Four Galway Families Involved In Caribbean Slave Trade

The flags of the Galway clans in Eyre SquareThe flags of the Galway clans in Eyre Square

In the middle of the Caribbean Ocean lie the islands of St. Croix, Montserrat and Antigua. One of the most notable features of these islands is the prevalence of Irish place names and family surnames. Families from Longford, Cavan and Meath dominate, but Galway names feature too.

Montserrat is nicknamed ‘The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean’ both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and for the Irish ancestry of many of its inhabitants. This is not unusual among the islands of the Caribbean as there were many Irish working as ‘indentured’ labourers who, when freed from their obligations, often went on to become plantation owners and slave traders/drivers themselves. Of those, four well-known Galway families are notable:

BLAKE: There are records of Henry Blake of Montserrat and Thomas Blake of Galway corresponding in business dealings as Thomas established a presence in the Caribbean.

BODKIN / BOURKE: Laurence Bodkin, Anthony Bodkin & Theobald Bourke. A few generations of the Bodkin and Bourke families had lived and worked on Montserrat and were part of a well-established slave trade circuit between London, France, Denmar and the Caribbean territories. Anthony Bodkin, described as a ‘planter’, was documented in 1729 to own 13 slaves but ‘no land at all’.

SKERRETT: John Skerrett, whose family origins can also be traced back to Galway, was based on the island of Antigua and was contracted to transport slaves from island to island in the Caribbean territories. Other members of the Skerrett family (Catherine, Thitt and Gregory) were based in St. Anthony’s parish on Montserrat and were documented in 1729 to own ’79 negroes working on 150 acres of land’.

Britain ended slavery by acts passed in the Houses of Commons and Lords in July and August of 1833 respectively. Slavery in the Caribbean territories was abolished the following year with many of the Irish families involved receiving huge compensatory payouts from the British government for their resulting ‘loss of trade’.

It was around 1750 that a boat sailed to St. Croix with 290 families from the area where Longford, Cavan and Meath meet. It was discovery of this that first sparked my interest in the Irish connection with the slave trade in the Caribbean.

Dr. Orla Power of NUI Galway​ has completed extensive research about the island of St. Croix and its Irish connections. I am currently conducting further research into the Longford connections.

People I have corresponded with on the issue say there is little love for the former plantation owners and slave traders who still have descendants on St. Croix (and the other islands) to this day.

There is no denying that an Irish mercantile oligarchy (many of its members descended from prominent Galway families) played an integral role in the Caribbean slave trade of the 18th century. Perhaps it would be nice to have a ceremony of reconciliation for the part they played? Here is an interesting article written by Montserrat-native Andrew Skerritt about reparations for slavery in the Caribbean – http://floridapolitics.com/…/3274-andrew-skerritt-we-need-a…

[Reference] Beyond Kinship: A Study of the Eighteenth-Century Irish Community at Saint Croix, Danish West Indies by Dr. Orla Power – available online at http://www.irlandeses.org/0711_207to214.pdf

About the Author

Thomás Carty
Thomás Carty is a Renmore resident, having moved to Galway for work a couple of years ago. Both his parents were originally from Ballinalee in Co. Longford but he grew up in Banagher and maintains his Offaly connections with membership of the poetry group Tullamore Rhymers Club. An amateur genealogist and historian, he writes on a range of topics that grab his interest. He works at security to pay the bills, and travels widely around Europe to keep sane!