By Christopher Warner
The start of the new year in 1801 brought bitter cold and heavy storms to County Kerry. However, residents living near Rossbeigh were soon rewarded with unexpected bounty. Valuable cargo from the recently shipwrecked Dictator began to wash ashore, spreading a surplus of cotton, coffee, sugar, and puncheons of rum.
A newspaper article from the Aberdeen Journal later reported that precious goods “were for three days exposed to the pillage of the natives as no magistrate resides in that neighbourhood”.
Built in Liverpool, the doomed vessel began service in 1799 as a first-class fully rigged sail vessel. The fast and sturdy ship featured three decks, 24 mounted brass guns, and copper sheathing on its hull. Like many other ships departing the Merseyside docks at the time, the Dictator set out on its maiden voyage to engage in a particularly lucrative type of commerce: slavery.
For over 200 years, the transatlantic slave trade saw millions of Africans shipped to European colonies, primarily to labour on large plantations under brutal conditions. The vast enterprise operated on a triangular system: manufactured goods (textiles, guns, spirits, etc.) were traded on the West African coast for slaves and later sold as chattel in the New World.
The final leg involved ships returning to the port of origin loaded with valuable commodities. From start to finish, the journey could take well over a year at sea.
On 10 June, 1799, the Dictator and its crew of 51 men sailed from Liverpool for Angola. The veteran captain, Edward Lovelace, had previously served in the Caribbean trade, sailing small boats between the Dutch and British Leeward Islands during the 1780s, hauling timber and other supplies.
But in 1792, he began his career as the skipper of slave ships that culminated with his largest command to date. It would also be his last.