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Birthright

Review by: Rohan McWilliam, Anglia Ruskin University

A. Roger Ekirch, Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

In his wonderful study of cheap children’s fiction, Boys Will be Boys, E.S. Turner claimed that ‘There was one basic plot running through … Gothic thrillers. Indeed it grew to be the basic plot of the nineteenth century. It was that of the young and rightful heir deprived of his birthright by evil-scheming relatives or guardians’. But this plot was not restricted to romantic literature. Impostors or bastard children often laid claim to old estates and titles, raising questions about the legitimacy of peerages and ancient lineages. This is the context for reading A. Roger Ekirch’s remarkable new book, Birthright.

Ekirch, a distinguished historian of colonial North America, recreates one of the most extraordinary causescélèbres of the eighteenth century, a tale of skulduggery and intrigue among the Irish aristocracy that eventually influenced Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886), one of the classics of adventure fiction. The facts of the original case are so colourful that it is difficult to explain how they could have been forgotten until Ekirch’s expert research brought them back to life.

The Annesley family were an integral part of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. James Annesley, born in 1715, was allegedly the heir to the fourth baron Altham and stood to inherit five aristocratic titles. His father turned him out of the house at the age of eight after which, for a time, he lived rough and found work doing menial jobs on Dublin’s streets, whilst maintaining, to the amazement of the locals, that he was Lord Altham’s son. Following the death of his father in 1727, Annesley’s uncle Richard, the sixth Earl of Anglesea, had the twelve year old kidnapped and dispatched to the American colonies as an indentured servant to prevent him claiming his inheritance. He subsequently reported that the boy had died of smallpox. Richard seems to be the prototype for every melodramatic villain since that time. He was a bigamist who may have actually poisoned the earl of Altham (if a film is made of this book, Alan Rickman’s agent needs a call). James Annesley was far less fortunate than Stevenson’s David Balfour whose kidnapping was relatively brief. The young heir was trapped in servitude for thirteen years, purchased by a farmer who made him work on his farm in the Delaware valley.

When James regained his freedom and returned home in 1741, his uncle predictably refused to recognise his claim but James found some wealthy supporters, the most important of whom was the Scottish merchant Daniel Mackercher who devoted much of his time to helping James recover his lost rights as the scion of a noble family. Then another disaster struck. James accidentally shot a suspected poacher. His uncle supported James’ prosecution to get the inconvenient arrival out of the way by having him executed. The jury, however, decided it was a ‘chance medley’ and let James go free. Richard’s involvement with the prosecution was also noted. Subsequently, a confrontation between James and the henchmen of his uncle at the Curragh racecourse ended in a violent mêlée.

The issue of the Annesley succession reached the Dublin courts in 1743. It became the longest trial then known (twelve days) and ended with a victory for James. However, this proved only to be the opening skirmish in a protracted legal struggle that went on for almost twenty years thereafter. James died in 1760 with the succession unresolved.

Ekirch has delved deeply into the legal records and other archival materials to reconstruct the facts of the case. In doing so he recreates the world of the eighteenth century Irish aristocracy and the legal system. This is ultimately a study of the trans-Atlantic world and Ekirch, who has written on the transportation of convicts to the American colonies, is well qualified to write about it. His beautifully written book reads like a fast paced thriller and ultimately as a tragedy. Events on both sides of the Atlantic are reconstructed with care. My only criticism is that I would like to have read a bit more about Robert Louis Stevenson’s interest in the case (not least because it gave rise to Ekirch’s subtitle). How much did Stevenson know about the case or was he just using a plot device that was not uncommon in adventure fiction? On the issue of whether James was the rightful heir, there is some room for doubt but Ekirch convincingly argues that the facts support his claim. There is in any case no question that he was kidnapped and sent to the colonies. The wandering heir denied his rights may have been a figure of romantic fantasy but this fiction acquired some legitimacy because there were comparable figures in reality. James Annesley was denied his rights in life but he has at least found a worthy chronicler in Roger Ekirch.

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