Portrait of Tony Small
[mod note] Although I have a lot of questions about the nuts and bolts of this story, and there should be quite a bit more about imbalances of power (when one person has the power to “offer” someone their freedom, that’s not a meeting of equals), I think the information here has a lot of value towards analyzing heteronormative assumptions about narratives like these.
Yes, there WERE some people of colour in early modern Ireland!
Warning - in the extract below there’s a lot of congratulatory patting on the back of a rich white man for not being a completely racist asshole. On the other hand, there’s also some homo-romantic subtext.
Donal Fallon writes:
One figure associated with Edward Fitzgerald I’ve been fascinated by for a while now is Tony Small, an escaped slave Fitzgerald encountered in the United States who he later employed as a personal assistant. Small became a frequent sight around Dublin in the 1780s and 1790s, in a city where coloured men were few and far between. Fitzgerald commissioned a portrait of Small in 1786 by the artist Thomas Roberts.
In her brilliant biography of Fitzgerald, Stella Tillyard noted that “If Lord Edward’s mother was his great love, his constant companion was Tony Small, the runaway slave who saved his life in North America in 1781″, and she went on to note that “Tony embodied and brought to life his master’s commitment to freedom and equality for all men.”
Small had witnessed the British and Americans at war firsthand in 1781, as when his owners had fled South Carolina with their possessions and slaves, Tony had escaped and stayed on. On the 8th September 1781, Tony wandered onto a battlefield, and as Tillyard has noted he stumbled across “the blood-soaked uniform of a British officer of the 19th Regiment of Foot. The man was alive but unconscious, overlooked by the search parties of both sides.” The man was Edward Fitzgerald, and when he next awoke he was in the small hut Tony Small knew as his home. Fitzgerald offered Small liberty, and a new life working as his servant, in return for wages. An incredible and unlikely friendship had been born.
Kevin Whelan discusses the friendship between the two in his entry on Lord Edward Fitzgerald for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, noting that “The best-documented Irish example of imaginative sympathy between a white and a black man is the subsequent relationship between Fitzgerald and Small. Until his death in 1798, in a sprawling career that took him across much of Europe, America, and Canada, Fitzgerald never subsequently parted from his ‘faithful Tony’.”