Who is Edward Colston and what does he have in common with John Mitchel?



When someone is ripped down from a pedestal they have occupied for 125 years and dumped in the murky waters of the port that contributed to their fortune, it does make you curious?

So who was Edward Colston (1636-1720) the man who was consigned to the vasty deep over the weekend by a group of his sternest critics? 

To put it mildly, he was well connected. He made his fortune with a company headed up by the brother of King Charles II who would, himself, go on to become the much unloved King James II. But not for long (the King bit, that is—the lack of love was more permanent). James was better known among his regularly disappointed Irish supporters as ‘Séamus an chaca’ (translated: ‘Jimmy the shit – or more accurately ‘Seámus who shits himself’). However, just to demonstrate that ‘business is business’ and outweighed any putative political loyalties, Colston sold his shares in the company to Séamus’s usurper, William of Orange, better known to his enthusiastic latter-day Irish supporters as King Billy. 

The company in question was the cuddly RAC – not to be confused with the Royal Automobile Club. ‘RAC’ stood for Royal African Company, and for the practice of abducting men, women and children from Africa, transporting them to North America, and selling on the ones who survived the journey. (Let’s not characterise it as ‘those fortunate enough to survive the journey’ in this instance). The Royal African Company was in the same fine old English tradition as that much-beloved corporate entity the East India Company, fondly remembered in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as a ruthless and covetous mob of professional plunderers and murderers. Interestingly the word ‘loot’, also in the news last week, is derived from Hindi. It was used by those who spoke the language to describe the experience of being governed by the East India company, and was brought from the ‘sub-continent’ to England along with all the gold, silver, jewels and spices that underwrote so many aristocratic fortunes across the Irish Sea (and quite a few in our own sainted land as well).   

The RAC guarded its ‘property’ jealously, so much so that it took to branding that property prior to its luxury cruise across the Atlantic. This exercise in copyrighting did not involve merely painting a ‘swoosh’ on the bottom right hand corner of a torso. Instead a red hot branding iron was used on the skin of these newly acquired items of property. Even though Mr. Colston obviously can’t swim, when you discover how he accrued his fortune it seems a shame that the protesters contrived to dump his statue somewhere from which it can potentially be recovered and restored to its original pedestal. 

After selling out to King Billy, Edward Colston took some time out to smell the roses – hopefully the fragrance was sufficient to mask the stench of burning flesh. He also began a glorious exercise in whitewashing by changing the wording on his business cards from ‘slave trader’ to ‘do-gooder’. Colston endowed everything in sight, becoming an early eighteenth century equivalent of arch-capitalist Andrew Carnegie, who forced libraries on towns and cities whether they wanted them or not. No school or hospital in his native Bristol was safe from Colston’s generosity, as long as it was named after him. 

One other thing – the statue now the source of some very interesting selfies, mostly by people whom Colston would have been happy to enslave, was (the base still is) located on ‘Colston Avenue’. The Bristol city fathers and mothers might want to think about changing the name. Maybe take a leaf from the book of the Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, who, last week, renamed a street near the Trumpist White House as ‘Black Lives Matter Plaza’. Not sure what you do with Colston Hall, Colston Tower or Colston Street though.  

However, if we in Ireland applaud the actions of the Bristol anti-Colstonites, do we need to be consistent? What about the most prominent journalistic apologist for the Confederacy during the US Civil War, our very own John Mitchel—firmly ensconced in the Deep South after his Young Ireland escapades, his transportation to Australia, and his daring escape. Mitchel, subject of much hagiographical coverage—some of it auto-hagiographical—once claimed that the Irish peasantry were worse off than black slaves in the southern states. While mid-19th century Irish tenant farmers, cottiers and farm labourers were hardly comfortable (a million of them died of starvation and disease between 1845-50 and another million were forced to emigrate) at least their landlords couldn’t whip them and sell their children down the river. Despite his steadfast defence of the institution of slavery—which helped earn him a sojourn in a post-war Union jail (he opted not to describe the experience in Jail Journal II) there’s a fine statue of Mitchel in his native Newry in County Down. 

Lest I be accused of an exercise in ‘backwards history’ and it be suggested that Mitchel was merely expressing commonly held beliefs amongst the Irish of his generation, one of the many men with whom he fell out, Daniel O’Connell, steadfastly refused to even visit the USA while the practice of slavery continued, and was revered by American abolitionists (men like Frederick Douglass) for the stance he took on the issue. 

Granted John Mitchel does not occupy a position of prominence on the Newry skyline for his advocacy of slavery—it was Jail Journal, his polemical The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) and his many services to Irish nationalism that earned him a shot at the pedestal. But then that didn’t save Colston, who wasn’t exactly beautifying the city of Bristol because of his service to the slave trade. 

I’m not advocating that the statue of John Mitchel be torn down and tossed in the Clanrye River. But we’re good at health warnings in Ireland, so maybe one or two of Mitchel’s less salubrious quotes might be added to a blue plaque to be placed prominently nearby – statements like … ‘We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction.’ Or this … ‘[I am] proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes.’

Getting back to Colston though, it has to be said it’s appropriate for someone who made a lot of money from transporting human beings against their will in seagoing (but not necessarily seaworthy) vessels that he should himself have recently been reburied at sea. 

On This Day – 12 FEBRUARY 1848 – John Mitchel publishes first United Irishman newspaper




He was one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espoused often placed him on the wrong side of the angels. He was loved and loathed in equal measure. He was one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the USA.


John Mitchel was born near Dungiven in Derry in the year of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. He probably would have been on Napoleon’s side if only because the opposing Army was largely British. Son of a Presbyterian clergyman Mitchel created his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.


Mostly raised in Newry in Co. Down Mitchel’s first political association was with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 Mitchel had moved on, finding the editorial policies of the Nation rather too bland for his tastes. He founded his own rival nationalist weekly newspaper the United Irishman which, in its inaugural edition, claimed that ‘the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland’ thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. Mitchel aimed to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeded admirably.


The United Irishman however, was not responsible for the destruction of many trees as it was closed down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. Mitchel was later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land. The result was one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel wrote about his own experience of deportation and advocated a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s ‘English problem’ than would have been popular heretofore.


He followed this up, in 1861, with a white hot diatribe The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in which he accused the British government of operating genocidal policies in its Irish colony during the Great Famine. The latter work was written in the safety of the USA, as his escape from Tasmania had been engineered in 1853.


So far so good, at least if you are an Irish nationalist, especially one of more militant stripe. But it is from here on in that Mitchell’s career becomes problematic. Settling in New York he established the radical newspaper, The Citizen. He used this publication as a platform for continued attacks on British policy in Ireland but also employed its columns for flood-blooded assaults on advocates for the end of slavery. An abolitionist he was not.


When the American Civil War began he moved lock, stock and barrel to the South, settling first in Knoxville, Tennessee where he published the Southern Citizen. In its pages he attacked the Union, once describing Abraham Lincoln as ‘an ignoramus and a boor’. He also had a go at Irish-American political and military leaders, like his erstwhile Young Ireland ally Thomas Francis Meagher, who fought on the Union side. He compared the South to Ireland and suggested that black slaves experienced better economic and social conditions than Irish tenant farmers. He didn’t reserve all his vitriol for attacking the North either. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a frequent target, Davis was far too much of an old softy for Mitchell. One of the ironies in all of this was that his advocacy of the Confederacy put him on the same side in the conflict as the British government, which was officially neutral, but for the South.


After the war, however, Mitchel shared the fate of Jefferson Davis, spending a short time in jail for his anti-Union spleen. His imprisonment would have given him plenty of time to reflect on the deaths in the war of two of his sons. A third lost an arm. The latter years of his life were spent in the service of the Fenian movement for whom he worked in Paris, and in standing successfully, albeit in absentia, for election in Tipperary in 1875. His success at the polls was nullified by the authorities on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. In those days you could commit all the felonies you liked AFTER you were elected but not before. Mitchel died suddenly in 1875 at the age of 59. His grandson, John Purroy Mitchel, later became Mayor of New York.


John Mitchel published his political manifesto, in the shape of the first issue of the United Irishman newspaper, one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, on this day.



2 August, 1823 – On this day – Birth of Thomas Francis Meagher




He was one of the most colourful and erratic characters in 19th century Irish history. Thomas Francis Meagher was born to a wealthy Waterford merchant family in 1823. He was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes wood and later at Stonyhurst in England, where he replaced his Irish accent with a clipped upper class English drawl – something that was to alienate many of his fellow-countrymen in the years that followed.

His involvement with the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s led to his falling out with Daniel O’Connell and a drift towards militancy. This culminated in the farcical 1848 rebellion – but before that dismal revolutionary failure Meagher had conferred on the Irish nation perhaps his most abiding legacy – the green, white and orange tricolor. He had been gifted the flag on a visit to France and its use in the 1916 rising copper-fastened its status as the flag of the Irish republic.

His involvement in the 1848 rebellion led to a sentence that he was to suffer the barbaric punishment of being ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ – this was later commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania. Initially Meagher opted for a ‘ticket of leave’ arrangement, whereby he was given considerable freedom on a promise not to attempt to escape from captivity there. In 1852 he abruptly surrendered his ticket of leave and escaped to the USA where, arguably, he made a greater contribution to American history than he did to that of his native country.

His most significant impact came after the outbreak of the Civil War. Taking over command of the Irish brigade from Michael Corcoran he proved to be an excellent recruiter for the Union army. His backing of the Union had not been a given, initially he had been an advocate of states rights and a supporter of the South, sharing many of the views of his friend John Mitchel. Ultimately they parted company over the issue of slavery and Meagher committed himself to the Union cause.

Knowing his target market well one of General Meagher’s recruiting posters read –‘The Cotton Lords and Traitor Allies of England Must Be Put Down Once and for All.’ To his detractors, of whom there were many, Meagher was a self important and pompous alcoholic. But to his troops he was their General, ‘Meagher of the Sword’. His reputation was sealed by an iconic engraving of the celebrated American artists Currier and Ives in which he was depicted on horseback leading the Irish Brigade into the Battle of Fair Oaks in June 1862


When the great Southern commander, Robert E.Lee, marched his forces north into Maryland in the fall of 1862, Meagher’s Irish Brigade was badly mauled at the infamous Battle of Antietam. Meagher had fallen off his horse in the fighting – his detractors claimed that he had been drunk at the time. This was followed by an even more bloody encounter with the Confederacy near the small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December, 1862.

Most of the Brigade’s regimental banners had already been shot to pieces. But Meagher insisted that they go into the fight carrying some symbol of their nationality. A boxwood hedge was raided and bunches of leaves of the evergreen plant were distributed among the troops to be worn in their hats, like shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day.

Contrary to the claim of John F.Kennedy in his June 1963 speech to the Oireachtas Thomas Francis Meagher did not lead his troops into the battle of Fredericksburg – he was wounded at the time and sent the Irish brigade into a battle where many of its members were slaughtered.

Almost half of its members were killed or wounded. The famous 69th New York regiment – the ‘Fighting 69th’ – lost three quarters of its men. In the confusion and carnage of the battle the Brigade lost one of its distinctive green flags. Some time after Fredericksburg an exhausted Confederate soldier. Michael Sullivan, made his way to Union lines and demanded to be taken to Meagher. When he was brought to the Irish general he reached into his tunic and handed him the flag. He had seen the flag bearer fall and had crawled out, under fire, to recover it.

After the Civil War, Meagher was rewarded by the administration –  if reward it was – with the secretaryship of the territory of Montana. On his arrival the then governor upped and left and Meagher found himself in charge of a large and relatively lawless region of the American west in which the assertive Lakota nation disputed the writ of the Federal government in suitably muscular fashion. Meagher found himself in the middle of some vicious factional disputes among the small white population and it may have been political opponents who were responsible for his mysterious death on 1 July 1867. He died at Fort Benton on the Missouri river when he disappeared from a steamboat. His body was never found. It was presumed to have been whisked away rapidly by the fierce river currents. Various theories have been advanced as to the cause of his death, the most popular is that he was drunk and fell overboard. Others suggest he was killed by native Americans, renegade Confederates or Montanan political enemies. We shall never know.

He was survived by his American wife  Elizabeth Townsend and an Irish son by his Tasmanian wife Katherine Bennett, a son he never met. Statues honour him in the Mall in Waterford and outside the Capitol building in Helena, Montana.

Thomas Francis Meagher was born 190 years ago, on this day.