Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin recalls the efforts of a group of prominent Cork ladies to change attitudes towards slavery and discovers that the struggle against slavery and the slave trade had a long history in Cork.
A few years ago, I was looking through one of the always fascinating and beautifully illustrated De Búrca Rare Books catalogues when my attention was drawn to a photograph of a unique artefact. It was a photo of the Seal of the Cork Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society (pictured right) dating from around 1841 and it was, of course, for sale.
It was accompanied by details and information about both the Society itself and its seal. The seal with a walnut handle and a brass matrix had a height of 76mm and the matrix had dimensions of 14 x 10mm. I did not know that the Cork Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society had existed or that the struggle against slavery and the slave trade had a long history in Cork.
As far back as 1788, Cooper Penrose (1736–1815), quaker and timber-merchant, proposed that an anti-slavery petition be sent to the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, by the Cork Committee of Merchants. That committee was founded by twenty-three export merchants in Cork in 1769 and survived into the early decades of the twentieth century.
In the beginning it was formed to oversee the regulation of the butter trade, but by the end of the eighteenth century had become the primary organisation representing the business people of Cork.
In 1792, Anthony Edwards, a printer based in Castle Street, published a pamphlet on the slave trade, writing about the horrors of slavery and showing the vice of people encouraging it by buying goods produced through the use of slave labour in the West Indies.
The boycotting of these types of products became a feature of both Cork Quaker life and of all those opposed to slavery. In 1815 a ballad printed in Cork ‘The Negroe’s Complaint’ was often referred to by the prominent Cork Quaker Jane Clibborn in her talks.
The Cork Men’s Anti-Slavery Society had been founded by Joshua Beale in January 1826 at the Assembly Rooms, Georges Street (now, Oliver Plunkett Street). The members of the Society came from all religious backgrounds Catholics, Protestants, Quakers and dissenters.
A motion was passed calling for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Dominions and a petition could be signed at Mrs Osborne’s shop at Castle Street.
In the same year the Cork Ladies Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Anne Beamish, Beaumont House, wife of William Beamish of the well-known brewing family (Beamish Brewery, formerly Cork Porter Brewery), was the first President of the Society.
Mrs. Paul McSwiney, King Street (now McCurtain Street), was Vice-President, Miss. Isabel Jennings, Brown Street, Secretary, with Mrs. Mannix of Dyke Parade, Joint Secretary, Mrs. White, of Clarence Terrace, Treasurer. They met every Saturday in the library of the Independent Chapel which was located on George’s Street.
Subscriptions and handmade products, knitted garments and handicrafts for the annual Boston anti-slavery bazaar were forwarded by the Cork Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to America through the Dublin Quakers.
Anne Beamish encouraged them to continue with their efforts to send products to Boston, until, as she put it ‘those that are now in bondage shall be free’.