Rory Delany toyed with several titles for the congregation address.
“Reflections on a Window”. Not that one. Maybe, “Two Memorials” or “An Inconvenient Truth”? Not those either.
In the end, he settled for “Selective Memories”.
It was Sunday 10 June 2018, and the occasion at the Dublin Unitarian Church was 100 years since the installation of “The Wilson Window”.
Earlier talks had explored the theology behind the design and conception of the stained-glass window, the craft in its making.
The address by Delany, the church treasurer, was different. “I was raining on the parade a bit,” he said recently.
Under the window in the church is a shiny bronze plaque. “This Window was Erected by The Congregation in Grateful Remembrance of Thomas Wilson of Westbury”, it reads.
In his will in 1857, Wilson had left £2,592 to the congregation to buy land for a new place to worship so they could move out of an old meeting house on Strand Street.
They looked around and settled for the spot on the corner of St Stephen’s Green in the heart of the city, where the grey gothic church sits today.
The current Wilson window – put up in 1918 after two earlier windows were destroyed in fires – decorates one end of the church, a giant luminous arch of colourful stained glass with Christ in a red robe at the centre and sunbeams around his head.
Along the bottom, five panels of imagery and famous figures are dedicated to the virtues of discovery, truth, inspiration, love and work.
Cursory searches throw up biographical nuggets that tell how the church’s benefactor, Thomas Wilson, was a wealthy merchant and shipping magnate in the early 19th century, known as the “Croesus of Dublin”.
There are mentions of how he was director and governor of the Bank of Ireland, a member and vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, who served for a time – as his father had – as consul for the United States in Ireland.
Less well-advertised is that he made some of his fortune by owning hundreds of enslaved people.
In the Records
Visitors to the church had occasionally whispered of a darker side to Wilson’s business dealings, says Delany, the church treasurer who also researches its history.
But he hadn’t been sure if there was anything to it. “With slavery, it’s not something you can just throw out there,” he says.
When he first went digging he found another Thomas Wilson involved in shipping, a different person altogether. “I said, ‘Someone’s got that wrong.’”
Then University College London launched its database cataloguing the legacies of British slave ownership and listed payouts to slaveowners after the abolition of slavery in most British colonies in 1833.
Delaney went searching again. “And there was Wilson,” he says. “I triple checked it, the address, his business partners, and they were all listed.”
For nine different claims for 451 enslaved people in Trinidad in the West Indies, Thomas Wilson was paid £23,324 7s. 9d. – equivalent roughly to more than £2 million today.
Those figures put Wilson up in the top bracket of Trinidadian slaveowners in the period, says Ciaran O’Neill, a historian and assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin who recently gave a lecture on the public history of slavery in Dublin.
“He was one of the biggest,” he says.
“That’s massive,” says Jonathan Wright, a historian at Maynooth University, who recently edited a collection of letters by Irishman John Black, who also owned plantations on the Caribbean island.
Trinidad generally had smaller plantations than other islands in the West Indies, perhaps, says Wright, because it was developed later as a plantation colony and had a high death rate among enslaved people.
While Trinidad was drawn early into the European sphere, it wasn’t until the 1780s really that a Spanish governor set about aggressively developing it, he says.
The governor brought in a “cedula” granting land and tax concessions to Catholics who came to settle, hoping to attract disgruntled French planters from then-British Granada although some others, including Irish, also landed.
Finola O’Kane Crimmins, an architecture professor at UCD whose research also touches on empire and the Atlantic, says there had been an exodus of Catholic families from Ireland to the wider Carribean in the 18th century, because of how penal laws restricted property and land ownership in Ireland.
They looked for other avenues including investments in plantations away from Ireland, where the strictures around religious identity were more fluid. “It doesn’t really matter as long as you are white,” says O’Kane Crimmins.
In Trinidad, the arrival of the new planters – who brought with them enslaved Africans – was followed by a push to force large-scale sugar monoculture on the island, says Wright. “An attempt to set up plantations.”
Clearing the land was brutal work for enslaved people, says Wright. “It’s massively intensive labour, so the death rate in the early 19th century is very high.”
In 1797, Trinidad had become a British colony, having been ceded by the Spanish after an invasion. Under the British, the enslaved population grew rapidly.
Trinidad had a mixed population. There were Spanish, French Catholics, some Irish, and “quite a large free black population”, says Wright, “and all these different populations or groups bring with them fears, ideas”.
French planters in particular were fearful about free black people and rebellion, he says.
They were conscious of the revolution of 1791 in the French colony in Saint-Domingue, in what is modern-day Haiti, when enslaved people there rose up, killed thousands of white people, burned the plantations, and defeated French – and later, British – troops.
In Trinidad, any hint of dissent was punished, says Wright. “You punish it with violence.”
French planters, also, were fixated with the idea of poisonings, an obsession that led to brutal tribunals under the 1801 Trinidad Poisoning Commission, during which enslaved people were burned alive, decapitated and tortured.
When there’s a high death rate among enslaved people, French planters think that it’s because enslaved people are using poison to kill each other, says Wright.
“What they don’t believe is there’s a really high death rate here because we are working these people to death,” he says.
This was the world in which the Wilsons invested.
An Eroded History
“What always interested me about the Wilson piece was the lack of information on them,” says Delany.
Church publications had referred to Thomas Wilson’s shipping business with premises on North Wall Quay. They talked about how his father, Joseph Wilson, had been an aide-de-camp to George Washington.
But not much more, says Delany – and nothing on his ownership of enslaved people. “I couldn’t understand this, I thought this is peculiar. This is a very prominent person.”
Outside of the church archives, books and biographies often skip over how wealthy families made money from slavery.
Sources of wealth are often downplayed, including by historians, says O’Neill, the Trinity historian. “We’re not necessarily looking for where all the money comes from.”
Private financial papers have often been lost, too, with the exodus of families and the burning of big houses, says O’Kane Crimmins, the professor of architecture at UCD. “We’ve far fewer paper trails than they have in England.”
While family archive catalogues in the Royal Irish Academy or the National Museum may make an occasional reference to a bequest or legacy from plantations, “it’ll always be an aside”, says O’Neill.
The Dictionary of Irish Biography holds entries for several big Irish slave-owners without mentioning that they owned enslaved people, even though, he says, “all the other aspects of their career will be mentioned”.
Take the Adair family, says O’Neill. They are infamous for appalling landlord practices in Donegal and Laois, and the eviction in 1861 of 244 people leaving their homes levelled, in Derryveagh.
“But nobody ever talks about the fact that their money came from Trinidad from sugar estates,” says O’Neill.
For Delany, another missing puzzle piece was when and how Thomas Wilson had come to own enslaved people.
His father Joseph Wilson died in 1809 and left a lengthy will. But “when he’s leaving his property to the son, there’s no mention of the slaves”, says Delany.
That left Delany with more questions, he says. “Did he buy an estate where the people live? We don’t know how he treated them.”
According to Rachel Lang, a researcher with UCL’s legacies of British slave ownership project, Thomas Wilson acquired two of his Trinidadian plantations, Vineyard and Les Desirs d’Henriette, sometime between 1825 and 1828.
Others were around the same time: St Charles at some point between 1825 and 1834, and Diamond Hermitage at some point between 1831 to 1834, she said in an email.
He either bought or was the mortgagee of La Carriere in 1834, she says. “He doesn’t appear as a substantial slave-owner before 1825.”
Given that he took over several plantations in a short space of time, it is likely that he held mortgages on them before buying them and repossessed them, she says.
It’s unclear at what stage that may have happened. But “this wouldn’t be unusual, given that sugar production was becoming less profitable and many planters were mired in unmanageable debt”, she says.
Debt was part of the sugar trade. Merchants gave credit to planters on the basis that crops would take months to ship and get to market, she says. “Let alone the time involved in growing and processing the crop.”
A merchant or banker extending credit wouldn’t just get interest from the loan but a commission on selling the crop too, she said.
That Wilson bought estates in Trinidad is particularly interesting, she says. In the run-up to emancipation, islands like Jamaica faced sharper falls in productivity.
Trinidad and Guyana were still expanding after emancipation, she says. “So on the one hand required extra capital and on the other hand were more likely to be good investments.”
Exactly how much of Wilson’s immense wealth flowed from his plantations and business importing sugar, and how much from other investments, is hard to say. But it was important enough to warrant mention when he died.
His obituary in October 1857 in the Weekly Freeman’s Journal noted that he had been “perhaps (except Mr. Guinness) far the wealthiest trader in our city” and “one of our first merchants (we might say the first)”.
And, it said, he “was extensively in the West India trade, and was, perhaps, the only West India merchant in Ireland whose imports were wholly, or chiefly, the produce of his own estates, and imported in his own ships”.
A Bigger Picture
“People who have looked at Dublin as an Atlantic port have typically said that it’s not important,” says O’Neill, the historian at Trinity College Dublin.
That’s because of how the “triangular trade” worked. Ships may have left Liverpool, say, for West Africa, picked up enslaved Africans and transported them to the West Indies across the Middle Passage.
They then would have sailed back over the ocean and into North Wall in Dublin with their holds packed with mahogany, sugar or rum.
“It’s as if there were no slaves involved at all,” says O’Neill, but the commodity that allowed that trade to happen was swapping enslaved people for cash or goods.
When O’Neill recently looked back at old maps of Dublin’s north side, and traced the residents of the big estates and homes around at that time, he quickly found many links to the slave economy.
There was 4 Belvedere Place near Mountjoy Square, where Robert Hyndman once lived, a sugar merchant and enslaver of Antigua.
There was Donnycarney House – now home to Clontarf Golf Club – but once home in the 1830s to failed stockbroker and West Indies planter Abel Labertouche, who had two estates in Trinidad.
The Thorndale Estate was near Whitehall – which John Roche’s 1816 map shows covered the streets around today’s Collinswood – and was built by Joseph Wilson, father of Thomas.
On the south side, Finola O’Kane Crimmins, of University College Dublin, has tracked the “cumulative evidence” that suggests that Belfield, the university campus – once owned by the slave-owners the LaTouches – with its patchwork of villas and open spaces, may have gotten its name from a plantation in Jamaica.
But as much as the symbolism of names, it is tracing wealth and its flow back to the city that is important, she says. “The real story is just how many houses, and buildings, and walls were built with money from the slave trade.”
Dublin was also linked to the slave economy through industries in the city such as linen, says O’Neill, the Trinity historian. City merchants had a niche in cheap linen which, while routed through British ports, “went out to the West Indies and ended up on the backs of enslaved people”, he says.
Dublin’s streets, meanwhile, were dotted with sugar bakers, processing the brown muscovado grown on plantations and shipped into Dublin’s port, sometimes via England and sometimes, it seems, direct by merchants like the Wilsons.
How these industries and the wealth that flowed from them shaped the city needs more research, says O’Neill.
But already, it’s clear that Dublin has a deep secondary legacy that connects it to the slave economy, he says. “The sinews or the threads of connection to the slave economy go much deeper into property and into wealth, into banking and into institutions.”
Says Wright, the historian at Maynooth University: “The reason I think that some communities find this hard to deal with is because everybody was compromised by this.”
“This was an entire economic system that existed for over two hundred years that revolved around exploiting other people,” he says. “You don’t have to be directly involved in trading enslaved people to be benefiting from the fact that slavery exists.”
A Complicating History
The meta-narrative of Irish history is that we are victims, a colonised people emancipated through revolution and a process of decolonising, says O’Neill, the historian at Trinity College Dublin.
Accepting complicating facts like Irish participation in enslaving people in the Caribbean is a challenge, he says. “Those facts conflict very much with that sense of ourselves that we have.”
It’s not to say that the Irish aren’t victims, he says, but that some have done appalling things too and that needs to be acknowledged.
“If you’re not acknowledging that, then we’re doing those people a disservice. And that’s not right,” he says.
The backstory of the Wilson Window, “that came as a bit of a shock” to some in the congregation of the Unitarian Church, says Delany, the church treasurer.
The church has a history of being liberal and socially progressive, he says.
It was ahead of the curve on campaigning for same-sex marriage, and holds a rememberance service each year to commemmorate transgender people who have died because of hate crimes.
The congregation has helped to find homes for refugees. Going back, they have had a strong history of members supporting the abolition of slavery too, he said.
But this other history wasn’t so much of a shock to him, he says.
He’d seen similar legacies in Unitarian churches in the United Kingdom, congregations that prided themselves on their progressive lineage yet also had members who were enslavers, or mill owners with workers in terrible conditions.
In his address on selective memories, he warned the congregation against a tendency to be smug and to remember only a history that makes them look good.
“You take any sort of a body, they’re inclined to look back and pick out the people in history that they like that reflect well on them,” says Delany.
Still though, Delany struggled to get his head around one discovery.
At the time Wilson was at the church, sitting alongside him in the pews would have been James Haughton, “probably the most prominent anti-slavery campaigner in this country”, he says.
When Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself escaped slavery, visited Ireland in the mid-1840s, he gave an address on Eccles Street for making donations. “It was Haughton’s address,” says Delany.
So “the very, very first trustee of the building that’s paid for by the slave-trader, or at least the site was paid for by the slave-trader, the very first trustee of the new church, when it’s built is the anti-slavery campaigner”, says Delany.
He can’t imagine Haughton and the congregation didn’t know.
Dublin was much smaller then and the circles of Protestant Dissenters even more so. “They’re very closely related, all these people you know, they marry into each other’s families, they’re partners in business,” says Delany.
But he also can’t imagine the congregation thought slavery was okay, he says. “I can’t see any, any circumstances where it would have been accepted.”
So “were people looking at it then and saying, you shouldn’t really be doing that, but … you know?” he says.
Or did Wilson pay for the site as a kind of restitution, Delany says. “I mean it wouldn’t be restitution to the people who were slaves – but was it his conscience? I genuinely don’t know.”
Another possibility, of course, is that Wilson left the money as a way to put gloss on his legacy.
O’Neill, the Trinity historian, says he doesn’t have evidence of plantation owners actively trying to launder their reputations.
But from roughly the 1780s onwards, it is seen as disgraceful in European society to own plantations that have slaves on them, he says. “It’s widely held to be a shameful thing, there’s a clear discourse against it.”
Whether or not there was a social cost for them is another question. “Obviously, the Wilsons are some of the richest people in Dublin, so what do they care? They’re not being shunned in Irish society.”
They can diversify their assets, buy land for churches, says O’Neill.
And such philanthropy is not, of course, unique to owners of enslaved people or to the past, he says – consider the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, funded by an arms dealer.
“So we do this all the time,” he says. “In some senses, that’s a constant of history.”
What To Do?
In his address to the congregation, Delany told members that it was impossible to know what the attitude was to Wilson’s donation. “To judge these things backwards.”
He felt he had to leave the final say to Haughton, he says. “You know, Haughton made a decision that it was okay to be a trustee of the church that was probably indirectly paid for out of the slave trade.”
Delany’s current thinking is that the best way to reckon with the origins of the financial legacy of the church is also to focus on work in the present. “People are thinking in terms of what more can we do in the now, you know.”
It’s not necessarily for them to judge the past, says Elaine Sisson, a long-time member of the congregation who heard Delany’s address almost three years ago.
But it doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, she says – and for her the relevance lies, too, in trying to address culpability in the present, to think about how to ethically live life and fight social injustice.
“I do think that the church has a commitment to that,” she says.
It would be simple to say take down the Wilson Window and to never have to think about it again, says Sisson. “As opposed to kind of using it to reflect and think about the complexity of how people actually lived their lives.”
Perhaps, says Andy Pollak, another congregation member, the right response might be to reword the plaque to both celebrate somebody else who they see as more in the good and radical Unitarian tradition and to acknowledge the source of Wilson’s wealth.
“My personal opinion would be it would be a good idea, if we had a monument to James Haughton,” he says. “And bring out the kind of plurality of the church.”
Each time the history of a connection to slavery is discovered, it should be made “plain and clear”, says John Wilkins, who has a doctorate from Trinity College Dublin and researches race and gender identity.
Because people just won’t know and it’s important that they do, he says. “One of the biggest problems of racism is that people just don’t get it, they don’t understand the historicity of it.”
They don’t understand how binaries of blackness and whiteness came to be, he says. “And they’re all, you know, related to the slave trade.”
If you can say that church owes its existence to enslavement, you have to say that, says Wilkins, who is also a lecturer at the Institute of Antiracism and Black Studies.
“You can not just pretend that it happened in a vacuum, and it happened just out of good will and philanthropy,” he says.
That is a half-told tale, he says. And “it’s really important to know that that philanthropy was built on the backs of enslaved human beings”.
“Because that family, you know, who we’re celebrating, they destabilised somebody else’s lives,” he says. “They took more than they needed so that they can have more.”
And to confront, do the ends justify the means? “Does that church’s existence justify the needs of, you know, somebody else’s life,” he says, “somebody being enslaved or their labor is stolen, or their bodies beaten so that that church can then exist?”