Why Senator Kamala Harris is unlikely to be checking out her Irish roots, even in an election year.

We wouldn’t really be Irish if we didn’t try and latch on to prominent US politicians and claim them as ‘Irish-American’—it’s a bit like the Brits claiming Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott as ‘British’ when they get BAFTA nominations, or some such. I don’t think we managed to snare Bush #41 or #43 but, otherwise, everyone since Reagan has been advised of their Irish ancestry – even Barack Obama Kearney from Moneygall. So far no one seems to have bothered to establish if Donald Trump has any Irish antecedents. Funny that. There seems to have been a unspoken decision taken among the nation’s genealogists that Scotland and Germany are more than welcome to him. 

Should Joe Biden pull off the impossible in November, and defeat the most unpopular U.S. President since the continent of America split off from Africa and wandered west under the influence of continental drift, then he will be inundated with advice about his solid Irish connections, and will be strong-armed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, when he receives his statutory bowl of shamrock next March (Covid-19 permitting), to come and visit his ancestral home in Louth, from where his great-grandfather emigrated in 1850. Though there may be stiff competition for the honour of Biden ancestral home – apparently all eight of Biden’s great-great-grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Ireland. Let the genealogical bunfight begin. It could get ugly.

However, it would be a brave genealogist (or Taoiseach) who would try to entice future Vice President Kamala Harris to the birthplace of her only Irish ancestor! Her great-great-great-grandfather was one Hamilton Brown, born in County Antrim in the year of the declaration of American Independence, 1776. Other than the coincidence of the year of his birth, any connection with freedom and liberty (other than his own) is purely accidental.

So, why would the putative Veep not try and establish her Irish credentials and milk a few Irish-American votes in the process? That would be because great-great-great-grandpappy Ham was a top notch, wildly enthusiastic, slave-owner.  Not one of your milksop plantation wallahs with a couple of house slaves. No, Ham was a ‘scream it from the mountain tops’ sort of feudal type.

In an article entitled ‘Reflections of a Jamaican father’ Kamala Harris’s own father, Donald J. Harris, an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford,  wrote that, ‘My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town) …’

In a previous post on Irish slave owners in the West Indies, ones who benefitted from British government compensation for the abolition of slavery in British colonies in the 1830s, I pointed out that Hamilton Brown owned twenty-five plantations in Jamaica. He received almost £20,000 in compensation for the loss of his human property (886 slaves) and unsuccessfully sought almost another £5000 for a further 233 slaves. He appears to have arrived in Jamaica to work as a humble bookkeeper in 1795 but managed to acquire a huge swathe of land (used for farming cattle and growing sugar). So, at least he was an enterprising slave driver.

Rather like his fellow Irishman, John Mitchel, born a bit further south, in Newry, Co. Down, Brown harboured some interesting ideas about the status of slaves vis a vis their soul mates, the Irish and English poor. Mitchel, an apologist for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, wrote of how Irish peasants were much worse off than the slaves of the American South. Brown went even further. He considered his pampered and privileged slaves to be better off than the English poor, who were, of course, so much better off than the impoverished Irish! Or, so he told a touring Methodist minister, Henry Whitely, a visitor to Jamaica in 1832—the year before the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act at Westminster. Whitely wrote an account of his six-week visit to the island in a pamphlet published by the Anti-Slavery Society. This is Whitely’s report of his meeting with Senator Harris’s beloved ancestor. 

 ‘The same day I dined in St. Ann’s Bay, on board the vessel I arrived in, in company with several colonists, among whom was Mr. Hamilton Brown, representative for the parish of St. Ann in the Colonial Assembly. Some reference having been made to the new Order in Council, I was rather startled to hear that gentleman swear by his maker that that Order should never be adopted in Jamaica; nor would the planters of Jamaica, he said, permit the interference of the Home Government with their slaves in any shape. A great deal was said by him and others present about the happiness and comfort enjoyed by the slaves, and of the many advantages possessed by them of which the poor in England were destitute.’ 

Brown cordially loathed the great British anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, accusing him of being a ‘hypocrite’ and claiming Wilberforce was in possession of a ‘cloven foot’. This was, presumably, a diabolical reference designed to get them out of their seats in the Jamaican House of Assembly, where he proudly represented the (all white) electorate of St. Ann’s parish for twenty-two years. 

Henry Whitely was a tad sceptical of Brown’s rose-tinted view of the fringe benefits of enslavement, and his scepticism was soon justified. Travelling through the plantations of the island he witnessed a group of slaves manuring sugar canes while an overseer laid into them with a cart whip. 

‘It appeared to me disgustingly dirty work; for the moisture from the manure was dripping through the baskets, and running down the bodies of the negroes. This sight annoyed me considerably, and raised some doubts as to the preferable condition of West India slaves to factory children … the thundering crack of the cart whip, sounding in my ears as I rode along, excited feelings of a very unpleasant description.’

Whitely also witnessed the flogging of young girls – lashed forty to fifty times with a horsewhip for such capital crimes as tardiness.

Brown was obviously a sentimentalist (as long as your skin wasn’t black) because he called one of his twenty-five estates after the county of his birth (ahhh!) He gave his own first name to the town of Hamilton in Jamaica but that was obviously considered disrespectful and something of a liberty, because it was later changed to the more deferential Brown’s Town.  

 Then, showing himself to be a true Irish patriot, after the emancipation of West Indian slaves, he sought to entice Irish people to come and settle in Jamaica. In 1835 he sent his ship, the James Ray, to Ballymoney, Co. Antrim to collect 121 Irish migrants and planted them around him in St. Anns. Those were followed, in 1836, by 185 more of his fellow countrymen. The avowed intention of this assisted migration project was to ensure that freed slaves did not acquire land in Jamaica. However, the scheme came to an end after the arrival of the second batch of Irish emigrants when it was alleged back in cynical old Ireland that they were simply being brought to the West Indies to replace the freed slaves. 

This Irish charmer continued to live in the West Indies long after the emancipation of his slaves. He died there in 1845 at the age of 68. He appears to have expired after being thrown from his carriage. The Ku Klux Klan sent flowers. Actually, that’s not true, as they didn’t exist at the time. But it sounds about right. 

Of course, culture wars being what they are, the madder breed of Republican has frequently attempted to weaponise Hamilton Brown against Senator Harris. The headline in the right-wing website ‘Red State’ is fairly typical – “When Will Race-Baiting Kamala Harris Acknowledge She is a Descendant of a Slave Owner?”

Allow me to offered a considered and carefully thought out rebuttal to that particular line of argument. 

What a load of abject nutjob bollocks! 

I hope the above is a sufficiently reflective and intellectual riposte. If not, it is probably worth noting that most black people who are descended from slave owners are also descended from slaves. There were few idyllic marriages between plantation owners and their chattels. Most of the non-white children of slave owners came into being as a result of rape or extra-marital ‘relationships’. Right wing culture warriors might give some thought to the power dynamic of those ‘relationships’.

No, I don’t think they will either. 

The fact-checking website www.snopes.com has been unable to establish whether Donald Harris is correct in his assertion that he and his daughter Kamala are descended from Hamilton Brown. But, based on Brown’s ownership of over 1000 of his fellow human beings, and his recorded opinions on the issue of slavery, it is unlikely that Senator Harris, as U.S. Vice President, would be tempted over to Antrim to check out her Irish roots, not even with the prospect of a side trip to the Giant’s Causeway.

Maybe just give her some shamrock in March 2021, along with an apology.

On This Day – 20 May 1762 – Birth of Sir Eyre Coote




The expression ‘as bald as a coot’ is well-known in this part of the world. In the USA however the unfortunate bird, related to the moorhen, is familiar as the basis of an entirely different simile. In America you can be ‘as crazy as a coot’. The assumption has always been that the ‘coot’ in question is the common ‘mud hen’, often mistaken for a duck.


But what if the insane ‘coot’ to which the phrase refers is not the inoffensive animal but an eccentric Irish military type with a final ‘e’ to distinguish him from the water-loving bird? And the word ‘eccentric’ is not used idly. Because Sir Eyre Coote, born in Ireland in 1762, was adjudged to be merely ‘eccentric’ rather than completely ga-ga by a military board in 1816. More about that later.


He had the misfortune to be the nephew of, and share a name with, one of the greatest generals in the British Army, who, in the 18th century, ensured that England, rather than France, became a tea drinking nation when he pushed the French out of India. His nephew, also called Eyre Coote, joined the Army at the age of fourteen and quickly rose through the ranks, helped no doubt, to some extent by his name. Eyre Coote Junior first distinguished himself in the American War of Independence which began with a dispute over tea and ended with the United States of America abandoning that beverage for coffee. More significantly perhaps it also ended in the defeat of the British Army and the capture of Coote at the pivotal Battle of Yorktown when he was still only nineteen years of age.


Moving rapidly from opposition to the American colonists to the more traditional antagonism with the French, Coote became involved in a military operation designed to flood that part of the Netherlands occupied in 1798 by France. Flooding northern Holland proved to be relatively simple, getting away afterwards was a bit more difficult. A contrary wind meant that the ships intended to evacuate his force could not land and after losing more than a hundred of his men Coote was forced to surrender.


Shortly after that he inherited Uncle Eyre’s property and took a seat in the Irish House of Commons. That was pulled from under him by the Act of Union in 1800 and he went on to become Governor of Jamaica. Although he left that post in 1808 claiming the climate didn’t agree with him and affected his brain he must have had some fun while he was resident in the West Indies because the former US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell claims direct descent from him.


But it is for his unorthodox activities in the year of the Battle of Waterloo that Coote is most commonly remembered. He’d already given evidence of what might diplomatically be called ‘erratic decision making’ but he topped everything when, in November 1815 he wandered into the Mathematical School of Christ’s Hospital for Boys in London and offered some of the young inmates money – if they allowed him to flog them. A few volunteered. They were far more receptive when he suggested they might want to flog him. Three of the boys duly obliged and were paid three shillings. Discovered by a school nurse Coote was charged with indecent behaviour. He escaped jail by donating £1000 to the hospital, a somewhat disproportionate version of the use of the poor box for traffic offences in modern times. But despite avoiding a criminal charge he later found himself facing a Military Tribunal composed of three Generals.


There he was ruled not to be insane but to be merely ‘eccentric’. However, his conduct was adjudged to have been unworthy of an officer and he was dismissed from the Army. He had also been made a member of the Order of the Bath and he was stripped of that status as well. Clearly the membership of that august order had no time for flagellation.


Eyre Coote, soldier, politician, ancestor of General Colin Powell and keen flagellant was born two hundred and fifty four years ago, on this day.



Christ’s Hospital for Boys


On this day – The adventures of Rollo Gillespie

On this day – 24 June 1845

Death of Rollo Gillespie



Few Irishmen are associated with the states of Java, Sumatra or Nepal, but the elegantly named Rollo Gillespie had ties to all three in his short and eventful life.

Essentially he served in army units in the far-east – hence the link with these exotic locations.

Gillespie was born in Comber in Co.Down on a date unknown in 1766. At twenty years old, in the pattern of the times, he was involved in a duel in which he killed his opponent. He fled to Scotland but returned to stand trial two years later, where he was acquitted when a verdict of justifiable homicide was returned.

In 1792 he was shipped out with his cavalry unit, the Light Dragoons, to Jamaica. He was, however, shipwrecked and when he managed to get to the island of Madeira contracted yellow fever. After his recovery he was made Adjutant General of St.Domingo where, one night eight unfortunate thieves broke into his house in an attempt at burglary. Rollo killed six of them with his sword. The other two barely managed to escape with their lives.


He then transferred with his unit to India. While there he was accused of fraud but was, once again, acquitted, on this occasion by a military court. While in India he, almost single-handedly rescued a unit consisting of sixty men during the Vellore mutiny of 1806. After a successful sojourn on Java he transferred to Nepal in 1814 where he took part in a small war against the Gurkhas. In an attack on a Gurkha hill fort he was heard to shout the words, ‘One shot more for the honour of Down’ – a cry normally heard on a football field. They were his last. A Gurkha sharpshooter, probably attracted by his sentimental urgings, drew a bead on Rollo and put a bullet through his head. He died almost instantly.

Rollo Gillespie reached the rank of Major General in the British Army.  A 55 foot high memorial was erected to him in Comber.  50 lodges of the Masonic order attended the dedication, which took place 168 years ago, on this day.

A memoir of major-general sir R.R. Gillespie [by W. Thorn.].