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Author Topic: ‘Irish slaves’: the convenient myth  (Read 12598 times)
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« on: November 08, 2016, 06:17:06 AM »

By Liam Hogan
January 14, 2015 - opendemocracy.net

The conflation of indentured servitude with chattel slavery in the ‘Irish slaves’ narrative whitewashes history in the service of Irish nationalist and white supremacist causes. Its resurgence in the wake of Ferguson reflects many Americans’ denial of the entrenched racism still prevalent in their society.

It was with a heavy heart and no small amount of anger that I decided it was necessary to write a public refutation of the insidious myth that the Irish were once chattel slaves in the British colonies. The subject of this myth is not an issue in academic circles, for there is unanimous agreement, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Irish were never subjected to perpetual, hereditary slavery in the colonies, based on notions of ‘race’. Unfortunately this is not the case in the public domain and the ‘Irish slaves’ myth has been shared so frequently online that it has gone viral.

The tale of the Irish slaves is rooted in a false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery. These are not the same.

The tale of the Irish slaves is rooted in a false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery. These are not the same. Indentured servitude was a form of bonded labour, whereby a migrant agreed to work for a set period of time (between two and seven years) and in return the cost of the voyage across the Atlantic was covered. Indentured servitude was a colonial innovation that enabled many to emigrate to the New World while providing a cheap and white labour force for planters and merchants to exploit. Those who completed their term of service were awarded ‘freedom dues’ and were free. The vast majority of labourers who agreed to this system did so voluntarily, but there were many who were forcibly transplanted from the British Isles to the colonies and sold into indentured service against their will. While these forced deportees would have included political prisoners and serious felons, it is believed that the majority came from the poor and vulnerable. This forced labour was in essence an extension of the English Poor Laws, e.g. in 1697 John Locke recommended the whipping of those who ‘refused to work’ and the herding of beggars into workhouses. Indeed this criminalisation of the poor continues into the 21st century. In any case, all bar the serious felons were freed once the term of their contract expired.

“White indentured servitude was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience,” as Donald Harman Akenson put it in If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. How so? Chattel slavery was perpetual, a slave was only free once they they were no longer alive; it was hereditary, the children of slaves were the property of their owner; the status of chattel slave was designated by ‘race’, there was no escaping your bloodline; a chattel slave was treated like livestock, you could kill your slaves while applying “moderate correction” and the homicide law would not apply; the execution of ‘insolent’ slaves was encouraged in these slavocracies to deter insurrections and disobedience, and their owners were paid generous compensation for their ‘loss’; an indentured servant could appeal to a court of law if they were mistreated, a slave had no recourse for justice. And so on..

A dangerous myth

The prevalence and endurance of this myth is partly due to the fact that it is buttressed by two long-standing narratives. The first narrative comes from the arena of Irish nationalism, where the term 'slavery' is used to highlight the political, social and religious subjugation or persecution that the Irish have historically suffered. In this narrative, the term ‘Irish slaves’ refers specifically to those who were forced onto transport ships and sold into indentured servitude in the West Indies during the Cromwellian era. The 'innocent' usage of this phrase is, to a degree, understandable and its conflation with chattel slavery generally occurs due to a mixture of ignorance and confusion. More objectionable is the canon of pseudo-history books like O'Callaghan's To Hell or Barbados or Walsh and Jordan's White Cargo, which knowingly conflate indentured servitude and chattel slavery. The ‘Irish slaves’ myth is also a convenient focal point for nationalist histories as it obscures the critically underwritten story of how so many Irish people, whether Gaelic, Hiberno-Norman or Anglo-Irish, benefited from the Atlantic slave trade and other colonial exploits in multiple continents for hundreds of years.

The second narrative is of a more sinister nature. Found in the websites and forums of white supremacist conspiracy theorists, this insidiously claims that indentured servitude can be equated with chattel slavery. From Stormfront.org, a self-described online community of white nationalists, to David Icke’s February 2014 interview with Infowars.com, the narrative of the ‘White slaves’ is continuously promoted. The most influential book to claim that there was ‘white slavery’ in Colonial America was Michael Hoffman’s They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America. Self-published in 1993, Hoffman, a Holocaust denier, unsurprisingly blames the Atlantic slave trade on the Jews. By blurring the lines between the different forms of unfree labour, these white supremacists seek to conceal the incontestable fact that these slavocracies were controlled by—and operated for the benefit of—white Europeans. This narrative, which exists almost exclusively in the United States, is essentially a form of nativism and racism masquerading as conspiracy theory. Those that push this narrative have now adopted the ‘Irish slaves’ myth, and they use it as a rhetorical ‘attack dog’ which aims to shut down all debate about the legacy of black slavery in the United States.

This myth of convenience is being utilised by those who are unwilling to accept the truth of their white privilege and the prevalence of an entrenched racism in their societies.

In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, both of these narratives were conjoined in a particularly ugly fashion. Many social media users, including some Irish-Americans, invoked this mythology to chide African-Americans for protesting against the structural racism that exists in the United States (see a collection of tweets on ‘Irish slaves’, gathered by the author). Furthermore, they used these falsehoods to mock African-American calls for reparations for slavery, stating “my Irish ancestors were the first slaves in America, where are my reparations?” Those that share links to spurious ‘Irish slavery’ articles on social media have also been appending their posts with the hashtags #Ferguson and #NoExcuses. No excuses? This myth of convenience is being utilised by those who are unwilling to accept the truth of their white privilege and the prevalence of an entrenched racism in their societies. There is clearly comfort to be found in denialism.

The conflation present in both narratives has been abetted by the deliberate use of a limited vocabulary. The inclination to describe these different forms of servitude using the umbrella term “slavery” is a wilful misuse of language. It serves to diminish the reality of the chattel slave system that existed in the New World for over three centuries. It is also a reminder that the popular use of such a simplistic term as ‘modern-day slavery’ can reduce clarity and hinder our collective understanding of both the present and the past.

This piece is based on Liam’s longer essay, ‘The myth of “Irish slaves” in the colonies’.


Karl Watson • 2 years ago
There is essential truth in Liam Hogan's argument that the Irish in the West Indies and Barbados especially were not chattel slaves. There are a few documented examples to this rule but too few to really make a difference. However the quote from Akenson is unfortunate as it implies that the experiences of the Irish and Africans in our islands were vastly different.."another galaxy of human experience." Certainly in the case of Barbados, which received close to 10,000 Irish in the seventeenth century, their experiences and level of degradation and oppression mirrored that of African slaves. So much so that the two groups on at least two occasions united in common revolt against their English masters. The early Minutes of the Council of Barbados are replete with examples of extremely harsh treatment meted out to the Irish. They have been forgotten in the historiography of the region or deemed irrelevant. So works such as those by O'Callaghan, even if exaggerated accounts, do serve the purpose of drawing attention to this often ignored subsection of West Indian whites. The simplistic dichotomy of rich white, oppressive planters and poor, oppressed black slaves conveys a distorted narrative and ignores the reality that in the case of Barbados certainly, the greater part of the Creole white population, many of them of Irish descent, were powerless, abused and scorned by other whites and blacks as well. Not a fortunate galaxy at all. The idea of white privilege being applied to them ignores the reality of their brutal, sad history.

Guest • 2 years ago
I would recommend Matthew C. Reilly's PhD dissertation on the "Poor Whites" of Barbados http://surface.syr.edu/cgi/vie...

Karl Watson • 2 years ago
Thank you....I know Dr Reilly and his work quite well, having extended a helping hand to him during his various research visits to my island. He contributed an important article on his work to the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society of which I have the honour to be the editor. He has helped to raise awareness of the plight of Barbadian poor whites as have people such as Sheena Jolly of Ireland with her magnificent photographic record of Barbadian poor whites.

Liam Hogan • 2 years ago
Thanks Karl. As you have alluded to, there is far more nuance to this discussion than can be condensed into such a short article. This is especially true in relation to Barbados from the 1650s to the 1670s.
I take your point about the informative side of such flawed works, and I refer you to my full length essay on this
(https://www.academia.edu/94759... wherein
I credit O'Callaghan et al for drawing attention to such exploitation.

However, I feel you have concluded by misrepresenting Akenson's quote, which does not refer to a 'fortunate galaxy' but a different one. This difference is unambiguous. Taking one example, Indentured servants ‘out of time’ could potentially buy slaves, lease slaves, or even become small planters themselves. Also, unless you skipped the second paragraph, I’m curious to know how you can infer that I've presented a 'simplistic dichotomy.’ That being said, your comment has highlighted part of the reason why I felt both sad and angry to have to debunk this particular mythology. The very last thing I wanted to do was oversimplify or even diminish the experience of the European working classes in these colonies.

Karl Watson • 2 years ago
Thank you for your reply Liam. I understand the point made in Akenson's quote though there is the implication that the "galaxy" of the poor whites wasn't that bad after all. My use of the word "fortunate" was a poor attempt at sarcasm but I will state that I do not agree with Akenson's view. The experiences of the two groups (enslaved and indentured/poor whites) were very similar, "white privilege" notwithstanding. My article "Walk and Nyam Buckra" published in the Journal of Caribbean History addresses some of the issues faced by the poor whites. My reference to "simplistic dichotomy" was not meant to be taken as a specific reference to anything you said but rather, was a generic comment spurred mostly from an "insider" perspective. One of my most jarring experiences at university took place when I was instructed to delete a final exam question I had set on West Indian poor whites. The reason given was that they were irrelevant, a simple, unimportant footnote of history. Their continuous marginalization is nothing new, just a continuation of centuries of abuse and neglect..of being "swept under the carpet." If I speak out today, I do so in memory of my Irish ancestors who came to Barbados in very difficult circumstances in 1636 as well as the many thousands later sent over by Cromwell and the many others who followed.. Their story has never properly been told, being mostly regarded as an anomaly. Few escaped to live the life of planters. Most died of bad diets, over work, disease and ill treatment. A remnant survive today. Still scorned, still seen as the "dregs of society" as they were labelled two centuries ago. Semi fossilized curiosities of a bitter time long gone.

Liam Hogan • 2 years ago
Karl, thank you for clarifying your original comment and for enriching the discussion with this information. While you may be more forgiving of O'Callaghan's work, I believe that his various fabrications and conflations have damaged the important story that needed to be told. I write in my essay; "In proceeding to treat such a serious subject matter, that is the forced migration and forced servitude of thousands of our ancestors, in such a manner, [O'Callaghan] has inadvertently diminished their particular experience of exploitation."

Donnacha DeLong • 2 years ago
Wow. Original indentured servitude was colour-blind - the first people sent to the Americas and Caribbean as indentured servants were London street children. Then came Cromwell, the Civil War, the subsequent crackdown on the Levellers and the war with the Irish. Many of those on the losing side were sent as slaves. Africans were gradually added as British ships captured slaves from Barbary pirates and other slave-holders.

Indentured servitude at this time was generally a life sentence. Few of the early slaves survived long enough in these early settlements to gain their freedom. As the settlements improved, periods of indenture were extended and could be further extended based on the most ridiculous of grounds.

Then came Bacon's Rebellion. Indentured servants of all skin tones - predominantly Irish and African - joined together with local tribes and fought to overturn the colonial system. From this emerged the conscious and deliberate efforts to destroy the "motley crew" - solidarity across what was now being defined as "racial" lines. The horrific crime of perpetual, hereditary African slavery was legalised and the practice of using white indentured servants began to die out.

Liam Hogan • 2 years ago
There is a certain rose-tinted view of the early colonial period (which includes your misinterpretation of Bacon's Rebellion) that relates the solidarity that you refer to. But this narrative is not borne out by the evidence, as it tends to discount, in spectacular fashion, the exclusive imposition of chattel slavery on non-Europeans in the New World, by Europeans, from the fifteenth century onwards. While your narrative is British colony-centric, you did not mention the race-based laws passed in Barbados in 1636 that ‘Negroes and Indians, that came here to be sold, should serve for life..'
So as you can see, slavery and servitude in the early colonial period was far from colour blind.

It's also worth remembering that the chattel slavery laws in the various colonies *followed* the custom. British slave traders were selling slaves to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies almost a century before they set up their own plantations. And guess what? These 16th century slaves were almost exclusively African.

Donnacha DeLong • 2 years ago
I haven't "misinterpreted" anything, or are you denying that many of those who rose up were fighting the colonial system? Whatever the main reasons for the uprising, a motley group took advantage of the trouble to rise up - as they did again and again and again.

Having thought about this more, the biggest issue with your analysis is how it relates to the various forms of slavery that predated this era. Greek, Roman, even Celtic Irish slavery. There were numerous different types, with different rights and freedoms. Some forms were temporary, some were permanent. Slaves could earn freedom. Not all forms of slavery were chattel slavery.

Anti-slavery international defines slavery thus:

"Someone is in slavery if they are: forced to work - through mental or physical threat; owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse; dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property'; physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement."

Each of these applied to the Irish and other slaves of the 17th Century. The massive irony for the racists who seek to use this history is that a large number of these people intermarried with African and native people, meaning that most of their descendants would probably be considered "Black". The majority of African-Americans have some European ancestry (estimated between 19 and 29 per cent - http://www.theroot.com/article... ). Some of this mixing is likely to have taken place in the early days, much more of it probably in the 19th Century when the Irish lived in the same slums as the free African-Americans in the North, or worked closely with poor Irish-American labourers in the South. The racist "white" Irish who are complaining now are more likely to be descended from the famine era when, ironically, the Irish started to become more profitable and accepted as "white".

As for being British-centric - the article is about the Irish, which makes it British-centric. If you want to talk about other countries and their relation to slavery, it's a bit Euro-centric to only talk about Spain and Portugal at this period without reference to the Barbary trade.

Source: https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/liam-hogan/%E2%80%98irish-slaves%E2%80%99-convenient-myth
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