The Dubliner determined to end Irish involvement in the ‘sin of slavery’

Richard Robert Madden wanted to end Irish American racism

On a summer's day in 1834, Richard Robert Madden, an Irish doctor, travelled to Marley, a plantation in the Jamaican mountains that was once under his family's control.

Madden reached the main house on the ruined estate and knocked, but heard no answer. Finding the door ajar, Madden walked into the home of his "old uncle" Theodosius Lyons. He was surprised to find three women inside the crumbling house: a woman whom Madden's great-uncle Theodosius Lyons once enslaved and her two daughters. Madden noticed a "striking" resemblance between one of the daughters and "some members of my family. I had no difficulty in recognising her origin," Madden wrote.

For Madden, the moment marked a direct confrontation with the legacy of his Irish family’s complicity in slavery. “Who, in the face of such circumstances as these, will tell me that slavery in these colonies was productive of no oppression, in recent times, or was the occasion of no injustice?” Madden wrote.

The Dubliner had originally travelled to the estate with a view to making a claim on it. However, as historian Karst de Jong notes, after Madden’s “confrontation with his family’s past, any idea about a claim for Marley was abandoned.”

Madden’s visit to Marley marked one moment in his journey to prominence as an Irish campaigner in the worldwide anti-slavery movement. Born in Dublin in 1798 to a Catholic family and educated in the Irish capital, Richard Robert Madden spent much of his early career travelling as a trained physician.

In 1828, Madden married Harriet Elmslie, the daughter of a plantation owner. A year later, Madden joined the Anti-Slavery Society in London, an organisation that would have an important bearing on his future career. Following the 1833 Emancipation Act that led to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, Madden was appointed a special magistrate in Jamaica. Gera Burton, a scholar who has researched Madden's life and career extensively, notes that he was among the first Irish Catholics appointed to the British civil service after an 1829 act allowed Catholics to enter public service.

Following the Emancipation Act, legislation forced formerly enslaved people to undergo an "apprenticeship" period before freedom was granted. From 1833 to 1834, Madden's role in Jamaica involved overseeing this transition. As historian C J Woods notes, Madden's frustrations with the planter class in Jamaica and his difficulties in pursuing a fairer system for the people they once enslaved led him to resign his post. Upon his return to London, Madden denounced the apprenticeship system.

In 1836, Madden was appointed the Superintendent of Liberated Africans in Cuba. Leather-bound volumes in the British National Archives in Kew contain Madden's dispatches from Havana, detailing his attempts to assist in the suppression of the slave trade.

Yet Madden was not only writing missives to Colonial Office colleagues during his time in Cuba. In 1840, Madden published his translations of writing by the formerly enslaved poet Juan Francisco Manzano, Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated. In the same year, Madden attended the celebrated World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There were several members of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society in attendance, including the Irish political titan Daniel O'Connell.

Both Madden and O'Connell's anti-slavery advocacy faced resistance from many among the Irish in America. Madden's 1840 publication of Manzano's poetry included an essay by Madden titled: Necessity of Separating the Irish in America from the Sin of Slavery. The essay condemned Irish American opposition to abolition and the community's prejudice against the enslaved population of North America.

In the essay, Madden regretted that his countrymen in America “look upon all those who differ from them in complexion as inferior to them in every moral attribute”.

But he was not resigned to accepting this as a permanent state of affairs. Madden argued that if the Irish in America “exerted in favour of the cause of the abolition of slavery”, then the system could not possibly endure in the US.

In making his case, scholar Fionnghuala Sweeney notes that Madden made the "conduct and opinions of emigrants" the ethical responsibility of the Irish at large. Madden's essay foreshadowed later denouncements of Irish American racism.

After Madden's postings in Jamaica and Cuba, his life of travel and forceful advocacy continued. In 1841, he travelled along the Gambia River and Gold Coast in western Africa. A memoir of his life in the Dublin University Magazine included the colourful note that his "intrepid hostility towards tyranny" made him many enemies and on one occasion "a mere accident averted the assassin's dagger".

He returned to Ireland in 1849, where he devoted much of his final decades to publishing a multi-volume history of the United Irishmen. Madden died in 1886 in Booterstown, Dublin. He is buried in Donnybrook Cemetery.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin's Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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