The Irishman who kept his city on the right side of slavery

As we confront the ramifications of the practice of slavery, we can look back at our own history with some pride in recounting the story of Thomas McCabe, the Irishman who was on the right side of slavery.

The Irishman who kept his city on the right side of slavery.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis City in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken centre stage around the world as people have taken to the streets to demand an end to injustice.

Amongst the protestations, statues of former slave traders have been torn down and, whether or not people agree, it has caused us to question the issue of slavery, the ramifications it has had for our society and people of colour and how we should confront it.

One of the ways we can do that is by recounting the story of those from our nation, in Ireland, that opposed the barbaric practice and ensured that it never took a foothold here. One man whose story deserves to be told is that of Thomas McCabe, the Irishman who was on the right side of slavery.

Who was Thomas McCabe?


Thomas McCabe was born in 1739 in Belfast and he went on to become a founding member of the Society of the United Irishmen, who staged a revolution against British rule in Ireland in 1798.

As a native of Belfast, McCabe was a member of the Frist Presbyterian Church and worked as a watchmaker, owning a cotton mill and clock-making shop at 6 North Street in Belfast’s city centre.

He was also a Freemason and, in 1774, he was a founding member of the Belfast Charitable Society who were housed at Clifton House in North Belfast. He, along with John McCracken, father of Henry, installed machinery in the building to enable it to become the first cotton spinning mill in the town.

The plan to bring slavery to Belfast

A portrait of Waddell Cunningham, who wanted to form the Belfast Slave-Ship company.
Waddell Cunningham. Credit: @michaeldoran_ / Twitter

In 1786, a number of Belfast merchants, including a man named Waddell Cunningham, the then-richest man in the city and president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, called a meeting at the Exchange and Assembly Rooms in Waring Street.

The men gathered with the intent to establish a slave-ship company in Belfast, aiming to profit from the hideous practice of slavery that indentured people from Africa while enriching those that exploited them.

Both Cunningham and another man named Thomas Gregg had returned from New York and had traded extensively in the Caribbean, and together they wished to form what would become known as the ‘Belfast Slaveship Company’.

They had seen merchants in Liverpool and Bristol profiteer from entering into the slave trade and wished to emulate their practice in Ireland. The idea was to, in the first instance, ship goods to the Gold Coast in Australia.

Following this, they would purchase African slaves, bring them to the West Indies plantations before returning back to Belfast with vast cargoes of sugar and brandy.

How did Thomas McCabe tackle slavery?

Thomas McCabe confronting those who planned to form the Belfast Slave-Ship company.
Thomas McCabe confronting those who planned to form the Belfast Slave-Ship company. Credit: @Belfastpast / Twitter

Step up the Irishman who was to be on the right side of slavery. Not far from Waring Street were the offices of Thomas McCabe, whose subsequent actions were to ensure that the inhumane company remained only a sickening theoretical plan.

Upon hearing of the meeting, McCabe crossed the road, stormed into the gathering and denounced the idea vigorously. McCabe famously said to those present at the meeting: “May God eternally damn the soul of the man who subscribes the first guinea.”

Upon his departure he tore up the prospectus for the plan and with one swift denunciation, the energy fuelling those Irishmen wishing to participate in the globalised slave trade was extinguished.

The freed slave Olaudah Equiano

The book entitled 'The Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equaino'.
The book of freed slave, Olaudah Equiano. Credit: Library Company of Philadelphia / Flickr

McCabe’s courageous attitude was emblematic of that of the United Irishmen, who were an organisation totally opposed to the practice of slavery and resisted from purchasing rum, sugar, fruit and tobacco produced in slavery plantations.

Furthermore, only a few years later, in 1791, a man named Olaudah Equiano, who was a freed slave, visited Belfast to publicise his book, entitled ‘The Interesting Narrative Of The Life of Olaudah Equiano’.

Equiano had stayed with United Irishman Samuel Neilson during his stay in Belfast and was embraced enthusiastically by the majority of the city’s citizens and he went on to sell almost 2,000 copies of his book during his stay in Ireland.

The legacy of Thomas McCabe

A plaque in Belfast dedicated to Thomas McCabe, the Irishman who was on the right side of slavery.
A plaque dedicated to Thomas McCabe. Credit: @PolMichael / Twitter

While the United Irishmen is an organisation now well-known, the name of Thomas McCabe may not be as publicised, but he is certainly a figure we can admire; a man who took a stand against slavery and ensured his city did not profiteer from it.

McCabe died in 1820, and is now buried in the Clifton Street cemetery in North Belfast alongside other United Irishmen, such as Henry Joe McCracken and William Drennan. A plaque can now be found on the wall of the St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road in Belfast, which was built on the site of McCabe’s home. 

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