- An Ulster Slave-Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic: The Life and Letters of John Black ed. by Jonathan Jeffrey WrightReviews
The Black family, thanks to the survival of a copious archive, has attracted the attention of several historians. Originating in Scotland and settling in seventeenth-century Ireland, the Blacks subsequently fanned out around the Atlantic littoral. Although particularly active in trade, members also contributed to intellectual, scientific, and public life. As a result of this diversity, Blacks have appeared in recent studies, not only of the lively commercial communities in the north of Ireland, but in settlements at Bordeaux, Cádiz, and the West Indies. Jonathan Jeffrey Wright, building on the previous investigations, focuses on a more difficult aspect of the Blacks: their owning and trading in slaves. Until Nini Rodgers laid bare the Irish dimensions of the trade in Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery in 2009, it had been treated (if at all) with "strategies of euphemism and evasion." Such evasiveness is rejected by Wright in his exemplary edition of the surviving letters of John Black, who settled first in Grenada during the 1770s and then in Trinidad. As well as the revealing contents of the letters themselves, Wright's substantial introduction not only supplies the complex family context but also explores the political, social, intellectual, and cultural dimensions of Black's world.
Irish people had been present in the Caribbean at least from the 1650s, when those dispossessed at home were exiled there. Soon they would be followed by adventurers, entrepreneurs, and desperadoes; military and naval service brought more, often only temporarily, but others permanently. The "Irish" seem to have benefited, so far as the Spanish authorities in the archipelago were concerned, by being equated automatically with Catholicism, although this was not always their affiliation. These settlers from Ireland in the West Indies resembled their counterparts spreading over the globe in relying initially on familial and neighborly links. Any bond of a shared confession tended to weaken the longer the [End Page 144] exiles were away and the better they adjusted to the new environment. In Trinidad, for want of an Anglican church, Black, with his family, attended Catholic worship. Having married a creole of French background, he expressed indifference as to whether a daughter was raised as a Protestant or "Romish." Once she was sent to stay with relatives in Ulster, Protestantism prevailed. Moreover, with the building of a Protestant church nearby, Black himself seems to have reverted to the faith in which he had been reared in Ireland.
Black remembered a book which he still possessed after nearly thirty years: The Book of Common Prayer. Whatever guidance he received from its pages, it was referred to in such a way as to suggest that the volume was valued chiefly for its talismanic qualities. He recalled where it had been bought (Belfast) by his grandfather and the price paid. Although he had lost many of his possessions in a fire, the prayer book had escaped the flames. In the absence of more detailed evidence, it would be too easy to conclude that Black derived little benefit from scriptural teaching. He indulged in self-pity and exculpation, but never entered imaginatively into the lives of those toiling for him, large numbers of whom died prematurely. Any expressions arising from shared humanity are absent. When thirty-one negroes' houses were burnt down, the loss was simply a financial one for him. Instead, he is dogged by lingering damage from his time in Grenada, which left him indebted and with a tarnished reputation. Given the importance of credit and respect to success in business, these blemishes proved impossible to erase entirely. Furthermore, plunging into Trinidad's public affairs, Black mired himself in controversy. He looked for patronage from a grandee, Lord George Macartney, known to the family through common Ulster origins. But Macartney disappointed him, and Black's partisanship eventually excluded him from official favor. Moreover, he reprobated William Wilberforce and the ascendant abolitionist movement. Unsurprisingly...