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Irish Lives in the Caribbean: Engaging with Empires.

Jennifer McLaren explores the worlds of Irish men in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century. Her work continues to highlight the place of the Irish diaspora within the British Empire, complicating the idea that Irish people were only colonised subjects. In this, Jennifer’s PhD contributed to an evolving discussion on Ireland and imperialism which Michael Bailey also touched upon.


A recent workshop on ‘Thinking the Empire Whole’ at Macquarie University in Sydney aimed to forge more comprehensive thinking about the British Empire through the long Eighteenth Century. In a panel on ‘living the British Empire,’ I argued for the inclusion of the Irish diaspora within the broader British imperial story. For historians of Ireland, this argument is perhaps not particularly novel, but as the editors recently pointed out in Ireland in an Imperial World, British imperial historiography has “almost entirely ignored Ireland.”[i]

My PhD thesis explored the Irish experience of empire in the British Caribbean during the revolutionary era. I researched the Caribbean lives of ten Irish settlers and sojourners, ranging across the military, imperial administration, commercial life and humanitarianism. Few of the men I researched engaged explicitly with the question of Ireland’s (or indeed their own) relationship with the British Empire, but their experiences exemplify the types of complexities and anomalies which often lead British historians to leave Irish stories out of their accounts of the Empire.[ii] It’s in teasing out those complexities, however, that we can attain a richer understanding of the Empire as a whole. Irish men and women were involved in an array of imperial projects in the Caribbean – greater perhaps than expected. In this blogpost I’ll briefly introduce three of the men I researched, to demonstrate how their experiences can reveal the deeply “multifaceted and essentially pluralised nature of the ‘British’ imperial experience.”[iii]

Judging by the Irishmen I researched, one effective way of managing the turbulence of the Revolutionary Era was to nurture trans-imperial connections, however fleeting. To be Irish enabled a degree of flexibility within the Caribbean which English (and perhaps Scottish) men lacked. Ambiguity regarding Irish men’s loyalties could be turned to advantage, but for the most part, their British counterparts would have found this far more difficult to navigate. In his study of the community of (largely Protestant) Irish merchants based in French Bordeaux during the Seven Years War, Thomas Truxes observed that the Irish community possessed a considerable ability to walk “the fine line of political allegiance.”[iv] The same I think can be said of many of the Irishmen I found in the Caribbean—including John Black, the grandson of one of those Bordeaux-based merchants.

Possibly the best-known of the men I researched is Edward Despard—the last man to be sentenced to be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ in Britain.[v] Before his ignominious end, however, Despard had “served my country faithfully, honourably and usefully…for 30 Years and upwards.”[vi] First as a soldier and military engineer in Jamaica, and later in civil and military expeditions around the Mosquito Shore in central America. His assignment as Superintendent of the Honduras Bay settlement proved his most difficult, as he attempted to balance the interests of Britain and Spain, the indigenous inhabitants, and the settlers in the region. Despard adopted an egalitarian approach to land distribution in Honduras—obviously unusual for the time. He used a lottery system for land grants which made “no distinction of race, position or colour.”[vii] Despite the many successes in his Caribbean career, this novel approach ultimately led to his removal from office.

John Black hailed from a Presbyterian family in Belfast. He set out for Grenada as a young man in the early 1770s, eventually settling in Trinidad where he died in 1837. For some of the decade Black spent in Grenada, the island was under British control, for some it was French. While in Grenada, Black took up the business of slave trading, particularly the inter-colonial slave trade within the region.[viii] After a decade in Grenada, he sought out new opportunities in Spanish Trinidad. In response to Spain’s generous land grants to immigrants, Black (the Presbyterian) somehow convinced Governor Chacon that he was of the “Roman Catholic persuasion” and took up land for a plantation. He resumed slave trading as an agent of a Liverpool firm, and took on various administrative roles within the Spanish colonial world.

John Crawford also moved around the Caribbean during his time there, crossing imperial borders (such as they were). After a stint as a Surgeon with the East India Company, Ulsterman Crawford travelled to Barbados to take charge of the Naval Hospital there in the 1770s, a post he held for more than a decade. Crawford established two medical charities in Barbados—a chapter of the Humane Society and a Dispensary (essentially a free outpatient clinic for referred patients). In the 1780s, he moved to Dutch Demerara as the colony’s chief Surgeon. He clearly intended to remain in Demerara, but political upheaval in the 1790s intervened. He ultimately settled with his children in Baltimore, and never returned to Ireland.

To be Irish in the British Caribbean, particularly during the Revolutionary Era, required tenacity and the ability to withstand conflict. It was characterised by an eye for trans-imperial opportunities, and the ability to push boundaries, physically and metaphorically. Some of the men I studied demonstrated a flexibility of identity, as they played upon the misconception that the Irish were a homogenous group. Many engaged with more than one empire simultaneously during their Caribbean lives—at times extending the reach of the British Empire, and at times carving out individual opportunities for themselves. The Caribbean lives of John Black, John Crawford and Edward Despard, like others in the Irish diaspora, tell us much about Ireland and the diaspora itself, but incorporating their experiences of empire into the broader story can also provide us with a deeper understanding of the British Empire as a whole.

Jennifer McLaren has recently completed a PhD at Macquarie University. Her thesis, ‘Irish Lives in the British Caribbean: Engaging with Empire, 1770-1835,’ utilised the biographies of ten Irish sojourners to address the question of the Irish experience of empire.  After a legal career in Australia and the UK, Jennifer returned to study to complete a Masters of Research and PhD. Jennifer’s MRes research on the reporting of imperial news in England and Ireland regarding the Battle of the Saintes in 1783 was adapted for publication in a special edition on Transnational Ireland in the Irish studies journal Éire-Ireland. You can contact Jennifer on Twitter @McLarenJen.

[i]Timothy G. McMahon, Michael de Nie, and Paul A. Townend, ‘Introduction,’ in Ireland in an Imperial World: Citizenship, Opportunism, and Subversion(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 2.

[ii]Stephen Howe, ‘Minding the Gaps: New Directions in the Study of Ireland and Empire,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History37 (2009): 137.

[iii]Barry Crosbie, Irish Imperial Networks: Migration, Social Communication and Exchange in Nineteenth-Century India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 65.

[iv]Thomas M. Truxes, ‘Introduction: A connected Irish world,’ in Ireland, France, and the Atlantic in a Time of War, ed. Thomas M. Truxes (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 20.

[v]For his role in the so-called Despard conspiracy of 1803. He was ultimately hung and beheaded.

[vi]George Angus (printer), A Particular Account of the Behaviour and Execution of the unfortunate Colonel Despard, and Six of this Associates, who suffered Death on Monday the 21st Instant at London, for the Crime of High Treason(London: Angus, 1803).

[vii]‘Many Memorials of Settlers, 1787,’ Co 123/6, in Archives of British Honduras, ed. Major Sir John Alder Burdon (London: Sifton Praed & Co, 1931, 1:161.

[viii]Gregory E. O’Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 320.


Image: ‘Le Port St. George, Dans L’Isle De La Grenade, Vu du côté de l’Est Tiré d’un Recueil de differens Ports des Isles Antilles dessinés en 1780,’ by Pierre Ozanne. From the Beinecke Lesser Antilles Collection of Hamilton College.


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