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The unfree Irish in the Caribbean were indentured servants, not slaves

It’s a myth there were ‘Irish slaves’ in Barbados. As difficult as white servants’ experiences were, enslaved Africans were the people treated as livestock.

Image: Liam Hogan

This is an op-ed by Liam Hogan, Laura McAtackney, and Matthew Connor Reilly. They write in response to what they call the myth of “Irish slaves” in the New World, which has recently entered the mainstream via social media.

This myth, conflating indentured servitude with racialised chattel slavery, has helped poison much of the public discourse about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, they said.

Today, they examine what is arguably the closest point between white servitude and black slavery, mid-17th century Barbados, and conclude that even there, these two forms of unfree labour cannot be equated.

A SPURIOUS GlobalResearch.ca article, first published in 2008, claims that an “Irish slave trade” was initiated in 1612 and abolished in 1839. It states that “Irish slaves” were treated worse than African slaves.

This article, which has been shared online at least one million times, is underpinned by a conspiracy theory which claims that “biased” historians are refusing to call indentured servants “slaves” for political reasons.

The fallout has been predictable. The myth is now a favoured derailment tactic for people who wish to shut down conversations about race and slavery. Many African Americans attest to encountering this myth, in person and online.

‘White slavery’

As the conversation about reparatory justice continues in the US and the Caribbean, those who proclaim the history of “white slavery” now claim a shared heritage of victimisation. They thus aim to vindicate themselves and their ancestors from any involvement in the processes of racial inequality or oppression in the past and the present.

This, in turn, fuels racial condemnation and racist sentiment toward those who bemoan racial inequality and oppression in the twenty-first century.

Barbados_map map of Barbados taken from Richard Ligon's true & exact history of the island of Barbados, published in 1657, but set in 1647-1650. Source: Public Domain

Inevitably the myth gained prominence in the wake of Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the Confederate flag.

One Confederate flag store owner referred to “hundreds of thousands of white slaves from Ireland and Scotland that were sent to Barbados” in a bid to deflect from the fact his ancestors fought a war to perpetually enslave millions of black Americans and their descendants.

Irish slaves?

At a Confederate flag rally in Mississippi in August a reporter was told that “even the Irish, we were slaves. At some point, you just have to get over it.”

As this notion spreads, responsible historians should be prepared to respond. We know that Europeans who were forcibly deported from England, Scotland and Ireland to the Caribbean in the mid-17th century cannot be accurately described as “slaves.” They were indentured servants.

The difference is not merely a matter of words. Colonial servitude was temporary and non-hereditary, with legal personhood, while colonial slavery was perpetual and hereditary, with sub-human legal status. Rather than academic “quibbling,” the differences between these two forms of unfree labour are of fundamental importance to our understanding of the development of chattel slavery in the British colonies.

The word ‘slave’

If we refer to two different statuses in the same historical context using the same term (“slave”) the meaning becomes conflated.

To be sure, the conditions of white servants in Barbados shocked English observers into drawing an analogy with slavery. Jerome Handler has translated the invaluable account of a French priest, Father Antoine Biet, who visited Barbados in 1654 and lamented how poorly the white servants were treated.

According to Biet, some of the white families who were deported to the colony were split up, purposefully sold to different planters as part of their punishment.

Irish_slaves_myth Source: Liam Hogan

Other first-hand accounts indicate that servants were fed a relatively scant diet, were prodded with sticks if they did not work fast enough and lived in basic accommodation—all hardships that were also experienced by enslaved Africans during the same period of time.

Indentured servants in Barbados 

If a white servant assaulted another servant or a slave, it was treated as a misdemeanor and they were fined. If they assaulted their master they were whipped. Their indenture was legal property therefore a servant’s remaining time could be left in wills, traded for commodities and sold. Since one’s labour is inseparable from one’s person, this meant indentured servants in Barbados were treated as a sort of commodity.

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary indentured servitude is also important, but all too often serves as justification for the existence of “white slavery”.

It is true that some Europeans, particularly prisoners of war or political prisoners, were sent to places like Barbados against their will and without a predetermined period of servitude.

However, upon arrival, those without contracts were, by law, required to serve the master who purchased their labour for a limited number of years, depending on their age. It is also true that many servants didn’t live to see the end of their period of servitude due to brutal treatment and unsparing work regimens, but while under the conditions of servitude, they were subject to the same laws that governed European servants, not enslaved Africans.

Enslaved Africans were treated as livestock

As difficult as white servants’ experiences were, however, enslaved Africans were treated as livestock. According to Ligon they were “bred” along with the “horses and cattle.“ Their right to life did not fall under English common law; it was essentially forfeit.

CFXWfyeW8AEaqx1 A plan of the French slave ship, La Marie Séraphique (c. 1770). Source: Public Domain

Enslaved Africans who assaulted any “Christian,” regardless of the white person’s status, were severely punished under assorted methods of torture. Biet notes he said saw a poor Negro woman perhaps forty years old, whose body was full of scars which she claimed had been caused by her master’s [applying] the fire-brand to her.”

In short, the earliest laws of Barbados, beginning in the 1640s and provided in detail in 1661, carefully spelled out the legal distinctions between slavery (as reserved for “Negroes”) and servitude (as reserved for Europeans).

Irish slaves narrative 

Moreover, what underlines the historiographical vandalism of the “Irish slaves” narrative is that the Irish were also involved in the inhumane treatment of enslaved Africans.

As Biet made his way across the island he was befriended by an Irishman who was likely an overseer on a larger plantation. In his description he said:

“He had in irons one of these poor Negroes who had stolen a pig. Every day, his hands in irons, the overseer had him whipped by the other Negroes until he was all covered with blood. The overseer, after having had him treated thus for seven or eight days, cut off one of his ears, had it roasted, and forced him to eat it.”

In fact, the 1661 slave laws allowed any person in the colony (including Irish servants) to kill an enslaved African who was in the act of stealing. The killer would be rewarded with sugar and the owner would be compensated out of the public purse.

While Barbados had very few Irish planters, the colony of Montserrat is important to include in our discussions of not only the idea of the “white slave” but also the role of the Irish in the transatlantic slave trade.

As the only island in the Caribbean during this period whose white population was a majority Irish, Montserrat offers a pertinent and contained case-study in which to consider their roles and experiences.

Irishmen first arrived after being expelled by the British from St Kitts in the 1630s and they remained the major white population until at least the late 18th century. Irish people filled every level of social strata and religious persuasion on Montserrat, from indentured servant up to governor: they represented both the colonised and colonisers.

Evidence from government records, court records and private papers show that Irish landowners were often enthusiastic exploiters of the African slave trade. Their laws and court records reveal stark distinctions between the status and treatment of white indentured servants (also usually Irish) and black chattel slaves.

These distinctions matter a great deal, both then and now.

Liam Hogan, an independent scholar and librarian, tweets at @Limerick1914. Laura McAtackney (@LMcAtackney) is an associate professor in sustainable heritage management (archaeology) at Århus University, Denmark. Matthew Connor Reilly is a postdoctoral fellow in archaeology and the ancient world at Brown University.

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Liam Hogan, Matthew Reilly and Laura McAtackney

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