The Spanish, French, Dutch, British, and Danish variously owned colonies in the West Indian islands of the Caribbean. From 1601 to 1700 it is estimated that 132,500 people left Ireland,21 tens of thousands of whom settled in the West Indies
and America. By 1650 Irish settlers constituted more than half of the European population of the English Leeward Islands of St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat.22 most of these, free and servant, had a ‘remarkably hellish’ existence.23
A select few, mostly Hiberno-Normans, and their West Indian-born descendants made their mark in the British and Danish West Indies in this period as planters, merchants, and sugar and slave traders.
Following the Cromwellian Conquest (1649–1653), many people, escaping death and disease in Ireland, signed up as indentured servants. There were two types of indentured servants: voluntary and involuntary. In the first category, indentured servants
signed a contract with an employer that lasted for four to seven years labour in the colonies in return for passage, food and shelter, and freedom dues of ten to twelve pounds sterling.24 In the second category people were taken by force to provide
necessary labour for the developing colonies. In 1655, for instance, Chancellor Thurloe in Westminster wrote to Henry Cromwell in Ireland requesting more soldiers and one thousand girls not past fourteen for the new colony of Jamaica. Cromwell responded, observing
that ‘although we must use force in taking them up … it is not in the least doubted that you may have such number of them as you shall think fit to make use upon this account.’25 The Cromwellian transportations in the period 1652–57,
by Aubrey Gwynn’s estimation, resulted in another 50,000 forced transportees, compared to Akenson’s estimate of 10,000.26
Irish fortune seekers had ventured forth
to South America by 1612, when James and Philip Purcell led fourteen Irish Catholic settlers to develop a tobacco plantation on the River Tauregue in the Amazon.27 Nini Rodgers gives an example of Cornelius O’Brien ‘a noble gentleman
of the house of the Earl of Thomond’ who left Ireland at the age of seventeen and made his fortune in the new world.28 Following capture by the Portuguese, some eighteen Irish colonists escaped to Surinam, and made their way to St Christopher
(St Kitts) in the English Leeward Islands, where Sir Thomas Warner was establishing tobacco plantations.29
As early as 1631–2 a group of Catholic Irish led by Anthony Briskett,
a discontented New English planter from Wexford, had settled in British-ruled Montserrat. They were given smallholdings of between 25 and 50 acres for tobacco growing.30 Following the 1641 Rebellion in Ireland, and the worsening of the relationship
between the English and the Irish on the Islands, the St Kitts governor Warner shipped a group of Irish Catholics, possibly 400 in all, to the still undeveloped island of Montserrat.31 The Irish benefited from the transfer, as everyone could have
a piece of land and some freedom fromProtestant English discrimination, under the Protestant but more sympathetic governor, Anthony Briskett.
From 1652 members of prominent Galway families – Burke, Skerrett, Blake, Bodkin, French, Lynch and Kirwan
– established themselves as merchants and planters all over the West Indies. They are credited in large part with the conversion of Montserrat from a purely agrarian society producing tobacco, indigo and cotton, to a predominantly cane cultivation and
sugar producing economy.32 By 1691 there had been an Irish presence for some six decades. The Irish newcomers represented all classes of Irish society, from indentured servants and smallholders to merchantsand landedgentry. Unusually for adventurers
of that period, many of the voluntary Irish seemed to have arrived as family units and set up as smallholders to create a relatively stable environment. (The norm was that most of both voluntary and involuntary immigrants to the colonies were single persons.)33
The presence, and success, of these Irish families was a big influence in the integration and success of the Tuites in Montserrat when they arrived after 1691.
By the early 1700s the Irish accounted for about 70 per cent of the white population in Montserrat,
which became known as ‘the Catholic Island’.34This meant that the English administration was obliged to tread softly in their hostility to them as they needed all the co-operating white people they could get to counter-balance the growing
numbers of slaves.For instance, Akenson writes of Irish priests holding ‘secret’ religious services in the woods, and ‘so long as they did not become cheeky’ this was tolerated.35Nevertheless as Montserrat was under English
control the Irish had to surmount extensive discrimination.36 Hostility was the hallmark of their relationship with the English: ‘Throughout the West Indies, the relationship between the English and the Irish consisted of mutual loathing’.37
TUITES IN MONTSERRAT
Robert Tuite was one of the most successful traders on Montserrat, being one of the few to use his own ships to import provisions from Cork in exchange for sugar, tobacco and indigo.
In 1728provisions imported from Cork included 2,157 barrels of beef, 184 barrels of pork, 468 firkins of butter, 265 barrels of herrings and 193 boxes of candles.38
Richard married Eleanor Lynch, a daughter of a well-established Lynch family
there. He had sufficient resources, either to hand orthrough credit or marriage to purchase a 100-acre estate. Under his ownership, the estate, though not the biggest on the island, became an important sugar estate with indentured servants and slaves. He was
surrounded by a large number of other Irish families; following the 1712 French invasion, for instance, Richard was one of 120 Irish claimants for compensation. Richard and Eleanor had two sons, Nicholas (b.1705) and Richard.39 Richard the elder
died in 1718, when Nicholas was about thirteen. Nicholas’s mother Eleanor died in Cork in 1758.40
LABOURERS WEALTH CREATION - MONTSERRAT, ST CROIX, LONDON
Matthew Parker observed that
in the West Indies wealth was generated not only through growing, processing and exporting sugar but also from importing wine, slave trading and money lending, as well as conventional animal husbandry and crop cultivation. Land speculation and marriage alliances
were additional sources of wealth.41 While sugar was a major industry, it was cyclical and subject to various climatic and natural events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Overproduction was another factor undermining its stability. Accordingly,
trading and financing tended to be more consistent and profitable sources of wealth creation. For the wealthy Irish, marriage alliances tended to consolidate and promote their businesses and power.
Nicholas Tuite received a good education, as evidenced by his letter in French to Frederick V, King of Denmark.42 This education may have been in St Omer, a Jesuit-run Catholic academy in Belgium. A Robert Tuite was there in
1739.43 St Omer was closed down in an anti-Jesuit purge in 1762 and moved to Bruges, where its alumni included members of the Bourke, Farrell and Ryan families of St Croix.44 Nicholas Tuite’s daughters got their education in a convent
school in Paris.
Nicholas Tuite is recorded in the census of 1729, aged 24, living on the Montserrat estate, with no family or servants but with 41 slaves.45 In the early 1730s he married Anne Skerrett, the daughter of a wealthy Antiguan
planter from Galway who had relatives on Montserrat and a presence in London, thus increasing his relationships not only with the Skerretts, but also with Galwegians in the West Indies and elsewhere. 46 Nicholas and Anne had a son, Robert, and four
daughters, Eleanor, Anne, Winifred and another unnamed who became a nun and died young.47
Nicholas continued his father’s business, expanding and varying his activities with some success. He and his fellow Montserratian Irishmen Laurence
Bodkin, Henry Ryan, and members of the Skerrett family had sloops. These were small to medium-sized vessels, fast and manoeuvrable and a favourite of pirates and smugglers. These men had few inhibitions about trading illegally with the enemy, be it French,
Spanish or Dutch, during the various wars that took place between them and the English.48