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FactCheck: No, hundreds of thousands of Irish people were not sold as slaves in the 17th century

Posts on social media have stated that Irish ‘slaves’ were treated as poorly as African slaves during this period.

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CLAIMS ABOUT HUNDREDS of thousands of Irish people being sold as slaves in the 17th century in the Americas and the West Indies have been doing the rounds recently on social media. 

These posts usually include a variety of claims about ‘Irish slavery’, all centering around the claim that large numbers of Irish people were sold as slaves in the past and treated almost as badly, or even worse, as African slaves. 

But are any of these claims true? Were hundreds of thousands of Irish people sold as slaves in the 17th century? 

bad meme An example of one of the memes circulating on social media over the past few years.

THE CLAIM

The main claim we’ll be focusing on is that as many as 300,000 Irish people were sold as slaves in the mid-17th century as part of the Transatlantic slave trade. We will then look at the evidence supporting or disputing related claims made about ‘Irish slavery’. 

slavery pic ok Image from some of the memes surrounding Irish slavery. Source: Facebook

some of the wording from the post The start of many of the posts claiming Irish people were sold as slaves in the 17th century. Source: Facebook

irish slaves og claim The main claim for the FactCheck. Source: Facebook

snip from post about african slaves treated better Excerpt from post about Irish slavery. Source: Facebook

This post, which was published on a Facebook page on 16 November and shared over 800 times, states: “From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade.”

Where did these claims originate? 

Op-ed on ‘Irish slavery’ 

Many of the claims are copied almost word for word from an opinion piece called The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves, by John Martin. This was published online in 2008 (and reposted in 2015) by Global Research, a Canadian conspiracy website. 

Articles based on this piece were also allegedly posted on media sites and blogs, some of which have since been removed, according to librarian and historian Liam Hogan who has completed extensive research around these claims. 

In 2016, Hogan and a number of other professors and historians signed an open letter asking for revisions on the media articles and a correction of the “false claims”.

In one of his own blog posts debunking the concept of ‘Irish slavery’, Hogan wrote that the idea of Irish people being slaves is “one of the great modern lies”.

In Martin’s original article, he claims that “the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th century) as the Africans did”.  

martin's article An excerpt from Martin's article, which has been copied almost word for word in social media posts. Source: Globalresearch.ca

Indentured servants v slaves

Some Irish people were indentured servants in the 17th century in the West Indies, namely Barbados. However, there is a difference between slavery and indentured servitude. 

Indentured servitude was often voluntary work taken up by impoverished Irish people who wanted to resettle in the US at this time. Workers signed labour contracts for up to 10 years in exchange for a trip across the Atlantic, shelter and some food. 

African slaves were abducted, sold at auctions and forced into lifelong labour, and any children they bore during this time were automatically born with the status of slaves. 

In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to legalise slavery through its Body of Liberties

“There shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us,” this states under section 91. 

Indentured servants in the mid-17th century could not marry without permission, couldn’t get pregnant and their indenture could be extended if they ran away or left without notice. However, they were legally allowed to complain to courts about mistreatment. 

Servants also had a legal personhood. Slaves did not even have the right to life.

This stated that “there shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful Captives taken in just wars, an such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us”. 

By 1750, around 10,000 African slaves were brought involuntarily across the Atlantic each year. The slave trade peaked later that century when around 60,000 African people were transported per year.   

There is at least some evidence of Irish people being sold as slaves throughout history, but not to the scale described on social media or in Martin’s article.

An article in History Ireland, a history magazine, said that around 230 Irish people were taken from the country in 1646 and sold into slavery.  

In 1655, the Irish government arranged for over 2,000 children to be transported to Jamaica to try and repopulate the island. Inmates in prison were also regularly sent to colonies during this time. 

This large-scale transportation ended in 1660 and most of the Irish indentured servants had completed their time by 1680. 

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aaah Another claim in Martin's piece. Source: Globalresearch.ca

Between 1641 and 1653, around one-quarter of Ireland’s population died as a result of endemic warfare, famine and disease including an outbreak of plague. 

There are no reliable population figures for Ireland before 1821 (when the first full census of Ireland was completed), but estimates show around three million lived in Ireland in 1700.  

breeding bit Excerpt of the article about alleged breeding. Source: Globalresearch.ca

In 1681, an Irish servant called Eleanor Butler and a black slave named Charles got married. Butler had completed her indenture at this time but was supposed to be forced into slavery, along with her children, as per the law. 

Their descendants challenged this law from 1749 to 1787 and were eventually granted freedom from slavery and the law was changed.

Speaking at Trinity College Dublin last month, Anthea Butler, an associate professor in Religious Studies and Africana Studies in the US, said claims about ‘Irish slavery’ “obscure the actual history” of Irish indentured servitude and black chattel slavery.

She said linking the two historically under the same name has its roots in white supremacy. 

Butler claims the root of the rise in the spread of this misinformation online is linked to events that ramped up the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man, was shot dead by a police officer in Missouri.   

THE VERDICT

The claim that hundreds of thousands of Irish people were sold as slaves in the 17th century has been circulating for years on social media, and has already been debunked by other fact-checking agencies and media outlets

The impacts of centuries of slavery can still be felt by many people of African descent around the world. People of Irish ancestry do not feel these same effects by any stretch of the imagination.

Although it would be incorrect to claim Irish people were never sold as slaves throughout history, there is no historical evidence to suggest hundreds of thousands of Irish people were sold as slaves in the 17th century.

Verdict: FALSE 

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate

In the context of the high figures quoted in these claims and the slavery endured by Africans during this period and for centuries more, it would be unjust to label both under the same name.

Irish servants were not legally property, they could go to courts with complaints of ill-treatment and had a contract for their labour. African slaves did not have these same rights and as such they cannot be justifiably put into the same position in history.

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.

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