Slavery is an ancient presence that has not even gone away to this day. There are Biblical records of slavery, and we know the Romans and Ancient Greeks had slaves, and scores of them. The Vikings took slaves, frequently from the British Isles, and the Portuguese had slaves from more than one continent.
In this post, however, the focus is on Irish slaves, around the 1600’s.
You’re probably wondering how the Irish ended up in slavery so late in history, when Europeans didn’t typically enslave other Europeans; you’d be quite right thinking of that. Most slavery at this point was invested in indigenous peoples of the places colonized and African people.
What was special about the Irish at this time was that they were a conquered people. The Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united at this point. Ireland, however, was owned by the England (something they considered a God-given right) and not given an equal voice due to being Catholic.
In 1641, a rebellion by the Irish broke out. It led to a civil war in England, and was known as the Eleven Years’ War. In 1649, when the English Civil War was over, a man named Oliver Cromwell took a force to Ireland.
Oliver Cromwell was an unforgiving man. In Ireland, the soldiers considered the Irish as human as apes, and acted accordingly. Interestingly, this view of the Irish as not fully human carried over when these same soldiers went to America and encountered the indigenous peoples.
The Irish were slaughtered, but more than that, many of the stubborn rebels were sent to the Caribbean as slaves to work alongside African slaves.
The numbers have been disputed, but in 1641, the population of Ireland was 1,466,000, and by 1652, 616,000. A large chunk of the numbers came from hardship and plague, but a huge number were killed or shipped out to the Caribbean. Atrocities were committed in Ireland that would someday be committed in America, because Ireland set the precedent for dealing with natives who wouldn’t do what the conqueror wanted.
At the end of the war, more were shipped out; between 1651-1660, a number between 80,000 and 130,000 Irish were shipped out to the Caribbean.
And these slaves were like free candy for plantation owners; they cost considerably less than African slaves, mostly because they didn’t survive the environment as well. Plantation owners also found interbreeding them useful, because ‘mulatto’ or biracial slaves sold for even more than either of them.
Pretty much, Ireland’s always had the short end of the stick when it comes to almost anything. It’s no wonder that their attitude seems to be ‘It may be good today, but it’ll be worse by tomorrow.’
- Irish are ‘the forgotten white’ slaves’ claims expert (irishcentral.com)
- Letters: Abolition and Ireland’s slavery past (theguardian.com)
- Should Arab countries pay reparations for the slave trade too? (newstatesman.com)
- Massacre of Drogheda under Oliver Cromwell (calvinistview.com)