Infamous Irishman’s part in the slave trade

Goree Island, Senegal. The island was a major depot for the slave trade where millions of people passed through with probably hundreds of thousands of deaths. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

How a scholar in Greek language and literature who studied at Trinity College Dublin became involved in an infamous incident in the notorious African slave trade is in some ways the conundrum of western civilisation. That supposedly civilised people versed in the Enlightenment values of reason and equality could perform acts of great evil on their fellow humans is simply baffling.

Joseph Wall was born in Dublin in 1873 and was raised a Catholic before attending Trinity College. A man acquainted with the works of Homer and Socrates carried out an act of exceptional depravity that echoed down the centuries in military history.

Soldiers of the British Empire carried out many horrific acts over the centuries but the empire often had many willing Irishmen in its ranks. Wall joined the British Army in 1760 and distinguished himself in the siege of Havana in 1762 when the British wrested control of the Caribbean port from the Spanish in the Seven Years War. The port was later returned to the Spanish.

Thereafter, he joined the commercial colonial operation known as the East India Company and was stationed at Bombay. However, the Seven Years War affected the fringes of two continents and by 1773 the peripatetic Wall found himself secretary and clerk to the council of the Province of Senegambia —modern-day Senegal and Gambia.

He was appointed governor of Goree Island, a major slave entrepot whose ownership had passed through Portuguese, Dutch, French and now British hands. A posting here was regarded as something of a raw deal for the soldiery, and most were sent to the malaria-prone island as a sort of punishment. Into this unhappy cesspit arrived the Trinity scholar. He was accompanied by his brother Patrick who saw the incipient cruelty of his brother when Wall had a prisoner flogged. This was the continuance of a trend which saw Wall kill a man in a duel in Dublin. Patrick, appalled by what he had seen and having fallen into an illness, died soon afterwards.

Senegal’s capital Dakar is the westernmost point in Africa and was an obvious strategic hub for colonial interests. Goree is a small tropical island just 2km off Dakar with a population of around 1,600 and decorated with magnificent baobab trees.

Today, colonial buildings with elegant facades and public squares belie the horrors that took place here. The Slave House is a sturdy looking building where as many as 20 million people passed through on their way to a life of slavery in the Americas and Europe.

Life on the island was proving difficult too for the new governor and he made plans to depart the island. Shortly before he could do so, a delegation of Africa Corps soldiers arrived at his house looking for a settlement of monies owed.

Island governor Joseph Wall who had a reputation for cruelty and was himself executed

The enraged and drunken Wall had the men arrested on the spot, charging them with mutiny and, without recourse to courts martial, had them summarily flogged. The chief agitator, Sgt Benjamin Armstrong, received 800 lashes. He and two others died from their injuries. The incident scandalised the troops and when Wall returned to England he was arrested after a report by an officer. His trial was delayed and Wall absconded. He was eventually arrested and stood trial in 1802. What seems to have outraged judge and jury was not that the savage punishment had been inflicted, but that it was inflicted by black men on white men. His trial was told that witnesses testified that Wall had shouted “cut him to the heart, cut him to the liver” during the flogging. The court found him guilty and he himself was executed in 1802.

Wall was never to escape the consequences of his fatal brutality, and when in his 65th year he was executed, the cycle of savagery was harshly completed by an outburst of public rejoicing,” wrote David Dean for the Royal African Society.

Goree is a UNESCO world heritage site and though the provenance and scale of its tragedy is disputed, at the least it represents the fulcrum of an appalling evil perpetrated against Africa by colonial powers.

How to get there: Ferry from Dakar port.

Other: Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 59, Wall, Joseph

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