Belfast’s Colonial History

The current Northern Irish History Curriculum is dominated by Europe and Ireland in the twentieth century.  In a country where bitterness and division are close to the surface, there is often difficulty to see beyond the atrocities of our own recent past.  British Colonial History is overlooked, and seemed justifiable up until now.

The killing of George Floyd on 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have sparked further international drives to challenge current historical and intellectual practices.

In recent weeks social media feeds have been overwhelmed with shared resources as individuals look to educate themselves.  The petition ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’ sought to make Britain’s Colonial Past part of the KS3 National Curriculum.  This would make the curriculum more inclusive of BAME History, confront the truths about British Imperialism and teach modules on diversity and racism.  In my second year as a History Undergraduate Student, I realised the trajectory in which History is taught is as important as the historical event itself.  The concept of History is an interpretation of events; the framework for this interpretation has been set by the elite white male.  Now more than ever, History needs to be challenged and interrogated, and we as individuals are able to do this.

The first step in my own personal journey to learn more about Britain’s colonial past, begins here in Belfast; with a look at the city and its involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade over the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

The Transatlantic slave trade involved the transportation of enslaved African people to the Caribbean and Americas by European slave traders.  Commodities such as tobacco, sugarcane and cotton were exported to Europe via the triangular trade route that had been established.  Britain was the most dominant slave trading country between 1604 and 1804.  During this period, it is estimated that Britain transported 3.1 million Africans through the slave trading epicentres of Liverpool, Bristol and London.

While the slave trade in England was at its height during the eighteenth century, it can be argued Ireland was involved to a lesser extent.  Belfast, unlike its neighbouring English ports was not a slave trading hub, therefore has ‘less to apologise for,’ writes historian Eamon Phoenix.   Irish merchants were by no means innocent, as they benefited from the produce of slave labour almost as much as their English counterparts during this time.

In Belfast, the local economy profited greatly from its connection with West Indian trade.  For example, the importation of sugarcane encouraged the development of a sugar-refining industry. The linen industry also benefited; Belfast Linen was exported to clothe the enslaved peoples in the Caribbean.


Waddell Cunningham played an integral role in Belfast’s Colonial History.  Born in County Antrim in 1730, he emigrated to New York at a young age; made a small fortune through shipping; undertook various trading posts; acquired a plantation in Dominica which he named Belfast.

He returned to Belfast in 1765 and was central to the city’s economic development.  He was actively involved in importing West Indian commodities, and intimately involved in the trading of slaves between islands.   Thought to have been the richest man in Belfast, he was a founding member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Belfast Royal Academy.   Wishing to expand his trading dominance, in 1786 Cunningham attempted unsuccessfully to establish a slave-trading company in Belfast.


Olaudah Equiano came to Ireland in 1791 to promote his book – his experience as a slave

There was a very strong anti-slavery movement in Belfast, which gained momentum with the rise of the United Irishmen. The campaign was inspired by radical ideas from the French Revolution and the American Wars of Independence. In 1791 the freed slave Olaudah Equiano was warmly welcomed to the city on a tour of Ireland.   It is therefore not surprising that Cunningham’s slave-trading venture, propelled by economic self-interest had failed, at a time when people were advocating for the abolition of slavery.  In 1807 the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire.

Bernadine Evaristo, award-winning Anglo-Nigerian author of Girl, Woman, Other, made a very compelling speech on BBC Question Time.   The removal of statues, such as that of Edward Colston in Bristol gives power to the people who object to the symbol of historical slavery.  We cannot change the facts of colonial history, but it is within our reach to educate those who don’t understand it.   Although it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge this very dark period, it is imperative to discuss and interrogate further. This is fundamental to understanding the raw impact that is still felt today, as has been proven even more so in recent weeks.

Background reading:

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
  • Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
  • National Archives


Happy reading and discussing!


Vic xx




4 Comments Add yours

  1. markevans007 says:

    Very impressive

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Geri Lawhon says:

    Very interesting piece, thank you for sharing it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vic says:

      Hi Geri, thank you for your feedback! I’m glad you found it interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

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