Amnesty International urges name debate over Larne Town Hall link to slave owner

Larne community is being urged to consider the source of funding for the town hall after its link to a slave owner was highlighted.

Larne Town Hall.
Larne Town Hall.

The  McGarel Hall, within the town’s main civic centrepiece, is named after Charles McGarel, a slave owner, whose wealth financed the building, Magheramorne House and McGarel Cemetery.

The issue was brought to the fore on social media through a personal post by Patrick Corrigan, who is NI programme director, Amnesty International UK.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Corrigan said he believed it was important to “highlight the debate” and let local people decide on whether a name change may be appropriate or not.

“If we stay silent, there is some level of complicity,” he suggested.

Commenting on Charles McGarel’s contribution to the town, Mr Corrigan said: “Ultimately, his wealth came off the backs of people enslaved.”

He stressed that the full story surrounding local public figures needs to be told and if there is “no explanation, a big part of history is missing”.

“It is a matter for people in the borough to consider.”

The issue was given prominence after protestors in England tore down a statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston before dumping it in the city harbour during a protest against racism following the death of African American George Floyd during police arrest in Minneapolis last month.

It was one of a number of protests which were sparked internationally, including Belfast.

On Monday, Edward Colston’s name was removed from Bristol’s main music venue, Colston Hall, which stands on the site where he had a sugar refinery in the late 17th century.

From 1672 and 1689, his ships are believed to have transported approximately 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas.

In 2015, a university project by University College London examining the legacy of slave ownership highlighted that slave wealth of Charles McGarel was used to fund the building of local landmarks.

‘The Legacies of British Slave Ownership’ has developed an online database containing the identity of all slave owners in British Caribbean at the time slavery ended in 1763.

The record highlights the role of  Charles McGarel, who was born around 1788 in Larne, and whose wealth financed the building of LarneTown Hall, Magheramorne House and McGarel Cemetery.

The database reveals that as a young man, McGarel travelled with his brothers to the “sugar frontier” of South America’s Demerara Coast, which the archive describes as “hungry for new slaves despite the ban on the African slave trade in 1807″.

After returning to London in 1820, McGarel become a partner in the firm Hall McGarel which acted as an agent for estates in British Guiana and extended credit to slave owners.

According to the archive, McGarel was opposed to the abolition of slavery, as he and his partners were among 65 absentee slave-owners and mortgagees who petitioned the Privy Council against the freeing of slaves in Demerara and Berbice in 1826.

In the 1830s, the partners in Hall, McGarel were major beneficiaries of slave compensation, receiving almost £100,000 for nearly 1000 slaves.

Charles McGarel also owned the Uniform estate and the 253 enslaved on it, for which he, John and Peter McGarel were said to have been awarded £13417 15s 7d. In addition, Charles McGarel reportedly received £9751 6s 5d for 184 slaves on Nouvelle Flandres.

Noting McGarel’s contribution to Larne’s “physical fabric,” the archive states: “It is understood in Larne that his wealth derived from Demerara and the sugar trade, but as is often the case the role of slavery is not visible in the short-hand histories of his wealth deployed locally.”

A spokesperson for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said: “The building is named Larne Town Hall; within the building, the larger room is called the McGarel Hall. There are no plans to change the name.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

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