In recent years, the Irish nation has been at war with its own history, due mainly to the inevitable pendulum swing away from post-independence nationalism, back towards colonial perspectives, and a plethora of Irish cultural biases. One of the exemplar battles fought in this war was/is the issue of Irish slavery. It has long been accepted in Ireland that the Irish people of the 17th century were sold as slaves to the new world, using the cover of ‘indentured servitude’. A system where people agreed to work as slaves, without pay, for a set period of time whereby at the end they would be rewarded with a small parcel of land. Accordingly, the revisionists have taken this definition at face value, and have argued that the Irish sold under this system were not slaves. It is a view entirely reliant on the use of a technicality to disguise reality but worse than that, is the attempt by revisionists to underscore a quixotic fabrication that the colonialism was a benign benefactor, and did not exploit or abuse people.
On the other hand, an article which appears to date from 2003, entitled Irish slaves in the Caribbean by James F. Cavanaugh, a Clann Chief Herald, has proved highly popular on social media and has appeared in several newspaper articles.[i] Cavanaugh’s article is strewn with errors but the overall thrust of it is not incorrect. However, it has become the prime target of the revisionists who have to resort to the logical fallacy of ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’, meaning if one thing is wrong, then the author is wrong about everything. As we will see, the same fallacy could be used to discredit the revisionist version. Nonetheless, despite the obvious errors, Cavanaugh’s article remains popular and continues to enjoy widespread circulation, much to the consternation of the revisionists. Accordingly it is a fair bet that the keyboard warrior’s war on Irish history looks set to last for decades to come.
Where lies the truth?
In the quest for the truth, the first question we must ask is what is a slave?
Slavery is a relationship between two people. It is both social and economic relationship and, like all relationships, it has certain characteristics and rules. The key characteristics of slavery are not about ownership but about how people are controlled. (New slavery: a reference book by Kevin Bales)[ii]
The revisionists rely exclusively on the issue of ownership and because black Africans were the legal property of their masters, this is the definition of slavery for them and nothing else. In a legal sense, the indentured servants were technically not the property of their master/mistress. The master/mistress bought a contract known as an indenture, which in turn effectively owned the person bound to it. In reality it was a flag of convenience for plantation owners, a way to economically exploit people by disguising slave labour using legal obscurantism. It is true that unlike ‘chattel slaves’, i.e. legally owned by their master/mistress, indentured servants had recourse to the courts if they felt that their rights were being abused and this is the second pillar on which the revisionist case stands. However, the courts of the time were biased in favour of the colonists and what we think now constitutes justice did not then exist.
In this exemplar case dating from 1659, an indentured servant named Sarah Taylor was caught after running away from her master and mistress’ home. She revealed to an investigating commissioner by the name of Joseph Wickes that she had been held in deplorable conditions by Captain Thomas Bradnox and his wife Mary.
Joseph Wickes testified that he had seen Mary Bradnox whip Sarah Taylor with ‘the end of a rope’ and could not in justice pass by and let her suffer the violence. He reported it to the authorities and Thomas Bradnox ‘agreed’ to stand trial, while Sarah agreed to return to her master’s home pending the court appearance. When the day came, Wickes and others testified in court on Sarah’s behalf.
‘[However,] despite these testimonies (and the prominence of some of the witnesses), the court punished Sarah for running away from the Bradnox house for twelve days, concluding that she had “noe Just Cause” for absenting herself from his service.’ […] One of the judges recommended that she be whipped, but the other three determined that “her Former stripes ware suffitient Corporall punishmt.” She was ordered to ask for her master’s forgiveness on her knees and then return to his service. (“Corrected Above Measure”: Indentured Servants and Domestic Abuse in Maryland, 1650-1700”) [iii]
Obviously what once passed for as legal justice is unrecognisable now. Sarah had been previously whipped and had the ‘stripes’/scars to show for it. Yet the court, biased in favour of the master, ordered her to beg for forgiveness on her knees and if one judge had his way, she would have been whipped and returned to her master. It was demeaning certainly, but was that slavery? Were free persons whipped for breaking a contract or was it only reserved for slaves and criminals?
The key to defining slavery is to understand that ‘the slave master or slave holder controls the slave by using or threatening violence. Slavery is about no choice at all, no control over your life, and a constant fear of violence.’ Accordingly slavery can be defined as a social and economic relationship in which a person is controlled through violence or its threat, paid nothing and economically exploited’.[iv]
Sarah, you will be glad to know won her freedom after two further court cases and Thomas Bradnox received compensation for the loss of his property, the contract!
The revisionist might also use the fact that some indentured servants were paid wages to bolster their case, but again it is a technicality, because low wages which barely keeps a person alive from day to day are still regarded as slave labour. Accordingly, the revisionist, argue that those who had the semblance free will and control of their destiny were not slaves. This claim is in denial of reality and a spurious defence of colonialism.
Cavanaugh claims that there was a proclamation issued under James I in 1625 which ordered that Irish political prisoners were to be transported to the West Indies, thus establishing the practice of Irish slavery. He is mistaken in the date, confusing it with events of 10 years previous.
“Following an appeal by governor Dale of Virginia, James I decreed in 1615 that prisoners sentenced to death ‘whoe for strength of bodie or other abilities shall be thought fit to be employed in forraine discoveries’ should be spared on condition of overseas service.” (The Transportation of Convicts to the American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century -Abbot Emerson Smith) [v]
Thanks to a shortage of labour in Virginia, Governor Dale proposed in a letter of 1611 that it could be solved by emptying the jails of convicts. At that time, about 300 offences were listed as felonies which were punishable by death. Convicts, excluding those convicted of murder, witchcraft, rape or burglary, provided they were able bodied and fit, were to be given a pardon and transported to English territories overseas. If the felons refused to go or returned to England before their indenture term was up, they were to be hanged.
Most historical sources all mark 1614/1615 as the start of forcible transportations. As time progressed, and demand for cheap labour increased, due to the English acquisition of more territories, more categories of people were added to the transportable list. These included destitute children, political and religious non-conformists, vagabonds, beggars and other undesirables. Also added to the list were prisoners of war. After the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, about 300 captured Scottish soldiers were forcibly transported to English colonies in America. In Ireland, the 1641 rebellion eventually brought Oliver Cromwell and the English New Model army to Ireland. Landing in 1649, seething with revenge, the puritan led army went on a sectarian rampage through the country committing one atrocity on top of another. Cromwell’s outrages have left such an indelible scar on the Irish psyche that for centuries the numbers quoted for deaths and transportations have been subjected to an understandable exaggeration. Accordingly, it renders the task of estimating with near accuracy numbers killed and transported as difficult. Again we find Cavanaugh falls into this trap by repeating exaggerated figures. There were about 3,000 people in the town of Drogheda when the garrison was massacred by Cromwell, not 30,000. He also claims that 550,000 died while 300,000 were sold as slaves. Estimates vary for the reasons already stated, but the generally agreed figures are close to the estimates of English economist, William Petty. He put the death toll of the wars in Ireland since 1641 (to 1655) at more than 618,000 people or about 40% of the country’s pre-war population. Of these more than 400,000 were Catholic, 167,000 killed directly by wars or famines, and the rest by war related diseases such as plague. The population of Ireland was about 1.5 million in 1641 was halved in 1651.[vi] Some historians now think that the figure for population decline was 20%. Despite the lower figure, it remains a calamitous atrocity but quoting figures from that era illustrates how easy it is for the historian and non-historian to fall into the trap of using figures which someone later uses to discredit one’s writing of history. Contemporary accounts place the number of Irish felons, vagrants, beggars and prisoners of war conveyed to Barbados in the 1640s and 1650s at c. 12,000.
The Cromwellian forcible transfer or ethnic cleansing of the Irish from all parts of Ireland to the poor lands of the province of Connacht in the west, has been immortalised in the phrase ‘To Hell or to Connacht’. In book published in 2000 about the transportations of Irish people, author Sean O’Callaghan reworks the phrase as ‘To Hell or Barbados. The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland’. The book has come in for much revisionist criticism based mainly on O’Callaghan’s use of the phrase ‘slave’ for indentured servant. O’Callaghan was not a historian and fell into the same trap that many competent historians also fall into, that of using figures which are now thought to be exaggerated. In reality, indentured servitude, particularly for the Irish was a form of slavery, because the Scotish and English indentured servants did not have to suffer abuse due to sectarian and racial bigotry. This aspect has been left out of the new revisionist version of history.
Indenture servitude in theory offered poor people a route out of poverty. People could volunteer to work without pay for a period ranging from about four to seven years. They would receive free transport across the Atlantic Ocean to the plantation and at the end of the indenture term they would receive a parcel of land, usually about 25 acres. You can see the lure of it for some people who lived in an economic system dependent on land and where there was no hope of ever owning land. However, the system failed to attract people in sufficient numbers from Ireland or Britain. Consequently forcible transportations were inflicted upon people using the flimsiest of excuse. The Cromwellians employed what they called men-catchers to capture men, women and children to be sold ultimately to plantation owners in the Americas.
The behaviour of the profit hungry men-catchers became shocking to the English authorities when they began to kidnap the children of the English settlers. Consequently, on the 22 December 1653 an attempt was made to protect innocent people from being captured and sent to Barbados by mandating that all ships sailing from Ireland bound for English plantations in the Americas be searched.
In this extract from John Prendergast’s book, ‘The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland’ published 1868, he makes the following observations from the state papers of Secretary John Thurloe.
All measures, [laws, ship searches etc.] however, were in vain to prevent the most cruel captures as long as these English slave dealers had recourse to Ireland. In the course of four years they had seized and shipped about 6400 Irish, men and women, boys and maidens, when on the 4th of March, 1655, all orders were revoked. These men-catchers employed persons (so runs the order) “to delude poor people by false pretences into by- places, and thence they forced them on board their ships. The persons employed had so much a piece for all they so deluded, and for the money sake they were found to have enticed and forced women from their children and husbands, — children from their parents, who maintained them at school ; and they had not only dealt so with the Irish, but also with the English,” — which last was the true cause, probably, of the Commissioners for Ireland putting an end to these proceedings.’ – Yet hot quite an end.
In 165; Admiral Penn added Jamaica to the empire of England ; and, colonists being wanted, the Lord Protector applied to the Lord Henry Cromwell, then Major-General of the Forces in Ireland, to engage 1500 of the soldiers of the army in Ireland to go thither as planters, and to secure a thousand young Irish girls (“Irish wenches” is Secretary Thurloe’s term), to be sent there also.’ Henry Cromwell answered that there would be no difficulty, only that force must be used in taking them ; and he suggested the addition of from 1500 to 2000 boys of from twelve to fourteen years of age. ” We could well spare them,” he adds, ” and they might be of use to you ; and who knows but it might be a means to make them Englishmen — I mean, Christians?”
The numbers finally fixed were 1000 boys, and 1000 girls, to sail from Galway in October, 1655, – the boys as bondmen, probably – , and the girls to be bound by other ties to these English soldiers in Jamaica. [vii]
Despite all the arguments to the contrary, what clearly emerges from all the accounts of the time, is that there was a profit to be made from selling people to plantation owners in the Americas. It provided the motivation and the oxygen to sustain a huge illegal trade in human cargo. Not surprisingly, the illegality the trade means was that kidnappings and transportations were conducted in secret and therefore no formal records exist, forcing all writers of the time and present day historians to estimate the numbers. In such a vacuum, where documentary evidence is lacking, the revisionists thrive, waiting to pounce and attack any numbers given in the forlorn hope of proving that if an author is wrong about one point, they are wrong about everything. The result is that present day historians are more cautious about using figures but no one denies that transportations, legal and illegal took place nor that thousands upon thousands of Irish people were shipped to the Americas to work as slave labour. Another difficulty for the historian is that history is the study of the élite through the written word. Most of the indentured servants were not literate and did not get to leave their story for posterity or if they somehow managed to have it in writing, it did not survive the passage of time.
The one issue which set the Irish apart from all other indentured servants of other nations was that of sectarian and racial bigotry and their love child, dehumanisation. For the British plantation owners there was nothing more detestable and subhuman than an Irish catholic or a black person. For those convinced of their superiority, it conferred the psychological right to treat inferior classes as they saw fit. Some slavers were better than others, but as we saw earlier in the article, many were abusive, used trickery and the law to ensure that the period of indenture lasted for life. A slave in by any other name is a slave.
Another dimension added in by the revisionists is the issue of race. They claim that slavery was entirely based on race, the corollary is that as the Irish were of a white race they could not be slaves. However, any historian who studies history beyond the 20th century has encountered the use of the word ‘race’ to describe various nationalities, ‘British Race’, ‘Irish Race’ etc. It evinces beyond any doubt that the people of those times thought in terms of race and it gives rise to the British racist term for the Irish, ‘White Ni**ers’.
William Petty writing in 1692 wrote that, ‘rather than destroying the Irish, English interests would be best served in the colonies by enslaving them like “negroes”’
‘You value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as slaves and negroes are usually rated, viz, at about 15 one with another; men being sold for 25, children for 5 … Why should not insolvent thieves be punished with slavery rather than death. So as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it.’ [viii]
One planter on Barbados wrote in the mid 1600s that the planters bought ‘servants’ in the same manner as African slaves. When a ship arrived it created a process known as ‘the scramble’. Another account dating from 1667 states that the Irish were ‘derided by the negroes, and branded with the epithet of ‘white slaves’. Indentured servants themselves identified as slaves. They were treated exactly the same as black slaves, Richard Ligon wrote, ‘I have seen such cruelty there done to servants as I did not think one Christian could have done to another’. ‘Servants and black workers were subject to ‘severe overseers’ who beat them during their labours. If a person complained they were subjected to more beatings and if they persisted, their period of indenture could be doubled. It does not take much in the way of knowledge of human behaviour to know that by subjecting a servant to persistent brutality it will cause a backlash which played into the hands of the ‘owner’ of the contract. Ligon noted that many found it impossible to endure such slavery.[ix]
Prof John Donoghue of Loyola University, Chicago writing in the Irish History magazine puts the record straight.
Irish field hands called themselves slaves because they were the term-bound, chattel property of the planters who purchased them. They were itemised as the ‘goods and chattels’ of their masters on contracts and in estate inventories—often beside ‘negroes’, livestock, hardware and other household goods. Like ‘negroe’ slaves, they could be sold again and again without their consent. Historians have often argued that ‘servants’ weren’t bought and sold, only their contracts were. This is a legal fiction, not a material reality. Contracts did not cut sugar cane and weed tobacco fields; chattel workers did. Contracts, which kidnapped and transported people without their agreement, did not prevent enslavement. Instead, contracts led to enslavement, transforming people into term-bound chattel property. Contracts commodified more than ‘servant’ labour; they commodified the person as a species of capital collateral. Planters used ‘servants’, like slaves, as financial instruments to escape bankruptcy, to satisfy creditors, to liquidate estates, and to resolve debts and broken contracts. [x]
The entire notion that the Irish were not slaves relies on the ‘legal fiction’ of the slave owners. When we ask why are some Irish historians, bloggers and writers so keen to denigrate the memory of these Irish people and take the side of the slavers, it points to a re-rise in prominence of the oldest Irish personality trait, begrudgery. Begrudgery is but one manifestation of an entire set of cultural biases and prejudices which are ancestral in origin and so deeply inset into Irish culture, they mostly go unnoticed. Historically, the Irish were prevented from upward social mobility and were forced to create the illusion social mobility by denigrating those around them, thus psychologically constructing the illusion of superiority over the denigrated class. In Ireland in recent times, there has been a pendulum swing which has resulted in all Irish history being written off as a nationalist diatribe, replacing it with a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ driven quixotic deposition of colonial negationism.
Another pillar upon which rests the pseudohistory of the revisionists is the false notion of national homogeneity. Throughout all their arguments, lies the assumption that all the Irish people were the same, while in fact Irish society of the 17th century was a multicultural society comprised of at least three/four main nations. The new English, the new Scottish (combined into new British), the native Gaelic Irish, and the decedents of the Norman invaders of AD1171 who called themselves the ‘Old English’ in an attempt to avoid the prejudices and dispossessions imposed by the new English. The Normans and the Gaels remained mainly catholic, despite the violent coercion which began in the time of Henry VIII. Catholic Ireland suffered terribly bearing almost the full brunt of ethnic cleansing, massacres, forced transportations, and more, while at the same time sections of protestant Ireland profited from the salve trade. Recently in June 2020 an article appeared in the Irish Times which labelled these protestant Anglo-Irish, who identified as British, as Irish. The writer then took it upon himself to blame the Irish for the slave trade and even quoted one historian who accused the entire nation and diaspora of arrogant white superiority, and hinted at the existence of white supremacism. I have noticed that practically all of these revisionist have one thing in common, Gaelic surnames. That points to a cultural prejudice and one of the oldest in Gaelic society, where one would expect it be the last place to find it, is a hatred of all things Irish. It has bedevilled many aspects of Irish life but is strongly manifest in the continuing practice of the export of Irish children for consumption on foreign tables. Despite the country’s economic success, hundreds of thousands of talented individuals have been imported from abroad to cover the country’s talent shortage. The government statistics office figures show that approximately 411,000 Irish nationals left the country from 2013 to 2019, while in April 2019, there were 622,700 non-Irish nationals resident in Ireland accounting for 12.7% of the total population. That is just one example of the Irish self-hating prejudices which have a long and sordid history but remain below the level of Irish public consciousness. They are however manifest almost every day in Ireland through newspaper/magazine articles, blogs, social media and even in formal history publications.
There is an added problem, the effluent in the room, American people, particularly Irish Americans, are far better educated on the history of Ireland than the Irish. It is due to a deliberate obscurantist educational policy introduced to the teaching of Irish history in schools in the 1980s. It was mainly due to the Irish government fear that the teaching of Irish history was driving anti-British sentiment and had become a recruiting instrument for the IRA. So it toned down the historical narrative to obscure the worst deeds, including, slavery, massacres and ethnic cleansing, racism, sectarianism and supremacism of the colonial powers in Ireland. If you ask most people in Ireland today, who set off the first bombs of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, or who killed the first (RUC) policeman, they will answer it was the IRA, and that the whole conflict started as a fight for freedom from England. However, it was a unionist paramilitary organisation which started the bombing and killed the first RUC man. He was a protestant who happened to be standing beside a catholic police man, who was believed to be the intended target. The IRA were inactive in 1969 and the organisation split over the issue of protecting catholic areas from attack by loyalist mobs. The split created the Provisional IRA which in 1971 switched from a defensive role to go on the offensive. In fact, in 1969, the British army were sent to Northern Ireland to protect the Catholics from loyalist attacks. The upshot of this educational obscurantism is that false history no longer only spreads from barstool to barstool in Ireland, but is spread through the formal education system and it goes right up to and including universities, many of which stand as testament to the well evinced, decades old, drop in educational standards.
One could validly argue that there was some merit in toning down Irish history for the aforementioned reasons but it has left an unforeseen legacy whereby common societal prejudices have combined with ignorance of history to create series of attacks on Irish history. The severity of the invective is proportional to the level of sympathy Irish history might draw for the unfortunate Irish of the past. The stronger the sympathy generated, the more contemptuous the revisionists narrative will be, nearly always embellished with the classic, time honoured Irish practice of sneering condescending at others. ‘Kiss me, My Slave Owners were Irish’, is the sneering title of one of the revisionist articles. It is a sneer based on the humorous slogan ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ often found on the appeal worn by the Irish diaspora on St. Patrick’s Day. What is very much in evidence here is self-hate. The pride Irish Americans have for their ancestors and in Irishness drives the Gaeltards mad! They cannot stand any sentiment which has anything good to say about Ireland or the Irish. Yes Irish people owned slaves in the Americas and were owned as slaves. Does the fact that some Irish people owned slaves mean that other Irish people were not slaves? Would you believe that black people owned thousands of black slaves in the Americas? Does the applying the crackpot logic of the Irish slavery revisionists mean that black people were not slaves?
The big difference between the Black experiences of slavery and the Irish experiance lies in the legacy of these two groups. As we have seen, both black slaves and Irish indentured servants were treated with equal brutality but white skin of the Irish allowed their descendants to blend into, and become part of the dominant social group, white America. A route, obviously, not open to black people because of skin colour and the upshot is that the attitude of the slavers continues in the mentality of a minority of white people for one reason, and one reason only, to make a small mind feel big.
In recent times the white slavery has been used a political football by white supremacist to somehow take away from the black experience of slavery. I assume the crazy logic is that if we were all threated like that it does not give black people the right to complain. History in the hands of political activists, of all hues, is never a true and impartial account of historical events. It is always weaponised and aimed at the opposition but it incumbent on all impartial observers, even though they may be stuck in the most dangerous place of all, no-man’s-land, to expose the lies of both sides.
The Irish historical slave experience is a shared experience with our black brethren and those who are still enslaved in the world today. It should be the foundation stone whereupon a solidarity is built between nations, cultures and races with a practical end, the eradication of the cruel exploitation of unfree labour and to ensure where it happens in the future it is stamped out post haste.
Bales, Kevin. New Slavery: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Cavanaugh, James F. ‘Irish Slavery’. Forum. Race and History, 25 May 2005. http://www.raceandhistory.com/cgi-bin/forum/webbbs_config.pl?md=read;id=1638.
Donoghue, John. ‘The Curse of Cromwell: Revisiting the Irish Slavery Debate’. History Ireland, 28 June 2017. https://www.historyireland.com/volume-25/issue-4-julyaugust-2017/features-issue-4-julyaugust-2017/curse-cromwell-revisiting-irish-slavery-debate/.
Garcia, Miki. The Caribbean Irish: How the Slave Myth Was Made. John Hunt Publishing, 2019.
Prendergast, John P. The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland. Lulu. com, 1868.
Showmaker, Becky. ‘Corrected above Measure: Indentured Servants and Domestic Abuse in Maryland, 1650-1700’. University of Missouri–Columbia, 2009.
Smith, Abbot Emerson. ‘The Transportation of Convicts to the American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century’. The American Historical Review 39, no. 2 (1934): 232–49.
[i] Cavanaugh, ‘Irish Slavery’.
[ii] Bales, New Slavery: A Reference Handbook.
[iii] Showmaker, ‘Corrected above Measure: Indentured Servants and Domestic Abuse in Maryland, 1650-1700’.
[iv] Bales, New Slavery: A Reference Handbook.
[v] Smith, ‘The Transportation of Convicts to the American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century’.
[vi] Garcia, The Caribbean Irish: How the Slave Myth Was Made.
[vii] Prendergast, The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland.
[viii] Donoghue, ‘The Curse of Cromwell’.