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The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview 

By Nini Rodgers



Relations between Irish men and African women were as much a staple of the Caribbean experience as malaria, yellow fever, hurricanes, rum drinking and turtle soup, but it is an area of life which rarely appears on the written record. The earliest emigrant letters hint at this scheme of things. In 1675 John Blake, a merchant settler from Galway admitted to the veracity of his brother Henry’s accusation that he had brought a ‘whore’ from Ireland to Barbados along with his wife, but excused himself on the grounds of domestic necessity; his wife’s ‘weak constitution’ meant that she could not manage everything herself ‘for washing, starching, making of drink and keeping the house in good order is no small task to undergo here’. He could not dispense with the services of the prostitute until the African girl he had bought was properly trained in household matters (Oliver 1909-19, II: 55).

Wills and investigations instituted over disputed inheritance would sometimes reveal lifelong secrets concealed from the family back home. Thus in 1834 R. R. Madden (anti-slavery activist and future historian of the United Irishmen — see Burton’s article in this journal) penetrated into the mountains of Jamaica in order to view a deceased relative’s plantation, long the subject of a chancery suit. There he was startled to find several mixed-race cousins and their elderly mother, his uncle Garret’s mulatto concubine (Madden 1835, I: 171).

Irishmen in Antillean Inter-imperial Wars

Though Afro-Irish sexual relations and Irish sailors in the Caribbean have so far been neglected by historians, the impact of Irish soldiers in the region has received some attention. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Irish were involved in countless colonial wars in the West Indies. In 1667 their settlers rushed to arms to help the French take over the whole of divided Saint Christopher. This triumph was short-lived. Yet the varied nature of their loyalties meant that one of the most successful Irish soldiers in the Caribbean, William Stapleton, made his career and fortune by reversing this situation. This landless swordsman from Tipperary, serving the British King Charles II in the West Indies, helped re-conquer Montserrat and became governor, first of that island and then of all the English Leewards. On Montserrat he supplied family and friends with lands and official appointments while confirming his planter wealth by marrying an heiress on Nevis.

William Stapleton‘s achievement conformed to a pattern which all soldiers longed for, the successful campaign which fed military reputation, career and fortunes. As the eighteenth century duel between Britain and France intensified, such opportunities blossomed. The Caribbean was a particularly enticing area for the expeditionary force, as plantation colonies invaded by military and naval forces offered extensive booty. Sugar planters, regardless of national affiliation, favoured preserving their lives and assets to fighting the enemy. They tended to flee, or co-operate with the invader.

During the Seven Years War, the British taking of Havana, the heavily fortified Cuban guardian of the Spanish fleet, furnished just such opportunities to Irish officers working for the rival sides, and illustrates both the advantages and dangers of military campaigning in the Caribbean. Five hundred and sixty of the British forces were killed (most of them in the siege of Morro Castle, the huge fortification guarding the port), while about 4,700 died of fever or dysentery. The total prize money amounted to £750,000, distributed according to naval and military rank, ensuring that officers took the lion’s share.

The taking of Havana was celebrated in Ireland as a victory for the Protestant cause. Bonfires were lit in Cork and Sir Boyle Roche (1736-1807) a Munster man, who distinguished himself at the assault on Morro, was hailed as a local hero. On leaving the army he entered the Irish parliament as member for Tralee town, County Kerry. He became famous for his ‘fineering brogue’ and bungling interjections. The ‘Irish bulls’ charged forth - ‘I smell a rat - I see it floating in the air before me and hear it brewing a storm – but I’ll nip it in the bud’. On such occasions his military reputation as a hero of Havana combined hilarity with respect. Useful to government as he offered loyal support and defused tempers with buffoonery, he became a successful collector of places and pensions for himself and his wife (Johnston-Lik 2002, 6: 171).

The British onslaught on Havana was even more important in furthering the career and reputation of an Irish soldier in the employ of Spain. Born in Baltrasna, County Westmeath, Alexander O’Reilly joined the Spanish army as a cadet at the age of eleven. He was a brigadier in the Hibernian regiment when in 1763 he became part of a force sent to Cuba to reorganise the colony after Britain’s incursion. When the new governor died, O’Reilly took command of the island’s administration and emerged with a reputation as a keen military strategist, who had re-established the viability of the colony. On his return to Spain he became a lieutenant general. Now regarded as a trouble shooter in the New World, both figuratively and literally, he led an expedition to establish Spain’s power in New Orleans and Louisiana. In these areas he was able to promote the fortunes of three other Irish officers – Charles Howard, Arthur O’Neil and Maurice O’Conner (Fannin 2000: 26-28).

By the time O’Reilly arrived in Havana, Irish soldiers abroad were more likely to be found in the service of France. The Irish Brigade was headed by officers born in France’s Irish community or fresh from home in search of career opportunities denied them there as Catholics. In 1778 France and Britain went to war again and the Irish brigade served outside Europe for the first time. Suitably, Walsh’s regiment was despatched to guard Senegal in West Africa, France’s largest slave-trading establishment. However, the regiment was soon transferred to the Caribbean and played a vital role in the American Revolutionary War. King George III of Britain at one point declared that he would rather risk an invasion of Britain itself than lose the sugar islands, for without them he would not have the money to carry on hostilities.

The presence of armies and navies raised the price of supplies in the region to unprecedented heights. Irish merchants (Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter) seized on wartime conditions to make fortunes using that conveniently placed smugglers’ rock of Saint Eustatia. In 1779 the British turned upon the Dutch colony. Admirals Rodney and Hood, landing the Thirty-Fifth Regiment of foot (a unit first formed back in Belfast at the beginning of the century by Sir Arthur Chichester) occupied the island. In London’s parliament and press, this action would elicit criticism, suggesting that Eustatia was chosen as a target because of its easy riches, rather than strategic relevance. A cartoon of the time shows Rodney waving his sword and calling out ‘French fleet be damned, Hood! Grab the loot’. On officially declaring war on Britain in 1778, rather than simply observing their neutrality with a pro-American bias, the French were eager to take the war to the sugar islands. In 1781 they launched a triumphant expedition from Martinique to Saint Eustatia spearheaded by the Irish Brigade.

A surprise attack, 26 November 1781. Dillon, Walsh and Martinique regiments disembarking at Saint Eustatia as the tide runs high.
(Hurst 1996:142-143)

When the French commander sailed back to Martinique, a Munster man, Colonel Thomas Fitzmaurice (b. Kerry 1725) was appointed Governor of Saint Eustatia. As the war ended, he used personal contacts with Lord Shelburne (the British prime minister with estates in Kerry) to prevent any embarrassing disclosures and persecutions of wartime smugglers (Ibid.: 226). Thomas Fitzmaurice himself would go on to hold important appointments in the long-established French colonies of Cayenne and Guadeloupe, other footholds from which to secure Irish careers within the Caribbean (Hayes 1949: 96).

Saint Eustatia had provided conventional campaigns for both sides, death by disease rather than physical conflict for many, with rich pickings for the survivors. But the American Revolutionary War highlighted problems which would complicate the French-Revolutionary War in the Caribbean. Both conflicts raised the issue of whether or not enslaved Africans should be deployed as soldiers. In many societies throughout history enslaved people have been sent to the battlefield, but Caribbean slavery, the product of commercial capitalism, did not favour such a solution. Africans were to labour on the plantations while Europeans held the firepower, the ultimate weapon of control in societies where they were very much the demographic minority. Yet in military crises the temptation to use any able-bodied group of men naturally existed.

Faced with the prospect of defeat by the American colonists, the British began to enlist African Americans. Among them was a Samuel Burke, born in South Carolina around 1755, reared in Cork, returning across the Atlantic with his master for the Revolutionary War. In New York Samuel used his fluency in the Irish language to recruit dock workers to a Loyalist regiment, which he himself joined (Miller 2000:148).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodgers, Nini, 'The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 145-156. Available online (, accessed .


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