Debunking The Irish Slave Myth: The Irish Diaspora in the New World

by Tárlach Russell

Perhaps the most widely shared “Irish slaves” meme includes this image. In reality, the photo depicts breaker boys working for the Pennsylvania Coal Company and was captured in 1911 by Lewis Hine, a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee advocating for legislative reform. Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

“No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” “No Irish Need Apply.” The history of the Irish diaspora is a continuation of the history of Ireland itself: a people facing poor prospects in their home country sought opportunity abroad, only to face foreign domination in new lands. The history is painful enough; the lies are perhaps worse. The Irish slave myth has emerged as a pseudohistory and white supremacist meme, claiming that the Irish transported to the Americas by the English in the aftermath of the Cromwellian Wars of Conquest from 1649-53 were sent as slaves to toil in the plantations of the Bahamas and Montserrat. This myth has been embraced by white nationalists and neo-Confederates in the United States since the most prominent propagation of the myth in the early 1990s by Michael A. Hoffman, a notable Holocaust denier and antisemite.

While there is truth to the suffering inflicted on those unfortunate enough to be transported, there is a grave danger in labelling the Irish in this instance as slaves. White nationalists have used this myth to diminish the very real trauma suffered by Africans in the New World, who were transported as slaves with the same burden being faced by their children and descendants from birth.

Crucially, the Irish transported to the Caribbean were not slaves. They were “temporary and non-hereditary” indentured servants, meaning the children of the Irish servants were not subject to the same status as the servants themselves. African chattel slavery was hereditary, in the sense that the children of Black slaves were considered the property of the owners of their parents. Importantly, the racial distinction in that the Irish had white skin meant it was much more difficult to determine whether the white Irish were servants or free, while Africans as a whole were assumed to be slaves. The aim of any discussion seeking to repudiate the Irish slave myth is not to relativise on whether the Irish or Africans suffered worse fates in the New World nor to create a hierarchy of oppression, but to understand the complexities of their different experiences more clearly.

Religious Violence in 17th Century Europe and Ireland

Anti-Irishness amongst the English was not exclusively based around issues of faith. David Hume’s The History of England says of the Irish that “as they were never conquered or even invaded by the Romans, from whom all the Western world derived its civility, they continued still in the most rude state of society.” Religious tension began after Henry VIII, who severed the link with Rome and established the Church of England. The Irish remained true to Catholicism despite repeated coercion in an attempt to entrench loyalty to the English monarch by converting them to the Church of England.

Religious upheaval ravaged Ireland in the 17th century. The Plantation of Ulster was an attempt to “plant” more loyal Protestant subjects in the province in the aftermath of The Flight of the Earls, and Catholics in Ireland were no longer considered loyal subjects of the Crown. The Catholic-Lutheran religious divisions in Ireland can be considered another aspect of the violence of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe from 1618-48, which was fought over the rights of subjects under Europe’s monarchs to practice religions that differed from those of their rulers.

Matters adopted an extra layer of complexion throughout the 1640s for the English. In 1641, the Irish Catholic gentry started a rebellion in an effort to win more favourable conditions for Catholics. In England, meanwhile, civil war was waged between the Parliamentarians and those loyal to Charles I over how the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland were to be governed. With which side would the Irish Confederacy align itself? Since the English royalists were under pressure after the arrest of Charles I in 1648, they agreed to an alliance with the Irish Confederation.

The alliance between the Royalists and the Irish Catholics made the Irish the sworn enemies of the English Parliamentarians, who were keen to consolidate power in England. Oliver Cromwell, one of the key leaders of the New Model Army and later Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, was vehemently anti-Catholic and vowed revenge for the Ulster Protestants killed as part of the 1641 rebellion. What transpired in Ireland as a result of Cromwell’s conquest was violence unparalleled throughout the English Civil War; after the Siege of Drogheda, the population of the town was brutally massacred. Cromwell’s desired new settlement for Ireland, therefore, sparked the largest wave of exporting Irish indentured servants to the British colonies in the Caribbean.

Origins of the Irish Indentured Servants in the Caribbean

With Cromwell’s victory in Ireland complete by the early 1650s, the Act of Settlement of Ireland came into effect from 1652, with the intention of punishing Catholics and supporters of the 1641 rebellion. The civilisational aspect that determined Cromwell’s attitude towards the Irish would later uphold the arguments in favour of the British Empire, which used civilisation and Christianity as justifications for further global expansion. The Irish, who were transported to the colonies in Montserrat and Barbados, were to learn this, with their social status relegated to that behind the colonial planters. Montserrat came to be labelled as “Ireland’s Only Colony” due to the number of Irish servants that moved there in the 1650s. It is difficult to quantify exactly how many Irish people lived in the Caribbean at the time; a fair estimate lies around the 40,000 mark, which accounts for those transported as part of the “demographic disaster” of Ireland in the 1650s.

Black slaves cutting sugar cane on a plantation established by the Delaps of Donegal, from William Clarke’s “Ten Views in the Island of Antigua,” 1823. British Library

What of the conditions for the Irish servants in the Caribbean? Irish immigrants were typically poor and had been displaced from their land in order to bring Protestant landowners to Ireland, facing the conundrum of “To hell or to Connacht.” This was intended to banish Irish Catholics to the poorest agricultural land in Ireland. In a pick-your-poison paradigm of abandoning your faith or facing banishment to the West, many opted for the Caribbean. Similar to other Europeans transported to the Caribbean, the Irish became wedged into a social order which assigned them to the same position of marginalisation they endured in their home country. It is important to note that “transporting such people had begun with the English poor under Charles I.” Such an experience of transportation, therefore, was not exclusively an Irish one.

Yet below the indentured servant class existed a grouping with even less rights in the New World, whose inhumane status would be passed onto their offspring. This was the traumatic experience of the enslaved Africans. While there were approximately 40,000 Irish servants transported to the Caribbean in the 1650s, an estimated 489,000 African slaves were transported from West Africa to the Americas from 1650 to 1675 alone, and the total would surpass 12 million by the time slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863 (slavery was not abolished in some other parts of the Americas until later; for example, in Cuba, it remained until 1886).

As mentioned earlier, the objective here is not to try and neglect the extent of Irish suffering in the New World. Their social status as inferior subjects, based on class, ethnic, and religious grounds, was no doubt a truly traumatic one and one that was also suffered by their compatriots at home. Yet, the best way to do justice to their oppression is to analyse and explain their position as honestly as possible. Terming the Irish as slaves is dangerously reductive because it does not serve their situation appropriately. By looking at the social order of the plantations, one can differentiate the two positions.

Planters, Servants, Slaves: The Social Order of the Caribbean Plantations

The Irish in the Caribbean, considered a “riotous and unruly lot,” were eventually governed by an Irishman, William Stapleton, who became Governor of Montserrat in the 1660s. He was a former soldier “of known valour, good conduct and great integrity, was born in Ireland and therefore understands the better to govern his country men.” By then, “the characteristic colonial social structure had emerged in the island—an Anglo-Irish planter class, a number of “Christian” indentured servants, and a large population of Black slaves.” From a legal perspective, there was a limited form of redress for European indentured servants. In 1640, an Englishman was jailed in a redress case for abuse committed against an English servant. On the other hand, enslaved Africans had absolutely no legal redress in the Caribbean. Their children were bound for the same fate and they were always at the mercy of white European planters since “the Cromwellian regime was the first English government to dedicate itself to building a plantation empire based on the permanent enslavement of Africans.”

The African chattel slaves were in a much worse legal position to the white European indentured servants, which included the Irish. In fact, Irish people were sometimes complicit in the brutal treatment of enslaved Africans. The tyranny for Irish servants was real, though, since many Irish “were laboured to death.” The slave trade’s exponential growth in the future came from the unreliability of white indentured servants: the Irish could earn their freedom in time. While facing oppressive conditions on the plantations, there was the possibility to climb the social ladder. Africans, on the other hand, remained firmly entrenched at the bottom.

Furthermore, cases surrounding the deaths of African chattel slaves would be held in a lower court “because the murder of an African slave was considered a crime of property and it was not considered of interest to a higher court.” Whereas the Irish indentured servants agreed in some capacity to their servitude, in the sense that they had the choice of living under the Penal Laws in Ireland or on the plantations in the New World, enslaved Africans had no such say. With the distinction in social status between voluntary (in the lightest sense of the word) indentured servitude and racialised chattel slavery imposed on those forcibly removed from their land, there was a significant degree of delineation in Irish and African experiences.

Another image falsely used to illustrate the Irish slave myth actually depicts children picking cotton on a farm owned by H.M. Lane in Bells, Texas. This photo was also taken by Lewis Hine, in September 1913. Library of Congress

Future generations of Irish would not leave for the New World as servants, but as a result of the stifling social conditions which became a reality of being a permanent colony of the British Empire. During an Gorta Mór, over one million Irish people were to emigrate, facing the prospect of starvation in Ireland. One million died from famine or disease caused by potato blight and restrictive British trade policy as a result of the Corn Laws. The Irish socialist, James Connolly, in his work Labour in Irish History, described the British colonial rule of Ireland as one which emphasised all but the class aspect of the occupation: “war, religion, race, language, political reform, patriotism—all serve in the hands of the possessing class as counter-irritants, whose function is to avert the catastrophe of social revolution by engendering heat in such parts of the body politic as are farthest removed from the seat of economic enquiry.”

With such an understanding of the Machiavellian nature of colonial rule and its divide and conquer mentality, one can grasp the logic of “race as an early modern invention.” Where there was economic incentive for one “race” to be consistently in a position of inferiority, it became necessary to create a sociological justification for that position. Africans remained enslaved in Montserrat after the mid-17th century, while the Irish were gradually extended further rights. Even prior to the universalism of the American and French Revolutions being applied in Britain, by 1798, the Irish in Montserrat were given the vote on a property qualification. The last Irish indentured servants in Montserrat had been freed by 1680 and had since proved to be troublesome colonial subjects. Nonetheless, they remained aloof from the enslaved Africans. By the time Britain passed the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the descendants of Irish Catholics in Montserrat had already gained full citizenship.

Slavery and Citizenship in the 19th Century

While the Irish had a path to full citizenship in Montserrat by 1829, the Atlantic slave trade continued to bring slaves to the Americas. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, but it was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that slavery was finally abolished across the British Empire. Despite the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery continued to exist as an institution in the United States. Africans faced legal impediments of despairing proportions which excluded them from the American national character. Most notably, in the Dred Scott vs Sandford (1857) ruling, it was determined that enslaved Black persons could not be considered citizens under the Constitution, even if they were born in the United States. It took the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 to redefine American citizenship to include African-Americans.

The Irish were able to tie themselves to the United States through sacrifice for America in the War of Independence and Civil War. No war has seen more Irish lie dead than the American Civil War, but it provided the greatest opportunity for the Irish to “become” American. The Irish were not bound by the same racial obstacles as, for instance, the Black soldiers in the Union army, as Black individuals also fought in these wars. It took until 1863 for Black slaves in the Confederate states to be considered free by the United States thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation, two years into the conflict. Yet slavery in the United States itself was not abolished until 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The legacy of African chattel slavery was confirmed, however, by key Supreme Court decisions in the 19th century: the Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) ruling brought about the famous “separate but equal” concept, which legitimised segregation and the Jim Crow Laws against African-Americans in the United States. Even the judiciary did not provide legitimate legal redress for African-American grievances.

The New Immigration: The Irish “Become” American

As a result of increased immigration to the United States by the mid-19th century, anti-Irishness fermented amongst employers due to their perceived “laziness.” Despite this, “many of the Union Irish regarded the United States as a unique republic that offered significantly more opportunity than they had ever enjoyed in Ireland, no matter what difficulties or prejudices they faced.” With the largest wave of European migration to the United States between 1870 and 1914, the xenophobia of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) America was directed at the new migrants. The Irish, by now, began to be accepted as American as they “were assimilating so successfully.” Their final triumph was the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic and Irish-American President of the United States in 1960.

Upon close historical inspection, it is abundantly evident that the Irish slave myth is an inaccurate framing of oppression faced by the Irish in the New World. Promotion of this narrative is unconstructive, harmful, and dangerous, as it diminishes the inordinate amount of suffering that African-Americans have faced in their struggle for equality in the Americas. Due to the very real discrimination the Irish did face in the New World, the position of Irish-Americans should be one of solidarity with African-American grievances. Discerning fact from fiction recognises and appreciates the long battle for Irish acceptance in the New World. African-Americans are on a similar path, seeking justice and institutional protection that their ancestors never had.

Tárlach Russell is a recent graduate of the MSc History of International Relations program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests focus on Irish history and foreign affairs.

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