“It Is Only Bad Priests and Outlaws Who Thrive NowAdays”

The Catholic Church, the Colonial Authorities, and Elite Rumor Networks in the 1820s Lesser Antilles

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Felicia Fricke University of Copenhagen SAXO Institute Copenhagen Denmark

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In Caribbean historiography, rumors are often associated with enslaved people and sailors; less often are they associated with elite men. This article addresses the use of rumor by elite men in the Lesser Antilles during the late 1820s, following the story of Antony O’Hannan, Roman Catholic rector of Grenada, whose relationship with his enslaved and free congregation made him dangerous to both Catholic and colonial authorities. Although the White Catholics of Grenada were often discriminated against, here they aligned with the wider Church in supporting the colonial power. Similarly, the colonial administration was willing to collaborate with Catholics, to activate an interisland rumor network that mobilized anxieties about O’Hannan’s perceived threat to White women. Using Colonial Office documents and Caribbean newspapers, this article explores microregional rumor as part of the arsenal used to maintain colonial order, and complicates the internal workings of the Catholic Church in the Caribbean.

On Saturday April 12, 1828, a 35-year-old Irishman named Antony O’Hannan arrived on the island of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles of the eastern Caribbean to take up a position as a Roman Catholic rector (Devas 1932:159). Most of O’Hannan’s new Grenadian flock were enslaved (almost 19,500 out of a total congregation of around 21,000) and lived on the plantations (Cornelius 2020:120; Devas 1932:159 and 167).1 From his time on Montserrat, O’Hannan appears to have had a particular interest and affinity for the enslaved members of his congregation. A Montserratian named Henry Hamilton enthused, “He very deservedly carrys with him the esteem and good wishes of his Flock—for his zeal and attention to his Congregation generally, particularly the Slave Population who in this Island are numerous.”2 He would probably have spent a lot of his time crisscrossing Grenada’s rough interior (see Figure 1), spreading not only the word of God but also news to those who could not read (Cornelius 2020:105, 119, 147 and 148). His working day resembled that of the missionaries elsewhere in the British Caribbean, who also traveled widely and were enmeshed in free and enslaved communities of color (Ogborn 2019:176).

Although both Montserrat and Grenada were British islands that had formerly been French, the world O’Hannan was stepping into was very different from the one he left behind. On Montserrat, a markedly Catholic island with a long Irish history, the Leeward Islands Federal Assembly had removed all civil restrictions against Catholics in 1789 (Fergus 2004:62–63; Messenger 1967:18). It was an environment, therefore, in which an Irish priest such as O’Hannan might very well prosper. During his time there, he had begun the construction of a church, and he had baptized all the enslaved people belonging to four prominent families (Messenger 1967).3 Grenada, however, was a different story. O’Hannan arrived in Grenada when Catholicism had been under attack for decades. After the island was ceded to the British in 1763, the Catholics of Grenada had fought for and won religious toleration, only to have their rights eroded after 1783, in retaliation for the treatment of British citizens during French rule.4 During the 1780s, churches were taken by force; revenues from glebe lands were transferred to the government; records of Catholic births, marriages, and deaths were no longer considered valid if fees were unpaid; and Catholic voting and election rights were severely restricted (Brizan 1984:49–52; Devas 1932:62, 65, 69, 71–72 and 75; Jacobs 2015). Free Catholics of color were additionally faced with enslavement if they could not produce proof of their freedom (Murphy 2021:197). Indeed, the persecution of Grenadian Catholics during the 1780s and early 1790s is thought to have been a significant contributing factor in the development of the Fédon Rebellion (1795–96), during which enslaved people joined forces with free people of color and some White people to try to overthrow the British administration (Devas 1932:90; Freund Carter 2021:330; Murphy 2021:206–16). Having been associated with revolutionary ideals during the Rebellion, Catholicism became primarily a religion of the enslaved as White French Catholics left the island (Cornelius 2020:91–94, 99–100 and 116). It was in this environment of suspicion and unrest that rumorers would accuse the new Catholic rector of rape, seduction, perjury, and riot.


Figure 1

View of St. George’s from the southwest in 1830, with the peaks of steep hills visible in the distance

Citation: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 2024; 10.1163/22134360-bja10027

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Initially, O’Hannan’s reception by the White elites of Grenada seemed amiable. He gained access to the church building in St. George’s and was awarded a governmental license and an annual salary of £ 500 (approximately £ 34,000 in 20175) (Devas 1932:159–61 and 166). Perhaps the authorities were initially well disposed toward O’Hannan because of problems with the previous rector (Devas 1932:143 and 162). However, this initial optimistic climate quickly soured. O’Hannan remained deeply committed, as is evidenced by the commentary of admirers and critics alike, as well as through his own writing, to the enslaved people and free people of color who made up the majority of his congregation. For the White elites, it was easy to see him as a serious threat to the colonial order and as a target for removal. This reversal in fortune was naturally related to wider concerns about abolition. O’Hannan was not the only target of the Grenada government, as shown by documents in the Colonial Office archives relating to the case of Chief Justice Bent, an antislavery judge who was repeatedly suspended for his support not only of the enslaved population but also of O’Hannan (McLaren 2011:234–44).

O’Hannan’s case, which is only a small part of the wider history of antislavery and revolutionary ideas in Grenada, is particularly interesting in that it was so entangled in rumors. His case can be organized in two loose constellations focused around violations of “respectable young ladies”: O’Hannan was supposed to have raped and/or seduced a woman in North America (with attendant accusations of perjury and indirect manslaughter); and to have impregnated and cohabited with a young woman from Montserrat to whom he was not married. In addition, O’Hannan’s accusers associated his Irish identity with violence, and therefore blamed him for an interfaith riot that resulted in the injury of another young woman on St. Barts. Handwritten, whispered, shouted, printed, or otherwise exchanged between residents of several Caribbean islands, these rumors expose the colonialist motivations of rumorers almost 200 years ago. They also show how the archipelagic networks of the Lesser Antilles were mobilized by White elites in their efforts to maintain power. This article therefore explores the significance of rumoring in the Antony O’Hannan scandal between 1829 and 1830, by asking the following questions: who and where were the rumoring in-groups?; what were the intended impacts of the rumors?; and, finally, what does the rumoring in O’Hannan’s case tell us about interisland networks in the Lesser Antilles? These questions are important in the development of our understanding of rumors in colonial Caribbean society, as well as of the Lesser Antilles in the early nineteenth century, an interconnected microregion of friction and social change. The questions contribute to our understanding of dynamics within the diverse Caribbean Catholic community, throwing light on a hitherto understudied subject through the use of spatial approaches that transcend terrestrial boundaries (Campbell 2018; Kehoe & O’Neill 2022).

Thus, this article puts forward a narrative of the complex events in Grenada and other islands in the Lesser Antilles between June 1829 and November 1830. It shows how perceived threats to the colonial order encouraged the Catholic elites (both laypeople and clergy) and the colonial authorities to work together across scales, nationalities, and faiths. While their rumors ultimately failed to remove O’Hannan from Grenada, this is less a story of their failure and more a story of the process, in particular the complicated internal workings of the Catholic community and the frictions between religion and slavery in the Caribbean. The narrative provides an angle on rumors not commonly explored in the historiography: that of the elite rumor network. The rumors that the Catholic male elite chose to spread associated O’Hannan with Black men, portraying him as a potential threat to the White women whose reproductive capabilities were needed to perpetuate the racial division between enslaved and free. Such rumors therefore cut to the core of colonial society. But the rumors did not stand uncontested; the significant role played by hundreds of Grenadian Catholics of color in their attempts to protect O’Hannan was also a threat to the colonial enterprise, because their exercise of agency in their religious community was opposed to the racist colonialist sympathies of the wider Church. The rumors also add to our wider understanding of anti-Irish sentiment, Catholic trusteeism, and revolutionary priests in the colonial Caribbean. In order to expand upon all these points, it is necessary to start the story considerably in advance of the rumors that reveal so much. We begin, therefore, with the situation at the beginning of O’Hannan’s second year on the island to which he would devote the rest of his short life, and we then progress to a discussion of the content and significance of the rumors that followed.

1 Anthony O’Hannan: A Threat to the Colonial Order

Upon arrival, O’Hannan found provision for the Catholics of Grenada in a deplorable state, “all its Establishments for promoting the ends of religious instruction” having “fallen to the ground.”6 By the beginning of June 1829, he was running out of his own money to fund the five schools that he had set up for enslaved children and free children of color, and he appealed to the Secretary of State, George Murray, for assistance.7 Thus, little more than a year after his arrival, O’Hannan was already at odds with the Grenadian government. O’Hannan’s appeal to the Colonial Office went over the head of Grenada’s Governor, James Campbell, whose promise to set up a new church had never been fulfilled.8 Perhaps this had led O’Hannan to mistrust Campbell. In the historical context of Grenada, it would certainly have been understandable for O’Hannan to assume that the governor did not necessarily have the best interests of the Catholic community at heart, particularly the interests of those community members who were not White. O’Hannan might also have suspected that Secretary of State Murray would lend him a sympathetic ear, since the secretary supported Catholic emancipation, a debate that was particularly furious in England during 1828 and 1829.9 Additionally, O’Hannan’s request was made in the context of what The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette described as “disedifying occurrences, and unhappy divisions” in the Grenadian Catholic community, and it would prove to be only the beginning of a course of events that would encourage further “disedification” all round.10 Indeed, O’Hannan’s priestly abilities appeared to have been dismissed very soon after his attempt to fund education for children of color.

Less than a month later, O’Hannan boarded the Amelia for Trinidad and met with Bishop Daniel MacDonnell, who persuaded him to resign from his position as rector of the divided Grenadian congregation.11 MacDonnell furnished O’Hannan with a written recommendation and expected him to depart soon for a new, presumably less contentious, role in Jamaica.12 MacDonnell also dispatched a very important priest from Trinidad, Vicar General William LeGoff, to supervise the handover of the Grenadian flock to two new priests named Murphy and Sanchez.13 It seemed that O’Hannan’s time in Grenada was soon to be over.

What happened next was shaped by O’Hannan’s relationship with his congregation. Upon his return from Trinidad, many members of the Grenadian flock were anything but willing to accept his resignation. Organizing quickly, on July 18 and 22, 1829, they sent petitions to President of the House of Assembly Andrew Houstoun (in Grenada) and to Bishop MacDonnell (in Trinidad), requesting O’Hannan’s reinstatement. Together, these petitions had over 770 signatures.14 These numbers reflect the fact that O’Hannan’s attentions as a man of religion were mainly directed toward the majority—enslaved people and free people of color. Since the mid-1780s, free people of color had been the largest group of free people on the island, with French free people of color outnumbering the British (Murphy 2021:196). It is unclear whether this large population of free Catholics of color were vocal in their support of O’Hannan because they particularly liked him, or because they were very against his replacement by a priest who might not speak English and French. But what is clear is that he was the pastor they wanted, over and above three of the four other men whom MacDonnell would dispatch between 1829 and 1830. The National Archives contain no fewer than five petitions or resolutions signed by free people of color requesting that O’Hannan remain in a position to serve the Grenadian congregation.15 The Coloured Roman Catholic Inhabitants of Grenada16 also voted O’Hannan onto their governing board in September 1829, and he voiced his own support for the Coloured Roman Catholics in an 1829 pamphlet.17 After having been in Grenada for 16 months, performing marriages and educating their children, O’Hannan had become an integral part of their religious community.18

Unfortunately, it is more difficult to obtain an impression of O’Hannan’s relationship with the enslaved Catholics of Grenada. On the rare occasion of a record of an enslaved person speaking about him in the colonial archives, her statement was unavoidably relayed through the pen of the civil authorities.19 We can, however, read O’Hannan’s opinions about the enslaved population in his own words. Whilst it is impossible to ignore early nineteenth-century unequal social relations and condescending turns of phrase,20 he also demonstrated an empathetic understanding of the enslaved person’s position that the civil authorities in Grenada did not. He noted, for instance, that it was foolish to require an enslaved woman to make a sworn statement in the presence of her enslaver, adding that “under the influence of cruel threats and fears,” an enslaved person would rather choose any other path “than undergo the dark dungeon or the bloody lash, whose painful inflictions” they “may often before have felt.”21 Using similar language to that of metropolitan and North American abolitionists, he further complained that the local newspaper attacked “every man who shews a friendly or humane feeling for the Slave.”22 Indeed, newspapers went on to play an important role in O’Hannan’s case, both in reporting and in influencing events.

While the free Catholics of color were organizing in his defense, O’Hannan and the Vicar General LeGoff (sent to secure the positions of the two new priests) had a showdown at the church in St. George’s. At 9 a.m. on Sunday July 19, LeGoff arrived intending to read an address to the congregation, but was stopped by O’Hannan in the vestry. According to LeGoff, O’Hannan “wildly” said, “I do not want you here,” and LeGoff departed. In a letter to President Houstoun, LeGoff complained that “some low dirty Girls only laughed” at him as he went away.23 After this clash, it was clear to all that O’Hannan was refusing to abandon his position on Jamaica, a change of heart that Devas and McLaren have also attributed to his relationship with the enslaved people and free people of color in his congregation (Devas 1932:176–77; McLaren 2011:236).

There was a large group of men waiting outside the church with O’Hannan when LeGoff arrived that Sunday morning, and on account of this the local newspaper reported on July 29 that O’Hannan had been accused of inciting a riot.24 However, a penciled note at the bottom of a letter from LeGoff, perhaps scribbled by Secretary of State Murray or one of his subordinates, reads “Even this letter, from the party most aggrieved, alleges nothing in the shape of riot.”25 Quite likely, the alleged rioters were merely waiting for the Sunday service to start. The metropolitan powers were not interested, and the newspaper report may therefore be best understood as a step toward discrediting O’Hannan’s position in Grenada. If it could be demonstrated that he was a troublemaker, it would be easier to get rid of him, and while the accusation of riot was a step too far, that weekend O’Hannan had certainly done other things to make himself a nuisance at a local level. He had declined to cooperate with the Catholic authorities, and he continued leading services for his congregation (Devas 1932:177–78). Specifically, he refused to give up the parsonage, and he refused to receive a letter from the trustees of the Roman Catholic Church of Grenada informing him that his governmental license to preach had been revoked.26 He also appeared several times with a party of men around him for support, which some people interpreted as rather threatening, and he prevented the new priest Sanchez from praying in the church.27 We can speculate, from reading other letters, that O’Hannan did not accept the validity of the government license because it was contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and that he rejected Sanchez because he was a foreigner (Spanish) who spoke neither of the languages required to communicate with the Grenadian congregation.28

Clearly, LeGoff and MacDonnell were not in agreement with O’Hannan on these points. At the time, Catholicism was largely unopposed to the colonial order in the Caribbean; rather, it supported slavery and ingratiated itself with the British imperial power. But there were young priests who were questioning these norms and setting themselves up against the colonial elites, and in the past, Catholic resistance against colonial authority had not always been peaceful (Campbell 1981; Jacobs 2015; Kehoe 2019). Bishop MacDonnell was therefore determined to take a hard line and shore up his relationship with the colonial authorities. Vicar General LeGoff, who left his native France to escape the French Revolution, had longstanding loyalties to the White elites of Grenada and a marked “distaste for radical social change” (Campbell 1981:25–26). In 1831, the Acting Governor of Trinidad even described him as an “ultra-conservative” (Kehoe 2019:139). By the time that LeGoff arrived in Grenada in 1829, he had already been grappling with another revolutionary priest in Trinidad for almost half a decade (Campbell 1981). In light of this, he was probably predisposed to detest O’Hannan. Apparently hemmed in on all sides by disobedient priests, and feeling the looming threat of social change on a scale just as great as that of the French Revolution (that is, the abolition of slavery), LeGoff seems to have been gripped by pessimism, lamenting that “it is only bad Priests and Outlaws who thrive now adays.”29 Together, these two Catholic priests were a united front; MacDonnell advised LeGoff not to pursue further public proceedings, in an effort to keep the Church from embarrassment and out of the newspapers. Instead, he requested “an authentic statement of Mr. O’Hannan’s violent and seditious language respecting the Coloured People … There are some ready, I understand, to attest it even upon Oath.”30 If O’Hannan would not leave when asked nicely, they would have to try something else, and thus began the project of discrediting O’Hannan in earnest.

As MacDonnell had hoped, from August to December 1829, the local newspapers in Grenada, St. Kitts, and Trinidad followed the events in the Catholic community of Grenada with a degree of satisfaction.31 “We are happy to say that the disputes which unfortunately existed in the Catholic Congregation of Grenada, have, through the Vicar-General, the worthy L’Abbé LeGoff, been amicably terminated,” announced the Port of Spain Gazette.32 Meanwhile, the Coloured Roman Catholics of Grenada continued to organize; the announcement that they had voted O’Hannan onto the board of their society appeared in the same newspaper issue as the announcement that the island government had terminated his salary.33 In August, the society also put together a lengthy petition with almost 700 signatures to Secretary of State Murray, imploring him to think of his loyal Grenadian subjects and calling for the reinstatement of their beloved pastor.34 The signatures accounted for around 18 percent of the free people of color in Grenada, including both men and women (see Cox 1984:14). The Catholics of color who signed the petition felt, amongst other injustices, that Bishop MacDonnell had treated them as people “who must be crushed to the Earth.”35 Because MacDonnell was the highest Catholic power in the region, this was a very serious complaint.

Behind the scenes, O’Hannan and President Houstoun had both written letters of complaint that were winging their way to Secretary Murray in London.36 Another penciled note, on the back of O’Hannan’s letter, indicates the continuing disinterest of the metropolitan powers: “I do not see how the Secretary of State can take any cognizance of this affair, which is a mere question of the President’s legal right to withdraw the license of the Complainant.”37 This remark hints at processes happening elsewhere in the British Empire: Jamaican legislation in 1807, 1810, 1816, and 1826 introduced a system of licensing intended to restrict who was allowed to preach to the enslaved population (Ogborn 2019:175 and 178). Those who preached without a license faced imprisonment (Ogborn 2019:179). But the metropolitan government was less invested in this, having disallowed earlier such legislation as attacks upon religious freedom (Ogborn 2019:177). Indeed, LeGoff lamented, “One would think that Government is asleep, or wishes our ruin.”38 Those in Grenada who wanted O’Hannan gone could not mobilize the Colonial Office to further their case, and this necessitated the use of alternative, more regionally focused, methods.

In December 1829, MacDonnell made another effort to replace O’Hannan by appointing a new priest for Grenada, named Samuel Power.39 He was nine years younger than O’Hannan and seemed to have quickly fallen under the older priest’s wing—they were both Irish, and idealistic. Sitting in Parsonage House, St. George’s, on February 11, 1830, Power wrote to President Houstoun: “I have just learned with equal sorrow and surprise, that a summons has been served on the Revd. Mr. O’Hannan … for officiating on Sunday last in the Roman Catholic Chapel, which he did at my particular request.”40 Power had been ill that day, and had asked O’Hannan to fill in for him, perhaps without understanding the implications of requesting that O’Hannan preach without a license. Power, in fact, did not consider the government license to have any importance whatsoever. Somewhat bewildered, he enclosed his own license with his letter to Houstoun. Unfortunately, Power had underestimated the ability of the Grenada government to act in bad faith. “The President has received your communication of yesterday’s date,” replied Government Secretary James Bruscoe Gaff, “tendering a resignation of the License, under which you have heretofore officiated as a Roman Catholic Priest.”41 Had the Government wanted to bring Power to its side, this was not a particularly good move. With the letter, the Grenada government ensured that Power’s sympathies lay entirely with O’Hannan. Power was incensed, and responded:

as you seem not to have clearly understood those sentiments, as expressed in my former letter—though I thought they were sufficiently explicit—I now beg leave to inform you in the most plain and distinct terms—that I never solicited or recognized a Government License, as being necessary or essential to authorize me in the exercise of the Priestly functions, nor indeed could I have done so without sacrificing a leading principle of the Catholic Faith.42

For Power, the right to preach to the Grenada congregation came from God,43 not from the government, and he was unwilling to make administrative accommodations in the name of politics. The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette again disseminated these developments to a wide audience, printing police reports, letters, and advertisements that announced a charge against O’Hannan for officiating without a license; Power closing the church; and the trustees eventually regaining entry to the church only to find all the valuables missing.44 O’Hannan was convicted and fined for officiating without a license, but he stubbornly remained on the island.45 Power, however, soon left for Trinidad to support LeGoff’s other adversary, a Demeraran man of color and revolutionary priest by the name of Francis de Ridder, who was “an intimate friend of O’Hannan’s.”46 Despite this friendship, O’Hannan must have been somewhat sorry to see Power leave; for a brief time, there had been two Catholic priests standing up to the colonial and religious authorities in Grenada, and now there would again be only one.

It is possible to see in these events the pressure that the White Catholic trustees were able to place on the colonial authorities in their quest to obtain a more conventional priest for Grenada, despite their numerical disadvantage. Their decision not to retaliate against the Coloured Roman Catholics of Grenada with their own petitions was ostensibly because of the “discreditable measures” taken to gather signatures for those in favor of O’Hannan.47 However, it may also be that the trustees were afraid to provide evidence of the discrepancy in their number of supporters.48 They were keen to distance themselves from O’Hannan and from the Coloured Roman Catholics of Grenada without weakening their own position. This conflict can be seen as an example in the wider context of the laity exercising their power over local religious practices in the colonial Americas. Catholic trustees had a history of conflict with the clergy, with controversies arising in New Orleans between 1805 and 1844, and in Buffalo between 1829 and 1855. Such conflicts often centered on control of Church property, as well as more ideological concerns linked to local politics (Gerber 1982; Regan 2019). Both of these issues were at stake in Grenada, where the trustees were able to mobilize not only the higher Catholic powers but also the colonial powers to support their complaints. In letters to President Houstoun and Governor Campbell, the Grenada trustees complained about a newspaper article describing another petition by the Catholics of Grenada (this time they had omitted the word “Coloured”) presented in the House of Commons.49 The trustees dismissed it with the contention that it was signed by “not one respectable Catholic.”50

The language of “respectability” was frequently used by White colonialists to exclude free people of color from elite society, and although support for O’Hannan was strong among Grenadian free people of color, there were also members of this group who wished to distance themselves from what they saw as his antislavery advocacy. That the trustees required three people of color to be part of the group presenting their anti-O’Hannan resolutions to Governor Campbell indicates that they expected to find at least three who saw the advantages of doing so.51 Respectability was particularly important for wealthier free people of color seeking social advancement (Cox 1984:152; Kehoe 2019). That they had made some progress in this quarter might be evidenced by the fact that both Government Secretary Gaff and the Provost-Marshal General of Grenada, James Boucher, had recently married women of color.52 Nonetheless, the group of free people of color was complex. Cox has argued that those who signed petitions such as those supporting O’Hannan did not wish to align themselves with the White population of Grenada (Cox 1984:152). Because the August 1829 petition was signed by almost one in five of the free people of color of Grenada, a significant number were therefore willing to reject the trustees by showing O’Hannan their public support. It is also plausible that there were more who supported him in private or did not have time to add their signatures.

O’Hannan himself was aware of the use of respectability to exclude certain members of the congregation. In the 1829 pamphlet, he referred to complaints made publicly by Bishop MacDonnell about the group who signed the August petition:53

Had that meeting assumed the indiscriminate title of Roman Catholics, no doubt they would be impeached with the “design” of being “arrogant and insulting;” in all probability, the Reverend Mr. LeGoff, would have indignantly stept forward, as he had done before, and called them a vulgar and ignorant “Canaille de couleur,”54 and told them, that it was the height of insolence in them, to assume the general title of Roman Catholics; or, perhaps, another modest and Reverend gentleman, might have publicly announced, as he lately did in the Gazette, that the “respectable portion” of the Catholic body, had nothing to do with this meeting.55

In the same pamphlet, O’Hannan wrote with some degree of sarcasm that the White Catholic women of Grenada were aggrieved because he “paid too much attention to the people of colour, and the slaves!!!”56 It is clear that by 1830 many of the White Catholic laity of Grenada, both women and men, were impatient to get rid of O’Hannan. To their dismay and to that of the Grenada government, Secretary of State Murray disagreed.57 President Houstoun had in fact received orders to return O’Hannan’s license.58 Had he complied, it would perhaps have brought much of the drama to an end, but he ignored these orders, citing the wishes of the trustees.59 This was part of a wider pattern of Caribbean colonial governments evading, avoiding, or ignoring orders from the metropole (Cox 1984:8; Murphy 2021:161–65). Viewpoints from the metropole were likely to be markedly different, lacking for example any personal biases, or underestimating the fear colonial elites had of the majority population they were oppressing (Kehoe 2019). During the 1820s, the metropolitan government’s instructions for the “amelioration” of slavery (which had alarmed the planters of Demerara in 1823, and led to their condemnation of the evangelical missionary John Smith for his supposed role in the rebellion of the same year) were indicative that British sentiment was moving slowly toward an acceptance of the abolition of slavery itself (Northcott 1976:54–55; da Costa: xiiv and 290).

All this meant that in the summer of 1830, Governor Campbell returned from a trip to London to a highly volatile situation in Grenada. In July, another petition signed by 32 men stated support for O’Hannan and Power, whom they saw as “persecuted,” protesting that “their most bitter enemies have been unable to prove a charge of any description against the unblemished conduct of those Reverend Gentlemen.”60 A further resolution in support of O’Hannan and Power by the Catholics of color in St. George’s stated that they would refuse to accept any foreign priest.61 Campbell described this resolution as “violent,” despite agreeing with their point that any new priest must be able to speak French.62 Regardless of the clear and reasonable points they had made, Campbell was alarmed. He asked Secretary Gaff to compile evidence against O’Hannan.63 Until now, the White Catholic authorities and the colonial authorities in Grenada had been acting separately, exhausting both religious and secular administrative attempts to oust O’Hannan, to little effect and against the wishes of the Secretary of State. Campbell’s request to Gaff set the stage for a collaborative smear campaign that would crisscross the Lesser Antilles.

2 Rumors in a Microregion, August–September 1830

During the 1820s, the Caribbean was undergoing a period of flux. Departing from two centuries of entrenched slavery interrupted by acts of resistance both small and large, the region was rapidly moving into a new era, a time of widespread social change and anxiety occasioned by hurricanes, wars, fluctuating sugar prices, and the abolition of the slave trade.64 These changes were experienced differently from island to island, depending not only on the local colonial power but also on geography, economy, society, religion, and politics. News was therefore a vital resource for anxious elites and hopeful enslaved people; it provided them with the information they needed to make decisions about their lives and about the lives of others around them. Rumor, although not necessarily true, also shaped and gave direction to the ways in which various groups engaged with each other (Ferrer 2014:96 and 122–23). Indeed, in April 1829, the governor of Dominica wrote to his collector of customs; “I certainly do consider that on a bare rumour of slaves having been in any way, illegally exported, it behoves me, minutely to inquire into the circumstances, and to call for your assistance.”65 As Dowd notes, rumors often required action, and “Those caught in the throes of rumor-panics had not gone mad. They thought hard, they investigated, they questioned, they deployed” (Dowd 2015:292).

This was partly because in the colonial-era Caribbean, spoken words had power. European and colonial legal systems, West African societies, and syncretic Caribbean social systems all relied upon oaths (Brown 2020:107; Ogborn 2011, 2019:33, 37 and 41). Ogborn has discussed at length the ways in which the spoken word was bound up with the asymmetrical relationships of slavery (Ogborn 2019:1–34). Who was allowed to speak, where, and why, were all determined by the context and the social relationships between those present (Ogborn 2019:19–20 and 31). Rumors could therefore be a powerful weapon of the oppressed, or an elite warning system; they could support or undermine the colonialist enterprise (Derby 2014). In the colonial Caribbean, rumor often preceded escape attempts and riots, of which there are numerous examples from the eighteenth century, particularly around the time of the French Revolution (Scott 2018:67–68, 77 and 134–35).

Rumor may therefore have provided an obvious way for O’Hannan’s adversaries to attack him without suffering consequences. Indeed, religious figures threatening the colonial order could not be summarily expelled from the colony if planters and authorities wished to maintain an air of benevolence and generosity (Turner 2021). Rumors offer advantages in that they operate by being credible, explanatory, and assertive; they may arrive disguised as news (Kapferer 1990:12 and 42; Perice 1997). They spread quickly within the group for whom they are relevant, and may even help to separate social in-groups and out-groups from one another, particularly if the rumor is about a common enemy (Kapferer 1990:50–51, 104 and 135; Perice 1997). However, they are not often possible to prove or disprove (Kapferer 1990:5 and 245). This may be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the context. In this case, the rumors spread by members of the Catholic community came mostly from outside Grenada, which made them more difficult to substantiate, but also made it easier for rumormongers to deny responsibility.

Moreover, whilst the rumorers in this case could have targeted several aspects of O’Hannan’s alleged past (for example, accusations of perjury and riot), it is significant that their rumors shared a clear focus on the violation of White women on whose purity White supremacy and the colonial social order were supposedly upheld.66 In the French Caribbean, monarchists formulated the virtue of White creole women in opposition to the dissolute morals of the Revolution—and of Black people (Couti 2016:26; Moitt 2001:99). This viewpoint would have been familiar to the White French Catholics of Grenada, as well as to William LeGoff. Meanwhile, British colonizers to a certain extent imported their views of sexuality from Europe. Although there was an adaptation to context, the premarital virginity of White elite women was still important (Peakman 2016:5–9). As Beckles notes, the restriction of White women’s sexuality went hand in hand with the sexual exploitation of Black women in order to perpetuate a system where a Black enslaved majority was ruled over by a small White elite (Beckles 1993). Free people of color, such as the Grenadian Catholics of color, were a threat to this (see Garraway 2005:261–62), and we can certainly imagine that the rumors about O’Hannan would not have had the same significance for the rumorers if his alleged victim were an enslaved woman.

Another contributing factor may have been that the spread of such rumors was particularly efficient in the Lesser Antilles because of their long history of intercolonial contact (Scott 2018:124–25). These smaller islands changed hands many times in various wars, paradoxically strengthening the intercolonial ties that the authorities sometimes wished to curtail (Finneran 2018; Mulich 2020:31–32, 50–51, 64 and 67). They also saw a high degree of interisland mobility, multilingualism, and cultural diversity—inhabitants of each island were likely to have lived under the administrations of various different colonial powers, and may therefore have felt more affinity with the island or region than with the nation or regime (Mulich 2020:33–36). In some cases, inhabitants of an island found themselves obliged to fight against an invading force of their own nationality, perhaps contributing to the remarkably stable manner in which islands of the Lesser Antilles passed from empire to empire (Mulich 2020:73–74 and 78; Murphy 2021:182). Finally, poor defenses and geographical proximity encouraged interisland defense systems that sometimes preferred support from a nearby (albeit rival) imperial power over support from the distant metropole (Mulich 2020:59, 62, 70 and 79). Although scholars have pointed at planter absenteeism and close connections with Europe as factors that prevented the development of solid creole identities in the insular Caribbean, the Lesser Antilles were actually home to many planters who stayed to develop deep regional ties (Murphy 2021:172–73). Enslaved people could often speak several languages and the rumors of several colonial powers were therefore at their fingertips (Scott 2018:127). In this case, networks between enslaved Catholics and free Catholics of color probably facilitated the rapid transfer of news about O’Hannan’s case and improved their ability to mobilize on his behalf.

Furthermore, widely distributed newspapers on the British islands were often published in both English and French (Scott 2018:129). When colonial administrators wanted to prevent the spread of the ideas, they tightened control of the newspapers and of small boats that carried both printed and spoken rumors across the sea (Scott 2018:68–69, 130 and 135–36). The transport network of people, goods, news, and rumor on small vessels was an intercolonial network upon which Caribbean residents had, by the end of the eighteenth century, come to depend (Scott 2018: xvi). Data on vessels arriving at Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas) between 1820 and 1839 show that most shipping here was regional rather than trans-Atlantic.67 The same was true for Willemstad (Curaçao) in the 1810s and 1820s, and presumably also for Grenada in the same period.68 Rumors carried on these vessels in the Lesser Antilles had therefore acquired what Julius Scott has described as “a regional dimension” (Scott 2018:119). Indeed, Mulich has pointed to the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles as a microregion within the larger regions of the Caribbean and the Atlantic world (Mulich 2020:29 and 50). Although Grenada is not one of the Leeward Islands, this lens can be used to think about how O’Hannan’s adversaries deployed their networks in 1830. The Lesser Antilles was a place where regional and global scales met, overlapped, and caused friction that sparked change (Mulich 2020:57; Tsing 2005:4 and 58). It was this spatial dimension that came into play when Grenadian colonial and religious authorities joined forces against O’Hannan. Their rumor networks crossed local (Grenada), microregional (St. Barts, Montserrat, and Trinidad), and macroregional (Canada, the United States, and Ireland) scales, but the most important of these was microregional, allowing well-connected men on different islands to convey what they had heard elsewhere. It was the closer interisland connections that facilitated rumors from further away, conveyed by letter, speech, and through the printed word.

Indeed, after their failed attempt to harness metropolitan support for their campaign against O’Hannan, his critics turned with renewed vigor to the printing press in order to discredit him. The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette reported that O’Hannan continued to preach, having recently been in St. Patrick’s (in the north of the island, about a day’s walk from St. George’s) and St. Andrew’s (in the east).69 It also provided an account of the atmosphere in St. George’s upon the arrival of yet another new priest, Joseph Gobert, saying; “He has been abused, hooted at, mobbed and pelted, by the misguided rabble. For the last two days the town has been in a constant state of agitation—the Court-House, with the Magistrates and Legislature sitting therein, has been beset by the very scum of the population.”70 While not directly mentioning O’Hannan, this report nonetheless implied that the “rabble” (presumably a reference to free people of color and enslaved people) were against establishment priests. Three days later, The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette complained that O’Hannan “sets at defiance the respectable part of the community, and to the evil example of his blind and ignorant followers, tramples upon those social ties and obligations which serve to bind societies together.”71 It also recounted an event of the previous Tuesday morning, when 200 or 300 people “of the lower order,” mostly women, collected outside the Catholic church in St. George’s in order to hamper the new priest’s ability to preach there. Although O’Hannan was not present, the newspaper still described him as “the principal cause of these disorders.”72 The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette then related yet another incident where O’Hannan was not present, but for which he was nevertheless blamed; some men threw stones through the windows of the home of one William Thomas, almost hitting one of his children.73 “The character of this brutal attempt,” proclaimed the newspaper, “is so identified with the outrages committed under the influence of Catholic fanaticism in Ireland, that the finger of suspicion strongly points to the source of its instigation.”74 Although the trustees had managed to regain access to the church and provide Gobert with the keys, the building was still missing its valuable items, and this edition of the newspaper also announced that O’Hannan was now being accused of theft.75 These accusations against O’Hannan associated him with crime, violence, and civil unrest, insinuating that he had the power to unravel the social order in Grenada.

While it is difficult to ascertain how such negative media coverage was received locally, we know from sociological research into the workings of rumors that print transmission has a remarkable effect. For example, press coverage significantly contributes to readers’ perception of risk, although usually in a way that confirms their existing biases (Renn 2008:143). When newspapers print rumors as fact, they therefore bestow an official seal of approval on a rumor that lends it further credibility.76 In addition, the more people there are who hear a rumor, the more they tend to trust what they are hearing (Kapferer 1990:12, 42 and 104; Perice 1997). Print culture can therefore be instrumental in directing the flow of a rumor. Editors have a lot of choice about whether and how to print them, but may be obliged to exaggerate in order to attract readers (Kapferer 1990:54–55 and 109; Knopf 1974). This means that, while the embellishment of rumor amongst ordinary people—known as “adding pepper” in Haiti—is normal and expected, amongst those who publish newspapers it can be dangerous (Kapferer 1990:36; Perice 1997). Suddenly, by way of the newspaper, these rumors and fragments of gossip penetrate many homes and become “common knowledge” (Kapferer 1990:58). Sensationalized newspaper reports—such as those printed in Grenada about O’Hannan in the 1820s and 1830s—may then enter or re-enter the spoken rumor network in a series of feedback loops, increasingly legitimized as they go (Dowd 2015:4). In societies where many people cannot read, such as those of the colonial Caribbean, newspapers and letters are often read aloud to wider audiences. Newsprint (and handwritten) communications were therefore part of a wider ecosystem of speech, a way for the spoken word to travel through time and space, from the lips of one person to the lips of another (Ogborn 2019:28–29). The interaction of rumor and print media indicates that we can assume that the rumors about O’Hannan reached many people in Grenada, and even beyond.

Of course, newspapers did not always offer the support elites wished for. They could also be a serious nuisance for those in power who did not necessarily have control over the press. Those with the means to pay for space in the newspaper could use this medium for a narrative that benefitted them. In Trinidad, LeGoff lamented the way that the Demeraran priest de Ridder was able to use the press to defend himself, saying that he “is constantly persecuting us in the Public Prints and scandalous Pamphlets.”77 On the other hand, Bishop MacDonnell also took advantage of the newspapers’ wide circulation many times, printing long, dry, pastoral addresses that were intended to bolster his image of authority.78 One particularly memorable sentence, directly addressing O’Hannan’s supporters, makes a horrifying comparison between religion and slavery: “Do you so far forget yourselves as to suppose that the admirable obedience and holy captivity of Religion can be promoted by men, ‘despisers of dominion’?”79 With phrases such as these, MacDonnell demonstrated that he viewed the Grenada congregation as misguided and foolish, rather than as people who might have very good reasons for their behavior. O’Hannan retaliated, of course with the 1829 pamphlet, and by publishing private letters such as those between himself and Power, but also by responding to MacDonnell with long newspaper passages of his own.80 The tone of O’Hannan’s writings was markedly different to that of MacDonnell’s; O’Hannan used language that spoke more directly to the sensibilities of the ordinary person.81 While indeed launching a blistering attack on MacDonnell, for example insinuating that the bishop was attempting to put himself above God, O’Hannan also left space for MacDonnell to make amends. “Let him repent of, and repair all, the insults and outrages he has inflicted upon us … and I pledge myself, I shall be the first to assist and support him,” offered O’Hannan, and he left his readers with the affectionate phrases “Believe me to be, my beloved Brethren in Christ, Your most loving and devoted Pastor.”82 O’Hannan’s tone of unity and care was one of many attributes that put him at odds with the rumoring in-group of elite colonialist men.

Whilst newspaper inches devoted to besmirching O’Hannan’s character were delivered weekly into hundreds of homes, O’Hannan was aware that Government Secretary Gaff was building a case against him. Beset on all sides, O’Hannan pelted Governor Campbell with letters, asking him whether Gaff had finished collecting evidence; contesting the rumors; complaining that a new priest had been appointed while his case was still pending; and asking when he would be allowed to officially respond to the accusations.83 But his protestations were mostly ignored—the colonialist rumor train was already hurtling unstoppably onward. Indeed, the seeds of Gaff’s smear campaign had been sown as early as November or December 1829, when Bishop MacDonnell was in Grenada. The bishop presented Secretary Gaff and President Houstoun with all the rumors he had heard about O’Hannan, probably hoping to get some representatives of the civil authorities on his side.84 Although the rumoring suffered a time lag, it stuck. On August 29, 1830, Gaff, who had been on a trip to Trinidad and only recently returned to Grenada, compiled a thick stack of papers to send to Governor Campbell in support of the case against O’Hannan.85 The stack included sworn statements and affidavits concerning rumors from several Catholic men: J.L. O’Connor (resident of Trinidad); Charles de Bellot (a French-speaking planter and a trustee of the Roman Catholic Church of Grenada); John Lenagan (resident of Trinidad); Joseph Orgias (a Catholic gentleman of Grenada); and of course Vicar General William LeGoff, as well as a sworn statement by Gaff himself, backed up by President Houstoun.86 A second stack of evidence, collected during September 1830, consisted of a letter from John Bell (resident of Trinidad) to MacDonnell, recounting a rumor he had heard from his deceased friend, a gentleman of Grenada named George Munro; and a sworn statement of Augustus Spencer (a merchant of St. Barts).87

The rumors conveyed in these letters, affidavits, and statements fall into two main constellations.88 The first is that of an incident that allegedly took place somewhere in North America, where O’Hannan and another Catholic priest named Hogan (a relative of O’Hannan’s) were indicted for rape and/or seduction. Gaff, Houstoun, De Bellot, and Orgias all swore that Bishop MacDonnell had mentioned this incident in their presence when he visited Grenada in 1829.89 O’Connor and Lenagan swore that they had read about the incident in a Cork newspaper.90 However, MacDonnell himself, in his letter to Campbell, declined to discuss the events in North America, focusing instead on the fact that O’Hannan continued preaching when he had been told to desist.91 To muddy the waters even further, the six men who swore to this rumor gave widely diverging accounts of the event. It may have taken place in New York, or Canada, or South Carolina; and O’Hannan may have been accused of rape or seduction, or of being an accessory to rape, and at some point also of perjury. Some said that O’Hannan was convicted, but others had only the suspicion that he was guilty or they could not remember the outcome of the case.92 O’Hannan was even accused of indirectly causing the death of the bishop of Quebec, who was said to have died from the shock of hearing the news.93 Even without the lengthy, and somewhat acerbic, rebuttal provided by O’Hannan against these charges, it is clear that this story has many of the hallmarks of a living rumor.94 The varying details illustrate two especially important attributes, namely that people will often try to fill gaps in rumors when information is sparse, and that rumors tend to reflect the established stereotypes or beliefs held by the rumoring in-group (Kapferer 1990:34 and 84; Knopf 1974; Scott 1990:145). In fact, the rumor had the consistency of smoke. As O’Hannan pointed out, Bishop MacDonnell himself was reluctant to swear to these pronouncements. Although willing to spread rumors in the presence of government officials, he was perhaps unwilling to be held accountable by the written word. Additionally, no one could produce or even name the Irish newspaper that was supposed to have reported on the case. Ultimately, however, whether O’Hannan was guilty is beside the point. Here we see the Catholic and secular authorities in Grenada and Trinidad working together to activate an interisland network of elite rumormongers.

The second of these rumor constellations is found in statements by the St. Barts merchant Spencer and Government Secretary Gaff. They asserted that O’Hannan, during his time on Montserrat, had seduced “a very respectable Young Lady,” who became pregnant and then went to live with O’Hannan in Grenada.95 They provided no concrete details about this incident, neither mentioning the name of the young lady,96 nor upon whose authority they could state that it was O’Hannan who was responsible for her pregnancy. Spencer also mentioned that on St. Barts in April 1827, O’Hannan had fomented unrest between the Catholic and Methodist communities, even leading a riotous attack on the Methodist church during a service, where stones that were thrown seriously injured “a Young Lady of respectability.”97 Referring to respectable young ladies as the alleged victims in both rumor constellations seems designed to play upon the anxieties of the colonial elites. These rumors would have been understood as associating O’Hannan with Black men and men of color, perceived as a threat to White womanly virtue; as already noted, O’Hannan’s friendship with these members of the Grenadian community frequently caused his opponents alarm.98 The choice of rumor therefore spoke to the seriousness with which Grenadian elites viewed O’Hannan’s activities, and their wider societal implications. Not only were free people of color threatening the colonial order in one direction, but a White man was also threatening it in the other. This would have reminded the authorities uncomfortably of the White men who took part in the Fédon Rebellion 35 years earlier (Devas 1932:90; Freund Carter 2021:330; Murphy 2021:206–16).

With this in mind, the audience for and context of a rumor are therefore very important factors in its interpretation.99 In O’Hannan’s case, the rumors passed between people who moved in the same social circles (primarily White Catholic men) despite living on different islands and having different nationalities and occupations. The rumors confirmed stereotypes about people considered too close to free people of color and to the enslaved population. Ultimately, the rumors were perfectly pitched for the elite’s goal of removing O’Hannan from his congregation, although the Catholic and colonial powers may have had very different reasons for desiring such an outcome. At the time, many British people considered “well-educated clergy” to be those educated at Oxford or Cambridge—although as a lay priest, O’Hannan had attended neither (Cornelius 2020:104 and 149). Additionally, O’Hannan was Irish. Like the free people of color who wished to climb the social hierarchy, the Irish in the colonial Caribbean had to contend with issues of respectability, centered in this case around their religion and national identity. For example, Irish people who moved in the upper echelons of colonial society were sometimes forced to maintain a veneer of Protestant conformity that smoothed their social advancement (Shaw 2013:116–17). In Britain, the issues of the abolition of slavery and rights for Catholics were closely and politically linked at the very beginning of the nineteenth century (Rodgers 2007:259–77). The aforementioned newspaper report of stones being thrown through William Thomas’s window provides a good example of contemporary prejudice against the Irish, and is echoed in Spencer’s rumor about the riot at the Methodist church on St. Barts.100 Additionally, Governor Campbell had fought as an army major in Ireland in his late twenties, a context in which he may have acquired numerous prejudices against the Irish.101 It is therefore probable that the colonial administration looked down on O’Hannan as a young man of inferior nationality and religion, not respectably educated, and spending far too much time with enslaved people and free people of color.

Meanwhile, to the White French Catholic community, O’Hannan’s various attributes may have represented a threat to their social standing, and to their sense of identity and security that had suffered a serious blow after the Fédon Rebellion. Some older community members might have remembered Pascal Mardel, a Capuchin priest who had arrived in Grenada in 1788 and went on to be a leader of the Rebellion. Catholic priests had also been prominent in the French Revolution (Jacobs 2015), a fact that would not have escaped them. Moreover, the entanglement of members of the clergy in embarrassing sexual scandals was not unknown at the time, and provided the public with ample fodder for rumor and condemnation. There were various reasons why such accusations reached so many ears, not least hypocrisy, which could undermine the public’s religious faith (Gibson & Begiato 2017:232). For the elites, rumors about the sexual misdeeds of clergymen could be useful in discrediting those whose principles were considered dangerous (Gibson & Begiato 2017:241). An example from the Caribbean is that of the Anglican missionary Isaac Bradnock in early nineteenth-century Jamaica, whose attention to the women of color in his congregation was interpreted by the White elites as exploitation, hedonism, and social deviance (Ogborn 2019:176 and 180). Accusations of illiteracy, immorality, adultery, and fornication were also leveled at Black prayer leaders in the Caribbean, for example Mr. Magee of Falmouth, Jamaica (Ogborn 2019:184–85). Seen in this context, it was hardly a coincidence that the rumormongers in O’Hannan’s case questioned his respectability by spreading rumors of his attack on White womanhood. These aspects of the history of religious figures in the Caribbean were probably contributing factors as to why the White French Catholics of Grenada were so keen to distance themselves from O’Hannan and to ingratiate themselves with the civil authorities.

Furthermore, after previous revolts in the region, for example in Barbados in 1816 and in Demerara in 1823, missionaries and nonconformists were regularly blamed by religious and colonial powers for influencing, encouraging, or inciting the enslaved population to rebellion, even when there was no evidence that this was the case, and in fact even where there was evidence of the complete opposite.102 In some cases, even the very mildly revolutionary approaches of clergymen, for example those of William Harte in early nineteenth-century Barbados, were perceived as an existential and physical threat to colonial authority (Gilmore 1979). Although they had been clearly instructed not to upset the colonial order and told that they were in the Caribbean to disseminate religious teachings that supported slavery, missionaries in the early nineteenth century were often sympathetic to the plight of enslaved people in a way that the planters and authorities were not (Gilmore 1979; Matthews 2001; Turner 2021). They introduced tensions into colonial society by proposing time off to attend Sunday service; by providing an excuse for enslaved people to move around after dark; and by being keen to teach enslaved people to read (Gilmore 1979; Matthews 2001). Meanwhile, enslaved people interpreted the teachings of Christianity for themselves, rejecting the contradiction of spiritual freedom and physical bondage offered to them by the missionaries (Matthews 2001). While laying so much blame at the feet of religious figures therefore ignored the agency of enslaved people to decide how to rebel on their own terms, it also demonstrates how people such as O’Hannan were viewed with suspicion by planters and politicians alike.

In this context of societal fragility and elite anxiety, the Grenadian authorities, the Catholic trustees of Grenada, and Bishop MacDonnell, were therefore convinced that O’Hannan would be quite capable of bringing the colonial order down by encouraging the enslaved population to rebel.103 Together, their rumors demonstrated the kind of man that the French- and English-speaking elites of Grenada saw when they looked at O’Hannan: violent, immoral, disrespectful, and wholly unworthy of being a Catholic priest. Outspoken against the planters’ religious and moral neglect of the enslaved people under their “care,” O’Hannan heard the complaints of enslaved people who felt that their enslavers were not fulfilling their duties toward them (Cox 1984:117). It was easy for the elites to experience such empathy and understanding as a profound threat.

As Freund Carter argues, “the case of the Catholics in Grenada reveals that race mattered more than religion in colonial environments” (Freund Carter 2021:191). Across the Caribbean, the Catholic Church was invested in maintaining White racial superiority and the colonial regime, also collaborating with British and Dutch colonial authorities (Allen 2007:147–75; Kehoe 2019; Lampe 2001). The case of Antony O’Hannan demonstrates that frictions of nationality and religion could and would be overcome to create an in-group in times of unrest, and that microregional rumors were an important weapon in the arsenal of the White elites of the colonial Lesser Antilles.

3 Conclusions

Rumors cause people at all levels of society to take actions that may effect any number of other subsequent outcomes. In the colonial Caribbean, they have often been discussed as a “weapon of the weak,” associated with enslaved people, sailors, and attempts to undermine the colonial order (Scott 1985). Modern stereotypical views of rumorers and gossipmongers may see them as lower class and feminine (see for example Kapferer 1990:98–99). However, elite men were also actively, purposefully, and intensely engaged in rumoring in the colonial-era Lesser Antilles. The Catholic and colonial powers in Grenada in 1830 had tried several administrative avenues to pry Antony O’Hannan away from his congregation: MacDonnell’s attempt to send O’Hannan to Jamaica, Houstoun’s revocation of O’Hannan’s license, and appeals to the metropolitan powers were all unsuccessful. It was only when these methods failed that these elite White men activated their social networks to create a web of rumor about O’Hannan’s supposedly depraved and dangerous character. Their networks operated at local (Grenada), microregional (Trinidad, St. Barts, and Montserrat), and macroregional (Canada, the United States, and Ireland) levels. The rumorers against O’Hannan were mainly White Catholic men, including members of the clergy, merchants, landowners, and other gentlemen. Despite their religious persecution in the early nineteenth century, they were able to leverage their status as White colonizers to put pressure on an Irishman with revolutionary principles, thereby demonstrating their loyalty to the colonial system. The Grenada Council unanimously agreed with the White Catholic assessment of O’Hannan, demonstrating a common purpose with them that the government in London certainly lacked, and which might in other circumstances have been unthinkable.104 In the words of President Houstoun, “ministers of that Religion should be discreet, conscientious ‘and well affected to the Government’ whereas, I consider Mr. O’Hannan to be ‘the direct reverse’.”105 On March 20, 1830, the Grenada House resolved that both O’Hannan and Power were “most dangerous characters … likely to create much mischief and danger to the country.”106 These colonial anxieties were reflected in the rumors that they chose to spread about the violation of that symbol of colonial reproduction, the respectable young lady.

Ultimately, however, efforts to oust O’Hannan through rumoring were also unsuccessful. The disagreements, disruption, petitioning, and newspaper articles continued through the remainder of 1830 and 1831, but both O’Hannan and his friend Power were eventually reconciled with the Church that had disowned them and with the state that had persecuted them.107 O’Hannan was issued a new license in 1832 and died in 1840, in his late forties.108 That he chose to remain in Grenada until his death may say something about the depth of feeling that he had for his congregation, and the enthusiastic support that they offered him against a hostile government. In the end, it may have been more dangerous for the colonial authorities to reject O’Hannan than to accept him in the period surrounding the abolition of slavery; colonial authorities were inclined to put social stability above their religious prejudices (Gerber 1982). The story of O’Hannan, his congregation, and his rumoring adversaries is not only an important part of the complex history of Catholicism in Grenada and its microregion, but also of the ways in which White elites were willing to collaborate across internal differences to maintain the colonial order.


I would like to thank Gunvor Simonsen, Heather Freund, Marie Keulen, Hannah Hjorth, Rasmus Christensen, and Gabriëlle La Croix (University of Copenhagen); Natália da Silva Perez (Erasmus University Rotterdam); Jessica Roitman (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam); Cécile Vidal (École des hautes études en sciences sociales); Natalie Zacek (University of Manchester); Fredrik Thomasson (Uppsala University); and Dominique Rogers (Université des Antilles) for reading drafts of this article. Thanks to Jonathan A. Hanna and John Angus Martin (Grenada National Museum); and to Craig Cochrane, Stephen Lewis, and Philip Thorne (Grenada Genealogical and Historical Society) for hosting and helping to organize outreach events for the Grenada community. Additional thanks to Philip Thorne and Rasmus Christensen for finding and transcribing Antony O’Hannan’s will. Finally, thanks to all the people who attended the Zoom event in December 2022 and the live event at Norton Hall (St. George’s, Grenada) in March 2023—it was great to hear so many good questions and comments before submitting the article for publication.


This article is part of the In the Same Sea project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. ERC-2019-COG 863671).


The National Archives, Kew (hereafter TNA) Colonial Office (hereafter CO), 101/72, fol. 583.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 449.


The Hamilton, Kirwan, Canonier, and Semper families (Messenger 1967).


Devas 1932:53–54 and 57; Murphy 2021:186–87; French rule resumed in Grenada from 1779 (Murphy 2021:186 and 194).


The National Archives, Currency Converter: 1270–2017,, accessed July 20, 2023.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 445–46.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 445–46. One of the schools O’Hannan set up was located at the building known as La Chapelle on Lucas Street in St. George’s, where he also set up his own chapel (Martin 2022:45).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 445–46.


Gash 1961:508–98; Ward, S.G.P., “Murray, Sir George (1772–1846), army officer and politician,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2008,, accessed May 22, 2023.


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, July 22, 1829 (available from Readex Caribbean Newspapers).


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, July 1, 1829. The differing approaches of O’Hannan and his contemporary, Père Hilarion de Mataro, can partly explain this division (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 29–32).


Supplement to The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, October 30, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 351); TNA CO 101/72, fols. 5, 32, and 351.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 46 and 64–65.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 589 and 590.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 207, 343–44, 450, and 580–92.


Variously referred to as: the Coloured Roman Catholics (Pamphlet, TNA CO 101/72, fol. 435); the Coloured Catholic Inhabitants of this Island (Resolutions, TNA CO 101/72, fols. 343–44); His Majesty’s Coloured Roman Catholics, Subjects of the Island of Grenada (Petition, TNA CO 101/72, fol. 580); His Majesty’s R.C. Subjects of the Island of Grenada (Petition, TNA CO 101/72, fol. 589); the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Island of Grenada (Petition, TNA 101/72, fol. 590); and the Coloured Roman Catholic Inhabitants (The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 29, 1829).


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 435; The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 23, 1829.


On February 24, 1829, at Colombier in St. Andrew’s parish, O’Hannan married Fredrick Harford to Louisa de Creft. This was in addition to their official marriage by the Protestant minister, Reverend W.D. Sealy (The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, February 25, 1829). A petition from June 23, 1829, describes how pleased the congregation was with O’Hannan’s efforts in the area of education (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 29–31).


In 1831, an enslaved woman named Germaine was caught in the crossfire of the ongoing conflict between O’Hannan and the Grenada government. Her sworn statement, made in front of her enslaver, seems (understandably) designed to cause the least possible trouble for herself, saying that she did “not wish to make any complaint” against her “very good master” and remaining carefully neutral about O’Hannan even while directly contradicting the pastor’s version of events (TNA CO 101/73, fol. 140).


He referred to Germaine, for example, as “the poor deluded Slave” (TNA CO 101/73, fol. 143).


TNA CO 101/73, fol. 143.


TNA CO 101/73, fol. 143. For example, on May 31, 1848, the American abolitionist Theodore Parker gave an address to the New England Anti-Slavery Society in which he noted, “No ‘respectable’ paper is opposed to slavery; no Whig paper, no Democratic paper. You would as soon expect a Catholic newspaper to oppose the Pope and his church, for the slave power is the pope of America, though not exactly a pious pope. The churches show the same thing; they also are in the main pro-slavery, at least not anti-slavery” (Ruchames 2020:186).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 64–65.


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, July 29, 1829.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 65.


The trustees were appointed by the Grenada government and approved by the Catholic authorities (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 166).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 64–65.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 63 and 451; TNA CO 101/73, fol. 401.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 166.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 160–61 (emphasis in the original).


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 30, 1829 Saint Christopher Advertiser and Weekly Intelligencer, August 11, 1829 and December 18, 1829; Port of Spain Gazette, August 5, 1829 (all from Readex Caribbean Newspapers).


Port of Spain Gazette, August 5, 1829.


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 23, 1829.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 580–88. Another petition in support of O’Hannan had 943 signatures (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 29–31).


TNA CO 101/71, fol. 581.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 4–8 and 447.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 447.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 166.


Ince 2013; Messenger 1967; possibly a relative of the Powers on Montserrat (Messenger 1967).


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 220.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 221.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 222.


And by extension, the Bishop MacDonnell, although O’Hannan would not have agreed with him on this point (see The St. George’s Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, October 30, 1830 in TNA CO 101/72, fol. 350).


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, February 17, 1830, February 24, 1830, March 24, 1830.


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, March 3, 1830.


Campbell 1981; Ince 2013; TNA CO 101/72, fol. 166.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 164–65; see also TNA CO 101/72, fols. 155–56 for President Houstoun’s opinion.


The White French Catholic population of Grenada being, at this time, extremely small (see Cornelius 2020:91–94, 99–100, and 116).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 164–65 and 170.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 170.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 232–33.


Daughters of President Houstoun named Margaret and Jane (Cox 1984:154).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 425–44.


Translation: “scoundrel of color.”


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 435.


TNA CO 101/72, 437.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 154, 164, and 170.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 154.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 162.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 591.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 207.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 205.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 196.


Baker 1994:98–99; Bensassi, Mohan & Strobl 2017; Cox 1984:7–9; Dubois 2015; Kehoe 2019; Tarver 2018:53–64.


TNA CO 295/86, fols. 79–80.


Beckles 1999:62; Couti 2016:22; Hodes 1997:97; Morgan 2018.


Particularly Tortola, Puerto Rico, St. Eustatius, St. Barts, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad (Mulich 2020:53).


Principally Aruba, St. Thomas, and the coast of South America (see Fricke et al. 2022).


The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, September 22. 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 229).


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 196; The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, September 22, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 229).


The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, September 25, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 228).


The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, September 25, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 228).


William Thomas was Clerk of the Magistrates, and not known as a friend to the enslaved people (see TNA CO 101/73, fol. 143).


The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, September 29, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 231).


The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, September 29, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 231).


Kapferer 1990:16 and 58; Knopf 1974; Lefebvre 1973:74; White 2000:57.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 166.


Port of Spain Gazette, November 14, 1829; The St. George Chronicle, October 30, 1830 (Readex Caribbean Newspapers).


Supplement to The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, October 30, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 351).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 425–44; The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, February 17, 1830; The St. George Chronicle, October 30, 1830.


The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, October 30, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 350).


The St. George Chronicle and Grenada Gazette, October 30, 1830 (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 350).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 237, 238, 240–41, 243, 260–61, and 265.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 253.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 238.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 251, 253, 255, 256, 258, and 259. Grenada and Trinidad had a long history of Catholic interaction. Between 1776 and 1783, the Spanish encouraged many Catholic planters to move from Grenada to Trinidad (Kehoe & O’Neill 2022).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 285 and 287–88.


Alongside the general protestations of Bell, whose deceased friend Munro had apparently said that O’Hannan was a “violent and most dangerous man” likely to “raise the black population of Grenada against their Masters” (see TNA CO 101/72, fol. 285).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 253, 255 and 256.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 258 and 259.


He noted that he received his rumors from New York and Philadelphia (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 249–50).


This last comment caused Murray or one of his subordinates to generate three large penciled exclamation marks, which apparently required no further explanation (see TNA CO 101/71, fol. 259).


The bishop of Quebec was named in Gaff’s statement as Dr. Connell (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 253), but O’Hannan later protested that this was incorrect. At the time he was in Quebec, the bishop there was named Joseph Octavius Plessis, and his death was so recent as to certainly have nothing to do with any of O’Hannan’s actions (TNA CO 101/72, fol. 279).


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 279–83 and 289–90.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 287–88 and 299–300.


Allegedly, in order to protect her honor (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 299–300).


Miss Simmons (TNA CO 101/72, fols. 287–88).


Fuentes 2016:70–99; Mackie 2006; Walker 2020:10 and 229; Wilson 2003:145; Yeh 2006; The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, July 29, 1829; TNA CO 101/72, fols. 64–65.


Derby 2014; Kapferer 1990:93 and 160; Perice 1997; Shibutani 1966:24.


The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 29, 1830; TNA CO 101/71, fols. 287–88.


H.M. Stephens & Stewart M. Fraser, “Campbell, Sir James (1773?–1835), army officer and colonial governor,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004,, accessed May 22, 2023.


Matthews 2001; Northcott 1976:10 and 68; da Costa 1994: xiiv and 290.


TNA CO 101–72, fols. 136, 160–61 and 232.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 154–57.


TNA CO 101/72, fol. 155.


TNA CO 101/72, fols. 136–37.


Ince 2013; TNA CO 101/72, fols. 334 and 343–44; TNA CO 101/73, fols. 153–63; The Grenada Gazette, August 6, 1831 (TNA CO 101/73, fol. 327).


Ince 2013; The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, January 11, 1832. In his will, O’Hannan named six women and six men as beneficiaries, including his “attendant” (presumably a woman of color) named Louisa, and a relative of Edward DePoullain (one of the Catholic trustees, see The Grenada Free Press and Public Gazette, October 6, 1830, TNA CO 101/72, fol. 348, and subsequently a member of the Board of the Coloured Roman Catholic Inhabitants, see The Grenada Free Press and Weekly Gazette, September 30, 1830, and also coauthor of the 1829 pamphlet criticizing Bishop MacDonnell). In addition to his brothers, Michael and Daniel, he named Power as a particularly important beneficiary. Power received 100 pounds sterling and the building that O’Hannan had been using as a chapel, directing it “to be sold and the proceeds to be applied by the Revd. Samuel Power in establishing and keeping up a School in the principles of the Roman Catholic faith or for religious purposes at his discretion”, demonstrating a relationship of trust that extended beyond his death (TNA Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 11/1943/78).


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