The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten “White” Slaves The Slaves That Time Forgot

They came as slaves; vast human cargo transported on tall British ships bound for the Americas. They were shipped by the hundreds of thousands and included men, women, and even the youngest of children.

Whenever they rebelled or even disobeyed an order, they were punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their human property by their hands and set their hands or feet on fire as one form of punishment. They were burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives.

We don’t really need to go through all of the gory details, do we? We know all too well the atrocities of the African slave trade.

But, are we talking about African slavery? Kings James I and Charles I also led a continued effort to enslave the Irish. Britain’s famed Oliver Cromwell furthered this practice of dehumanizing one’s next door neighbor.

The Irish slave trade began when James I sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.

As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African. The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves. This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.” In short, it was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.

England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia. There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat.

There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry. In 1839, Britain finally decided on its own to end it’s participation in Satan’s highway to hell and stopped transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded THIS chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.

But, if anyone, black or white, believes that slavery was only an African experience, then they’ve got it completely wrong.

Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories.

But, where are our public (and PRIVATE) schools???? Where are the history books? Why is it so seldom discussed?

Do the memories of hundreds of thousands of Irish victims merit more than a mention from an unknown writer?

Or is their story to be one that their English pirates intended: To (unlike the African book) have the Irish story utterly and completely disappear as if it never happened.

None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that time and biased history books conveniently forgot.

White Cargo : The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America   [Paperback - 320 pages] New York: NYU Press, 2008

Also of interest: 

   • To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland  by Sean O'Callaghan  Paperback

Book Description

Release date:  March 8, 2008   | ISBN-10:  0814742963  | ISBN-13:  978-0814742969

White Cargo  is the forgotten story of the thousands of Irish and Britons who lived and died in bondage in Britain's American colonies.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Urchins were swept up from London's streets to labor in the tobacco fields, where life expectancy was no more than two years. Brothels were raided to provide "breeders" for Virginia. Hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock.

Drawing on letters crying for help, diaries, and court and government archives, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh demonstrate that the brutalities usually associated with black slavery alone were perpetrated on whites throughout British rule. The trade ended with American independence, but the British still tried to sell convicts in their former colonies, which prompted one of the most audacious plots in Anglo-American history.

This is a saga of exploration and cruelty spanning 170 years that has been submerged under the overwhelming memory of black slavery.  White Cargo  brings the brutal, uncomfortable story to the surface.

Editorial Reviews (Copied from Amazon.com) From Publishers Weekly High school American history classes present indentured servitude as a benignly paternalistic system whereby colonial immigrants spent a few years working off their passage and went on to better things. Not so, this impassioned history argues: the indentured servitude of whites was comparable in most respects to the slavery endured by blacks. Voluntary indentures arriving in colonial America from Britain were sold on the block, subjected to backbreaking work on plantations, poorly fed and clothed, savagely punished for any disobedience, forbidden to marry without their master's permission, and whipped and branded for running away. Nor were indentures always voluntary: tens of thousands of convicts, beggars, homeless children and other undesirable Britons were transported to America against their will. Given the hideous mortality rates, the authors argue, indentured contracts often amounted to a life sentence at hard labor—some convicts asked to be hanged rather than be sent to Virginia. The authors, both television documentarians, don't attempt a systematic survey of the subject, and their episodic narrative often loses its way in colorful but extraneous digressions. Still, their exposé of unfree labor in the British colonies paints an arresting portrait of early America as gulag. 8 pages of photos. (Mar.)  

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review “This vividly written book tells the tale from both sides of the Atlantic . . . meticulously sourced and footnoted—but is never dry or academic...Jordan and Walsh offer an explanation of how the structures of slavery—black or white—were entwined in the roots of American society. They refrain from drawing links to today, except to remind readers that there are probably tens of millions of Americans who are descended from white slaves without even knowing it.”

- New York Times Book Review ,

“High school American history classes present indentured servitude as a benignly paternalistic system whereby colonial immigrants spent a few years working off their passage and went on to better things. Not so, this impassioned history argues: the indentured servitude of whites was comparable in most respects to the slavery endured by blacks. Given the hideous mortality rates, the authors argue, indentured contracts often amounted to a life sentence at hard labor—some convicts asked to be hanged rather than be sent to Virginia . . . their exposé of unfree labor in the British colonies paints an arresting portrait of early America as gulag. 8 pages of photos.”

- Publishers Weekly ,


Runaway to Freedom (Mac Dara, do sgrí)

Given the legal systems of England's empire, unless a runaway (slave or indentured servant) was confident of being able to pass for a freeman, the only escape was to run West, to the Frontier and beyond.  Sometimes runaways, of all races, gathered in mountain glens, as secluded as any Alpine valley, and constituted their own societies — the "Dominickers" of the Virginia mountains being an example of this.  More likely they found new lives among the indigenous peoples.  In many cases runaways were taken in, and sometimes later adopted, by the indigenous ("Red Indian") tribes.  This is particularly true among the "civilized tribes" of the American South - Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole.  

It is worth noting that, at the time of the American Revolution / War for Independence, one of the leading lights in the councils of the Cherokee Nation was called Nancy Ward.  During An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger of mid-19th century Ireland, the Choctaw Nation (by then having travelled the "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma) raised money, and sent it to Ireland for "Famine Relief."  Not unlike Woodlawn in The Bronx, Irish flags can be seen flying from homes and businesses in Montserrat today. 

Perhaps the most curious possible connections occurred in the immediate aftermath of the 1866 Fenian invasion of Canada, led by John O'Neill, across the Niagara Frontier.  O'Neill had commanded a regiment of US Colored Troops during the American Civil War, which may explain the unbidden arrival (too late to influence events) of some five hundred colored veterans to assist his efforts (which were reported in many newspapers).  The truly curious happening, however, was the separate arrival of some three hundred Seneca "indians" to join in the fight for Irish freedom.  The Senecas were one of the original Five Nations of the (later "Six Nations")  Iroquois Confederation in up-state New York.  

The point here is that Irish immigrants (and their descendants) naturalized into any of the indigenous nations of North America, like Irish immigrants naturalized to become American or Canadian citizens today, remembered where they came from, and how they got here. †

 

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