Did America Have More Irish Slaves?
When thinking about slavery and slaves in America, most people conjure up images of plantations in the southern United States and the suffering of many Africans. Perhaps, they thought of the U.S. Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Gone with the Wind, or Roots. Of course, slavery is a much older phenomenon than what existed and developed in 18th-19th century America. It goes back to the earliest known civilizations and, in some ways, it remains in practice today in some parts of the world. The other aspect of slavery most people don’t realize is that it doesn’t see color. Indeed, few know that there were Irish slaves in America. It’s even worth asking: Did America have more Irish slaves?
Like many longstanding socioeconomic phenomena, the answer is complicated. But, the trade of Irish slaves started in the very first decades after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. So, it might be said that one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the experience of slavery for African-Americans also applies to many Irish slaves. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” (Malcom X, 1964.)
There has been an effort to describe the idea of “Irish slaves” as inaccurate. Some openly speak of a “white Irish slave myth” or an “Irish slavery myth.” (Source: “Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too,” The New York Times, March 17, 2017.)
But, the deconstruction of this “myth,” as some historians have called it, would appear to come from semantics. Even those who have signed letters in an effort to debunk the Irish slave narrative have conceded that thousands of people from Ireland and other European countries came to the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America—later the United States—as “indentured servants.”
It’s a historical fact that started with King Charles I (1600-1649) and lasted for some 200 years. Whether you call them slaves or not is another matter, which depends more on the currency of current political and social science thinking. They were, for all intents and purposes, servants who came to the colonies against their will. Some scholars might be able to prove that the answer to the question “Was the Irish slave trade real?” is No. But others can likewise make a solid case that, regardless of what you call it, the concept of Irish slavery has historical merit.
History of the Irish Slaves
The Royal Proclamation of 1625 established that Irish political prisoners would be sent across the Atlantic Ocean. They were to be sold as slaves (or servants, if you prefer) to settlers in the East Indies. Regardless of the terminology, the lives of these Irishmen would be those of people forced to work for others without a wage.
But the “Irish problem” for the British started much earlier. Many speak of an Irish genocide, which began in earnest with the Tudors, the line of royals that started with Henry VII in 1485 and ended with Elizabeth I in 1603, with Henry VIII in the middle. The Tudors were adamant about furthering British control over Ireland, still dominated by the local Gaelic Chieftains.
While Henry VIII gained some loyalty. He offered protection and titles, especially to those living around The Pale (the region surrounding Dublin, where the British had direct control). But, many of the chieftains rebelled against the British. To strengthen their power, the British monarchs, especially Queen Elizabeth, sent British colonists or settlers to Ireland. In return, the settlers received lands confiscated from the Irish. The lands took the name of “plantations.” (Source: “Where is the apology for the slaves of IRELAND??,” CNN iReport, July 17, 2009.)
Were Irish the First Slaves in America?
Those whose lands were confiscated posed a problem. They had to disappear somehow. Meanwhile, British privateers, or privates, launched what became the British slave trade. They captured 300 Africans and sold them as slaves in the Colonies. This was by no means the first such transaction in history, but it was the first of what drove the phenomenon of slavery in the Americas.
The Battle of Kinsale was what ultimately fueled what we might describe as the Irish slave trade. The battle occurred between October 1601 and January 1602. Without going into the military details and historical repercussions, the British had to deal with some 30,000 Irish military prisoners. Many were banished, but King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth, devised a plan to sell the Irish prisoners as slaves. He introduced slavery in colonial America. (Source: Ibid.)
How Many Irish Slaves Did America Have?
The first such recorded transaction involves Irish slaves being sold to a colonial settlement along the Amazon river. Many more similar transactions would take place and thousands of Irish became slaves in the colonies. Many were in today’s Antigua and Montserrat. Estimates suggest that between 1641 and 1652, some 300,000 Irish were reduced to slavery.
Meanwhile, in support of the British policy in Ireland itself, the British also sold off the children and wives of the ones who were sent off to the colonies as slaves to the settlers in the Emerald Island itself. Oliver Cromwell (in the 1650s), who proved to be less than kind to kings, was the champion of the enslavement of the Irish. While there might be a debate on the subject as to the numbers, the first slaves of the “New World” were Irish.
The nature of Irish slavery may have changed in the mid-1700s, thus about 100 years before African-American slaves, but for the bigger part of 150 years between 1600 and 1750, the Irish made up the bulk of the phenomenon we describe as slavery. The British formally introduced the policy of sending off Irish “indentured servants” to the colonies in 1839. A 2008 book, White Cargo, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, provides an interesting account of this little known historical event.
Irish Slaves vs African Slaves
Slavery is not a practice about which anyone should feel proud. The slave experience, whether we’re talking about White or Black, is horrible and indescribable to all but those who’ve experienced it firsthand. If there is a difference, it’s that the Irish slaves may have been cheaper than their African counterparts. Used and genetically evolved to live in the temperate European climate, they were prone to weakness in the torrid warmth of the Caribbean. The Irish slave trade may have lost out to the African because the latter were much more adaptable to working in the heat. There was a vast difference in price between African and Irish slaves.
The lower (or almost zero) value of Irish slavery in America, moreover, made life itself cheaper. Killing an Irish slave had no consequence. Killing an African slave had a monetary consequence. (Source: “The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten “White” Slaves,” GlobalResearch, April 14, 2008.)
But the slaves of highest value were those who had mixed ancestry. The slave owners in the Caribbean decided to breed Irish girls with African men, creating the Mulatto slave. The practice was banned in 1681 in order not to interfere with the profits of the slave importers and the related shipping companies. (Source: “Irish the ‘forgotten white slaves’ says expert John Martin,” AfricanAmerica, March 1, 2015.)
One of the most interesting questions that the phenomenon of Irish slavery raises concerns about the nature of racism itself. Racism is not necessarily the root cause of slavery. It may not even be its consequence. After all, the Romans used slaves of all racial backgrounds, often assigning their task according to their talents. Many a noble Roman family would have had slaves to perform anything from educating children to cooking or cleaning.
Rather, slavery is a phenomenon more closely tied to war and colonization. In modern wars, especially starting in WW2, civilians are prone to more direct suffering. They get killed by bombs and urban warfare. Consider Dresden or Hiroshima or the Warsaw uprising. But, in pre-20th–century warfare, battles were fought only among combatants on battlefields outside the cities and towns. Still, civilians were affected. They became “candidates” to serve as war booty. The conquerors and winners took civilians—along with war prisoners—to exploit them. The British have shown, without a doubt, that interracial slavery is not only possible but as brutal as any.