Belfast Royal Academy - founded 1785


Our School – From the Archives…

The Academy & The Slave Trade

A recent report in the Daily Telegraph has renewed the debate about contemporary sensitivities with regard to links with the Atlantic slave trade.

The headteacher of the renowned Colston’s Girls’ School in Bristol has removed all mention of Edward Colston, (the school’s founder), from an annual commemorative service. Colston, seen here in monochrome print, was Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company which, between 1672 and 1689, transported about 100,000 African slaves to plantations in the West Indies and America.

What had the slave trade got to do with the Academy?

Well, as a matter of historical record, some of those associated with the establishment of the Academy were also involved in the slave trade.

Waddell Cunningham, the founding president of Belfast’s Chamber of Commerce, and the first president of the Harbour Board, was also an officer in the 18th century Irish Volunteers, of which the Reverend Dr William Bruce, later an illustrious principal of the Belfast Academy, was a member. Reputedly the richest man in Belfast at the time, Cunningham had made a considerable part of his fortune in slave trading, and had acquired a plantation of his own, – which he renamed – ‘Belfast, ‘ in Dominica. In 1786 he, and his friend Dr Alexander Haliday, attempted to match Bristol by lobbying intensely to make Belfast a slave trading port.

In the preceding year, 1785, Waddell Cunningham and Alexander Haliday were instrumental in another venture – founding the Belfast Academy. Indeed, Haliday, Cunningham’s business partner, was president of the committee whose subscriptions underwrote the new institution. In April 1786 the subscribers announced that students would be enrolled from 1st May.

There was considerable support for the educational initiative – which succeeded. However, the slave trading venture failed, largely due to the determined opposition of Belfast’s Presbyterian community. In 1791, a former slave called Olaudah Equiano was invited to Belfast to describe his experiences. His account of life as a slave was described by the Belfast Newsletter as, ” an adventurous story of dramatic happenings in strange lands,” and the Irish edition sold out.

Olaudah Equiano (in our illustration holding an open bible), died in 1797, the same year as Waddell Cunningham.  The latter’s imposing mausoleum, also seen here, is in Knockbreda Churchyard.


Thankfully Belfast, unlike Colston’s Bristol, did not became a slave port, and in 1807 the United Kingdom Parliament passed an Act outlawing the slave trade.