A history we can agree on?

Slavery is a tough subject. I recently delivered a ten-week Open Learning course on Atlantic slavery at Queen’s University Belfast and at times found myself close to tears by the sheer inhumanity and sadism of the thing. Unfortunately, the lure of a making easy money brings out the very worst in people. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the well-off in virtually every port in Great Britain and Ireland invested in slaving ships, the murderous .com or crypto of the day. The enterprise was not short of risk, ships could be lost at be lost at sea but huge profits could be made. Records for the Royal Africa Company show that out of 95 voyages between 1680 and 1687, three made a loss, the largest profit was 141% and the average was 38%.[1] Lest we get too smug by thinking it had nothing to do with here, Ireland was not without guilt, Dublin, Limerick, Kinsale and Belfast all dabbled in the trade though in a ‘mild way’ to many of their counterparts in Great Britain.[2] Trade in slave produced goods, primarily sugar, but also tobacco and rum was also near universal.

By the time I had delivered the course I had a good knowledge of the broad international aspect of Atlantic Slavery but knew little about the local angle so I was delighted when a friend informed me there were walking tours of Belfast anti-slavery past.[3] I could fill a gap in my knowledge and also look at my own city from the perspective of a tourist which is always fun. The tour is taken by Dr Tom Thorpe and Mark Doherty, two men that know their subject well, and was both enjoyable and informative. Without wishing to spoil the experience for anyone thinking of taking it, the tour illustrates how the city came perilously close to selling its soul to slavery the way Bristol and Liverpool did. It is a fascinating what if? Belfast would have developed more quickly, been larger and more prosperous and the course of Irish history may have been quite different. I was also pleased to find the depth and breadth of local resistance to the trade; there was a distinct overlap with the United Irishmen and also critical voices from some surprising quarters.

We have much in our history that divides us but I think we can take pride at how our forefathers turned down the opportunity to enrich themselves on the misery of their fellow human beings. It is something we should all rejoice in.


  1. Thomas, H (2006) The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 p.442
  2. Thomas, p.206
  3. https://drtomstours.com/index.php/2023/02/06/new-anti-slavery-belfast-tour/


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