de Jong on Quintanilla, 'An Irishman's Life on the Caribbean Island of St Vincent, 1787-90: The Letter Book of Attorney General Michael Keane'

Mark S. Quintanilla
Karst de Jong

Mark S. Quintanilla. An Irishman's Life on the Caribbean Island of St Vincent, 1787-90: The Letter Book of Attorney General Michael Keane. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2019. 202 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84682-791-4

Reviewed by Karst de Jong (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Atlantic (August, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

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Ireland, Slavery, and Empire: Michael Keane, the Caribbean, and the Irish Atlantic

When protesters in Bristol decided to remove the statue of Edward Colston from its plinth in June 2020 and symbolically sunk it into the harbor, they reignited the issue and the discussions about slavery in the Caribbean. The act dramatically highlighted how the plantations had brought great wealth to the city that was once one of the main ports of the slave trade in the sugar islands. In fact, Bristol also maintained a close commercial relationship with Ireland in the eighteenth century, where much of the bulk supplies for the West Indies originated. In return, an increasing supply of sugar arrived at the quays of Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, all of which was facilitated by the labor of enslaved peoples. And as evidenced by Irish plantation owners in the West Indies, such as Michael Keane, resident on the island of St. Vincent, these individuals built an elaborate network of mercantile connections that spanned throughout the British Empire. While Keane still described himself as “wholly Irish” and retained strong family links and professional relationships with Ireland, he was deeply embedded within transatlantic trade and slavery that emanated out of and into the West Indies. This is what makes the publication of Keane’s late eighteenth-century letter book of such importance, as it places him at the heart of the intersections of eighteenth-century Ireland, transatlantic commerce and slavery, and the British Empire.

Keane's letter book—which consists of his correspondence with individuals in England, Ireland, and the other English-speaking islands in the Caribbean between 1787 and 1790—is an archival manuscript from the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond (VA) and has been edited by Mark S. Quintanilla. In his introductory essay, it is evident that Quintanilla has studied Keane's letters in great detail and researched the mercantile links that Keane maintained throughout the Atlantic world thoroughly. He demonstrates that Keane maintained an intimate commercial network that stretched from Barbados and Grenada to the Dutch islands of St. Eustatius and St. Martin, as well as Ireland and England. The essay also describes Keane’s involvement in Caribbean slavery and the slave trade while providing a glimpse into the lives of the enslaved peoples who lived on his plantation and those who were shipped to and from the West Indies. Quintanilla further situates Keane's correspondence in the larger body of scholarly literature related to transatlantic merchants and trade—specifically, a merchant's most important asset in the trade: trust. Keane's local and overseas clients needed to have the confidence that he would look after their plantations, goods, and enslaved peoples for their benefit. In doing so, Keane built up his social standing on the island and contributed to his being appointed attorney general, although the exact date is unclear. Keane could rely on a relationship with William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, who was also influential in his rise to political prominence.

Keane’s letter book is also part of recent and important developments in the study of the Atlantic world. First, and most importantly, Quintanilla frames Keane's correspondence as a way to better understand Irish involvement in Britain's colonial enterprises and transatlantic trade. In doing so, he contributes significantly to what historians Louis M. Cullen, Nini Rodgers, and Craig Bailey have all demonstrated in their work on the relationships between Ireland and the West Indies via the transatlantic slave trade.[1] Similarly, Quintanilla builds off Thomas Truxes's pioneering work in Irish-American Trade 1660-1783 (1988), which was an important pivot in our understanding of the transatlantic trade between Ireland and the West Indies, as well as Jonathan Wright's more recent An Ulster Slave Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic (2019) that explores the life of the Belfast merchant John Black as a slave owner in Trinidad. All of these works enable Quintanilla to place Keane's letter book within the context of British transatlantic commerce, slavery, and empire. This publication is also a welcome addition to the secondary literature on St. Vincent, which, judging by the bibliography at the end of the volume, is currently quite limited. With all of that said, other comparative work on the Irish experience in the Caribbean, such as that of Natalie Zacek on the Leeward Islands, might have been beneficial for Quintanilla.

As for the letters themselves, Keane wrote extensively about the mechanics of the Irish trade with the West Indies. He sent goods and gifts to England and Ireland, received instructions for the plantations he supervised and paid his creditors, and described the contours of the transatlantic slave trade. At this point in history, St. Vincent was an underdeveloped island that had been disputed between Britain and France for almost a century. However, Keane had already developed relationships in the region after residing in Barbados for a number of years. Keane's letters further illustrate how important family relations were to his evolution as a transatlantic merchant, particularly the relationship with his brother John, who had first settled on St. Vincent. After John’s death, Michael moved to Kingstown to oversee his brother’s estate and remained there when he saw the opportunity for growth. He then made connections with other Irish merchants in the region such as Samuel Lynch in Nevis and the Greg family in Ireland who had interests on the island of Dominica. The Ireland-West Indies trade thus became the foundation for these relationships across the Atlantic, and one that ultimately involved the trade of slaves, evidenced by Keane's note in April 1789 that he “returned to Mr. Wise his draft of a sale of slaves from Miss Shewcraft in trust of me” (p. 105). Keane soon began to expand his own property holdings with the plantations of Liberty Lodge and Bow-wood in the parish of St. George, which enabled Keane to fulfil his financial obligations to his family and colleagues across the Atlantic.

Needless to say, Ireland featured regularly in Keane's letters as he maintained personal and business connections across the Atlantic. For instance, Keane wrote often to his sisters in Ireland, at times asking after their mother, who still lived in Ballylongford North in Co. Kerry. As he wrote to Gadfey Leonard in April 1789: “I am much beholden to you, my dear sir for your account of my mother and sisters and of their friends” (p. 123). The comment in this letter illustrated that Keane continued to support the members of his family financially.[2] Just as important to Keane was his son, Hugh Perry Keane. Although Keane had married his wife, Esther, in Barbados, they later separated, and he went to St. Vincent while she returned to Ireland with their son. In his correspondence, we learn that Keane paid for her maintenance via a connection in Cork and provided for Hugh Perry to be educated in England and to eventually inherit the properties in St. Vincent. The relationship between father and son appears to have been fraught on occasion, as the monies quickly disappeared. Hugh Perry would eventually be called to the bar in 1790. In such ways, Keane followed a typical pattern of fathers like Andrew Archedeckne before him in Jamaica, who financed the education and maintenance of their children in England with the aim to improve their own social standing. Like the Archdeckne family, Keane’s son succeeded in moving away from the West Indies and establishing himself among the English landed gentry. This second generation held a tenuous link with Ireland and preferred to settle in England, away from the unhealthy islands. They became part of the elite that had built their wealth on sugar and slavery. The plantations that Keane had established employed attorneys to oversee the operation. Perry Keane did practice law on the island for a period but retained a more genteel lifestyle compared to his father. Finally, Keane's letters show that he had an astute legal mind and a talent for passionate argument. He kept informed of the latest legal discussions and commented, for instance, on Anthony Stokes's A view of the constitution of the British colonies in North-America and the West Indies, first published in England around 1783. Keane does not appear to have received any formal legal training like his son but instead probably developed his skills through apprenticeship. 

Like any primary source, Michael Keane's letter book raises questions about the motivation for retaining the correspondence and what letters the editor may have omitted. It must be emphasized that Quintanilla has annotated the letters profusely and provided great insight into the people that Keane communicated with, even if their responses are not included. And, because the letter book was kept mostly for professional and financial reasons, it is somewhat limited with reference to Keane's personal life, save for his son. There is, for instance, no mention of a female companion or the illegitimate children acknowledged in his last will and testament. The inclusion of the latter as an appendix would have been useful. It should also be mentioned that the letter book only provides a three-year snapshot of Keane, St. Vincent, and transtlantic trade—from 1787 to 1790—despite the fact that Keane lived until 1796. Naturally, there is an inclination to discover what happened to him and his properties. A search on the UCL-hosted Legacies of British Slave-ownership database shows a record with some details from his will, including the fact that in 1836, a different owner of Liberty Lodge was compensated for the emancipation of forty-nine and at Bow-wood for twenty-seven enslaved people.[3] 

Altogether, Keane's letter book outlines how he fully immersed himself in the Caribbean sugar plantation economy, transatlantic trade and slavery, and efforts to ensure his son's financial security and social standing. And as Quintanilla has carefully presented the letters and framed them within an Atlantic history context, this annotated primary source is an important addition to our understanding of the Irish presence in the Caribbean in relation to transatlantic commerce, slavery, and empire.  


[1]. Louis M. Cullen, Anglo-Irish Trade (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968); Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007); and Craig Bailey, Irish London: Middle-class Migration in the Global Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).  

[2]. Here a minor error in the notes should be mentioned, as Leonard’s estate was known as Rushy or Rusheen Park as opposed to Hushy. See Landed Estates Database (Ireland): Estate: Leonard (County Cork),

[3]. "Michael Keane," Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, accessed May 28, 2020,

Citation: Karst de Jong. Review of Quintanilla, Mark S., An Irishman's Life on the Caribbean Island of St Vincent, 1787-90: The Letter Book of Attorney General Michael Keane. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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