The French call traffic circulation. Transport and circulation are the life-blood of business, yet trafficking contains negative connotations. There is something sordid about trafficking, yet there is something admirable about the honest trader. Combine the two in a triangle and you get trade goods to West Africa, trafficking of slaves to the Americas and the trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton, from the West Indies, back to Europe. No matter where you were on that triangle, there was money to be made. The great ports of Bristol and Liverpool, throve on the slave trade. The elegant houses of Bath and elsewhere, were built for ‘merchant princes.’ Money was paid over ‘on the nail’ at Bristol. Sturdy vessels were ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion.’ With your investment underwritten by Lloyds of London, you couldn’t go wrong. A1 at Lloyds. The stain of ‘new money’ and of ‘being in Trade’, was alleviated by the fact that there was so much bloody money in The Triangular Trade. ‘Roses are red and violets are blue. Sugar is sweet and so are you.’ Sugar is addictive too. In Persuasion, by Jane Austen, Mrs Smith, a widow living in Bath, has fallen on hard times. However, Captain Wentworth, the hero of the story, takes up her case and retrieves her fortunes in the Sugar Islands. Hooray! or Huzzah!, as they cried, in those days. There is much more to the novel, of course, about manners, furnishings, fashionable assemblies, freckles and true love. Not wishing to spoil the story, they all live happily ever after, in the end.
A man re-awakened a vague memory for me the other day. Memory can be like a patch all overgrown with briars and weeds. Sometimes there is also fruit, both sweet and bitter or even bitter-sweet. “Do you know that patch of bushes beside the gate in Holmpatrick Cemetery?” Sort of… I never paid much attention to it. Never ‘put much pass on it’ as they say. He had met an old man in the cemetery who told him that it was an unmarked grave for slaves who had drowned in a shipwreck. The old man was checking out his family plot, perhaps with a view to moving in. Somewhere along our coast, a slave ship was driven ashore—- at considerable cost to the owners. A valuable cargo of slaves was lost. I remembered hearing the story, a legend, a vague tradition, a great many years ago. Some, it was said, survived. The Fingal coast has seen many shipwrecks over the centuries, especially in the time of easterly gales. There are stones in Holmpatrick cemetery inscribed to sailors and rescuers, fishermen and yachtsmen, a captain and a cabin boy, all taken by the sea. Appropriately perhaps, the slaves are buried in a triangular patch. They have no stone at all. There are thorns.
You learned in school that any two sides of a triangle are together, greater than the third. The profit is the important thing, the bottom line. Lloyds undoubtedly covered the loss. The human cargo, possibly still wearing their chains, desperately trying to hold their breath, men, women and infants, were strewn along our coast, on the rocks and sands, entangled in seaweed, rolled in the shallows by the pitiless waves. Ashanti, Mandinka, Yoruba. The parish presumably, bore the cost of burial. At least they are in consecrated ground.
Thomas McCabe, a stout Presbyterian, opposed the setting up of a slave trafficking company in Belfast. “May God eternally damn the man who subscribes the first guinea.” Think of the tolls that the Irish ports could have levied on the trade. Had McCabe no commercial acumen at all at all? No slaves were trafficked through Irish ports. At least not until modern times. When HMS Lutine went down off Holland with a cargo of gold and the Dutch Crown Jewels in 1799, Lloyds paid up. The bell of HMS Lutine salvaged sixty years later, is tolled once, to mark the loss of a ship. That was too late to mark the loss of the slave ship. Do you think that, even at this late stage, Lloyds would bear the cost of a memorial stone? Would you hold your breath?
The bees harvest the honey from the sticky escallonia, itself a foreigner to our shores. The blackberries and elderberries fall to the ground to sweeten the soil where the clay of Africa is mixed with Irish clay. The triangle is beside the cemetery gate. May they be the first to leave when the Great Day dawns. Perhaps we will meet them then, these accidental Skerries people.
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.