruit and the slave trade as such was ended throughout the British Empire in 1807although it would be the 1830s before the practice of owning slaves was made illegal. Slavery continued in several other parts of the world throughout the 19th century and there are fascinating anecdotes relating to Mary Ann McCracken, who as an old and frail lady in 1850s in Belfast, was seen standing by the gangway of ships that were heading for the southern ports of the USA where slaves still worked on the cotton plantations. She was there to hand out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants and sailors.

One of the features of the anti-slavery cause in the 1790s had been the creation of saleable commodities which turned the seal of the anti-Slavery League into a china ornament, and a jasper cameo bracelet among other things. The seal had been designed with a powerful motto inscribed on it – ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’. And alongside this searching question, the portrayal of a chained and kneeling African slave.

We cannot doubt that women in radical Belfast would have worn such jewellery. However it is as moral thinkers, intellectuals and writers, that Irish women of this era are most appropriately remembered. Belfast woman Elizabeth Hamilton, whose Letters on Education were written in the early 1800s, uttered a pro-abolitionist broadside in which she castigated the ‘reasonings of the traffickers in human misery, the self-interested abettors in Slave Trade’. She reckoned that ‘the imagination’ of these individuals was so ‘ inflamed by the passion of avarice, aggravated by pride and ambition’ that they saw it as ‘just and reasonable that one part of the species should inflict upon another every kind and degree of misery that human nature can sustain, in order to gratify the ….luxury of a few worthless individuals.’


In December 1845, the Protestant leaders of Belfast played host to another freed American slave, on this occasion the writer and campaigner Frederick Douglas. Slavery was still practised in the United States of America where a bloody civil conflict, dominated by this very issue, would eventually erupt. Protestant culture in Belfast was much changed from the 1790s, with strong support for the Union having grown on the back of industrialisation and middle-class prosperity. Yet the anti-slavery cause was vigorously supported in the town. Douglas received a warm welcome on making his first appearance in the Independent Chapel in Donegal Street at a meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor, Andrew Mulholland.

During the next few weeks, and also in the summer of 1846, Douglas delivered a number of speeches. The packed venues included several churches and he used the opportunity to challenge the complicity of church leaders in the USA in the practice of slavery, a subject dear to the heart of individuals such as the Presbyterian cleric, the Reverend Isaac Nelson and the vigorous Belfast anti-slavery society. Douglas’s speeches were uncompromising –

‘The slaveholder …is a murderer of the soul’ he proclaimed ‘…he shuts out the light of salvation from his spirit’

One of his most popular events was a breakfast attended by clergy from all across the north of Ireland, chaired by the MP, William Sharman Crawford.

However, with loud broadsides directed at those Christian leaders in Scotland and Ireland who did not challenge – or arguably colluded with – slavery in America, including the highly respected Thomas Chalmers, he did gain critics and make enemies in Belfast. There was also the vexed issue of how Douglas’s political views mapped onto the divisive Irish political scene – he had great respect for Daniel O’Connell, whose campaign for the repeal of the Union was warmly supported by local Catholics but viewed with antipathy by most Ulster Protestants.

Indeed it would be a great mistake to think that Douglas connected only with Irish Protestants. He travelled throughout Ireland and during his visit to County Cork, ‘took the pledge’ under the influence of a champion of abstinence from alcohol, the Catholic priest, Father Theobald Matthew. It should also be stressed that Daniel O’Connell was a globally renowned abolitionist and for him, as for many of those he led, the cause of the oppressed Irish Catholic and that of the American slave were of common , interlinked concern.


The Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin once claimed that ‘every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism’. The history of slavery amply shows us this. And believe you me, links to the history of barbarism are everywhere in modern city of Belfast.

Just a few minutes’ walk from City Hall is a blue plaque that notes the workshop of J B Dunlop, the man who helped perfect the pneumatic tyre. Yet who remembers that the invention of the tyre in an age of incipient automation led to a ‘rubber boom’ and to the resultant growth of forced labour and murderous mistreatment of native peoples who collected the rubber in Central Africa and South America – especially in the Belgian Congo, where cruelty was practised on an epic scale and the profits ended up in the coffers of the Belgian monarch. Some historians argue that at least 20% of the population died. It is clear that this disaster in the late 19th and early 20th century helps explain the subsequent tragedy of a too often war-torn and exploited Congo.

No fault of Dunlop’s of course, but it is important to remember where the road of technological and commercial advance can lead.

Yet, tales of barbarism are also interwoven with the story of those who document cruelty, expose it and provoke the collective outrage needed to try and bring an injustice to an end. In the case of the Belgian Congo, the Irish diplomat Roger Casement would play a key role as an investigator. Educated in Ballymena, spiritually much affected by his encounter with Evangelical missionaries in Africa, experienced in the cut and thrust of global imperialism – and awakening to a love of his native land – Casement sat in a coffee room in the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle in January 1904, gazing out at the wintry sea with his colleague Edmond Morel and planning the first steps towards creating a Congo Reform Association.

But if few in this city seem to know of the ethical back-story to Dunlop’s tyre workshop, few are also aware of the African link to that seaside coffee-room. And how many know that deep inside the historical past of Casement Park GAA stadium in West Belfast lies a narrative about the Congo, about European exploitation – and an interface of progress, cruelty, greed and humanitarian zeal that is still relevant today.

So, there has been a distinct history, in our part of the world, of men and women who refused to acquiesce in the barbarism that is so often woven through the fabric of life. This is the story of those who’ve been appalled by blood drops on the Caribbean sugar and the American cotton and the Congo rubber and any other prized commodity.

But sadly, we can end up memorialising other people and other things.

There is another kind of ancestry, another kind of history, but celebration of it must exist alongside action to tackle today’s justice issues and foresee tomorrow’s.



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