The forgotten white slaves.
They came as slaves; vast human cargo transported on tall British ships bound for the Americas. They were shipped by the hundreds of thousands and included men, women, and even the youngest of children.
Whenever they rebelled or even disobeyed an order, they were punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their human property by their hands and set their hands or feet on fire as one form of punishment. They were burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives.
We don’t really need to go through all of the gory details, do we? After all, we know all too well the atrocities of the African slave trade. But, are we talking about African slavery?
King James II and Charles I led a continued effort to enslave the Irish. Britain’s famed Oliver Cromwell furthered this practice of dehumanizing one’s next door neighbor.
The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.
Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.
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. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well.
During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
The Irish arrived in Jamaica over 350 years ago in the mid-1600s at the time of British Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's capture of Jamaica. When British Admirals Penn and Venables failed in their expedition to take Santo Domingo from the Spanish, they turned their attention to Jamaica, not wanting to return to Cromwell empty-handed. With reinforcements from British-held Barbados (many of whom were Irish) they made quick work of dispatching the weak Spanish defence and soon realized that they needed workers to support their new prize. They looked eastward to islands already under British control, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Montserrat, and imported young, mainly male, bonded servants, many of whom were Irish.
In 1641 Ireland's population stood close to 1.5 million. Following a 1648 battle in Ireland known as the "Siege of Drogheda" in which Irish rebels were brutally subdued, Oliver's son, Henry, was named Major General in command of English forces in Ireland. Under his jurisdiction, thousands of Irish men and women were shipped to the West Indies to provide a source of indentured labour. Between 1648 and 1655, over 12,000 political prisoners alone were sent to Barbados. This was the first set to come involuntarily as prior to that the Irish had willingly chosen to subject themselves to terms of indenture for the chance to start a new life in the New World upon completion of their contracts.
By 1652, Ireland's population had dwindled to a little over half a million famine, rebellion and forced deportation, all factors.Throughout the early years of the 1650s there was a push to send young men and women to the colonies in what the English believed was a "measure beneficial to the people removed, who might thus be made English and Christians; and a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired the men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls in a country where they had only Maroon women and Negresses to solace them" (Williams, 1932, pp. 10-11). The 13-year war from 1641-1654 had left behind large numbers of widows and deserted wives. In addition, many Irish men, their properties confiscated by Cromwell had no means of making a living. By 1655 some 6,400 Irish had been shipped off when in March all orders to capture "all wanderers, men and women and other such Irish in their possession" were revoked (Williams, pp. 12-13).
The first stop for many of the Irish, Catholic and non-Catholic, was Barbados where they worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break, under the command of an overseer. Shirt and drawers were their only clothes and their homes, cabins made of sticks and plantain leaves (Williams, 1932, p. 42).
Following the 1655 British conquest of Jamaica, Irish labourers were largely sent from Barbados as well as Ireland to get the island up and running under British control. Within a decade, when many Irish had served their terms or indenture, their names begin to appear among the lists of Jamaican planters and settlers (Williams, p. 53).
Book written by Joseph J. Williams in 1932, exploring the origin of the Irish in Jamaica.
LAST SHIPMENTS: 1800S
It is estimated that somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were shipped from Ireland. One of the last shipments was made in 1841 from Limerick aboard the Robert Kerr. The Gleaner noted of these arrivals: "They landed in Kingston wearing their best clothes and temperance medals," meaning they did not drink alcohol (as quoted in Mullally, 2003, part 2, pg. 1). The Gleaner also noted of another set of arrivals in 1842: "The Irish are repeatedly intoxicated, drink excessively, are seen emerging from grog shops very dissolute and abandoned and are of very intemperate habits" (as quoted in Mullally, 2003, part 3, p. 2). So the Irish gained a reputation for being something of a mixed blessing saints and sinners.
Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.
As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.
African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African.
The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.
In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.
Links and References
- Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came: The Arrival Of The Irish
- Williams, J.J. (1932). Whence the "Black Irish" of Jamaica. NY: The Dial Press.
- Mullally, R. (2003). "One Love' The Black Irish of Jamaica. on-line. Available at http://www.thewildgeese.com
- Irish slavery
- Senior, C. Robert Kerr emigrants of 1840 Irish 'slaves' for Jamaica.
- The Jamaica Journal, 42, pp. 104-116.