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.
£1m claimed by Irish slave-owners for 30,000 slaves on 300 West Indian plantations in 1837
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park it becomes clear in the early chapters that the Bertram family fortune, and the money that built the eponymous estate, has come from the proceeds of a West Indian plantation which employs slave labour. Shortly into the novel Sir Thomas Bertram is compelled to sail for Antigua to sort out problems on his plantation. Was it a rebellion? Was it a consequence of the abolition of the trading of slaves in the British Empire in 1807? We never find out – when the heroine Fanny Price inquires she is greeted with a long disapproving silence and knows better than to pursue the subject.
But the fictional Bertrams were not the only British family to have prospered from the ownership of slaves, the recent removal for cleaning of the statue of Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston, has highlighted that unsavoury fact.
But not all ‘British’ slave owners were English. We can leave the Scots and the Welsh to assess their particular legacy, but Ireland has its own unhappy heritage when it comes to the acquisition, possession and sale of human beings for the purposes of unpaid labour – and I’m not talking about Google interns.
Prompted by Patrick Corrigan’s fascinating thread on Twitter earlier in the week (@PatrickCorrigan), which highlighted Irish ownership of slaves on West Indian plantations, I decided to spend a few days going through the invaluable University College, London ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ database—compiled since 2010 by Professor Catherine Hall and Dr. Nick Draper, and cited by Patrick as his source—with a fine(ish) toothcomb. I wanted to try and tease out the extent of Irish slave-holding at the time of the final elimination of the practice in British colonies with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. So, you could describe what follows below as a ‘database within a database’.
Altogether around 800,000 slaves were emancipated (or ‘manumitted’ to use the legal phrase) although this came with certain strings attached. Most were forced to serve four year ‘apprencticeships’ with their former masters. They were obliged to work in return for food. Which, you might think, sounds quite a lot like slavery. And you’d be right.
A total of £20m was set aside by the British government for compensation. Most of this, £15m, was borrowed from the bankers Nathan Rothschild and his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore. This was all paid back in jig time – 2015!. That sum is worth £1.4b (€1.6b) today. You might think £20m wouldn’t make much of a dent in the ill-usage of 800,000 freed slaves. In which case you would be incredibly naïve and know absolutely nothing about British colonialism. The £20m wasn’t intended for the slaves, it was meant for the 47,000 hard-done-by slave-owners, deprived of their rich heritage as well as their mobile (and negotiable) property. Half of the money was paid out in the West Indies and the rest went to absentee plantation owners living in the United Kingdom (like the fictional Bertrams). So, the final score in the British War on Slavery was …
Slave Owning Bastards (SOBs) 20,000,000 Slaves 0
One of the biggest beneficiaries was John Gladstone, who was paid £106,769 for 2,508 slaves across nine plantations. The name might ring a bell. His little boy, William, went on to become Prime Minister four times between 1868 and 1894. Though the Grand Old Man’s Old Man was well in arrears of the leading Irish beneficiary, Charles McGarel of Larne (a local benefactor on a Colstonian scale) who received £135,078 for 2,777 liberated slaves. McGarel was an ancestor of Tory grandee Lord Hailsham aka Quinton McGarel Hogg. And William Ewart Gladstone was not the only British Prime Minister who was a descendant of a recipient of slave owner compensation. Take a bow David Cameron.
Back in the 1830s the United Kingdom included Ireland, so 4% of the moolah was handed over to Irish slave-holders. Given that the population of Ireland at the time was c. 7.5m—or around 45% of the total population of the UK—this figure probably reflects the microscopic size of the Irish landed gentry (c. 10,000 privileged families) and its upper middle class (bankers, merchants and middlemen).
The headline figures are stark. Almost £1m (£982,009) was claimed by individuals born in, or resident in, Ireland under the terms of the 1837 Slave Compensation Act. Almost £800,000 (£798,639) was paid out to these solid citizens by the British government. The one-hundred and fifty-one Irish slave owners whose names appear in the UCL database in the 1830s, laid claim to more than 300 plantations (318) and to almost 30,000 male and female slaves (29,686). Claims totalling around £200,000 (£183,370) were dismissed by the Slave Compensation Commission appointed by the Whig administration of Lord Melbourne. These failed Irish claims, however, have been included anyway. This is on the basis that those who submitted them were either convinced of the merits of their cases, were happy to associate themselves with the evil of slavery and sought to profit from it, or were out and out chancers who deserve a bit of retrospective opprobrium. A number of unsuccessful claimants looked for compensation for slaves on plantations that had been mortgaged. Cheeky or what? They discovered to their chagrin that the compensation had already been paid to the mortgagee. In many cases ownership of plantations was disputed and the compensation was paid to counter claimants.
Some of the beneficiaries are from well-known Irish aristocratic families, but not all Irish-owned West Indian plantations were the property of Ascendancy Protestant families. While there is a healthy sprinkling of grandees there are also many common or garden Dalys, Barrys and Murrays on the list. Many were upper middle class ‘merchant Princes’ and lawyers from Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Galway. There were also twenty-one female slave owners out of 151 names who sought financial awards. Most of those were the widows or the legatees of Irish male slave owners. There are a number of clergymen and MPs on the list as well.
I have no doubt there are errors and gaps. I have searched the UCL site as thoroughly as I could over the last four days, trying to identify families and individuals who owned slaves and who were compensated when slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire between 1 August 1834 and 1 February 1835. The UCL database includes many more Irish names, of men and women who owned plantations in the West Indies as far back as the 1600s. According to Liam Hogan (@Limerick1914)—widely accepted as the foremost Irish authority on all matters relating to this country’s relationship with slavery (including the mythology of alleged Irish ‘white slaves’ which has been weaponised by American white supremacists)—Irish slave-owning families on Antigua alone included names like Buckley, Burke, Byrne, Collins, Corbett, Curtin, Doyle, Halloran, Keane, Kelly, Lynch, Malone. McCarthy, O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Loughlin, O’Shaughnessy, Ryan and Shiell.Some of these families may even have brought their slaves to Ireland in the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the black population of the country was reckoned at somewhere between 2-3,000. They may also have among the poor traumatised plantation owners who sought compensation from the Treasury in 1737 for the loss of a number of Antiguan slaves. The fact that the Antiguan plantation owners had themselves been directly responsible for their pecuniary losses did not appear to prevent them seeking awards from the British exchequer. A foiled slave revolt led to the public execution of eighty-five slaves. According to Liam Hogan:
‘ Six were gibbeted alive. Five were broken on the wheel. Seventy-seven were burned alive. Most of the victims’ remains were decapitated and their severed heads placed on pikes in public view as a warning to the rest of the slave population. The final executions involved the burning alive of eleven enslaved people on 8 March 1737.’
That rebellion was eclipsed by another almost a century later, when 540 ‘mobile assets’ were killed or executed in an 1831 uprising that hastened the end of the practice of slavery in the British Caribbean territories.
The 151 names recorded below are of those involved only in that final act, the drawn-out ending of slavery (except in certain territories belonging to the notorious East India Company, an institution apparently impervious to any form of remedial legislation). The connection with Ireland of some of those noted below may have been somewhat tenuous at the time of the passage of ‘An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.’ – to give the legislation its full title. However, you will forgive me, I hope, if I don’t apologise to those (long-dead) slave owners who might have been included as Irish in error.
Among the prominent Irish individuals who benefitted from the generosity of the Melbourne administration, and the cash provided by Rothschild and Montefiore, was the Most Honourable Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquis of Sligo, Earl of Altamont and Baron Monteagle. He had fewer plantations to his name than titles, owning ‘Cocoa Walk’ and ‘Kellys’ near Kingston in Jamaica. The 286 slaves of which he was cruelly deprived were assessed by the Slave Compensation Commission as being worth £5526, or a modest £19 each. (Awards varied greatly, with many owners being paid £50+ per slave). The 2nd Marquis appears to have been one of more decent sorts of slave driver. He became Governor of Jamaica in 1834 and did not endear himself to fellow slaveowners on the island with some of the decisions he made during the transition. He didn’t, for example, require his own former slaves to become apprentices, as would have been his right under the 1833 legislation. Choleric Jamaican slaveowners were able to force his resignation in 1836.
Also featuring prominently on the list is the name La Touche, one associated in Dublin with banking and, specifically, with the Bank of Ireland. The family was descended from Huguenot refugees and a participant in the Battle of the Boyne (on the Williamite side). Three members, William Digges La Touche, Peter Digges La Touche and Mary Digges La Touche divided £7100 between them for 404 slaves on three Jamaican estates.
An equally famous name included on the list is that of Pakenham. Hercules Robert Pakenham, third son of the 2nd Baron Longford, and brother in law of that reluctant Irishman, the Duke of Wellington, had an Antiguan plantation of 217 slaves, whose freedom netted him £2919. He was a MP for Westmeath from 1808-1826.
Another interesting inclusion is that of Edward Sheil, who had two small plantations in Honduras (he is the only Irish owner of Central American properties). The main point of interest here is that Edward Sheil, who was awarded £1243 by the Commission, was the brother of Richard Lalor Sheil MP, a parliamentary supporter of Catholic Emancipation and an associate of Daniel O’Connell, the most egregious and vociferous Irish opponent of slavery.
The case of William Purcell is particularly interesting. He was born in Grenada around the turn of the 18thcentury and in 1833 was in possession of a small Grenada plantation inherited from his Irish father Patrick Joseph Purcell. He is described by the UCL researchers as:
‘One of six “coloured” sons of Irish-born landowner Patrick Joseph Purcell and his ‘housekeeper’ whom he described as “free negro woman Franchine”. His grandfather, Joseph Purcell, was sent to the West Indies by his great-grandfather Redmund Purcell of Dunane, County Laois, Ireland. Redmund sent 5 of his 6 sons away as it was not possible to find careers for them at home …’
One imagines that this was how many of the male planters from Ireland and Britain found their way to the Caribbean, through the tyranny of primogeniture, which meant they had little or no chance of inheriting family property in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Once in the West Indies they were free to exercise a tyranny of their own. Many of those, however, who benefitted from a big payday probably never even saw their Caribbean estates. Many of the beneficiaries died in Britain, some died in Ireland. Others, like Hamilton Brown (see below) who owned twenty-five plantations in Jamaica, continued to live in the West Indies, where he died in 1845.
Have a good look at the names. Some of them probably never bothered to hide the fact that they were goblins at heart. Others were likely to have bestowed considerable largesse among their local communities and white-washed (or lime-washed) their reputations—like the recently moistened Mr. Colston—and gained reputations as do-gooders. Who knows, there might even be statues to some of them. So, we could spend the next twenty years arguing about the addition of wording to their plinths that reflects the totality of their activities. Or not.
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.
I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten
Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland
In Dixieland where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’
Look away, look away, Look away, Dixieland
Thus begins a song that was premiered this week in 1859, two years before the vicious conflict that made it famous. Dixie, a sentimental ballad about the joys of life below the Mason-Dixon line, resonated with southerners then and still does today. Which makes it doubly ironic—given its often dubious modern association with white supremacists—that is was written not only by a northern supporter of Abraham Lincoln, but an Irish-American at that, and one who worked for a music hall act led by two Irish brothers.
Dixie could hardly be less ‘southern’ than if it had been born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. It emerged from the American tradition of the ‘blackface’ minstrel. These were white performers, who like the thoroughly modern Ali G, liked to pretend they were black. Among their number was an Irish-American singer/performer from Ohio named Daniel Decatur Emmett. He was a member of a troupe of music hall singers led by a pair of New York Irish brothers named O’Neill. The song quickly became a rousing closer for their touring show. It became a popular favourite all over the USA. A presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, used it at his rallies to get the crowds going. By the time Dan Emmet died more than thirty people were claiming they had written the song.
Many years later Emmet ruefully observed that ‘If I had known to what use they were going to put my song I’ll be damned if I had written it’. ‘They’ were the soldiers of the Confederacy. In the case of the song Dixie it would appear that origins were of no consequence, context was paramount, and melody conquered all. Of course, context is relative. If taken literally, the song is a nostalgic celebration of southern culture. Except that it was intended by Emmet as a satirical take on slavery. The song is sung in the voice of a freedman who misses the plantation on which he was enslaved. Southerners didn’t get the joke. Or maybe they did, and the joke was on Dan Emmet.
Despite the subversive connotations, after it was quickly conscripted as an anthem of the Confederacy, Lincoln never quite lost his love for the song – it was just so damn catchy. He ordered it to be played when he was informed that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox. Or maybe that was just his way of rubbing Southern noses in their defeat. The speech he made at the time was typical of his wry sense of humour.
I thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard … our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it
Which the band duly did. Certainly, Lincoln’s troops had no great affection or reverence for the piece. Union troops sang the song frequently, but with amended lyrics. These went …
Away down South in the land of traitors,
Rattlesnakes and alligators
Right away, come away, right away, come away.
Where cotton’s king and men are chattels
Union boys will win the battles,
Right away, come away, right away, come away
Emmet died in 1904. His gravestone bears the legend ‘his song Dixieland inspired the courage and devotion of the southern people and now thrills the hearts of a reunited nation.’ Which today comes across as someone optimistically ‘whistling Dixie’.
So, was that great anthem of the Confederacy written in the Old South? No, it wasn’t, it was written by a Yankee Irish-American. That’s fake history.