“I would have been well pleased to have seen the island and all its inhabitants sunk.”

An exiled United Irishman writes about slavery in Martinique

Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, Martinique

After the Irish Rebellion of 1798 an estimated one thousand five hundred Irish rebels were transported to the West Indies. One of those deported was Andrew Bryson who was forced into compulsory service with the British colonial army in Martinique. Bryson was a Presbyterian from Co. Down and a colonel in the ranks of the United Irishmen. While he was keenly aware that his own liberty was now taken from him, he expressed his absolute horror at the plight of the chattel slaves on the island of Martinique and their treatment by the brutal planter class. Shortly after arriving he wrote to his sister how

“The Negroes who were to take us round were everyone naked and the poorest set of Boatmen I have ever seen in that country …[they could not use their sails]…so that the poor blacks had to take to their oars, some against their will.”

While he admired the natural beauty of Martinique, the spell that it held over him was shattered when he noticed hundreds of slaves in the background, some of whom were being viciously tortured for trivial reasons.

“But alas, when we look into the background and see 300 or 400 of our fellow creatures with small howes tearing up the ground that had never been entered by the plough, the eye turns back disgusted, saying that the former is only visionary pleasure while the latter is real misery. But be not too hasty; turn your eyes again; perhaps they may have deceived you in the first look. Hark: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 lashes inflicted on a poor old man who has not as much clothes on him as would cover a pincushion. And for what? The head of his hoe is loose and when it should fly off and hurt some of his fellow sufferers, [he is punished for it?]”
“While the punishment is inflicting, the poor feeble old man stands erect, braces every nerve, and casting his languid eyes toward heaven seems to call on the judge of all the earth to attest his innocence. Not a word, not a sigh escapes his lips, though they should beat the flesh in slices off his emaciated body. Poor miserable creatures; what a lot is yours in this world, or rather, what will be the fate of your tormentors in the next? Surely it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the inhabitants of these isles, in that day when the world and the inhabitants thereof will be judged by him who is able to make manifest the secrets of all hearts; and not only for them, but for every person who has been concerned in that cruelest of all traffics.”
“We arrived at St. Pierres about 5 in the Evening & Going ashore we found that the Barrack was in the other end of the Town. We had travelled about half a mile without finding any person that could speak a word of English, So the Officer stopped, not knowing whether he was going right or not. As Soon as we stopped, I began to look about me, to see what sort of people they were that lived in such houses as I saw the town consisted of. The first person that truck my attention was a young lady of exquisite beauty, at least I thought her so at that moment.”
“She had come to the door to get a better look at us, So I had a full View of her as she played with her fan. She let it drop: ‘Gin, Gin, Gin.’ A negro girl come running & lifted her fan. Tom, a black boy, come running. She said some thing in French that I could not understand, but immediately the poor negro began a-crying. The little boy returned with a small cutting whip in his hand, with which she began to beat the girl in the most unmerciful manner. How long she continued this amusement I cannot tell, for before she had done we were ordered off, but I could hear the shrieks of the wench as long as we were in sight of the house. I hardly ever felt more mortified than at that moment. Before I come on shore I had pictured to myself the inhabitants pale, languid & short, every thing that was disagreeable, but the appearance of this woman deranged all my ideas and before I was out of sight of the house I would have been well pleased to have seen the island and all its inhabitants sunk.”

Other United Irishman were less sympathetic with the plight of the enslaved. Bryson would no doubt have felt betrayed by a commander of the United Irishmen who escaped from Ireland and became a slave trader. Dr. R.R. Madden writes how

[The United Irishman] James McGlaherty, who fought at Antrim, in what he considered the cause of liberty, proved a recreant to his principles. He escaped from Ireland — he ended his days on board a slave ship, on his way to the coast of Guinea.

Bryson’s revulsion of the treatment of slaves makes the twenty first century campaign of fallaciously equating chattel slavery with indentured servitude (or military impressment, for the 1798 deportees are now also described as “slaves”) even harder to stomach. If a contemporary, with a limited view of the colonial slave system, could appreciate the separate world of dehumanisation that a chattel slave had to endure, why are attempts being made, over two centuries later (with so much information and history available at our fingertips) to crudely commingle the two?

Source: Michael Durey’s Andrew Bryson’s Ordeal: an Epilogue of the 1798 Rebellion, Cork University Press, 1998.

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