One of the things I usually enjoy with this blog is smashing down a misuse of history, be it by politicians looking to score a soundbite or pundits trying to shroud their argument with the mantle of established precedent. Unfortunately that job also requires diving into the unpleasant and racist elements of the misuse of history on occasion, and this is one of those unpleasant times: the currently rising topic of “Irish Slavery” in the North American and Caribbean colonies from the 15th to (possibly) 19th centuries.
Let’s start from the top – I’m not an expert in Irish history, English history, Cromwell, or North American colonial history – I’m a well read amateur on these periods. But, and I cannot overstate this, even for a well-read amateur like myself the idea of “Irish Slavery” is bullshit. Absolute bullshit and if you come across this toxic meme I suggest you dismiss it from your mind immediately.
At its core this myth argues that Irish citizens were mass deported from Ireland starting in 1625 through the end of the English Civil War and beyond, roughly 1653, with Cromwell sending hundreds of thousands of Irish individuals to the New World as “slaves.” An excellent article says it far better than I do, this myth rests upon conflating indentured servitude, prisoner labor, and forced labor with “chattel slavery.” (Source here.) From just a cursory review of basic articles on the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Irish, and Irish history I cannot find even the most basic evidence to back up the idea there was a mass cross-Atlantic trade in white Irish individuals to feed a growing labor demand in the colonies of North America and the Caribbean.
The articles I’ve found pushing this myth, of which several samples are included below in the sources, uniformly don’t list any academic or even non-academic sources. They twist information, and they also stretch the limits of credible argument. For example I did find mention in several sources in Google Docs that after the end of the English Civil War, Irish individuals who had supported the crown were forced from the land (mass deportations) and shoved by Cromwell onto a sort-of Irish preserve. Key point though – that preserve was in Ireland. Some Irish supporters of the Royalist cause were deported to the New World as forced labor, specifically to the Caribbean colonies held by England, but that number ranged from 6,000 to 30,000 at the most.
I’ve also found no links to bills of sale, dockets showing Irish chattel slaves for sale, nor special laws or controls limiting the Irish in the same way that African chattel slaves were limited. In fact actual historical research shows that the Irish who were brought over as indentured servants often were recruited into colonial militias to protect the colonial structure of law and order.
These myths rest on an argument that indentured servitude and chattel slavery were the same thing – they simply were not. The core difference was chattel slavery was forever, a bondage upon the slave and their descendents. Irish indentured servants were certainly cheated, worked hard, treated poorly, and labored in some cases in terrible situations, but legally, and practically, they were bond by a contract they entered into in the overwhelming majority of cases. African chattel slaves were property, legally, from acquisition to death. An African chattel slave in North America (and South America as well) was property, like a horse.
In fact to understand the position of a chattel slave in North America for most of history, simply replace the word “slave” with “horse” and you’ve got the legal fine points down nicely. Can you kill a horse that defies you? If it is yours, yes. People might think you are cruel or overly violent, you might face social stigma, but you can do it. Others may support you as the horse deserved it, was unproductive, or needed to be culled. You can sell your horse if you wish, for whatever price you can command from the buyer. You can beat your horse if it is unproductive. Local laws might protect the horse, or not, but such protection is a voluntary agreement between horse owners. The horse has no say in the matter.
All of that links to chattel slaves in the period quite neatly. In fact, I believe I am on safe ground saying the only absolute legally allowed thing you could do to your horse, that you could not do to your slave, is you can eat the horse. I feel 95% certain a slave owner having a dinner on the meat of a slaughtered slave would be nailed on cannibalism laws, if such were on the books.
This myth at its core is an attempt to strip African-Americans of their unique position in the history of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America – that of labor forcibly taken from their homes to an alien culture and made to work in perpetual bondage. Chattel slavery is far too complex a topic here but let me say this – when I read articles about this topic they all seem to rest on the same underlying foundation – “See, white Irish people suffered like African slaves, it is history, and you don’t see the Irish whining about it.”
No, white Irish workers in the colonies did not suffer like African chattel slaves, and at its core, rests one simple difference. For an Irish indentured servant, at some point, their contract legally ended. For an African chattel slave, there was no contract, they were just property till their owner either freed them, worked them till their death, or they managed to escape.