An Irishman’s life on the Caribbean island of St Vincent, 1787–90

The letter book of Attorney General Michael Keane


Mark S. Quintanilla

Hardback €50.00
Catalogue Price: €45.00
ISBN: 978-1-84682-791- 4
September 2019. 202pp.

“The Keane papers reached the Virginia Historical Society courtesy of Virginia Bryce (1888–1964): great-great-granddaughter of Michael Keane. Her Richmond neighbor, John Melville Jennings (then director of the society), probably persuaded her to deposit the family papers with the society. In his splendid introduction to An Irishman’s Life on the Caribbean Island of St Vincent, 1787–90, an edition of a jewel of this collection, Mark Quintanilla utilizes Michael Keane’s letter book to show how members of the Irish gentry diversified their assets by establishing colonial trade networks, cultivated patronage from Anglo-Irish aristocrats, and acted as cross-cultural brokers across the Atlantic world ... This edition is invaluable for its insights into plantation management. Keane’s affairs will also interest legal historians studying the distinction between slaves as real estate and chattels, and the Courts of Vice Admiralty. There are useful details of slave hiring arrangements, and the health and diet of enslaved persons. Quintanilla’s scholarship is impressive: the mini-biographies of planters, index, and bibliography are especially good … Undoubtedly, this is a source that many historians of the Caribbean will wish to read, and Quintanilla has performed an inestimable service in making it more widely available.” Journal of British Studies (jbr.2020.204)

"This book, edited by Mark S. Quintanilla, sees the letter book of Michael Keane, attorney general of the island of St Vincent, published for the first time. The original letter book, covering the period 1787 to 1790, is held by the Virginia Historical Society, so its publication is particularly valuable to scholars based in Ireland". Suzanne Forbes (Eighteenth-Century Ireland. 2020)

“Kerry-born Michael Keane’s surviving letter book opens with a pithy note about a horse race in Antigua, but, for the most part, the book traverses far less trivial subjects. The little-known figures of the Irish slave owner, plantation manager and overseer all emerge from the records of Keane’s correspondence over a three-year period, from December 1787 to November 1790 … With this new publication the letter book is now accessible to readers in its entirety, beyond the scholarly paywall, and beyond the Virginia Historical Society, where the original is housed. By painstakingly transcribing and annotating the letter book, and researching Keane and his world, Quintanilla makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on Ireland’s role in the revolutionary-era Caribbean … By carefully dissecting the letter book and expanding upon it with his research into Keane, his contacts and their networks, Quintanilla reveals layers of Irish, Caribbean and Atlantic history; and, in the process, he gives a master class in how to utilise a fragmentary primary source … Importantly for Irish scholarship, Quintanilla’s deep research reveals much about what was going on at ‘home’ in Ireland with regard to Caribbean business connections ... Quintanilla makes a valuable contribution to the effort to integrate the Irish diaspora within Irish historical writing, rather than ‘forgetting’ the role of the diaspora once emigrants leave Ireland’s shores. Keane’s letter book documents in clear terms the flow of people and capital back and forth between Ireland and the Caribbean; information which must inform Irish scholarship going forward. This is particularly important as historians around the Anglophone world grapple with the legacies of slave ownership. This field is gaining traction (slowly) within the history of Ireland. Four Courts Press is to be congratulated on its support for Quintanilla’s work, and the near-simultaneous publication of the edited letters of John Black, an Ulster slave owner who lived in Grenada and Trinidad during the same era as Keane: J.J. Wright (ed.), An Ulster Slave-Owner in the Revolutionary Atlantic (2019). Scholarship on Irish links with the Atlantic slave trade and the imperial and revolutionary Caribbean has been accumulating for some time, but it is particularly heartening to see an accessible book such as Quintanilla’s being published—with an appeal that should reach well beyond the academic market.” Jennifer McLaren (Australasian Journal of Irish Studies. 2020)

“Michael Keane 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 ... 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 on the relationships between Ireland and the West Indies via the transatlantic slave trade ... 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 … 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.” Karst de Jong (H-Atlantic. August, 2020)