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Ireland and Slavery: Debating the ‘Irish Slaves Myth’

Mural of Frederick Douglass, Falls Road, Belfast. Irish people’s history has embraced both a legacy of identification with the oppressed, and in propagation of the Irish Slaves Myths, elements of racism. Photograph by
Ross – CC BY-SA 2.0

Over recent months, social media in Ireland and the United States has been saturated with claims and counterclaims about ‘Irish slaves’ and a broader controversy about Irish complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. The timing of the ‘debate’ is far from coincidental: a series of false and malicious assertions that the American far Right have pushed aggressively for more than a decade, embraced with enthusiasm by the most conservative elements in Irish America, have grown wings in the new context opened up by the rise of Black Lives Matter. A controversy that has simmered below the surface has taken on new urgency as a fascist Right, emboldened by Trump, finds itself confronted for the first time with a powerful mass movement capable of pushing back. In this context racists in the US are attempting to weaponize a false version of Irish ‘history’ to undermine BLM. In the south of Ireland, especially, a small ‘anti-globalist’ Right sees in the controversy a possibility for redeeming their dismal showing in the recent election by drawing people in on the basis of a mawkish, fairytale nationalism. Socialists and all anti-racists have a responsibility in this situation to counter these lies, to build solidarity with BLM here in Ireland and abroad, and to confront racism wherever it is manifested in Irish society.

For the past seven years much of the burden of refuting these lies has been taken on by the Limerick-based independent scholar Liam Hogan. Working his way meticulously through a complicated historical record, Hogan has published extensively on the controversy, and is the main source for coverage that in recent weeks has appeared in leading newspapers in Britain, Ireland and the US. His research shows that a version of the ‘white slave memes’ first began surfacing in US websites associated with hardcore white supremacists around 2003, but made its way into broader Tea Party circles from about 2013, and has more recently become a staple in the larger far Right that has grown in size and confidence under Trump’s patronage. In the article below – focused on the whether the experience of Irish indentures in the 17th and 18th century world is comparable with that of African slaves – and in a second installment that will follow on Irish complicity in transatlantic slavery, I argue that there are problems in Hogan’s approach, and in the framework in which he situates these questions. But it should be acknowledged unequivocally that his work has been critical for arming anti-racists against a deluge of lies and misinformation. All anti-racists are indebted to Hogan for taking this on almost singlehandedly.

Far Right Weaponizes ‘History’

At the outset it’s worth taking the measure of the scale of the problem we confront. The notion of ‘Irish slavery’ may have floated around Irish America in some vague form before 2003, but it does not seem to have played a significant role in underpinning white (Irish American) racism before then, and although by 2013 it had seeped into sections of the Irish American press, it was the white nationalist-influenced far Right rather than these outlets that drove its early dissemination. In Ireland former Irish army officer Sean O’Callaghan’s highly problematic To Hell or Barbados (published in 2001) popularized the belief that Cromwell’s Irish deportees had been enslaved in the British Caribbean, and was almost certainly the source for Gerry Adam’s cringe-worthy 2016 assertion that “through the penal days [the] Irish were sold as slaves.” The careless blurring of the lines between slavery and indenture in O’Callaghan’s work, rooted in sentimental nationalism than a commitment to white supremacy – provided an aura of credibility for the ‘Irish slaves’ meme that it would not have otherwise enjoyed.

To the extent that these falsehoods have taken root more broadly across Irish society, it is important to confront them. But it’s also worth pointing out that the surge in discussion of the ‘Irish slaves’ meme on social media does not necessarily indicate growing support for racism. In the south of Ireland at least, where between May and early July 2020 there has been a staggering increase in the volume of such discussion, posts debunking the ‘myth’ seem to exponentially outnumber those defending it. The five most popular facebook posts over this period related to ‘Irish slaves’ all debunk the myth; only one in the top ten (from the right-wing student publication, The Burkean) defends it, but with only about 2% of the traction of the leading five.[1]

There are of course right-wing activists and individual racists in Ireland who want to weaponize the meme in the same way their American counterparts aim to do – to discredit Black Lives Matter and undermine calls for racial justice – but it’s clear also that there are (confused) BLM supporters and anti-racists even among those who believe at some level that Irish indenture and African slavery were equivalents. The assertion that Africans had been ‘third in slavery” in the Americas (after indigenous peoples and white indentures) was earlier popularized by the race conscious editor of Jet magazine, Lerone Bennett Jr., who wrote at the height of the Black Power movement that Africans “had inherited [their] chains, in a manner of speaking, from the pioneer bondsmen, who were red and white”. Clearly Bennett was blurring the lines here in the same way many do today, but he can hardly be accused of soft-pedaling the horrors of racially-based chattel slavery, and was obviously motivated by the hope that history might be put to work in building cross-racial alliances. The point here is not that populist renderings of the past should be given a free pass when they are put to service in building interracial solidarity – they shouldn’t – but that we need to be attentive to the context in which particular versions of the past gain traction, and the present emphasis on marking off the sharp line between indenture and slavery itself reflects important ideological shifts over recent years.

A Mountain of Falsehoods

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: on all the key questions – of whether the Irish were ‘the first slaves’, or whether their experience as indentured laborers in Britain’s colonies in the so-called ‘new world’ was equivalent to that endured by Africans, or of whether ‘indenture’ is just a euphemism for ‘slavery’ (as many on social media want to insist), the record is crystal clear and there should be no equivocation. These are all false assertions, almost always deliberately concocted at source through flagrant manipulation of numbers and chronology. Hogan has forensically dissected the numbers game here, and demonstrates repeatedly the dishonesty, embellishment and manipulation of the facts underpinning the Right’s disinformation campaign.

There is nothing to be gained by trying to diminish or downplay the suffering endured by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Irish indentured servants – a point that some of those arguing Hogan’s corner seem oblivious to, and one I will come back to in some detail below. But even if we acknowledge the hardships many of them had to endure, and even if we accept at face value the hugely inflated numbers that those disseminating the ‘Irish slaves’ myth place in circulation, any attempt to conflate or render equivalent their nightmare with Africans’ experience as slave chattels is untenable, and callous in the extreme.

In scale, in duration, in the wrenching and long-term legacy of transatlantic slavery on Africa itself, in the absolutely central role which black slave labor played in generating the colossal wealth that helped fuel Europe’s industrial transformation – in effect launching global capitalism and the modern world as we know it – any attempt to draw equivalences is beyond absurd. By way of illustration, let us take at face value the hugely exaggerated numbers of Irish indentures purported in one prominent meme, which asserts that over an eleven-year period in the middle of the 17th century the British “sold 300,000 [Irish people] as slaves”. Leaving aside momentarily the question of status, as Hogan points out this number represents six times the total number of Irish migrants to the West Indies for the whole of the 17th century, and almost double total Irish migration to the West Indies and North America in the century and a half after 1630. But leave this aside as well: let’s accept that – for argument’s sake –there were 300,000 Irish laborers condemned to some degree of unfreedom in the plantation societies of the Americas.

Now consider a second figure: over nearly three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade some four million enslaved Africans died en route to the new world – either while being transported overland to coastal ports in west Africa, at sea during the Middle Passage, or shortly after landing in the ‘new world’. That is, thirteen times as many Africans died in transit to the ‘new world’ than the total number of Irish which the Right insists were deployed as ‘slave’ laborers. If we use instead the numbers for Cromwellian deportations accepted by credible scholars (10-12,000) then this single measure reveals the absurdity of trying to render these experiences equivalent: forty times as many African died in transit than the total number of Irish sent into indenture in the 1650s. The scale of the far Right’s intended swindle is breath-taking: that such idiocy can gain any traction at all shows an almost pathological aversion to facing up to the past among those circling the wagons against the renewed challenge to white supremacy.

Marx on Slavery and the Birth of Capitalism

Marxists understand the centrality of African slavery to the making of the modern world in ways that others, including liberal defenders of the present social order, miss or deliberately evade. For Marx himself, bloody conquest in the Americas (almost everywhere involving genocide against indigenous peoples) and chattel slavery on a scale the world had never previously seen were twin cornerstones of a newly emerging capitalism that would, over a remarkably short period in historical terms, bring under its ambit diverse and far-flung societies across the globe. “The different momenta of primitive accumulation [of capital] distribute themselves now,” he wrote in the first volume of Capital, “over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a [systematic] combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute forcee.g., the colonial system.” More broadly, he insists

 

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.[2] [emphasis added]

The leading African American scholar-activist WEB Du Bois, deeply influenced by marxist materialism at the height of his intellectual powers, expanded on this argument from the vantage point of the early 20th century, when the global system that Marx identified in embryo had developed into mature form: “That dark and vast sea of human labor…the great majority of humankind,” he wrote in Black Reconstruction, “shares a common destiny…despised and rejected by race and color, paid a wage below the level of decent living[.] Enslaved in all but name,” he insisted, they gather up raw materials “at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed, and transported,” with the resulting wealth “distributed and made the basis of world power…in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro”. Written in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, one could hardly find a more fitting depiction of the world we inhabit today, marked by exploitive relations between global capital and a racially stratified, multinational labour force. And of course it is impossible to understand the deep resonance that protests in the US have found across the globe without understanding the ways in which police violence – directed disproportionately at this ‘dark and vast sea of human labor’ – reinforces the wider system of exploitation that Marx and Du Bois identified.

This approach to understanding the centrality of slavery serves up a crushing riposte to far Right apologists, but it also marks off an alternative framework from which to understand the evolution of chattel slavery in the Americas – one that captures complex aspects of its development missing from the debate thus far, and perhaps excluded by the way it has been framed by Hogan and others. In Ireland the enduring legacy of the ‘revisionist’ reappraisal of the past is evident in writing on indenture and, more obviously, on Irish complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Fearghal Mac Bhloschaidh has written perceptively of the ideological thrust of the revisionist project in Ireland: the “main current dominating Irish historiography,” he asserts, can be best understood as an ‘idiosyncratic Irish manifestation of a wider liberal defence of power”, which “employs a vulgar empiricism and constrictive ontology to prohibit a radical reading of the past or an awareness of history as process.”[3]

Framing Slavery and Indenture

The salience of this historiographical context for framing discussion of Irish indenture and its relationship to African slavery is obvious. Though the terrain of this discussion has been profoundly shaped by the regressive trends identified by Mac Bhloschaidh, this background will go unnoticed by many who happen upon the ‘debate’ online or in the press. The convergence of the revisionist sensibility in understanding the Caribbean is most obviously manifested in Donald Akenson’s lectures on the Irish presence in 17th century Montserrat, collected in a volume published under the suitably provocative title If the Irish Ran the World. Drawing on a recent literature that simultaneously denies Ireland’s colonial past and upholds the notion of an ‘Irish empire’, Akenson asserts that the smallest of the main Leeward islands constituted “Ireland’s only 17th and 18th century colony”. Indenture figures in his account as a story of rational-choice ‘upward mobility’; the text strains to obliterate the distinction between Irish (mainly though not exclusively Anglo-Irish and Protestant) planters and indentured servants, and asserts that indenture “was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience”. [emphasis added] Though Hogan is mostly forthright in acknowledging the misery that attended indenture,[4] traces of Akenson’s cheerier rendering are evident in the present debate.

Three key elements prominent in earlier writing on indenture in the Caribbean and British North America are obscured in the way the recent controversy has been framed. First, an earlier historiography acknowledged, significantly, that indenture was one in a series of solutions by which planter elites attempted to solve the problem of labor scarcity in their ‘new world’ colonies: in short they could not reap profits selling staple crops on the transatlantic market without an adequate supply of labor, and for a while – in the earliest period of Anglo/European settlement – white indentured labor seemed a viable option. As the distinguished anthropologist Sindey Mintz put it, “‘planters were, in one sense, completely without prejudice [and] willing to employ any kind of labor…under any kind of arrangements, as long as the labor force was politically defenseless enough for the work to be done cheaply and under discipline”. In parts of the Caribbean Irish indentures seem to have played an especially prominent role early on (rooted in the Cromwellian deportations) but in North America indentures were drawn from England (mainly), Scotland and Ireland, without any obvious distinction being made between them. A second element, now largely absent from the ’debate’, is the sense that the turn to African slavery as the foundation for plantation labor was a contingent development, and not preordained by history. A complex convergence of circumstances pushed Anglo planters toward a full commitment to black slavery: improved conditions in Ireland and Britain meant the flow of ‘voluntary’ migrants dried up; the turn from small-scale tobacco cultivation to sugar in the Caribbean (and from hopes of outright plunder to tobacco export further north in Virginia and the Chesapeake) generated an exponential increase in the planters’ labor requirements. Finally, British entry into and then domination of the transatlantic slave trade brought a sharp decline in the costs of deploying slave labor, to the point where African slaves-for-life could be deployed on the plantations more economically than white indentures.[5]

Labour, Identity and the Construction of Race

In the face of the malicious attempt to muddy the waters around the horrors of African slavery, it is important to point out the very real, and substantial, differences between indenture and slavery for life. But the evolution of chattel slavery, its place in an evolving system of labor exploitation, the declining importance of indenture – indeed any sense of change over time – is almost entirely absent from the narrow framework of national identity through which discussion is now focused. And what do we lose in this shift? Most significantly we miss the possibility of grasping what the African American historian Barbara J. Fields has called the incremental “construction of race”.[6] If it is true, as is now widely accepted, that ‘race’ is a fiction, and that ‘whiteness’ was deliberately constructed as a way of marking off racial boundaries and securing the loyalty of white laborers to their social betters, then the new world plantation societies of the 17th and 18th centuries served as the setting in which this process was initiated and then consolidated.

Here Akenson’s assertion that indenture and chattel slavery were ‘galaxies apart’ – or his insinuation that Irish indentures were simply slaveowners-in-the-making who had not yet found their true calling – is misleading, and marks a retreat from a more dynamic and potentially productive framework. Those pushing the ‘Irish slaves’ myth suggest that ‘indenture’ is synonymous with slavery, but there are important distinctions: most (though not all) indentures from Britain, Scotland and Ireland were voluntary; in return for transatlantic passage and a modest package of land and tools, etc. at the end of their indentures, they signed away their freedom for terms ranging typically from 4 to 10 years. Historians will continue to debate the evidence from colonial North America and the Anglo Caribbean: there is a basis for emphasizing the ‘special unease’ that planters exhibited toward their African laborers, and the indications that ‘racial’ demarcation between African and ‘Christian servants’ [i.e. whites] was underway from outset. But there is countervailing evidence – especially from colonial North America, that points to a period in which ‘race relations’ at the bottom were more fluid. It was not uncommon during the first half of the seventeenth century for Africans, Europeans, and indigenous ‘Americans’ in the colonial Chesapeake to work alongside one another, and even to share the same living quarters. No sharp racial division of labor had yet emerged to prescribe which work would ‘belong’ to a particular group. Contrary to the assumption that racism has always divided blacks and whites, unfree laborers of all ‘races’ in the early seventeenth century Chesapeake seemed “remarkably unconcerned about their visible physical differences”.[7] Their lives intersected in many ways, and there is clear evidence that they shared not only living quarters and daily toil, but close personal ties as well. From the fragmentary record we know that at least some ‘white’ laborers were conscious of the common lot they shared with blacks: “We and the Negroes both alike did fare,” one servant-poet wrote: “Of work and food we had an equal share.”[8] An investigation into the death of a Dutch servant at the hands of his master in 1647 illustrates the sense of vulnerability shared among the ranks of the unfree. A plantation overseer testified that when he visited the servants’ quarters just after hearing of the death of one of their co-laborers, they all

sate very mallanchollye in the quartering house, and [the overseer] asked them what they ayled to bee soe mallanchollye. The Spanyard made answer and said Lord have mercy upon this boye hath been killed by b(l)owes, his conscience told him. Tom Clarke said Lord have mercy upon us that ever it was my hard fortune to come to this countrye for, if this bee suffered, it maye bee my turne to morrow or next daye. The Negro said Jesus Christ my mayster is not good. And they all wept bitterlye.[9]

The ‘construction of race’ in the vortex of ‘new world’ conquest, exploitation and inter-imperial rivalry can also explain the fundamental distinction between the form of slavery that took shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world and every other form of slavery that preceded it. What was distinct about the system that provided the foundations for modern capitalism was its elevation of racial distinctions: though the timing of its development varied here and there, black skin became everywhere in the Americas a marker for slave status. Unlike slavery in the ancient world, where ethnicity and national origin seem to have barely figured in denoting the status of human beings, what developed in the Americas was a racially-defined system of exploitation. And the stigma attached to race, the comprehensive system of racist ideology concocted to rationalize and justify the selective enslavement of black Africans (notions of black inferiority, white superiority), gave grounding and coherence to a set of deeply embedded racial assumptions that outlived slavery, and which very obviously retain their destructive power well into the 21st century.

Wherever historians come down on what the records show for the formative period in race-making, there can be little dispute that racial boundaries became more rigid over time, and that this hardening of the color line was reflected in evolving law and custom. In British North America the critical turning point in the fastening of racial hierarchy – the invention of ‘whiteness’ – came as a direct response by colonial elites to a multi-racial rebellion driven by the ‘lower orders’.[10]

Finally, understanding both slavery and indenture as evolving solutions to the labor problem rather than as mere reflections of a hierarchy of identities can explain how, as Kerby Miller has suggested, “the records of almost every major slave revolt in the Anglo-American world – from the West Indian uprisings in the late 1600s, to the 1741 slave conspiracy in New York City, through Gabriel’s rebellion of 1800 in Virginia, to the plot discovered on the Civil War’s eve in Natchez, Mississippi – were marked by real or purported Irish participation or instigation”.[11] The planters’ dread of rebel combinations between the Irish poor and African slaves – like their more general tendency to perceive slave plots all around them – was more often based on paranoia than firm evidence. “What worried masters in Barbados, above all,” Hilary McD. Beckles observed, “was Irish involvement in slave revolts.” In most cases “fear outran fact in this regard,”[12] he notes, but if it is true that the conditions which black slaves and white indentures worked and lived under were ‘galaxies apart’, how can we explain the persistence of this deep anxiety among Anglo slaveowners throughout the plantation societies of the Americas? Ironically, as Miller points out, “it was not the much-maligned Irish nationalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who first constructed the image of Ireland’s Catholics (and [their] Protestant allies) as inveterate rebels against political and social authority. Rather, it was earlier Protestant (and Catholic) conservatives and counter-revolutionaries, for whom ‘essential’ (or ‘wild’) ‘Irishness’ seemed the inveterate enemy of the hierarchical systems, deferential habits, and genteel norms that maintained the prevailing, unequal distributions of rights, property, and power”.[13]

In obvious ways, the terms of the debate around slavery and indenture have been outside the control of Liam Hogan and others who have stood up to refute the intense disinformation campaign mounted by the far Right and a softer element of right-leaning, sentimental Irish nationalists. Clearly, they have performed an important service in deploying the historical record against sordid attempts to make light of the horrors of chattel slavery. But the narrow terms in which these issues have, until now, been discussed reveal also the persistent influence of conservatism in Irish history writing, itself a variant of a more general retreat among historians – away from an engaged social history that attends to the complex relationships between race, class and power and toward a fixation with culture and identity. This can obscure as much as it reveals. Indentured servitude and racially-based slavery for life were not equivalents, nor were they comparable in terms of scale or importance in generating the economic foundations that would launch global capitalism. But they were related forms of exploitation at the birth of the modern world, and the best way to honor the victims of both is to commit to rebuilding the rebel combinations that flickered, tentatively, across the color line among those at the bottom. The odious racism that the Black Lives Matter Movement confronts today has its origins in that harsh world, and it’s time we buried that part of our past.

Notes.

1. Buzzsumo app, 29 June 2020: data in author’s possession.

2. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 31: “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm.

3. Mac Bhloscaidh, “Objective Historians, Irrational Fenians and the Bewildered Herd: Revisionist Myth and the Irish Revolution,” Irish Studies Review (April 2020): pps. 2,6.

4. On this point see Liam Hogan, Laura McAtackney and Matthew C. Reilly, “The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?, History Ireland (March-April 2016); pps. 18-22.

5. On these interlinked developments see David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis,” Journal of Economic History 44:1 (Mar. 1984), pps. 1- 26. On parallels in the North American context see Kelly, “Material Origins of Racism in North America,” available at https://www.academia.edu/10195740/Material_Origins_of_Racism_in_North_America.

6. See Field’s important discussion of this issue in Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 1/181 (May/June 1990): available online at https://newleftreview.org/issues/I181/articles/barbara-jeanne-fields-slavery-race-and-ideology-in-the-united-states-of-america.

7. Kenneth Stampp, cited in Winthrop D. Jordan, “Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery,” Journal of Southern History 28:1 (1962): 21.

8. Jacqueline Jones, American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor (1999), p. 76.

9. North Carolina Deeds, Wills, etc., 1645-51, cited in J. Douglas Deal, Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore During the Seventeenth Century (1993), pps. 117-118.

10. On the importance of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) in galvanizing Virginia elites and solidifying racial hierarchy in the colonial Chesapeake, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), and Theodore Allen, “’They Would Have Destroyed Me’: Slavery and the Origins of Racism,” Radical America (May-June 1975): pps. 41-63.

11. Kerby Miller, “Epilogue: Re-Imagining Irish and Irish Diasporan History,” in Ireland and Irish America (2008).

12. Hilary McD. Beckles, “A ‘riotous and unruly lot’: Irish Indentured Servants and Freemen in the English West Indies, 1644-I7I3,” William and Mary Quarterly 47:4 (Oct. 1990), p. 517. On indenture and cooperation between Irish indentures and African and creole slaves in the British Caribbean see also Aubrey Gwynn, “Indentured Servants and Negro Slaves in Barbados (1642-1650),” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 19:74 (Jun. 1930), pp. 279-294. As a corrective to Akenson’s story of ‘upward mobility’, Gwynn reminds us (284) that although after their term of indenture “had been completed, the servant was free, and might be allotted land on the island. But not many lived to see the day”. Mortality on Caribbean-bound ships was high, a fact that seems to be missing from recent discussions of indenture. In Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (1972), for example, Richard S. Dunn reports that on one ship eighty of 350 passengers died of sickness by the time it arrived in port in Barbados in 1638.

13. Miller, Epilogue, p. 23.

Brian Kelly is an award-winning historian of race and labor in the post-emancipation United States.

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