- Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865
In Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865, Nini Rodgers provides a groundbreaking examination of what has been a neglected aspect of Irish history—Ireland's participation in the construction of a British Atlantic, and with it, the associated role of slavery both in the accumulation of wealth in Ireland as well as the associated role of anti-slavery in shaping social and political reforms in Ireland itself. Rodgers deftly recasts what some historians have labeled as the "Age of Reconnaissance" to include Ireland. She sees Irish "colonial" activities in the Amazon, the Caribbean, and West Africa as pivotal experiences that broadened Irish consciousness. While broadly conceived, Ireland Slavery and Anti-Slavery also provides detailed evidence about the development of extensive Irish mercantile networks that radiated throughout the British Empire.
By casting her study of Early Modern Ireland through the paradigm of Atlantic Studies, Rodgers escapes the suffocating and limiting effectiveness of dominante themes in Irish historical studies—for example, Irish independence or the Famine of the 1840s. Those forces contributed to the making of Modern Ireland, but had not yet defined the Early Modern Era. The world she reconstructs is based upon largely indigenous strategies in creating mercantile activities that in turn shaped the island's intellectual, political, and cultural advancement. Such an interpretation challenges prevailing assumptions of Irish passivity within the British Empire. Her analysis is rooted more in the historiographical forces associated with mid-twentieth-century Irish historians like Maureen Wall, who views the Irish as actively and successfully circumventing English laws and institutions—namely, the Church of Ireland—designed to eradicate Catholicism and to subjugate the island's religious majority. In this, Rodgers's work is often a synthesis as it examines patterns of the construction of Irish mercantile families and their overseas trade. Such associated families worked comfortably both within, and outside of, the Empire. Catholic merchants relied upon pre-established networks with coreligionists in France, Spain, and Portugal and were just as likely to act in concert with them as they were with British allies. Thus, while Irish dynasties were active in the wine trade centered in Nantes or negotiated with the Portuguese to settle on the Amazonian River, they also formed or worked within or for partnerships based in Bristol or within Ireland itself. The Irish, then, were adroit in forging Atlantic networks that were not always dependent upon English masters.
Rodgers likewise challenges prevailing assumptions that have relegated the Irish to the role of peripheral players within the British Empire. While there were certainly advantages to being based in London, the Irish exploited their [End Page 153] geographical location and their distinct cultural institutions. Her findings often parallel those of historians investigating Scottish Atlantic activities, who have also challenged assumptions that metropolitan Londoners held advantages that eclipsed those of Scottish, Irish, or even regional English challengers. While Atlantic and Imperial historians have become increasingly comfortable accepting claims of Scotland's ability in forging mercantile partnerships, constructing West Indian plantations, and providing skilled labor, scholars have been much slower in accepting Irish ingenuity. Yet, like their Scottish counterparts, Irish merchants creatively overcame the mercantilist system embodied within the Navigation Acts as they made Ireland the center for a provision trade based in Cork, a burgeoning linen trade centered in Belfast, and regional trades developing on the west coast. Irish families then benefited from the island's incorporation within the empire as they built sugar estates in the West Indies. And while English laws sought to dispossess the native gentry, such families significantly aided in the rise of Dublin as a commercial center and in the construction of networks throughout the Empire. It has become increasingly evident that Scottish merchants benefited from their unique cultural identity; Rodgers demonstrates that the Irish, too, competed within the Atlantic World beyond the more familiar accounts of selling of their kinsmen as indentured servants.
Rodgers provocatively asserts that British ascendency in Ireland was incomplete. Irish Slavery and Anti-Slavery then works both on a "macro-" level as...