We know that Ireland like most countries in Western Europe got caught up in the 18th-century slave trade and Irish merchants could benefit from the produce of the West Indies.
Belfast was not exempt. The wealthy businessman Waddell Cunningham had a plantation in the Caribbean (called Belfast !) to take just one example.
However there was a formidable opposition to slavery among the citizens of the growing late-18th century town, often involving radically-minded women – and a welcome was given to Ouladah Equiano, the freed slave and author who visited Belfast, staying with Samuel Neilson who would go on to be a key United Irishman.
The abolition of slavery within the British Empire that followed in the 19th century is mired in controversy over the vast compensation paid to slave owners but even more pernicious was the continued existence of a slave-owning culture in the South of the USA, an evil which as we know precipitated the American Civil War.
So where does the Reverend Isaac Nelson, Presbyterian minister come into the story- a man who has a church named after him on the Shankill and is buried in Shankill’s ancient graveyard?
Nelson was a vehement critic of those church leaders in Ireland and Scotland who refused to condemn those fellow-Christians in the USA who not only owned slaves but justified the practice from their reading of the Bible. Furthermore, Nelson was a keen and vocal supporter of Frederick Douglass on his trip to Ireland.
Douglass was an escaped slave and a powerful leader of the abolitionist cause. In the 1840s Nelson shared local platforms with him amidst a whirlwind of controversy. The relationship of Douglass and Daniel O’Connell is well known but not the deep and committed sympathy of men like Nelson who was both an Evangelical Protestant and an opponent of human rights abuse in no certain terms.
His Evangelicalism did not stop him criticising the Ulster Revivalism of 1859 which he regarded as having American origins compromised by slavery.
The short conference on slavery and anti-slavery in Shankill Library and the adjacent former Nelson Memorial Church is appropriately located. But we will focus not just on local stories like Nelson’s but our own responsibilities with regard to enslavement in today’s troubled world.
Post written by Philip Orr