Trading With The Enemy: How Irish merchants fanned the flames of revolution in America


If anyone doubted the influence of Cunningham and the Irish merchants in colonial New York, they no longer did.

Tied to the Elite

These expatriate Irish merchants “benefited from their close ties to New York’s political, social, and economic elite,” Truxes writes. “George Folliot, for example, a Derry native who emigrated to the city in 1752, married the daughter of…a high-ranking customs officials and the brother-in-law of Alexander Colden, son of Caldwallader Colden, president of the Governor’s Council and later lieutenant governor.”

But this position of prominence was now being threatened, as British authorities aimed to crack down on Irish-American trade with the French.

Things only got worse for the British when it became clear that Spain – another Catholic nation – would be entering the Seven Years’ War on the side of France. The British soon began making mass arrests in New York. They picked up alleged French spies, as well as nearly 20 men accused of “illegal correspondence with His Majesty’s enemies.” Among them were Irish merchants Waddell Cunningham and Thomas White, who were eventually found guilty and ordered to pay what Truxes calls a “staggering” fine. The verdict “had an unsettling effect on the trading community in New York. In the weeks that followed, a long shadow fell over the city.”

Test Run for Revolution

Cunningham, who had a plantation in the West Indies called Belfast, and numbered among those who benefited from slavery, eventually left the colonies. He returned to Belfast where he tried but failed to establish a slave trading company. One reason was because the abolitionist movement was strong, and groups such as the United Irishmen, who supported Irish independence from Britain, opposed all forms of subservience. He became a prominent member of the Irish business community and was even elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1784, before dying in Kockbreda, Co. Down in 1797.

It seemed, in the short run, that the British had effectively solved the problem of the Irish merchants. But Cunningham and his colleagues had exposed a crucial weakness in British supervision of the colonies. Yes, the British emerged from the Seven Years’ War strong. But, in doing so, they also were forced to use a heavy hand on colonial merchants. This became an increasingly common gripe among colonists, particularly as they were forced to pay more and more of the debt incurred by the British while fighting the war.

There eventually came a point where the colonists wondered why they needed to maintain their relationship with the British. That is what led to the American Revolution. Of course, this likely would have happened whether or not Waddell Cunningham and his cronies defied the British and traded with the enemy. Still, their actions served as a kind of test run for the American colonists. Whether they did it out of bravery or greed, Cunningham and his fellow Irish merchants wrote one of the earliest chapters of Irish-American history on the crowded streets of New York in the 1760s.



Opposite page: Waddell Cunningham, an Irish merchant who traded with the French. Above:

Merchants Coffee House near the docks, right, served as a meeting place for Irish traders.