A recent article on sports website balls.ie highlighted the claims by Michael Cusack, one of the founding members of the GAA, that Chess was in fact a game that was Irish in origin. Cusack claimed chess should be “played because it was Irish and National, and especially because it was the principal instrument of culture among the most glorious people that ever lived in Ireland – the Fenians of ancient Erin.” The article focuses on some fascinating research carried out by UCD’s Paul Rouse in his latest book ‘Sport and Ireland: A History’ and the article further mentions that to date our only Grandmaster is the Russian born, Irish resident Alexander Baburin.
Despite this lack of high level achievement there is a long history of chess in Ireland, though perhaps quite different from the one suggested by Michael Cusack. Chess, or the game from which it originated, has variously been traced to China, Persia or most commonly India, with the game we know today moving westward into Europe and then northward through Italy and Spain. The Prague-born Wilhelm Steinitz has been recognised as the first official Chess “World Champion” in 1886, while the international governing body for chess, FIDE was founded in France in 1924. However in the years before Steinitz’s triumph there were a number of unofficial world champions, and one of the first, and most brief of these champions was an Irishman, the Belfast-born Alexander McDonnell.
McDonnell was born in Belfast in 1798, his father, also named Alexander was a noted surgeon in Belfast. It was said that he attended the the execution of Henry Joy McCracken, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion. While his uncle Dr. James McDonnell was the founder of the Belfast Fever Hospital, which exists today as the Royal Victoria Hospital. James was also father to a son named Alexander, but we will return to him in another post.
Alexander, the future chess star, trained and worked as a merchant in the West Indies in the early part of the 19th Century, and this is where the story takes a decidedly dark turn. Reports suggest that Alexander went out to the West Indies at the age of 17 and ended up in the colony of Demerara-Essequibo, now part of modern day Guyana, and worked as a merchant dealing mainly with the export crops of the area, sugar and coffee. McDonnell was obviously well thought of by the merchants and plantation owners of the area because in 1820 he returned to London to act on their behalf as secretary of the Committee of West Indian Merchants. This role was to primarily represent the interests of the British colonists in the West Indies and to liaise with persons of importance and members of Parliament, what we might recognise today as a PR and lobbying role. This was a crucial time for those with financial interests in the West Indies, as there was a growing abolitionist movement in Britain, and the plantations of the West Indies were almost totally operated by slave labour. By 1807 the British Empire had outlawed Slave trading, which ceased the long established practice of the Atlantic slave trade, the forcible capture and relocation of people from west Africa to the Americas for work in the hugely profitable plantations. Slavery itself though remained legal. Those enslaved people already in the possession of plantation owners remained their chattels, as did any children born into slavery.
In 1823 the Anti-slavery society, which sought to abolish slavery completely and which lobbied extensively for this cause, was founded in Britain. 1823 was also the year that Demerara became the focus of international attention, after a slave revolt was ruthlessly put down by the local colonists and their armed forces. While initial public sentiment in Britain was with the plantation owners, this soon changed when details of the conditions for the enslaved people emerged. Central to the revolt seems to have been the actions of an abolitionist preacher named John Smith who wished to provide religious instruction to the enslaved people and who also told them of the abolitionist movement. Smith was arrested and charged with promoting discontent and dissatisfaction among the enslaved people of the plantations. He was duly convicted and sentenced to death but died of “consumption” before the sentence could be carried out. The death of the white Parson Smith caused uproar in Britain, far more than the death of over 200 black people during and after the revolt, and let to over 200 petitions being delivered to Parliament. Over 20 of the enslaved people who had been part of the largely peaceful uprising were executed and their bodies strung up on gibbets as a ghastly warning to any other slave who would dare to seek their freedom.
It was against this background of huge negative publicity, the creation of Parson John Smith as the so-called “Demerara Martyr” and the rise in prominence of abolitionists like William Wilberforce, that Alexander McDonnell wrote a book entitled “Considerations on Negro Slavery with authentic reports illustrative of the actual conditions of the Negroes in Demerara” . The book reads as a condescending apologia for the Demerara plantocracy. McDonnell seeks to the defend the indefensible conditions and practices of the planters, mainly by referring to replies he received from plantation managers to a series of letters he had sent. While he criticises the slave trade and the cruelty of kidnapping people from their native lands, he defends the present “patriarchal” conditions of slavery that existed in Demerara. His arguments against immediate abolition were threefold, though predominatly focused on the financial impact of such a decision. Firstly, he argued that the West Indian colonies were worth a great deal financially to the British Empire, but that this was predicated on the production of items like sugar through slave labour, and abolishing slave labour would make the colonies a drain on the Empire. Secondly, that plantation owners had a right to their property and should not be denied a living. He stated that even the most vociferous abolitionists would have a different view of slavery if its banning should lead to their own loss of income. And thirdly, that the slaves of Demerara could not be freed as they were not yet civilised enough to avoid slipping into complete idleness. To support this hypothesis he drew comparisons with the “keeping up with the Joneses” type of motivations that encouraged the English to strive towards greater security and wealth, comparing the dilligent and hard-working farmers and merchants of England with the feckless and idle farmers from the West of Ireland.
Ironically given his preoccupation with idleness, McDonnell’s job representing the interests of West Indies merchants supplied him with a good income and quite an amount of downtime in which he spent honing his skills at the game of chess. McDonnell was only in his early 20s when he was sent back to London in 1820, and by 1825 he was a chess pupil of William Lewis, the first man to ever have the term “Grandmaster” used about him. By 1832 (according to no less an authority than Charles Dickens), McDonnell and several others had joined the Westminster Chess Club, situated on the first floor of a coffee house at Covent Garden. One of the founders of the club was chess player and author George Walker. It was Walker, more than anyone, who helped to popularise chess in Britain at the time. Although not as great a player as the likes of William Lewis, his regular and readable articles on the game, and importantly cheap and accessible books on chess, help drum up interest in the pastime. His Westminster Club would be so successful that it would soon have over 200 members paying two guineas each in membership fees.
Chess clubs such as the Westminster gave McDonnell the opportunity to cement his reputation as the foremost player in Britain, replacing the man who taught him, William Lewis as the top British player of his day. And so, to the chess games that could briefly allow McDonnell a claim to being world chess champion. In 1834, the ever enterprising George Walker sought to arrange a series of games between McDonnell (judged the best player in Britain) and Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, the strongest player in France.
La Bourdonnais was an interesting character. Born on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, part of the French empire just off the east coast of Africa, he squandered his fortune in a series of bad investments and turned to chess to provide him with a living. In the early 1820’s he had travelled to London and had defeated the foremost players that Britain had to offer, including William Lewis and John Cochrane. In 1834, some nine years after his last visit to England, La Bourdonnais returned at the invitation of George Walker to play Alexander McDonnell, now recognised as Britain’s finest chess player in the Westminster Chess club.
Between June and October 1834 the pair would play a series of 6 matches, which eventually totalled 85 games for what was effectively the World Championship of Chess. The two men’s personal styles differed greatly; McDonnell was a quiet, taciturn individual who would spend hours over a single move, but despite this could be highly reckless in his play. He rarely spoke during play and would often be found afterwards in his rooms, pacing up and down furiously as he mentally replayed that day’s games. The fact that McDonnell was by this stage already suffering from Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment similar to nephritis which can also be accompanied by hypertension, probably didn’t assist his mood, and would eventually lead to his death aged just 37.
La Bourdonnais, on the other hand, was a far more garrulous and animated individual, swearing loudly when he lost and chatting affably and drinking when he was winning. It was said that McDonnell’s somewhat inscrutable demeanour during play, whether winning or losing, was quite off-putting for the Frenchman.
Off-putting as McDonnell’s personality may have been, it didn’t stop La Bourdonnais triumphing easily in the opening match, winning 16 games to McDonnell’s 5 with only 4 draws, which demonstrates the wild difference between theses early 19th Century games and modern competitive chess, where draws are far more common. In the second series of matches, there were to be no draws at all, with McDonnell winning 5 games to 4.
As mentioned above, there would not be an officially recognised World Chess Champion for another 52 years after the McDonnell- La Bourdonnais games. It is at this short juncture, after victory in the second series of games, that McDonnell could claim to being the Chess World Champion, and therefore the only Irishman in history who could hope to lay claim to that title.
La Bourdonnais would win the next three series of games, but it was during the sixth set of matches, with McDonnell in the lead 5 games to 4, that the Frenchman left abruptly to return home. It seemed that La Bourdonnais’ poor financial choices were catching up with him again, and he had to leave urgently to deal with his various creditors. Overall, 85 games were played over the six matches, with the final standing at 45 games to La Bourdonnaise, 13 draws and 27 wins for McDonnell. It was the stated intention to reconvene the sixth match of the series, but within a year McDonnell would be dead. Five years later in 1840, La Bourdonnais would die in poverty having been forced to sell even his clothes to try and pay off his debts. George Walker, the man who had organised the 1834 matches undertook the cost of La Bourdonnais’ burial and arranged for him to be buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London, only a few metres from the grave of his old adversary McDonnell. Both graves have been lost now, but their headstones are recorded to have said simply:
Sacred to the Memory of
(Formerly of Belfast,)
Who died 14th September, 1835,
Aged 37 years.”
Louis Charles de la Bouronnais,
The celebrated Chess Player,
Died 13th December, 1840,
Aged 43 years.”
To an extent, both men’s fame outlived their short life span. For this they have William Greenwood Walker to thank. A Secretary of the Westminster Chess Club, Greenwood Walker had diligently recorded almost all of the 85 games played by McDonnell and La Bourdonnais. Accounts of these games were quickly published and were studied eagerly by chess players the world over. Cary Utterburg, who has written extensively on the matches, has said this on the massive impact Greenwood Walker’s records and publications had on the world of chess:
“The recording and publication of game scores from a series of matches between masters was a first in chess history. The event irrevocably altered the game, giving birth to modern chess theory. Once based upon composed, abstract exercises, studied in isolation, theory now became concrete and measurable. Practice replaced contrivance, and tactics could be studied and honed in light of the avalanche of match records that followed.”
These games changed the history of the game and founded a new specified genre of writing focused on chess theory and tactics. In this sense, an Irish man was central to the notion that there should be such a thing as an international chess competition, that there could be a world chess champion, and that chess games could be recorded, published and studied by future generations of players. McDonnell’s role in all this was revolutionary, and this is to say nothing of the specific stylistic influence that his play had on generations of chess players to come.
However, it is also impossible to ignore McDonnell’s ignoble role in the far more momentous political movements around the abolition of the slavery. McDonnell had become wealthy off the back of the sugar and coffee trade of the Caribbean, and had returned to London to advocate and lobby on the behalf of plantation owners, men like Sir John Gladstone (father of the future Prime Minister William Gladstone) who had never set foot on their massive plantations, but who extracted great wealth from them. The pathetic arguments put forward by McDonnell in his book of 1825 defending the use of slave labour in the Caribbean were used again when he addressed both houses of Parliament on the issue of the “West India question” in 1830.
McDonnell’s wealth and comfortable job, built on the back of slave labour, allowed him to indulge his talent for chess and may have helped him make history in the game, but his efforts on behalf of the plantation owners could not stem the tides of history. The 1823 slave uprising in Demerara that McDonnell wrote about was followed by a number of other rebellions, most notably the Jamaican Slave revolt of Christmas 1831 in which as many as 60,000 people enslaved in Jamaica rebelled against the planter class. As in Demerara, the reprisals by the plantation owners were brutal and as many as 500 enslaved people were killed, and over 300 further were executed after the end of the uprising.
While McDonnell was playing La Bourdonnais in 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act was being passed in Parliament. As for men like Sir John Gladstone, they could see the writing on the wall but made sure to use people like McDonnell to lobby intensively for massive compensation due to the loss of their “property”. In this McDonnell was successful, as an example Gladstone alone received almost £107,000 for the loss of slaves through the abolition bill. In modern day sums this equates to approximately £83 million. He would later re-staff his plantations with indentured servants from India who continued to endure terrible conditions.
Alexander McDonnell, a fine chess player, with a fair claim to being a World Champion, but someone who did his utmost on behalf of wealthy and unscrupulous plantation owners to impede the abolition of slavery within the British Empire.