Donald Harman Akenson. If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. London and Buffalo: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997. xi + 273 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-1686-1; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-1630-4.
Reviewed by Bruce Taylor (University of Dayton)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 1999)
If the Irish Ran the World is a delightful collection of stories and one-liners about the Irish in Montserrat. While Akenson does not tell us enough to make a judgement about what kind of world the Irish would have made if given the chance, or even what kind of slave society they actually made in the Caribbean, by the time one finishes the book, the reader has forgotten the title anyway.
Akenson is up to his usual impish self as he punches holes in arguments, digs up little known data, and applies a relentless intelligence to his on-going inquiry into the nature and effects of the Irish diaspora. And, like the Irish he writes about, his story telling is always a delight, if perhaps not always germane to the discussion.
His thesis suggests that despite the fact that the Irish experienced English imperial oppression, when given the chance, they behaved no better as slave holders than their English neighbors. "Do unto others as they have done unto you!"
He begins with a nod to his Canadian lecture audience by noting the Irish presence in Ontario as a lead in to the case of Montserrat. Irish was the dominant ethnic group in early British Canada and contributed to an ethos which marked that province even today, "... a civilized, gentle place, the kind of world that the Irish might have created, the earth around, had they had a bit more power" (p. 5). That is about the last kind word about the Irish as civilizers in the pages that follow. Montserrat was not Canada.
Montserrat is one of the small Leeward Islands tucked nicely into formation along with the other members of the Leeward and Windward archipelago stretching in an arc from Puerto Rico to Venezuela. It was named by Columbus after a monastic town in Spain that the Romans had called Mount Serrat, and which, like Montserrat, featured a serrated landscape.
Akenson then discuses his sources which, for his inquiry, seem abundant enough. He relies much on census data, compilations of law, and legislative acts. Although he has apparently not visited UK's Public Record Office archives in Kew, where colonial office correspondence is housed, he has obtained other sources which contain materials in enough quantity to support his findings. He also has a good selection of secondary sources to inform his study, although one should point out an error in the bibliography: Bryan Edwards is listed as "Bryan, Edward."
Chapter Two is entitled "Ireland's Neo-Feudal Empire 1630-1650." The reference is to a royal patent given to the Earl of Carlisle in the 1630s which entitled him to control all affairs in Montserrat including the holding of all land. It is probably best to label this form of colonial activity feudal remnant since the spirit was commercial and not military, and the pattern of landholding made it more manorial, at least initially. European settlement began in the early 1630s with the arrival of the Irish from a variety of venues. Survivors from the Amazon, rejects from Virginia, migrants from St. Christopher and maybe Nevis, and colonists recruited by an Irish entrepreneur (with Italian ancestry) formed the first wave of settlers. A long aside on the history of this Irish/Italian family is the first of a series of well-told stories that enliven the narrative.
An analysis of the arriving Irish reveals a complex pattern of immigration. Included are representatives of the original Celtic inhabitants of Ireland; Norman invaders who became Catholic and culturally Irish; later English invaders who often displaced the Irish as well as the Norman families that controlled them; and finally the Scots-Irish.
Akenson then discusses various tensions in the island's developing society. Catholics could only worship in private and were only intermittently served by priests visiting the island; indentured servants chaffed at their exploited condition; former servants were eager to find economic opportunity; and the archetypal sugar/slave plantation began to impact the early small holding tobacco planting regime. There were also issues of governance and taxation which, however, effected directly only those with substantial economic resources.
Chapter Three extends the survey from 1650 to 1680. The island during this period began to "catch up" with the prevailing British Caribbean and experienced the increasing influence of sugar and slavery. Since the Irish were already here, Cromwell's victims were often sent to Montserrat because it was presumed that the Irish leadership there knew how to handle them. Institutional change included the decline of the old patent model in favor of a crown appointed governor, land granted in fee simple, and the emergence of the usual pattern of governance including an appointed council and elected assembly. One notable event marked Montserrat as unique. In 1667, a band of French raiders along with Carib allies invaded the island. Not only did a significant number of Irish support the French, but they also rose in rebellion even after the French left. Order was not restored until early in 1668. Reprisals followed.
Chapter Four, "Capitalism at a Gallop," describes the further development of a slave economy complete with the usual social result of white emigration. But Akenson does not see a cause and effect pattern. He sees the Irish making rational decisions to maximize their opportunities elsewhere and not being driven out by slave labor. But they did begin to suffer religious discrimination from the Anglican English. When the island was in the first stages of development, religious differences did not matter. Nor did they feel pressure under the restored Stuarts in the 1660s. But following the 1688 "Glorious Revolution," which saw the Protestant William on the Throne, the catholic issue could no longer be ignored. Despite being denied participation in government by the penal laws, the Irish managed to occupy first place in the ownership of sugar plantations. And these elite were just as alarmed at support offered to the Jacobite cause by less wealthy Irish.
Chapter Five provides a brief look at the history of Montserrat after 1730. The economy trended downward through the century followed by increasing pressure from abolitionists to end the slave trade and then slavery. In the early nineteenth century, both catholic emancipation and slave emancipation arrived together! Catholic relief from civil restrictions became practical as the number of white males on the island dropped below the point where it made any sense to exclude them from political or administrative activity. Following emancipation of the slaves, Montserrat continued to suffer a decline in its fortunes and the whites on the island "took to the boats." Akenson then sums up the whole story of the Irish on Montserrat: "... they came; they used; they discarded; and they levanted" (p. 170).
Chapter Six is a nice concluding chapter on the need for identity creation by people in this part of the world whose lives have been disrupted and roots so lost that they desperately need to construct traditions useful for self worth. Historical investigation, in which we try to find out what really happened is always at odds, Akenson reminds us, with our self-serving version of that past.
Akenson takes some delight in blazing away at accepted historical interpretations in a field where he is not a recognized authority. He charges "analytic" historians with failure to notice the impact of particular personalities on the shaping of events (pp. 58-59); attacks such notables as Hilery Beckles, Jill Shephard, and Eric Williams on their assumption that Barbadian history of indentured servitude can be generalized to include the other Caribbean islands and that the distinction between white indentured servants and black slavery should be widened. "White indentured servitude was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience" (p. 49). He attacks Williams again for his generalization that whites grew tobacco and blacks worked sugar and Shepherd again for her allegedly incorrect account of the origin of "redlegs" as a term to describe white servants in Barbados (pp. 50-51). He chides historians who claim or assume that West Indian land was held in fee simple in the early days of colonization and reminds them that the lands either were worked by servants or tenants and that the land owner was, in reality, only using the land under the terms of the controlling patent issued by the crown (pp. 76-78).
While the work is informative and entertaining, it is not about how the Irish mistreated African slaves. Akenson is most concerned, and understandably so, with the Irish diaspora, its arrival in Montserrat, and how Irish faired afterwards. The Irish are detailed in their various positions on the social pyramid of the island. They are governors, entrepreneurs, estate owners, tenants, and servants. They were exploiters and exploited, catholic and protestant, loyal and rebellious, immigrants and emigrants. He dutifully reminds his readers of his thesis from time to time, but does not provide much systematic data on the treatment of slaves by the Irish other than to note that it was harsh. He does not contribute to our understanding of the various kinds of "treatment" in play in any slave regime. Categories of analysis such as work loads, living conditions, social relationships, opportunities for cultural expression, methods of escaping the system, legal status, economic opportunities, educational/skill levels, are not systematically employed in the discussion. One tantalizing reference to the "Black Irish" of northern Montserrat is not pursued, nor is there much information about the lives of racially mixed people or free people of color.
Nor does Akenson make a good case for the Irish being a repressed people under the British system. Indenture, although often experienced as arbitrary and cruel, was not marked by long periods of service. Former servants were free to sell their labor, lease or sharecrop land, and, eventually, even acquire land in fee simple. They had left Ireland of their own free will and could leave Montserrat to seek better opportunities. On that score, they were aware of the range of wage rates and conditions so that a rational choice was possible. Their experience as Catholics within an Anglican system did not seem to weigh that heavily. The lower class Irish who participated in the 1667 rebellion did so, according to Akenson, from economic frustration and nationalistic feeling, as well as anti-Catholic prejudice. The more wealthy Irish, moreover, did not participate. Akenson tells us that the Irish on Barbados had a more significant cause for rebellion than did those on Montserrat!
Akenson makes much of the fact that the Irish continued to hold slaves up until the time of emancipation in 1834. But it should come as no surprise since the system was up and running in the Caribbean when the Irish arrived and there would be no reason to oppose it in the formative years of Montserrat's shift form tobacco to sugar in the late 17th century. Neither Anglicans nor Catholics, moreover, voiced much concern about the fate of the slaves.
What we are left with is a not very surprising psychological observation that oppressed people often are quite able to victimize others when given the chance. Yet, it would seem that the Irish were not treated badly enough to test out that generalization, and, furthermore, there is not enough data to indicate in what ways and to what degree the treatment of their slaves was harsh anyway.
What if the Irish ran the world? No clue, but Akenson's narrative is an enjoyable and informative account of their sojourn in the Caribbean.
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Bruce Taylor. Review of Akenson, Donald Harman, If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730.
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