THE IRISH HOLD a unique place in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, white Europeans who were both slaves and slavers, depending on which way the political and economic winds were blowing from the seventeenth century onward.
Transported to the West Indies as indentured labour after the Cromwellian conquest or enthusiastically profiting from the inhuman triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Sugar Islands, cast as victims and villains as circumstances changed. And over two two centuries of the Atlantic slave trade, Irish merchants, seamen and financiers built vast dynastic fortunes at home and abroad.
The many Haitians and West Indians who trace their ancestry back to Africans transported on Irish-owned slave ships are living proof that the Irish have not always been the victims of history.
And it was the Irish slaving clans of Nantes in France, descendants of the Wild Geese, who effectively ran the trade in humans for the French nobility.
One Irish soldier turned pirate and saver, Philip Walsh of Ballynacooly in the Walsh Mountains in Co Kilkenny, was present at the signing of the Treaty of Limerick on 3 October 1691, which marked the end of the Williamite War and the scattering of thousands of exiled Irish soldiers and commanders across the sea to the continent or west to North America.
“A personal taxi service for the Stuarts”
Walsh senior, together with his son Antoine, commanded the ship that carried the defeated King James II from Kinsale in Co Cork to France after the Battle of the Boyne. The family were a sort of personal taxi service for the Stuarts during their ill-fated adventures: Philip’s son Antoine Vincent was the owner/operator of the armed frigate Doutelle, the ship that landed Charles Stuart, James II’s son and the ‘Young Pretender’, in Scotland in 1745 in his doomed bid for the throne.
Philip had settled in St Malo in Brittany (where Anthony or Antoine was born on 22 January 1703) and looked at start-up opportunities in the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. Philip Walsh was a shipbuilder, merchant and at times a daring and ruthless privateer or licensed pirate for the French crown, with free rein to attack and capture British shipping in the English Channel while the two great European powers were at war. He sailed fast, heavily-armed, but relatively small ships such as Le Curieux under letters of marque from the French crown.
Philip Walsh would venture far in search of a prize, on one occasion taking two ships, the Ruby and Diligent into the Indian Ocean and on another, sailing Le Curieux around Africa and to the mouth of the Red Sea to attack Dutch-owned coffee stores in Moka in the Yemen. On that raid against the largest coffee market on the coast of Arabia, the Irish corsair captain plundered an estimated 1,500 tonnes of the highest quality coffee beans. Philip, who married an Irish woman called Anne White and had ten children, died on a later voyage to Africa.
It was left to one of his sons, Antoine to get the real family business – slaving – off the ground.
By the early 1700s, the French port of Nantes, with a large, close-knit and hard-working Irish slave-trading community, became the chief slaving port for the kingdom of Louis XIV, the Sun King. It was said that half of the ships that sailed out of Nantes at the time were owned or stocked by Irish merchant families, including the Joyces, Walshes, MacCarthys, O’Sheils, Sarsfields and O’Riordans. Manufactured goods, guns, textiles, liquor and knives, were brought from Nantes to the Slave Coast, exchanged for slaves who were transported to the French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) where they were sold for sugar and tobacco, which then returned to Europe.
The Irish merchants built fine homes on the Île Feydeau, which still stand today, but the profits were spread far beyond Nantes: they made fortunes for the ports of Bristol, Liverpool and Amsterdam. To their great credit, the merchants of Belfast, under the future United Irishman William Putnam McCabe, refused to take part in the inhuman slave trade. However, the merchant princes of Cork, Limerick and Waterford profited by victualling the ships, feeding the slavers and slaves alike to great reward and family fortune. Huge family fortunes were built in Cork, the city centre was rebuilt and some of those dynasties that were built on the backs and bellies of millions of slaves are still with us today. And so it went on for decades, with the wealth of nations and Empires built up on unimaginable human misery.
Antoine Walsh was, until he was comfortable enough to retire to an office job on land, a slave ship captain. The voyage, from France to East Africa and then across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, was long and perilous and those making it faced everything from disease and foul weather to the possibility of piracy and mutinous human cargoes.
“From slave-ship captain to slave merchant”
By the early 1730s, Walsh had seen enough of the disease ridden coast of East Africa and the dangers of the middle passage and promoted himself from slave-ship captain to slave merchant.
Antoine had been lucky enough to avoid the bloody below-decks uprisings that claimed the lives of many slavers, including some of his employees and relatives. In 1734, the slave ship L’Aventurier, outfitted by Walsh’s father-in-law Luc O’Shiell (a former Jacobite officer), spent nearly four months moving up and down the West African coast, looking for slaves.
At Ouida (also called ‘Whydah’ by the slavers) on the coast of Benin, the captain (a J. Shaughnessy) went ashore to trade, leaving Barnaby O’Shiell, Antoine’s teenage brother-in-law, in command of a crew laid low by fever and dysentery. The slaves took their chance and broke free, cutting the barely-conscious pilot’s throat and locking the other invalid sailors below hatches. It was up to young Barnaby to rally the five sailors who could carry a gun and in the ensuing fight to regain the ship; two crewmen and forty slaves were killed. In commercial terms, they had lost one-sixth of the cargo and Captain Shaughnessy was forced to tie up at Ouida until he had collected 480 native men, women and children to transport in chains to Saint-Domingue and Martinique. Both Barnaby and Shaughnessy survived to have careers as slaver captains for Antoine.
Antoine Walsh would suffer a major setback after 1748 when he attempted to monopolise the French-East African slave trade – his business rivals forced him out and he left France to manage the family slave plantations in Sainte Domingue (Haiti), where he died in 1763.
Ten years earlier, in 1753, Antoine had been enobled by King Louis XV of France and the family estates on the lower Loire were consolidated by Royal letters-patent into the “Comte de Serrant.” The Walshes were henceforth Comtes de Serrant.
The exiled Irishman had personally bought and sold over 12,000 African slaves and launched 40 cross-Atlantic slave voyages. He was the greatest – or worst – of the Irish-Nantes slavers, far outstripping rivals such as the O’Riordan brothers, Etienne and Laurent, who had family back in Derryvoe, Co Cork. The Roches, originally from Limerick, where their extended clan included Arthurs and Suttons, managed a mere 11 slave voyages with around 3,000 slaves.
The dynasties and fine chateaux they built stand testament to their family names.
However, the writer Balzac might have coined a more fitting tribute when he observed; ‘Behind every great fortune there is a great crime’.
- The full tale of Antoine Walsh’s exploits can be read in journalist Joe O’Shea‘s book Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem: The Blackest-Hearted Villains from Irish History. Published by O’Brien Press, the book details the extraordinary – and mostly hidden – histories of Irish characters who left these shores to wreak havoc across the world as grave-robbers, duellists, conmen, drug-lords, killers and slavers. You can buy it in all good book shops or online here for €12.99.