Why Belfast said no to the slave trade

The arrival of a slave ship to Jamestown Virginia, U.S The arrival of a slave ship to Jamestown Virginia, U.S

The British port cities of Bristol and Liverpool boomed in the 18th century as a result of the slave trade. But why didn't it happen in Belfast, on the other side of the Irish Sea, even when it had the opportunity in the 1780s?

In 1786, a wealthy shipping merchant and Belfast native, Waddell Cunningham, proposed a slave ship company to compete with those in Britain. He had made a fortune through all manner of legal and illegal shipping activities in New York, the British colonies and Belfast during the 1750s and made vast sums from transporting slaves between West Indian islands. He even purchased an estate on the island of Dominica which he called Belfast.

"A polite way to say it is that he was an action man," explains Dr Nini Rodgers, author of Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery. "But he was quite a violent man, a strong personality."

Captain Waddell Cunningham (c.1786) Captain Waddell Cunningham (c.1786)

"In the 18th century everybody smuggled and he was one of the smugglers. There were complicated trade rules and he was trying to break them. Some historians argue that the people who smuggled and broke all of the rules are the people who were driving trade forward."

During the middle of the 18th century, Ireland and parts of North America were British colonies which resented Britain's monopoly in the Atlantic slave trade. Only ships from Bristol, Liverpool or London could trade in slaves according to legislation designed to exclude Irish produce from both British and international markets.

In 1765 Cunningham became a prominent member of society in Northern Ireland. He was the founding chairman of Belfast's Chamber of Commerce and president of the Harbour Board, but at the same time he continued with his illegal trading.

When the legislation that prohibited Ireland from competing in the slave triangle was relaxed in 1781, Waddell Cunningham saw an opportunity to replicate in Belfast the success Bristol and Liverpool had enjoyed from the slave trade.

"He wanted to use Ireland's new freedom of trade to make money for himself" says Dr Rodgers, "but also to make money for Belfast and for Ireland. He saw it as a patriotic endeavour to boost Ireland's economy."

Revolutionary links

Despite Cunningham's intentions to boost the Belfast economy, his proposal was met with considerable opposition.

Abolition of Slavery

  • 1787 The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed.
  • 1792 Bill to gradually abolish slavery is defeated by parliament.
  • 1807 Slave Trade Act fined ships carrying slaves.
  • 1827 Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was punishable by death.
  • 1833 The Slavery Abolition Act made slavery illegal in British colonies.

Belfast in 1784 was a potent brew of Presbyterian ethics, capitalist values and radical thinkers. Circumventing Britain's slave trade monopoly had helped Irish merchants forge close ties with the ideals of revolutionary France and America. Change was in the air - America was now a republic, and France was soon to follow in its footsteps.

Belfast even celebrated Bastille Day on 14 July for the next three years after the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789, commemorating the French Revolution.

"The French experience illustrated the democratic principle at work, held out rewards for those who dared to agitate it, promised a way out of the present political doldrums," explains Dr Rodgers.

"[Belfast] was a Presbyterian town, used to sending ships, producing papers and its people were internationally outward-looking. It's fair to say Belfast was radical," says Dr Rodgers. "It really strikes you when you look at papers. The radical ones really wanted to emulate the French revolution in Ireland and [they] saw anti-slavery as part of something they were moving towards."

During the Bastille Day parades the Belfast radicals showcased their political ideologies which included anti-slavery sentiments. They carried banners that bore the motto, "Can the African slave trade, tho' morally wrong, be politically right?"

Thomas McCabe - an 'Irish slave'
Thomas McCabe denouncing Waddell Cunningham's proposed slave ship company Thomas McCabe denouncing Waddell Cunningham's proposed slave ship company

Among Belfast's radical thinkers was Thomas McCabe, a Presbyterian jeweller who had developed the knack of using publicity stunts to highlight the causes he believed in.

He placed a sign in his shop window which read "Thomas McCabe, an Irish slave, licensed to sell silver and gold." This was a protest against taxation without representation, one of the philosophies that had underpinned the American Revolution in 1783.

McCabe was vehemently opposed to Waddell's plans to establish a slave ship company in Belfast and he boasted that the venture failed due to his hostility.

His friend and fellow radical Willie Drennan wrote: "I had a letter lately from T McCabe to tell me of an association planned by Waddell Cunningham for carrying on the slave trade at Belfast to which he had got several subscribers, but which Tom had knocked up completely by writing in the proposal book: 'May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea'. I could not but smile at receiving this letter."

A hazardous venture

There were other reasons why Waddell Cunningham's slave ship company proposal ultimately failed.

"Navigation acts were repealed and [Britain's] monopoly was weakened," says Prof Bill Rolston, author of 'How Racism Came to Ireland'. "Cunningham saw an opportunity, but it was too late. It would have been like trying to open a corner shop after [a big supermarket] was already there. They would never have been able to compete with Bristol and Liverpool. There was a sense that the last days of slavery were in the air. Abolition was in the air"

Slave-traders throwing slaves overboard to avoid capture by a British patrol ship Slave-traders throwing slaves overboard to avoid capture by a British patrol ship

Ireland's involvement in abolition causes did not end when Cunningham's plans were thrown out. After the slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807 and slavery widely abolished in the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the people of Ireland continued to lend their support for the American abolitionist movement during the 1840s.

One of its leaders, Wendell Philips, said in 1845: "We may well learn a lesson from [Ireland] in the battle for human rights. Her philosophy is no recluse; she doffs the cowl, and quits the cloister, to grasp in friendly effort the hands of the people".

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