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Debunked: Irish people were not the first slaves to arrive in the American colonies

Slave trading from Africa to the Americas began around 100 years before 1619, and indentured servitude is not the same as chattel slavery.

Image: Facebook

SINCE THE BLACK Lives Matter movement gathered momentum in recent weeks, a number of historical claims have been made about the history of slavery in the United States.

Among the claims that have been shared is one about ‘Irish slaves’ in colonies, including those in the British Caribbean and American colonies. These have been shared quite a lot in the past week.

One meme, shared numerous times on Facebook, includes the claim: 

The first slaves imported into the American colonies were 100 white (Irish) children. They arrived during Easter, 1619, four months before the arrival of a the first shipment of Black slaves. (sic)

It’s not the first time this claim has been made. In 2019, actor James Woods shared an image on Twitter with a similar claim, which included a photo of three white girls: “The first slaves shipped to the American Colonies in 1619 were 100 white children from Ireland. Truth Matters.”

The facts

It’s commonly cited that the first slaves arrived in the US around 1619 (you might recognise that year from the popular and Pulitzer-prize winning podcast and newspaper series called 1619).

But people from Africa had been shipped to the Americas to be used as slaves during the 100 years before 1619 (see a timelapse here from the Slave Voyages database). After the turn of the century, the slave trade increased in frequency, and in the number of people being shipped to the Americas.

According to this database, the first records of captives arriving directly from Africa to the Americas to be sold into slavery is in 1525. Between this year and 1619, thousands of captives disembarked in the American colonies to be sold as slaves.

Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 17.24.19 Source: Slave Voyages database

In historic books such as ‘Poverty in America: An Encyclopedia‘ it states that in 1619, 100 “impoverished” children were transported to America.

This was “a radical” result of the Poor Relief Act 1601 in England, which aimed to put impoverished people to work; one of the main parts of the Act was putting pauper children in apprenticeships.

This was a version of ‘indentured servitude’, where people would voluntary (and in some cases, involuntarily) enter into a time-limited contract to become a servant; by 1619, Virginia in the US state of Pennsylvania had fully developed its system of using indentured servants:

To this the English government readily assented, since, in giving an outlet and employment to the vast army of idle classes that thronged the cities and “threatened to; become criminals” if they remained unemployed, it afforded at least a partial solution to one  of the great economic problems that confronted her at that time.

So it is true that 100 poor children, who were English and not Irish, according to Limerick historian and librarian Liam Hogan, arrived in the American colonies in 1619 to be put to work – but it is inaccurate to say that they were the first slaves – or that they were slaves at all. 

Indentured servants vs slaves

Indentured servitude is not the same as slavery, and to be a servant is not the same as being a slave, neither legally nor by definition.

Indentured servants, for example, were to serve for between four to seven years before being freed – in the American colonies, this was a way of ‘paying’ for their passage to the New World.

Many servants, according to historians, entered into a contract with their ‘employers’ voluntarily, though it should also be noted that they were often treated cruelly, and some were forcibly deported from their home countries and into indentured servitude.

Chattel slavery, on the other hand, meant that people were the legal property of other people, and it wasn’t entered into voluntarily. If a woman who had been sold as a slave had a child, that child would then be legally classified as a slave.

“An indenture implies two people have entered into a contract with each other, but slavery is not a contract,” as Leslie Harris, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern University, told the New York Times.

‘The Irish as slaves’ myth

This is not to say that the Irish were not cruelly mistreated by Cromwellian forces, but to acknowledge the substantial differences between chattel slavery and indentured servitude.

In 2016, historian and librarian Liam Hogan led the call from 82 Irish professors and academics to end the use of the ‘Irish slave’ myth. 

As Hogan told the Pacific Standard magazine in 2018: “Cromwell’s ‘Irish slaves’ are canon in Irish nationalist historiography. It is rarely explained that this ‘slavery’ was in the form of involuntary indentured servitude for a fixed period of time.

You see it referred to all down the line from James Connolly’s Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915) which claimed that “over 100,000 men, women and children were transported to the West Indies, there to be sold into slavery” to Daniel O’Connell’s speech in Mallow in 1843 when he asserted that “80,000 Irishmen [were] sent to [the West Indies] to work as slaves.” But these were rhetorical claims, based on truth, but greatly exaggerated for effect and are not to be confused with historical accuracy.​

In the image shared by James Woods mentioned above, it includes a photograph of three girls. This is a photograph taken at Maggioni Canning Company at Port Royal, South Carolina, in February 1911.

The three girls are workers, and the photographs formed part of the US’s National Child Labor Committee collection, which includes an investigative reporters’ photos capturing the working conditions for children in the US between 1908 and 1924.

The photograph’s use in a meme that makes claims about Irish slaves in the 1600s is misleading for a number of reasons: cameras weren’t invented until around 200 years later, so there are no photographs of this time; and using them in a claim about Irish slaves in the US seems to be an attempt to play on people’s emotions – to mislead them deliberately, and encourage them to share the meme.

 

***

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

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