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.

“By exploring the life and work of Michael Keane, historian Mark Quintanilla’s book helps us understand how Caribbean territories that passed from one European power to another functioned under a newly imposed order, and how they retained previous social, cultural, and economic connections and established new ones in the course of their colonial trajectory. At the core of this book is Quintanilla’s laborious effort to identify, track down, transcribe, and assemble representative primary sources that shed light on Keane’s multifaceted roles as manager, planter, barrister, and colonial administrator in St. Vincent. All in all, An Irishman’s Life on the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent, 1787–90: The Letter Book of Attorney General Michael Keane provides a template for future biographical studies based on the personal papers and correspondence of leading figures who helped shape the social, economic, and political history of the Caribbean. It also lends itself to works on such themes as the Irish and British diaspora in other places in the Caribbean, international trade, commercial agriculture, identity formation, and trans-Caribbean and transatlantic ties. Finally, it invites research on how intellectual currents of the late eighteenth century may have informed the options available to colonial functionaries like Keane, whose letter book touched on a multiplicity of topics—including agriculture, economics, law, politics, education, tropical diseases, slavery, and maritime transportation—that drew the attention of writers in the Age of Enlightenment.” Jorge L. Chinea. New Hibernia Review (Volume 26, Issue 2, Summer / Samhreadh 2022)

“The history of the Irish in the Caribbean and the related story of the Irish involvement in the Atlantic slave economy has seen a rapidly expanding historiography in recent years … Mark Quintanilla’s book adds to this literature in three significant ways. First, it focuses on St Vincent, which he describes as frontier zone in the late eighteenth-century Caribbean, second, he provides a rich case study of an individual planter and colonial bureaucrat, and third, he provides a richly textured and carefully edited edition of his subject’s surviving letter-book covering the years 1787–90 … the great majority of [the correspondence] is taken up with the management of Keane’s business and legal affairs and those of other plantation owners and mercantile interests. Here his correspondence reveals a network of correspondents that extended across the Caribbean islands crossing national, imperial, ethnic and religious barriers as well as across the Atlantic to Cork, Limerick, Dublin, Belfast, Bristol, and London. The exchange of Cork herrings for St Vincent sugar, the management of an Edgeworthstown Co. Longford widow’s inheritance of enslaved people, and the remittance of rents and other income through London bankers all feature. The detail contained in these letters combined with Quintanilla’s exemplary editorial work will prove very useful for scholars going forward. Two themes are worth drawing especial attention to – family and slavery ... Much of this business revolved around the slave trade and one of the striking elements of these letters is the routine mention of slavery and enslaved people, their diet, their capacity for work and their buying and selling. Keane prides himself on the quality of his slaves and the way he treats them though the pecuniary motives for such treatment are very clear when one slave, Cuffee, fails to reach the desired price at auction ... Keane of course would continue to enjoy his plantation right up until his death in 1796, while his son benefited from its profits and the expensive education his occasionally exasperated father funded eventually marrying into the English aristocracy. Keane’s letterbook allows us to understand how the elder Keane built and maintained his fortune in the extractive and exploitative Caribbean empire contributing to the making of an Irish Atlantic world that was enmeshed and immersed in the imperial economy.” Patrick Walsh, Irish Studies Review, 29:2.

“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)