Few people today realise that during the 17th century, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans. One author states that ‘some 52,000 Irish, women, boys and girls were sold to Barbados and Virginia alone. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were taken prisoners and ordered transported and sold as slaves’. 2 For many poor and dispossessed Irish before the Civil War, signing an indenture contract with a sea captain and being transported to the Caribbean was a great adventure. Promises were made about free land and tools once the indenture (normally seven years) had been completed.
However, during and after the Civil War, the practice was used by Oliver Cromwell’s government to dispossess families of their land and transport them abroad as slaves. Innocents and criminals alike were transported. All Catholic-owned land was confiscated in the Act for the Settlement of Ireland 1652, and given to Scottish and English settlers, Parliamentary soldiers or Parliament’s financial creditors – the policy of ‘To Hell or to Connaught’. 3
Once in the Caribbean, most plantation owners considered servants and freemen from Ireland as a potentially subversive lot who had to be controlled and kept in a labouring status. The English government variously referred to the Irish as: rogues, vagabonds, rebels, neutrals, felons and military prisoners. 4 Punishments for attempted escapes included branding the letters ‘FT’ (Fugitive Traitor) on the servant’s forehead.
There was also explicit racism towards the Irish. One assembly member in Barbados is quoted in 1667 as stating, ‘We have more than a good many Irish amongst us, therefore I am for the downright Scott, who I am certain will fight without a crucifix about his neck’. 5 English masters considered their Irish servants as belonging to a backward culture, unfit to contribute anything beyond their labour to colonial development. Their adherence to the Catholic religion reinforced the planters’ perception of them as opposed to the English Protestant colonising mission. Moreover, fear of a French invasion of the island led to a deep distrust of the Irish.
By the third quarter of the 17th century on the island of Montserrat, the Irish immigrants were in the ascendancy. A 1678 census shows a vibrant community of almost 1,900 Irishmen, women and children – a verifiable 50% of the population – existing as either indentured servants or freemen. Comparable figures for the other Leeward Islands were 26% Irish on Antigua, 22% on Nevis, and 10% on St Christopher. 6
In Jamaica, the Lords of Trade and Plantations considered a liberal immigration policy the most effective way to solve the white labour shortage and expand the white population. Successive governors promised immigrants religious tolerance and easy access to land ownership, and servants from Ireland as well as Irish freemen from Barbados and the Leeward Islands responded in the period 1660-1700. Jamaica became the leading West Indian destination for Irish and English servants departing from Kinsale, Bristol and London in this period.
By the 1660′s and 1670′s, some plantation owners found a way to insure a free supply of slaves. The breeding of Irish women with African male slaves led to a lucrative trade in lighter-skinned slaves. A law was passed against this practice in 1681, not for moral reasons, but because the practice was affecting the Royal African Company’s profits in the slave trade. 7
The legacy of such a diaspora today is that on several of the Caribbean islands there are place names such as Cork Hill, Kinsale, Roche’s mountain, Carty’s Gaunt and Delvins from the Emerald Isle. In islands such as Montserrat, St Patrick’s Day is a national holiday among the inhabitants and the telephone directory contains page after page of Irish names such as Allens, Ryans, Daley’s, Farrell’s Riley’s and Sweeney’s. 8
- 1. See HCA 30/636, CO 1/21 and CO 1/42. ^
- 2. Banished and Forgotten, Irish slaves in the West Indies, by Louise Gherasim, AuthorHouse, 2009, pxxiii. ^
- 3. To hell or Barbados, Sean O’ Callaghan, Brandon, 2000. ^
- 4. Sugar and Slaves 1624-1713, Richard S. Dunn, Jonathan Cape, 1973. ^
- 5. See CO 1/21, folio 108. ^
- 6. A ‘riotous and unruly lot’: Irish indentured servants and Freemen in the English West Indies, 1644-1713, Hilary McD Beckles, William and Mary Quarterly XLVII, 1990. ^
- 7. ‘Irish Slavery’ by James Cavanaugh: http://www.raceandhistory.com/cgi-bin/forum/webbbs_config.pl/noframes/read/1638 ^
- 8. Montserrat St Patrick’s Day celebrations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKNTigdy1u4&feature=related & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QHYFXDGf4Y&NR=1&feature=endscreen ^