Ireland’s role in shaping the first English Empire 1550-1770

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[00.10] David Olusoga It is such a pleasure to be here with Jane in the Irish Embassy.  It’s wonderful that someone who has made a programme for the BBC about the Union, that it went down well enough for me to be allowed in the Irish Embassy!  It could have been a very different story!
I want to get straight into it because it’s a complicated, intricate book, and the first impression that I draw from reading this book was about how England, Ireland under the Tudors and then the Stuarts, it is a frontier world, and the -, underpinning it is a great deal of violence.  This is a very, very tough picture you paint of Ireland in those centuries and those decades.
[00.50] Jane Ohlmeyer Thank you, David, and Ambassador, colleagues.  It’s lovely to be here, and I think the reality is that empire is about the exercise of violence.  There’s just no escaping that, and anybody who has read Caroline Elkins recent book, that’s argued very powerfully there obviously in the context of the modern empires.  But in Ireland itself, we see the use of extreme violence from earliest times and particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The English set out -.  Remember Ireland is England’s first colony, and to colonise you’ve got to first conquer, and conquer requires military force and then, in order to hold Ireland, you’ve got to continue to exercise military force.  So, there’s no sugar-coating it, David, whether in Ireland or across empire.  Violence is at the heart of it, and there’s a lot of blood-letting.  I suppose a bit of a trigger-warning for anybody with the book – it’s not for the faint-hearted.  It’s just the reality.
[02.02] David Olusoga The thing that really strikes me as somebody who writes and makes programmes about the English and their British empires, is that we say that a lot:   Ireland was the first colony.   But the extent to which that’s true, the ways in which that’s true in terms of methodology, ideology, philosophy, terminology, cartography and personnel, this book abounds with examples, details, individual stories, that just bring that home in the way I’ve never seen before.
[02.31] Jane Ohlmeyer I’m really happy to hear you say that because that absolutely was the intention is when we make these bold statements, well, what is the empirical evidence for that, and that’s where the examples, the stories, are so powerful.  So, in the book, I was very keen to, if you want, show Ireland – I use this as colony, as victims of imperialism – Ireland as a laboratory for empire, where ideas around ethnocentricity, which by the 19th century is racism, are really tried and tested in Ireland and then exported around the British Empire.  But also how the collection of knowledge, which of course, empire is about force, but it’s also about how you use land, labour and natural resources, for the benefit of the imperial power, in this case for England.   And it is England in this period rather than Britain, it becomes Britain later.
[03.38] So the only way to do that is by telling these stories and Ireland is that laboratory for empire.  It is also a training ground where men – and it really is in this period, men – learn the business of empire, and sometimes those are the Irish themselves or they’ll be people from across these islands who serve their time in Ireland before going off into the Atlantic world or to India.  And it’s really the Atlantic world, especially the Caribbean and North America, that I look at, but it’s also true of Latin America because the Irish, if you want victims of empire, they are also active perpetrators of it, both in the British Empire and across all of the early modern empires, whether it’s the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese.  So the earliest Irish entrepreneurs are actually in the Amazon, and they are timber and tobacco traders in the Amazon working first with the Dutch, the Portuguese, and briefly with the English as well.
[04.50] So, they are very trans-imperial, David, very good at seeing where the business opportunity is, and then piggy-backing on whoever’s empire days to make a few bob.  So, I think it’s very important that we have this holistic picture as well as Ireland being, if you want, that crucible or template for empire.
[05.12] I’d love to tell you, we were chatting the other day, so it was a privilege for me to work with David on that fantastic programme, Union, and got to know him a little bit, but also to see the way Irish history was very much at the heart of the story.  And we were preparing for this and chatting on Friday, and you told a lovely story of that ethnocentricity towards the Irish that you had picked up in your own research.  Can I invite you to say, to talk a little bit about that, because it actually illustrates what I’ve done so beautifully, albeit in a different time period and context.
[05.47] David Olusoga It’s a detail from a TV programme that I’m making at the moment, which is some research I was doing from years ago for a book that I’ve not yet finished – many books have been started but not all reach this stage! – about Tasmania and about the British ‘genocide’, there are no other words we can use for that in Tasmania.
[06.08] But in a place called Flinders Island, which is where some of the last surviving Tasmanian bands were gathered, and they were promised freedom, what they really got became a reformatory to cure them of their supposed savagery.  These were a people who had been isolated,  not just from the world but mainland Australia, but we think 14 millennia and within a few decades they encountered the awesome power of the British Empire of the 1820s/1830s.  And in the accounts of the survivors, the Tasmanians in Flinders island, the historians note that they very quickly understand that there were two groups among their conquerors, the British and the Irish, and that they recognise that the Irish were of a lower status in this Empire, many of the Irish, of course, being convicts.  And they learn that the way to move in this world is to look down upon the Irish, so this idea that, despite language, a people who are isolated for 14,000 years, can still within a few years pick up on the, I think ‘racial’ dynamics is the right word to use at this juncture, that they can very quickly imbibe this relationship and its toxicity, I think speaks to how it was carried across the Pacific, almost like a disease.
[07.22] Jane Ohlmeyer And what’s so interesting to me is that story begins in the 12th century with somebody called Gerald of Wales, ?Caoimhe [Keeva]  and Cambrensis eversus, but then it’s turbocharged by Edmund Spenser, that great renaissance poet, in the late 16th/early 17th century, and then it becomes foundational in terms of the British Empire, and so it was just really interesting to hear you pick up on it sort of in the 19th century.  So I think a lot is going on in this period that allows us to think about empire in the later period and actually, even today, much of this that we are seeing sort of bubbling up, you know, in the context of world events, which I’m not going to say anything about.
[08.07] David Olusoga As you say, it’s extraordinary of the 18th/19th century.  I’m looking at this in some ways through the wrong end of the telescope.  That just makes the comparisons all the more stark.
The policies of assimilation in 16th century Ireland, they reminded me of sons of maharajahs doing to British, English private schools, public schools, in the 19th century.  The idea of the mission to save people of their savagery through the English language, through classical education, through English customs, reminded me of the residential schools in Canada, the infamous residential schools, of the 19th century, so much, I mean to the extent that I went through one of my books I hadn’t said something like ‘first in the Caribbean’ in case I was provide wrong and had to make an amendment.
[08.52] But so much of things that we associate with happening in the Americas or in other parts of the Empire, you show how their origins or their first utterances were in Ireland.
[09.03] Jane Ohlmeyer Yes, so this word ‘anglicisation’, of course they didn’t use that in the early modern period, that’s a later construct, but they used the word ‘to civilise, to improve’.
David Olusoga They used it as a verb.
[09.15] Jane Ohlmeyer And they used it as a verb, absolutely, and it’s how you make the Irish English, their culture, their language, their agricultural practices, their economic infrastructure.  It really is a civilising mission and how do you do that?  You can do so much through conquest, but then obviously, you want to convert as many people to Protestantism as you can because, obviously, the incivility of the Irish and Catholicism are so closely interlinked, but actually, if the truth be told, the English are much more interested in making Irish land Protestant than the people, and so a lot of the emphasis is actually about how you can harness Irish land.  And remember in this period, eight million acres, eight million acres, are expropriated and reassigned from Catholic to Protestant hands –
David Olusoga The transfer of land in the century anywhere in Europe.
[10.12] Jane Ohlmeyer Anywhere.  I suspect anywhere in the world – well, let’s not take, carried away, but certainly anywhere in Europe.  It really is a massive revolution in land-holding, and that combined with how you utilised Irish labour, and we see this particularly in the Caribbean with, from the 1610s, ‘20s, tens of thousands of Irish men and women being effectively transported into the tobacco and then later into the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, David.   So, you know, again there is no sugar-coating of this.  That’s just what happened, and my colleague, Micheal Ó Siochrú, is actually arguing that the first English Empire would not have happened without Irish labour and land – it is what turbo-charged, if you want, English imperialism.  It was to the 17th century – the 17th century Empire – what India was to the 19th century Empire, in terms of providing land and labour, but all under the veneer of ‘civilising’, and education, Wardship, the sorts of practices we see of course began very much in an Irish context.
[11.27] And just for what it’s worth, Eton was the preferred English school – I think there might be a few Etonians in the room – and then it was Christ’s College, Oxford.   And, you know, there are certain colleges – Cambridge was too Protestant so you had to be careful about -, you wanted them to be Protestant but you didn’t want them to be too Protestant, so, so, so it was Oxford rather than Cambridge.
[11.50] And then of course my own institution, Trinity College Dublin, and we certainly have a lot of Trinity graduates here tonight, was very much an instrument of empire, founded to civilise the barbarous Catholic Irish and stop them then going to the continental colleges.  So, again – I’m sorry, I’m talking too long, David, here.
[12.11] David Olusoga It’s fascinating, and the more you talk, the more those parallels with later periods that we’re more familiar with come – they’re all off the page.
The story of indenture you mentioned earlier – the Irish from the bottom of Irish society being transported as indentured servants to the Caribbean and to North America, the prisoners imprisoned by Cromwell making that same journey literally in chains – we are, I think, more familiar with that image of the Irish as raw material for the English and then British Empires and the New World than we are of the Irish as players, as beneficiaries of empires, whether it be the English Empire or others.  That is what really surprised me, is that I really under-estimated the sophistication, the capacity of the Irish to plant themselves in Nantes, to working in the French slave trade, in San Domingue, to work in, to run plantations for the French.  That picture of the Irish as global agents of multiple empires – that is astonishing.
[13.16] Jane Ohlmeyer And that is completely under-researched.  I am just really touching on it here but a man called Antoine Walsh, whose father had been a Dublin merchant, was one of the most important slave traders in early 18th century France, so at one end of the spectrum, you have the Irish there as indentured servants living in, I mean, abject poverty.  Some of them later become known as the ‘Redlegs’, so some of these communities, particularly in Barbados and Jamaica, and to this day you will have people who identify themselves as Irish with Kerry accents.  I mean, it’s quite extraordinary some of it, right through then to the Irish that made good, because at the end of the day, their whiteness did accord them some privilege.  Their Catholicism will always keep them down, but their whiteness meant that they then become the overseers, and very quickly, if you want, the Irish, if you want, become the abusers themselves and are very efficient slave masters, working on the plantations.  So we’re seeing the full spectrum right up to the Antoine Walshes.
[14.28] But the one that really cracked me up – I was in Cuba not so long ago and I was staying in the Casa O’Daly in the Calle O’Reilly.  You know, and you see this across landscapes, these, you know, Irish names in both North America and the Caribbean, but I think probably my heart is very much with India and a man called Gerald Aungier, who was a Protestant planter.  His grandparents would have been planters or colonists in Ireland in the early decades of the 17th century.  He goes to Bombay in the 1660s and 1670s and he colonises the colony which Charles II has given to the East India Company, just as his grandparents had colonised Ireland.  And when you go to India today, or Bombay or Mumbai today, they talk about this man, Aungier – and they don’t realise it is ‘Ainger’, and they don’t realise he is Irish.  You will see his name all over the place and, of course, in Dublin, we have got Aungier Street – and Aungier Street was developed as Dublin’s first suburb on the back of treasure that Gerald Aungier remitted as part of the – you know, the East India Company was making a fortune and his brother was a property developer.
[15.47] David Olusoga So I hope that the book brings out these links and the circularities that are happening as well.
The transfer of skills as well as individuals, that the Irish are competent in so many ways because of the experiences that took place on that island in playing multiple roles in empire.
[16.06] Jane Ohlmeyer No, absolutely.  They learn the business of empire at home –
David Olusoga Even the military business of empire.
Jane Ohlmeyer Which is hugely important.  Tom Bartlett is here and he is the person to speak to that.  But what I’ve seen and wherever I look is the presence of Irish soldiers, so by, say, the 19th century, two-thirds of the British Army in Ireland are made up of Irish, mostly Catholics, particularly from – well, Munster features – and I was in India recently doing some filming and went into the graveyard which is in Old Delhi, very close to the Red Fort.  We were looking at the grave of somebody called John Nicholson.  Now John Nicholson was born in Dublin and his statue is in Lisburn.  I think an ‘imperial psychopath’ is the only way you can describe John Nicholson.  I hope there are no Nicholsons in the room!
[17.01] David Olusoga Or imperial psychopaths in the room!
Jane Ohlmeyer: Or imperial psychopaths in the room, exactly!  But, David, as we were looking at his grave, I started to look at the other graves and it was full of O’Dalys, Curwens – just every – Butlers. Wherever you looked, you were seeing the names of ordinary Irish people, but their womenfolk were there as well.  And I suppose that that is just one other one that is in my head – I was really keen to tell the story of these Irish women who followed their menfolk, whether as part of the army or in other capacities.  Something of those people, indentured servants, that go to the Caribbean, two-thirds are men but a third are women and we know virtually nothing about them.
[17.48] But in Ireland itself, the women play a hugely important role, both in terms as the ones who look after Irish language, Irish religion and Irish culture, but also the ones – there’s a lot of intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants in this period, so you are seeing the women being very powerful agents of assimilation as well as upholders, if you want, of, of Irishness.  So the women – their story, I tried to tell it in this book but there is a lot more that could be done.
[18.19] David Olusoga This is probably where we should finish on: get to the question about how the empires that we are talking about – how they are re-emerging into our discourses today.  As a British historian who writes about the British Empire, it is very common to find that your work, particularly if it touches upon slavery, the slave trade, or the violence of empire, creates a very powerful oppositional reaction.  It’s a slightly more complicated story for Ireland and I think also for Scotland, where the story of being the victims and the raw material of English imperial power is more familiar.  Introducing these other narratives, these very difficult, complicated narratives, that show the range of experiences of people who leave Ireland to go out into this Empire – does that attract the same sort of push-back?
[19.14] Jane Ohlmeyer Discussions around empire are not as toxic in Ireland, thank goodness, as they would be in, for example, the United Kingdom or the United States, in terms of the discussions of slavery.  But we are touching raw nerves here as well because I think many people would like to forget that Ireland was ever part of the British Empire, but you can’t.  It’s a fact.  It happened.  And the question is now, how do we actually engage with that in a balanced and mature and empirical way?