The missing slaves of Belfast

Olaudah Equiano - one of Belfast's more famous visitors.

Question: What have Liverpool, Bristol and all sorts of other places got that Belfast hasn’t?

Answer: A corporate history of slave trading.

Hurrah! One shameful pursuit into which we did not dive.

I know this thanks to the redoubtable Arthur Magee and the story of Thomas McCabe. It’s a fine example of stewardship (today’s theme for the Loose Bloggers Consortium) – which I interpret to be looking after and out for other people. So first – the heroic history, then the shocking update and finally the latest response.

1. The good news (part one): In the late 1700s, Waddell Cunningham, founding president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, was among those who made fortunes from slavery and tried to set up a slave company in Belfast in 1786. But for one radical Belfast citizen, Thomas McCabe, such unscrupulous commercial ambition was to be resisted.

McCabe stood near the Old Exchange at the foot of Donegall Street and tore up the prospectus for the proposed company calling out: “May God wither the hand and consign the name to eternal infamy of the man who will sign that document.”

The slaving company’s founding meeting broke up in disarray. And Belfast never did get to have its very own slaving company. (Short version of the story here at the BBC and longer on the Culture Northern Ireland website – with pics of original documents.) Later on,  in 1791 freed slave Oloudah Equiano stayed in Belfast and toured Ireland, promoting his book on his life as a slave who had been stolen from Africa as a child.

JW Carey’s drawing was undertaken in 1895 as an illustration for RM Young’s Historical Notices of Old Belfast (1896). Here Thomas McCabe, the self-styled ‘Irish slave’ and future United Irishman, denounces the plan to form a Belfast-based slave trading company in 1784.

2. The bad news: Slavers are back. Perhaps they never really went away, you know. Including in the agricultural, fishing and catering sectors (Modern Slavery found in Northern Ireland – report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) and sexual abuse slavery sector (Belfast Telegraph, 23 April 2012). And the catch is – even if you are freed from your bondage by the police or whoever, you’re liable to be deported.

3. The good news (part two): The Friends of Thomas McCabe is a new group being started by cherubic Belfast guide and correcting lens Arthur Magee. The purpose of the group is to act in the spirit of the historical hero after whom it’s named – to oppose modern slavery and support local victims.

And they’re having a very cool indeed gig to kick off the new group. The concert on Wednesday 2nd May 2012 features Henry McCullough – who played with Jimi Hendrix  (promoted by my illustrious godmother), who was in Wings with Paul McCartney (yes, that’s Paul McCartney of the Beatles, that guy, yes) and who is known for his blues song Failed Christian (which I once helped to promote – and was described on the CD notes as a nervy young man from the BBC – well, hey, it was a slow night in the Rotterdam.) Nick Lowe covered it here.

So save the date – on 12 May 2012, Portstewart man Henry McCullough, is to perform solo at the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street, Belfast, BT1 1QB, at an event to mark the formation of “The Friends of Thomas McCabe” a charity whose aim is to help the modern day victims of slavery in N. Ireland.  According to Henry: “I played at the church a couple of years ago and it was a great gig. There’s something very special about the place, you can feel it in the wood!”They’ve chosen the venue because Thomas McCabe was a member there. Doors open at 5.30 pm and the event starts at 6 pm promptly with additional music provided by Best Boy Grip and Gráinne Holland. Historian Raymond O’Regan, will provide with tales from his best selling book, Hidden Belfast.  The event is free but a minimum contribution is expected.That sounds bloody brilliant. I’ve heard and seen Henry play guitar (when I was a nervy young telly producer) and he was great. But if that, the Jimi Hendrix and the Paul McCartney’s Wings connections aren’t enough for you. He’s also played with Joe Cocker at Woodstock, appeared on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, accompanied Marianne Faithfull,  Donovan, Leon Russell, Andy Fairweather Low, Frankie Miller, Eric Burdon & Ronnie Lane amongst others. So c’mon. Be there.

The group is only just starting, so you’d better join now to make sure it gets off the ground properly and does good work. I think there is a Facebook page, but I’m not sure it’s active yet (hence no link here). However, you can contact Arthur via this email address . It could be groundbreakingingly exciting.

(You’ll find the thoughts of other members of the Loose Bloggers Consortium on stewardship and dominion by scrolling down the right hand column and clicking on their links.)



Filed under D - Loose Bloggers Consortium, friends, history, life, Music

35 responses to “The missing slaves of Belfast

  1. Unbelievably, I had forgotten about the Henry McCullough event, so thanks for the reminder!

  2. I’m hoping to be back from Dublin before the 12th, and have it pencilled in.

  3. They say you should learn something new every day. I learned a month’s worth right here in your post today. Wow!

  4. Any new initiative to stop modern-day slavery is to be welcomed, before it gets even more widespread. But what exactly is the new group going to do?

    • blackwatertown

      Good question. And one often avoided by charities/do gooders looking to raise cash. The honest answer is that it’s complicated and it depends…
      Here’s what Arthur told me:
      “Initially it was my plant to set up Friends of Thomas McCabe as a charity to help those directly affected by trafficking and slavery here. There is a problem but no one knows to what extent.
      “From the outside, I thought it might be a good idea to fund leaflets and a helpline. Of course this is complicated but it is achievable.
      “There are a number of agencies working in this area already and there is a helpline. The trouble is it’s a mobile no and will cost money to ring.
      “There is a police helpline but the fact is that a number of victims rescued by the police have been deported.
      “There are a lot of people running around shouting about this be they politicians or worse sanctimonious Christians yet the only group I’ve been able to find doing something positive for victims are Women’s Aid.
      “The more I’ve looked into this, the more I’ve seen that something needs to be done. The trouble is that I’m a one man operation.
      “If I get help, we’ll proceed. If not I’ll give the money to other charities or agencies.
      “Even the gig has taken up so much of my time that I’m really stretched.”
      – So an honest answer to a good question. It depends on who else will join in.
      (And it gives me an idea for a post in future about NGOs and honesty.)

      • Thanks for that, Paul. Perhaps what we all need to do is give more support to Women’s Aid if they are already positively helping the victims? I know someone who works for Women’s Aid so I could ask her about it.

      • blackwatertown

        Fair enough. I suppose the FoTMcC could play a useful campaigning and awareness-raising role – not least because if one sometimes feels powerless in the face of bad stuff going on, then the example and success of Thomas McCabe could be a spur to action.

  5. Living in the USA, I can’t make the event though I wish I could. “Failed Christian” catchy tune, I like it.
    Blessings – Maxi

  6. rummuser

    Great post BWT, I learnt a great deal today from it,

  7. Most interesting post, I never knew this. We had our own form of slavery in the south of Ireland which kept us busy.

  8. Re my reply above, of course there are male victims as well, but I’m not sure what would be the best way to help them.

  9. I hopped over to your blog today because we are both mentioned in a post by Maxi and I’m really glad I did! I’ve learned a lot from your post today and I will definitely be back to read some more another day.

  10. 29

    We have all heard the expression; “He robbed him blind”, the case of Valdez is the first time I have heard of it literally in real life. You really have to pity someone who would be so miserably exploitative.

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  12. Hats off to the first Thomas McCabe and the modern Friends of Thomas McCabe! The prevalance of sexual abuse slavery worldwide is so very disturbing and hard to fathom. (Would love to see Leon Russell…)

  13. Heya I am for the primary time here. I came across this it’s very good.

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  15. Outstanding post.
    A lot to learn here.

  16. i was just browsing along and came upon your blog. just wantd to say fantastic website.

  17. I agree completely with that.
    Wonderful Stuff. Keep it up.

  18. Zwem Broek

    Superb post.

  19. It is a shame you don’t have a donate button!

  20. The Spirit of the Lord is with them that fear him.

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