Black and White in Irish History

 

Edward Fitzgerald was born on October 15 1763 to Lord James Fitzgerald, a peer in the Irish Aristocracy, educated in Dublin and on the death of his father in 1773, the family relocated to France.  There young Edward learned of the activities of the American colonies in the French press.  Like most young sons of men of property, he joined the British Army and at 16, he received a commission in the 19th Regiment of Foot.  He sailed from Cork to join a force that had just captured Charleston, South Carolina in the American Revolution.

Edward arrived as the British began a march inland from Charleston.  After 60 miles, they were met by American troops.  After a four-hour battle, both sides left the field leaving 600 American and 400 British wounded or dead alongside Eutaw Creek.  It was a pointless battle, for nothing was gained by either side. It was also the last engagement of the Revolution, for General Cornwallis was about to surrender.  However, on September 8, 1781, as darkness fell on Eutaw Creek, figures moved quietly among the dead and dying. There were doctors looking for wounded, sweethearts looking for loved ones, scavengers looking for plunder, and there was Tony Small – an African slave who had been abandoned by his master fleeing the conflict. Tony was searching for food or anything he could swap for food when he heard a groan.  It sounded like a man, but he looked down into the face of a boy in a British officer’s uniform.  Alive, but barely conscious, he had been overlooked by the search parties of both sides. Thinking he could barter him for money, Tony lifted the young soldier on his strong shoulders and carried him away to his shack.  Later, Lord Edward Fitzgerald opened his eyes to see a tall black figure washing and binding his wound.  He was not startled, for his liberal education had taught him that mankind was basically good, and before him, instead of a slave, he saw a black Samaritan.  As he was nursed back to health, Lord Edward offered Tony a new life, and a paid position as his companion.  Tony seized the opportunity, but had no idea he would be bound to this charismatic young man for the rest of his life – not by service, but by devotion.

They sailed for London where Lord Edward entered politics as a representative from Kildare .  His belief in human rights led him to seek many reforms for Ireland.  He soon found that his enthusiasm for reform and religious emancipation was not shared by the Ascendancy who relied on the Crown for their policy and power.  To boost his sagging morale Lord Edward and Tony traveled to America in 1788.  In America, he was reminded of his own Irish tenants when he saw, “a whole tract of country, peopled by Irish who came out not worth a shilling, and now have all new farms worth thousands of Pounds.” This confirmed his belief in equality for without a ruling class, equality brought happiness and prosperity.

In their travels they were introduced to the ways of the Iroquois – no monarch, no political parties, no standing army, and no system of inheritance.  Their travels with Chief Joseph of the Mohawks reinforced Edward’s opposition to royalty when the Chief complained of the British betrayal in handing over Indian land to the new U.S. government.  Chief Joseph brought them to Detroit into the care of Chief David of the Seneca nation. The Seneca made Edward a Chief of their tribe.  Then,  Edward and Tony headed for New Orleans where they learned of the French Revolution.

In 1791, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, published a pamphlet entitled The Rights of Man in which he claimed the American and French Revolutions renewed the natural order of things, and restored the natural dignity of man.  Combined with his experience with Tony, his life among the Indians and the French Revolution, The Rights of Man solidified the political idealism of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, converting him from a radical to a republican.  He became a close friend of Paine, and partly from their conversations, Paine published the second installment of The Rights of Man in 1792.  In it he proposed a radical redistribution of government wealth from fighting war and supporting an aristocracy to assisting the poor and elderly.  The book and its ideas spread rapidly.  In August, Paine fled to France to avoid arrest in England.  Lord Edward and Tony followed him.

At a dinner on 18 November, Lord Edward proposed a toast, “The armies of France: may the example of its citizen soldiers be followed by all enslaved countries, til tyrants and tyranny are extinct.”  Then Edward Fitzgerald, 5th son of Ireland’s premiere peer, nephew of the Duke of Richmond, and great-great-grandson of Charles II, renounced his inherited title of Lord and became Citizen Edward Fitzgerald.  He had become a revolutionary; all he now needed was his own army.  He conferred with fellow Irishman and republican, Henry Sheares, and with Tom Paine about the possibility of repeating the French Revolution in Ireland.  He reasoned that with French support, a force of 4,000 volunteers could take the undermanned garrisons in Ireland in three months.  Paine agreed to talk to the Foreign Minister.  Fitzgerald set off for Ireland with Tony Small, but first he had to stop in London and introduce his family to his new wife, Pamela Seymour.

In Ireland, he took his seat in a different parliament than he had left.  He was drawn into a debate on equality, and was censured for blaming unrest on the government.  His former colleagues now began to fear him.  Claiming pride in being on a level with his fellow citizens, he scorned his horse and strode the Dublin streets with his wife and Tony Small by his side. They were a curious trio for he dressed, not like a Lord, but in ordinary clothes with a green cravat around his neck; his wife was also a misfit for she was not only French, but Catholic as well; and then there was Tony, a black man who puzzled people as to whether he was bodyguard, servant, or friend.

Citizen Fitzgerald found his calling when Hamilton Rowan introduced him to the Society of United Irishmen – an organization founded to “forward a brotherhood of affection and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions.” He met Napper Tandy, Thomas Addis Emmet, and Wolfe Tone, and began to influence them with his revolutionary ideas.  However, the revolution in France made England strengthen her military in Ireland to frustrate anything that resembled reform; Hamilton Rowan was jailed for sedition.  Between the Crown’s abuse and Edward’s urging, the United Irishmen gradually turned revolutionary.  The story of the United Irishmen and the Rising of 1798 has been told by many, but until Stella Tillyard’s biography of Lord Edward, entitled Citizen Lord, appeared in 1998, the tremendous influence of this sensitive, caring man of principle and his black companion was little known.  In 1795, Fitzgerald and Tony moved to a secluded villa in Kildare to train a rebel army!  In October, under growing government repression, Fitzgerald took his pregnant wife, their son and Tony to Hamburg where his daughter, little Pam was born while he and Tony slipped into Switzerland to meet a French representative.  In June 1796, French General Hoche was given charge of a French invasion force and Fitzgerald and his family returned to Ireland.

They found Ireland in a state of unrest.  The government had increased penalties for disaffection and reduced the rights of the accused.  The United Irishmen tried to unite both communities against the Crown, but the government promoted division and moved against the United Irishmen arresting leaders as soon as they were identified.  As the only leader with military experience, Fitzgerald was planning strategy and drilling units, but he was running out of money.  On November 5, he mortgaged his estate.  At Christmas, a French invasion force came, but a winter storm prevented them from landing and they returned to France.  Hopeful that they would come again, United Irish continued recruiting and British reaction intensified. As a marked man, Fitzgerald could no longer be seen with Tony who was an easy sign of his identity.  In one instance, Tony saw troops approaching and hurried Fitzgerald out a back door.  Knowing he was a clue to recognition, Tony wept as he let Fitzgerald flee alone.

Fitzgerald was reported in dozens of towns, appearing and departing without a trace; he had become a mythical figure, a master of disguises, and his legend grew. In truth, he never left Dublin where, as the new leader of the Society, he rebuilt the Executive Committee.  On 19 May, he was betrayed and a party of Yeomen burst in his bedroom and demanded his surrender. He sprang from the bed, and in the ensuing scuffle was stabbed, battered and shot twice in the shoulder.  He was taken to Newgate Jail.  His wife and Tony appealed to see him, but the government ordered their extradition and they left for London. The British had to decide what to do with him.  He was a Lord, and brother of Ireland’s leading peer, and was tremendously popular with the common people.  A public trial might start the rising they all feared.  They finally decided on the answer; though his wounds were not serious, they would not treat him.  The bullets were left in his shoulder, and the wound infected. Septicaemia spread through his body, and tortured his mind.  Mad with fever, he shouted, “Dear Ireland, I die for you,” and “My country, you will be free.”  Then on June 4, after 16 days of intense pain, Edward Fitzgerald died of his wounds. The uncoordinated risings of the United Irishmen were put down by the British military throughout the summer of 1798.

The rising which made Lady Pamela a widow, made her and the Fitzgerald children paupers as well.  Tony and his wife Julie cared for Lady Pamela and little Pam until she later married the American Consul in Hamburg.  Tony then broke his life long association with the family of his dearest friend, and he and Julie settled in London where a few years later, it was said he died of a broken heart.  Today his descendants walk through the streets of London brushing shoulders with the descendants of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his United Irish associates – both unknown to each other and to history.