Irish slavery – fact or myth?

There has been a stupid debate going on for over a year now about whether Irish slaves existed or not. Irish historian Liam Hogan has made a name for himself condemning those who talk about the Irish history of slavery.

Firstly, and most importantly, Hogan is right to condemn those who use Irish history as a racist weapon. Those who attempt to argue that Irish history in any way negates or even compares to the treatment of Black Africans and their descendants are to be condemned by every right thinking person. White supremacy has been one of the most horrible elements of the social development of the Irish in America and it is still in evidence today. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and Theodore W. Allen’s The Invention of the White Race describe this process in detail.

However, lumping everyone who’s looking into the treatment of the Irish in the 17th Century in with neonazis and racists is simply wrong. There are some of us who seek to understand our own history and are most interested in building solidarity with other victims of white supremacy.

On the question of the Irish and slavery, it comes down to a question of definitions. Is time-limited indentured servitude – the practice of forced labour for a set period of time (normally six years) – a form of slavery. The answer is – it depends. Indentured servitude in the 17th Century was not considered to be slavery, the term was only used with the lifelong and hereditary chattel slavery that emerged in the second half of the century. However, under modern definitions of slavery, indentured servitude is definitely covered.

Indentured servitude of the Irish came in two different types, forced labour – whereby people were sent to the Americas against their will, many captured on the battlefield during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland – or bonded labour – whereby people agreed to be indentured to repay the cost of their transport to the Americas. The former was the main practice in relation to the Caribbean islands in the mid-1600s, while both were to be found in Jamestown and other British settlements in the colonies.

Much of the criticism of the so-called Irish slaves myth focusses on Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados, published in 2000. And, to be fair, it’s not a very well written book. Lacking proper references, in serious need of editing, O’Callaghan’s book is full of errors and exaggerations. He does admit in the introduction: “Although I am not a historian…”

If people are basing everything on one book, they deserve derision. Thankfully, there are other, better books. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra, published in 2000, and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh’s more recent book, White Cargo, published in 2007, both refer to Irish slaves. They do so clearly in the modern use of the word to refer to forced and bonded labour. Both books are well researched, full of references and very clear in their language.

White Cargo puts it:

“It has been argued that white servants could not have been truly enslaved because there was generally a time limit to their enforced labour, whereas black slavery was for life. However, slavery is not defined by time but by the experience of its subject. To be the chattel of another, to be required by law to give absolute obedience in everything and to be subject to whippings, brandings and chaining for any show of defiance, to be these things, as were many whites, was to be enslaved.”

They point to the writings of Daniel Defoe, in whose novel Moll Flanders it is written that those in Virginia from England included:

“such as were brought over by masters of ships to be sold as servants. ‘Such as we call them, my dear,’ says she, ‘but they are more properly called slaves.'”

The modern terminology isn’t all that modern.

Turning to another source, anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years describes slavery as:

“… the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.”

Those captured on the field of battle against Cromwell’s invading army and sent to the Caribbean or the American colonies, from whence few if any returned, were absolutely ripped from their context and social relationships. Few if any of those who survived the 6 year period, and many did not, and didn’t have their period of indenture extended for attempting to escape, returned home. In Jamestown, former servants were often granted land at the edge of the settlement where, if they survived the regular attacks by the native tribes, could build a home.

The 6 year rule is itself interesting, as it’s drawn from Biblical law, first mentioned in Exodus 21:2. Even there, if you look across different versions of the Bible in the English language, the word servant is replaced by the word slave. Interestingly, it is servant in the King James version – commissioned by the same King James for whom the Jamestown settlement was named and under whose reign the forced transportation of undesirables to that colony began (starting with London street children). The New Living Translation, English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible, which all returned to pre-King James texts to improve the translations, use the word slave in the context of the 6 year limit.

Slavery didn’t start in the Americas. Slavery has been part of human societies for thousands of years, sometimes life-long, sometimes time limited, sometimes freedom could be bought or achieved through action. Manumission happened in Ancient Greece, Italy and Ottoman Empire (to mention just three societies where slavery was part of the system) on the whim of the slave owners or authorities.

Indentured servitude started to die out after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. While the leaders of the rebellion rebelled for a combination of sectarianism against the Catholic authorities in Jamestown and a racist wish to break deals with native tribes and massacre them all, something else emerged. Bacon offered slaves and servants their freedom if they fought with him and fight they did, even after Bacon died in October. The motley crew kept on fighting what had become a revolt for abolition into the the next year before they were ultimately divided and beaten.

The solidarity of the motley crew – Irish, African, native and others – scared the colonial authorities that they were determined to separate them. Lifetime, hereditary chattel slavery of Africans became the norm and the Irish, gradually over the next two hundred years, became white. That said, Irish people were involved in a number of revolts in the hundred years until the War of Independence – joining time and time again in motley crews to fight the racist system, most notably in New York in 1741.

Irish slavery is not a myth, it is a perfectly valid way of explaining the experience of the Irish in the 17th century using modern definitions. Some historians may wish to stick to the definitions used at the time, but that doesn’t make them more right.

You can listen to my interview with Don Jordan, one of the authors of White Cargo, on the Circled A Show website.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

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