Irish Imperialists in the Spanish Empire: Empire, Slavery, and Diaspora.

We hope that these blog posts will spark scholarly conversations on Irish diaspora histories. Michael Bailey responds to a recent post by Maurice Casey, bringing us a glimpse into diasporic Irish communities who lived on the peripheries. Irish diaspora history is often portrayed in the public imagination as a phenomenon that began with the Irish Famine and focuses on migration to North America. Michael’s post explores the ‘peripheries’ of Irish diaspora histories by looking at Irish experiences in the eighteenth-century Spanish Empire.

This post is inspired, in part, by Maurice Casey’s recent and fascinating insight into Mairin Mitchell and his call “to highlight the individual and overlooked stories of the radical left.” There is no question that there is a long tradition of a “radical left” Irish diaspora, dating back at least to the eighteenth century. It has included such famous people and organizations as the United Irishmen, Molly MaGuires, San Patricios, Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Mairin Mitchell, Sinn Fein, and countless more. This piece has no disputes with Casey’s informative piece and timely arguments. Rather, it seeks to augment his work by offering a hitherto overlooked perspective on the effort he rightly called the “duty to provide a corrective” to single-sided narratives of Irish innocence, to recognize “the unsavoury moments in history of the Irish abroad.” Perhaps doing so can help us, those descendants of the Irish abroad, articulate and live a new type of Irish diaspora built on solidarity. With that in mind, this post offers a brief overview of Irish imperialists in the eighteenth century Spanish Empire and asks what this means for the study of the Irish diaspora and for those who want to alter our own era’s historical trajectories. It is my opinion that the tensions and contradictions in Irish history and the history of the Irish diaspora are precisely what makes Irish Studies such a rich, informative, and vital field of study. Both Irish revolutionaries and Irish imperialists, moreover, have much to say about the subaltern and power.

Significant and impressive work has been done on Irish involvement in South Africa, India, and the wider British Empire. My focus is on the eighteenth century and on Irish participation in the Spanish Empire. This focus is all the more interesting because it demands centering the still vexing “colonial” question that has been a fixture of early modern Irish historiography. Was Ireland a colony? The question remained unavoidable even in the recent four volume Cambridge History of Ireland. I follow in the footsteps of Nicholas Canny’s pioneering scholarship and interpretation: yes, Ireland was a colony and its colonial history mattered to the subsequent history of the English Empire. But this topic does not center the colonization of Ireland, it centers Irish colonizers.[1]

Irish Catholics reached a zenith of power in the Spanish Empire during the Bourbon Reform era following the Seven Years War (1756-1763) to, roughly, 1800. Their prominence was especially remarkable in the Spanish Americas. Alejandro O’Reilly, Tomas O’Daly, Hugo O’Conor, Arturo O’Neill, Sebastián Kindelán y O’Regan, Ambrosio O’Neill were but some of the most significant slaveowners, generals, and governors in the Spanish Americas in the second half of the eighteenth century. To that list we might also add Ricardo O’Farrill, an early eighteenth-century Irishman who became one of Cuba’s richest men as a massive sugar plantation owner and slave trader. These Irishmen succeeded in conquering and enslaving indigenous peoples, defeating European rivals in battle, and expanding the lucrative African slave trade and plantation labor system to Spanish colonies. They played central roles in the resurgence of the Spanish Empire, built upon systems that oppressed indigenous and African peoples. For example, O’Conor led a war of expulsion and enslavement against the Apache in Mexico’s northern borderlands, Ambrosio O’Higgins, perhaps most famous, played a leading role in wars against the indigenous peoples living in southern Chile before he eventually became Viceroy of Peru, and Kindelán y O’Regan was a principal supporter of the Cuban sugar revolution of the 1790s.[2]

Casey makes a powerful and compelling claim that “our failure to popularise the histories of those who spent lonely decades on the margins of Irish national and diaspora politics has left us poorly equipped to provide a historical narrative of precedence for Ireland’s recent and transformative referendums.” This is an excellent connection, and might also be supplemented from the “otherside” of the history of the Irish diaspora. That is, we might conclude that our failure to popularize histories of Irish people oppressing others — or each other — has left us equally ill-equipped to explain, or even recognize, Ireland’s postcolonial crises of income inequality, tax evasion, homelessness, failure to act on climate change, capitalist-alienation and rising mental health issues, and culpability in American imperialism in the Middle East for allowing access to Shannon Airport.

This story has no diminishing impact on the real and tragic history of the “Age of Atrocity,” the Cromwellian Conquest, Bliain an Áir, the penal laws, or an Gorta Mór. Eighteenth century Ireland was a colony of the British Empire and the majority of Irish Catholics lived impoverished and alienated lives at the behest of that empire. In the end, eighteenth century Irish imperialists might help us better understand how the subaltern can appropriate systems of oppression for their own empowerment. What we might learn from this for ourselves today is the need to emphasize not only incorporation of marginalized peoples into extant power systems, such as neoliberal capitalism, but rather imagine and build alternatives ways of living. As a final thought, perhaps we can also imagine and live a new concept of the diaspora that uses linkages, old and new, forge meaningful connections and build solidarity in our travails. This project seems a good step in that direction.

Michael Bailey is a Ph. D student in History at Boston College. He researches eighteenth century colonial North America and maintains a particular interest in the underexplored roles played by Irish exiles on the British/Native/Spanish borderlands of the Gulf Coast region. He can be followed on Twitter @El_Seanchai or emailed at Baileymp[@]

[1]Kevin Kenny, ed. Ireland and the British Empire(Oxford: Oxford University Press); Jane Ohlmeyer, “Introduction,” Cambridge History of Ireland, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 1-19; Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[2]These men and their careers are the topic of the author’s dissertation in progress, based on research in numerous archives. Some of them have appeared in single biographical sketches, for example: Mark Santiago, The Red Captain: The Life of Hugo O’Conor, Commandant Inspector of the Interior Provinces of New Spain (Tucson: Arizona Historical Society, 1994).

Image: Hugo O’Conor, the ‘red captain,’ notorious for his brutal war against the Apache.

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