Rachel and the Irish Slaves

Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal is all over the news. Apparently she was raised with four adopted African-American children, attended predominantly-black Howard University, and somewhere along the way, decided that she preferred to fit in with black culture. That’s her choice, in my opinion, but she would be in a more defensible position now if she hadn’t invented a black father and son to sell herself as black. [Update: She resigned.]

Which reminds me, when I was looking at colleges in the 1970s, I got this giant green book with stats on all the colleges and universities in the Educational Testing Service database. I went through all of them looking for what I thought was important then: colleges that offered Architecture degrees, colleges that had a reasonable proportion of women students, and colleges that had swimming programs.

One of the schools I contacted for more info was the Hampton Institute, in Virginia, which is now called Hampton University. When I got their brochure, it had Architecture, women and swimming, but I noticed that just about everyone in the photos was dark-skinned. ETS hadn’t mentioned that Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School was founded to educate freed slaves, for a while had a program to educate Native Americans, and was still a predominantly-black college. I’m sure attending Hampton would have affected my life a great deal, but even so, I’d have a hard time ever calling myself African-American.

Perhaps I would have considered Hampton if they had had a program to educate freed Irish slaves. I learned in school that many destitute Irish, and other Europeans, were brought into the United States as indentured servants. A friend’s facebook post – which I saw this morning – claims that Irish were sold into actual slavery, and I find that several books have been written on the subject:

To Hell and Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland (2001) by Sean O’Callaghan focuses on Irish sent to Barbados, while in, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America (2008) Don Jordan looks at all white Britons swept up into the slave trade. There’s also a historical novel called Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl, by Kate McCafferty, though the reviews are not that flattering.

On a Race and History discussion board, James F Cavanaugh, since deceased, wrote about what he learned researching one ancestor:

After the Battle of Kinsale at the beginning of the 17th century, … James II encouraged selling the Irish as slaves to planters and settlers in the New World colonies. The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. …

The Proclamation of 1625 ordered that Irish political prisoners be transported overseas and sold as laborers to English planters, who were settling the islands of the West Indies, officially establishing a policy that was to continue for two centuries. In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters. But there were not enough political prisoners to supply the demand, so every petty infraction carried a sentence of transporting, and slaver gangs combed the country sides to kidnap enough people to fill out their quotas. …

In the 12 year period during and following the Confederation revolt, from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were sold as slaves, as the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. Banished soldiers were not allowed to take their wives and children with them, and naturally, the same for those sold as slaves. The result was a growing population of homeless women and children, who being a public nuisance, were likewise rounded up and sold. But the worse was yet to come.

In 1649, Cromwell landed in Ireland and attacked Drogheda, slaughtering some 30,000 Irish living in the city. … A few months later, in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters in St. Kitt. During the 1650s decade of Cromwell’s Reign of Terror, over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing free population of the Americas!

But all did not go smoothly with Cromwell’s extermination plan, as Irish slaves revolted in Barbados in 1649. They were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads were put on pikes, prominently displayed around Bridgetown as a warning to others.

There is a lot of controversy about these claims, though, and it doesn’t help that white supremacists have used the idea of white American slavery to disparage black Americans who complain about black slavery. One example of rebuttal is Liam Hogan’s online paper called, The Myth of Irish Slaves in the Colonies:

Recent years have seen the marked growth of the “Irish slaves” narrative, which is itself a subset of the “white slavery” myth. This myth has been currency in ultranationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles for decades and their promotion of it frequently occurs on their websites and across social media. The myth has recently entered the mainstream, partly due to the decision by national newspapers and popular websites to endorse a spurious “Irish Slave Trade” article that conflates indentured servitude or forced labour with chattel slavery. Surprisingly, this claim has gone relatively unchallenged in the public domain, thus this paper will analyse its veracity.

Essentially Hogan attacks the scholarship of the Irish slavery authors, attacks the websites that carry such claims as conspiracy sites, and accuses all parties of confusing Indentured Servitude with Chattel Slavery. After a very quick reading of several pieces, I can’t really say where the truth lies. I do suspect that what happened to the Irish, and others, in some Caribbean islands may well have been called indentured servitude, or conscripted labour, or something else, but resembles slavery in so many aspects that it hardly mattered to the individuals how they ended up in the fields and under the lash.

On the other hand, I don’t see how the experience of Irish and Britons in the 17th century diminishes the use and abuse of African-Americans that is still occurring today.


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