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Column: John Mitchel was hailed as a totem for Irish liberty… but he was a white supremacist.

John Mitchel was a leading member of nationalist groups that demanded freedom for the Irish. But his sympathies didn’t stretch beyond his own countrymen: he was also vocal and passionate supporter of slavery.

Liam Hogan

RICHARD WEBB CO-FOUNDED the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society in Dublin in 1837. He was arguably the most active, influential and well connected anti-slavery campaigner in Ireland in the 19th century. In 1847 he viewed John Mitchel as a hero, one who “loved Ireland and sacrificed everything for Ireland.”

It was around this time that Webb hung a portrait of John Mitchel on the wall of his son’s bedroom, but when Alfred Webb (Richard’s son) returned from Australia in 1855 he was surprised to find that the portrait had been removed from the wall and discarded. Why did Richard Webb change his mind so completely about Mitchel?

As early as 1848 John Mitchel was making it clear that he believed that slavery was a legitimate institution. The basis for this view was quite simple. Mitchel was a proud racist, one who believed in the supremacy of the “white race”. He believed” negroes” were an inherently inferior “race”. Such views were not common among his Young Ireland colleagues. Charles Gavan Duffy found Mitchel’s pro-slavery beliefs to be repellent. Duffy recounts how he refused to publish some of Mitchel’s writings in the Nation newspaper as he had:

…attempted to employ the journal which was recognised throughout the world as the mouthpiece of Irish rights in the monstrous task of applauding negro slavery and denouncing the emancipation of the Jews. I would not permit him to make me responsible for these opinions at that time, nor would I permit any man in the world to do so to-day.

Duffy suggests that Mitchel “learned these opinions” from that other famous racist and proslavery advocate, Thomas Carlyle. It’s hard to argue with Duffy’s observation that Mitchel’s hateful beliefs were “strangely unsuitable equipment for a spokesman of Irish liberty.”

In 1853 Mitchel escaped from the penal colony of Tasmania and settled in New York. He was warmly greeted and highly regarded by his hosts, But he was soon unwelcome for there many reasons, not least his outspoken pro-slavery views. In 1857 he set up a Southern Citizen newspaper in Tennessee with his friend William Graham Swan. It’s prospectus held that the…

Institution of Negro Slavery is a sound, just, wholesome Institution; and therefore, that the question of re-opening the African Slave Trade is a question of expediency alone…

Desire to re-open the slave trade

Mitchel supported the re-opening of the African Slave Trade. The voyage across the Atlantic during the heyday of this “trade in human flesh” had led to the deaths of more than 1 million Africans alone. This aspect of the Atlantic slave trade (treated in isolation) fulfils Article II of the Convention on Genocide. But this was a non-issue for Mitchel. For him this was “a good, a positive good”. He felt that price of slaves in the South was too high and to have a more egalitarian society the price must come down so that even the poorest white could own a slave. Thus re-opening of the slave trade was for Mitchel key to increasing the supply of labour in the South. This was Mitchel’s republicanism.

Ironically other influential racists in the South were, for various racist reasons, against this idea. Some did not want the price of their “stock” reducing, while others did want any more Africans in their country.

The depth of Mitchel’s belief in slavery and white supremacy is sharply illustrated in a letter he sent in 1857 to his good friend, Fr. John Kenyon. Kenyon was known in abolitionist circles as “the slave tolerating priest of Templederry”, but he took issue with Mitchel’s enthusiastic support for slavery and declared that it was “monstrous” to promote the system for its own sake. Mitchel’s reply lays bare his moral collapse.

He told Kenyon that he wanted to make the people of the US “proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes.” He claimed that slavery was inherently moral, it was “good in itself” and that yes he ”promotes it for its own sake.”

Then comes the coup de grace. After brief discussion of how slavery was viewed by the Catholic Church he writes that this was in any case a moot point. He believed that the religious debate with regards to the immorality of the

“enslavement of men” did not apply to “negro slaves”. Why is this? According to Mitchel,

“To enslave them is impossible or to set them free either. They are born and bred slaves.”

Mitchel felt sorry for the “poor negroes” of the North

When the American Civil War started Mitchel moved to Richmond, Virginia. He never sympathised with the enslaved black population of the South but yet felt sorry for the “poor negroes” of the North who he claimed were tricked into fighting against their best interests.

These were the same “poor negroes” of the Union army who helped win the war and free over three million slaves. As the war progressed, two of his sons died fighting to defend the Confederacy/Slavery and a third lost an arm.

As the Confederate side became desperate, it was suggested by some of their Generals to use slaves as soldiers to bolster their ranks. It was proposed that the slaves who fought would be freed afterwards. An incredulous Mitchel condemned this idea as perverted for…

…if freedom be a reward for negroes – that is, if freedom be a good thing for negroes – why, then it is, and always was, a grievous wrong and crime to hold them in slavery at all. If it be true that the state of slavery keeps these people depressed below the condition to which they could develop their nature, their intelligence, and their capacity for enjoyment, and what we call “progress” then every hour of their bondage for generations is a black stain upon the white race.

Since Mitchel consistently believed that Africans were born and bred slaves he opposed this measure, but it is fascinating to see him elucidate the moral consequences if he was proved to be wrong.

How then was Mitchel rehabilitated by prominent Irish nationalists at the turn of the century as a totem for Irish independence and liberty? You need look no further than the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith. In a preface to a 1918 edition of Mitchel’s influential Jail Journal Griffith compares Mitchel to Swift, calls him a “fearless speaker of the truth” who demolished the “moral basis” of abolitionism.

Griffith, by quoting Scripture, agrees with Mitchel that slavery was a non-issue, an invention of a crime. He recalls how Mitchel asked the abolitionists “Are you better Christians than Him who founded Christianity, better lovers of liberty than the Greeks who invented it, better republicans than Washington and Jefferson?” Griffith is satisfied that this comprehensively wins the argument, and then follows this quotation with a revealing opinion that shows his own racist reasoning and nationalistic myopia.

Even his views on negro-slavery have been deprecatingly excused, as if excuse were needed for an Irish Nationalist declining to hold the negro his peer in right. When the Irish Nation needs explanation or apology for John Mitchel the Irish Nation will need its shroud.

But I would prefer to leave to final word to Frederick Douglass, a former slave and once an admirer of Mitchel, who ultimately branded him a “traitor to humanity”.

Liam Hogan is a librarian and historian. He is a graduate of the University of Limerick and Aberystwyth University and is currently working on his first book, a study of the historical relationship between Limerick and slavery. You can follow him on Twitter @Limerick1914

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