The real-life saga of James Annesley

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In a nutshell

Birthright sets out to recount, for the first time, the real-life saga of James Annesley, which not only captivated eighteenth-century Britain but inspired five novels, most famously Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Kidnapped.

In 1728, at twelve years of age, “Jemmy” was kidnapped from Dublin and shipped by his uncle to America as an indentured servant. Uncle Richard, his blood rival, usurped the boy’s inheritance of five aristocratic titles belonging to the mighty house of Annesley, together with sprawling estates in Ireland, England, and Wales. Only after twelve more years, in the backwoods of northern Delaware, did James successfully escape to Jamaica, then to England, and, finally, to Ireland, where he set about reclaiming his birthright, all the while defying accusations of being a “pretender,” the bastard son of a maidservant, in addition to repeated attempts on his life.

How, after such a long absence, in an age without DNA laboratories, fingerprint records, or photographs could an impoverished prodigal prove his identity, let alone his legitimacy? At stake during the epic trial held in Dublin in 1743—the longest in memory—was the greatest family estate ever put before a jury. Still, the trial was just the beginning of a tortuous quest on the road to redemption. Bursting with an improbable cast of characters, from a brave Dublin butcher and a wily Scot to the king of England, Birthright evokes the volatile world of Georgian Ireland—complete with its violence, debauchery, ancient rituals, and tenacious loyalties.

With any luck, readers will find this family drama as engrossing as I have over the course of six years of research and writing. It is an astonishing story to which I hope that I have done justice.

“My aim has been to use this small mountain of evidence to relate the fascinating story of Annesely’s life with as much attention to accuracy and historical detail as possible.”

The wide angle

Although the inspiration for five novels, Annesley’s ordeal has attracted scant attention from historians, in part because the principal primary source associated with his abduction is a volume, first published in 1743, entitled Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman, Return’d from a Thirteen Years Slavery in America. . . .Upon my first encounter twenty-five years ago with this text, of which Annesley was not the author, my own reaction was much the same as that of other historians— to dismiss it out of hand as fiction, and bad fiction at that. A reprint, in fact, appeared in 1975 as part of Garland Publishing’s “Flowering of the Novel” series.

More recently, a stray reference to Annesley’s tribulations in an obscure English diary in Oxford’s Bodleian Library caused me to probe further, only to discover transcripts of court proceedings held in London as well as Dublin. And, too, along with newspaper reports, I was fortunate enough to locate nearly four hundred legal depositions, wholly pertaining to Jemmy’s youth, in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin and in the National Archives outside London. Although few scraps of personal correspondence have survived, members of the Annesleys, an English family who over the course of the 1600s achieved wealth and fame in Ireland on a grand scale, left a vast trove of legal documents in their wake.

My aim has been to use this small mountain of evidence to relate the fascinating story of Annesely’s life with as much attention to accuracy and historical detail as possible. There is next to no reliance upon literary theory, nor is the book highly analytical apart from the occasional paragraph in which I endeavor to expand upon the broader context of events, whether it be the kidnapping trade, childrearing, or the issue of attorney-client privilege. In this regard, two models, which I aspired to emulate, were Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. Both relate gripping stories, all the while paying scrupulous attention to the larger historical milieu.

January 25, 2010

A close-up

The prologue of Birthright is the portion to which I devoted the most energy. If it does not capture the reader’s imagination, chances are that the rest of the book will not either. Commencing with the sudden death of Annesley’s father, Baron Altham, the prologue recounts James’s life as a street waif, climaxing with his abduction and being placed aboard a ship in Dublin Bay bound for America. Legal records, maps, city records, even a diary of Dublin’s weather allowed me to reconstruct this remarkable sequence of events, which is cast, unlike the remainder of the book, in the present tense.

Still and all, readers, I like to think, will profit from reading the book’s final chapter, entitled “A Note on Legal Sources.” The prose is more analytical, but I use this opportunity to sort out the conflicting legal testimony surrounding Annesley’s efforts to reclaim his birthright—to explain, in short, why I found the arguments in his favor very difficult to refute.

“A secondary goal has been to illuminate the contours of Irish society. The sheer density of the legal depositions, many containing richly detailed recollections of both rural and urban settings, is stunning.”


From the outset, I resolved to cast the tale as a narrative, an easy decision given its compelling nature. That said, a secondary goal has been to illuminate the contours of Irish society. The sheer density of the legal depositions, many containing richly detailed recollections of both rural and urban settings, is stunning. Though of varying quality and length, they speak not only of the minutiae of everyday existence—the clothing, furnishings, and customs of lords and peasants—but also of the cadences of Irish life. Ultimately, however, this remains a family drama full of unexpected twists and turns—a story about betrayal and loss, but also endurance, survival, and redemption.

© 2010 A. Roger Ekirch
Ekirch , Roger Birthright: The True Story that Inspired Kidnapped W. W. Norton 258 pages, 8 1/2 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0393066159

Roger Ekirch is an award-winning historian, whose writings have been translated into eight languages. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he obtained his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. Since 1977, he has taught at Virginia Tech. Along with three other books and sundry scholarly articles, he has written columns for the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. His path-breaking research on the history of sleep has been profiled in publications ranging from the Smithsonian Magazine and the Financial Times to Applied Neurology and Scientific American Mind. Professor Ekirch has received three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and in 1981-1982 became the first Paul Mellon Fellow at Cambridge University. In 1998, he received a coveted Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. His last book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005), won four awards, including a prize given by the history honor society Phi Alpha Theta for the “best subsequent book” in all fields of history.

Cover Interview of
January 25, 2010