Friday, April 5, 2013

Kidnapped- the story behind the book

Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous work Kidnapped written in 1886 was inspired by true events and the main character was based on the figure of James Annesley (1715-1760) from County Wexford. The novel Kidnapped was not the first fictionalised account of Annesley but undoubtedly the most well known. The story itself is stranger than fiction. The word ‘kidnapped’ itself was coined in the 18th century and referred to the all too common practice of stealing homeless children for sale abroad as slaves. Children were easy targets, easy to steal and once on board easy to control. Shockingly, in the eyes of the law, it was considered a minor demeanour. The Annesleys were part of the Protestant Ascendancy, a wealthy minority that ruled the country. Originally from England, the Annesley family obtained a massive amount of land in Ireland during the Elizabethan conquest of the 16th century, when Captain Robert Annesley from Buckinghamshire, was granted 2,600 acres in County Limerick after the natives had been resettled elsewhere. James Annesley was born in 1715 at Dunmain House, Dunmain, County Wexford where his father Arthur Annesley 5th Baron Altham (1689-1727) had extensive lands including much of New Ross. When James was two, his father threw his mother, Mary Sheffield out of the house, falsely accusing her of having an affair. Father and son moved to Dublin where the baron fell into debt. It is believed his father’s mistress Sally Gregory disliked James and at age eight his father threw him onto the streets to fend for himself. A butcher, John Purcell took pity on the boy and offered him a place to live in the summer of 1727. When his father died in autumn of that year James attended the funeral at Christchurch, although he had not been invited. He stood there in his tattered clothes and proclaimed that the deceased was his father and ran out the door. He may have done this for sentimental reasons or to let people know that there was an heir. He stood to inherit his father’s wealth, something of which his uncle Richard was also aware. Not long after the funeral strange men ¬began hanging around Purcell's yard but the butcher saw them off with his cudgel. The following April however, James who was by then twelve years old was seized in Ormond Market, behind the present day Ormond Quay and brought to George's Quay where a ship was waiting to take him to America. Uncle Richard had made a deal with the ship’s captain to sell James as an indentured servant once they reached America. Indentured servants entered the New World willingly or as in the case of young James, less willingly. Paupers sought a better life in the New World and sometimes in return for their passage offered their services free of charge for a set number of years, usually between three to seven years. The majority were teenagers. When their period of indenture had been served they were free and they usually settled in The New World. It was a practice written about at the time, most notably by Daniel Defoe who mentions it in his work Moll Flanders and much later by John Steinbeck in Cup of Gold (1929). White slaves in the new world were nothing knew and Cromwell had started sending Irish people as slaves to Barbados in the 1650s. Their descendants are still there and are known as ‘red legs’. James found himself in Newcastle, Delaware where he would spend twelve years as a slave. It is not known for how much he was sold but the going rate was somewhere in the region of sixteen pounds. He was sold to Duncan Drummond a small-time merchant-farmer who was living in north western Delaware. He escaped after five years but was recaptured and severely whipped. When he eventually obtained his freedom he had no intention of creating a new life in the area and his only desire was to return home to claim his inheritance. He made his way to Jamaica where he enlisted in the royal navy as an able seaman and served abroad the H.M.S. Falmouth. On board he was recognised by an old friend from Dublin who vouched for his identity, which would have otherwise been dismissed as far-fetched. By the time he returned to Dublin, something that no one, least of all, his uncle, had expected, he was the talk of the city. His uncle set about plotting his nephew’s death and when James went to the races at the Curragh of Kildare a coach nearly ran him over. Accidents happened but when the coach turned and tried a second time it looked a little suspicious. James brought his case to court and at the time, taking nearly two weeks, was the longest trial that had ever been heard in either Britain or Ireland with twenty-eight barristers participating. The case gripped popular imagination and Uncle Richard was now regarded as a scoundrel who had wronged his nephew most terribly. Uncle Richard had never offered a consistent explanation for his nephew’s sudden disappearance in 1728. He had told some people the boy died of smallpox, others that he died in the West Indies. The trial attracted considerable attention both in Britain and Ireland and fifteen different accounts of the trial were published. James won his case which was a cause of much celebration among Dubliners. As a result parliament in Dublin tried to pass legislation d to stop the kidnapping of homeless children, but the bill was overruled at the request officials in London and kidnapping continued to be practiced until the 1820s. Though James had won his case in Dublin he had to go to London to fight for his English estates before he could claim his inheritance. Unfortunately for him Uncle Richard had not given up and knew the right people who would best know how to stall the proceedings, which would make them rich and bankrupt James. James Annesley suffered an asthma attack half way through his legal battle and died at the age of 44. He was buried in Kent without ever getting the inheritance for which he had fought and suffered for so long. His uncle still held on to the estates but was now looked as a schemer and scoundrel who became a social outcast and died within the year. Neither left an heir and the title ‘Earl of Annesley’ became extinct.

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