Were There Irish Slaves in America?
Today we're going to get close to the darkest period in American history: the slavery era, which lasted hundreds of years, from the early 1600s until the 1860s. It is painful and sobering to remember — for most of us — as the imposition of a life of enslavement on our fellow humans is unthinkable. But for some of us, it is less so; because while the majority of us recognize it as the folly of racial divide, some few see it as not necessarily a racism issue, and have accordingly perpetuated a fabricated version of history in which blacks and whites were both equally enslaved. While we've all heard at some point that slavery in America began not with Africans but with whites from Ireland, history tells us a very different story. The fact is that slavery was defined at its basest level by racial division, and there were never any Irish slaves in America.
Beginning in the early 1600s, poor emigrants from the British Isles, a majority of whom were Irish, came to the Americas by buying their ship passage with indenturement contracts. This gave them a ticket to cross the ocean, but to pay for it, they entered a contractual obligation to work for nothing more than room and board for a period of time, usually four to seven years. This began as soon as they stepped off the boat. Thus, Irish indentured servants made up a substantial percentage of the labor force throughout the American colonies and islands of the Caribbean. At the end of their term of service, they'd usually receive some cash and other recompense, and would become ordinary settlers now trained in some trade.
Simultaneously, the slave industry began supplying American and Caribbean plantations and farms with African slaves. Over 90% of the slaves went to the islands of the Caribbean, South America, and what's now Mexico. Only a trifle over 5% went to the British Colonies that later became the United States. Few or none of them were taught trades, but were instead employed as manual laborers and houseworkers.
Yet, the alternative literature has long supplied a constant stream of revisionism, in an effort to portray indenturement contracts and slavery as the same thing. The first slaves in America were whites, the claim is usually made — which is false; and treated even worse than black slaves — false again. This has culminated in memes like this one, shared online during what some white nationalists called "white history month":
...an overtly racist rant against blacks. To understand just how false this claimed equivalency is, let's examine the differences between slavery and indentured service. Here are the most glaring.
Indenturement is nothing more than the state of having a contractual obligation. If I help you pay your rent one month and we agree that in return you'll speed a week pulling weeds in my field, that is indentured servitude. If you fail to do that work, you've broken a contract and in the 1600s that was a crime. But while you're pulling weeds, you're still your own person with your private life and the same rights as anyone else. And once the week is over, you're on your own again.
In many cases, indentured servitude in New England meant little more than a trade apprenticeship. A young man, usually under 14 years old, would enter into a contract to learn the skills of a trade; which meant doing on-the-job training for several years for usually no pay other than room and board. Here is part of the text from an actual 1640 indenture:
We don't even have to go back to the 1600s to find indentured apprenticeships in America. After Mark Twain's father died in 1847, he was apprenticed to a printer, Joseph Ament, receiving little more than our Master Millard did. Twain wrote:
Apprenticeship hasn't even changed all that much. Even today, half a million apprentices work under some contractual arrangement in various trades, though they generally get to live on their own, buy their own food, and wear their own clothes today.
Librarian and historian Liam Hogan has done a substantial amount of work tracking down the origins of the mythology that tries to misrepresent indenturement as slavery to promote a white nationalism agenda. The most influential primary source appears to be an article written in 1893 by a Colonel Ellis, "White Slaves and Bond Servants in the Plantations," an article about how a General Brayne had written to Cromwell in 1656 urging the importation of African slaves into Jamaica to protect the welfare of the indentured workers currently suffering harsh conditions. In his article, Ellis wrote:
Ellis' article was republished in Popular Science Monthly and was cited in a 1926 academic work which has been cited and re-cited enormously — but with an important tweak. In addition to demoting General Brayne to a Colonel and confusing Jamaica with Barbados, most modern authors have repeated the quote but changed bond-servants to either Irish or whites. The implication is that slaves were either African or Irish, black or white, didn't really make a difference. A prime example is the 1993 book They Were White and They Were Slaves by Holocaust denier Michael Hoffman, available as a PDF from Aryan websites. Hoffman's exact trick was copied into a Cavanagh family history blog post in 2003 titled "Irish Slaves in the Caribbean". This was then copy-pasted — almost word-for-word — to the far-left website Daily Kos in 2013 under the title "The Slaves that Time Forgot". It also served as the primary source for the most radical of all these articles, so bad that practically every sentence contains an overt lie: 2008's "The Irish Slave Trade — The Forgotten White Slaves" by John Martin (apparently a fake name), published on the conspiracy theory website Global Research. This became the single most-shared such article online.
Addendum: The "Martin" article is so packed with falsehoods, and yet received so much attention among racist groups on social media, that in 2016 a huge number of historians signed this open letter to three prominent publications that had promoted its ahistorical and racist claims. –BD
In early 2017, white nationalists celebrated the new election of President Donald Trump with marches and events, some of which triggered civil unrest. The online sharing of these articles accelerated at a furious pace, which we can see graphically by looking at the popularity of search terms such as Irish slaves on Google Trends. We see the largest such spike shortly before the 2016 election. Rhode Island's online magazine Newport Buzz republished the Daily Kos article in March of 2017, again triggering a spike in online interest in Irish slaves and fueling open racism with flagrant misinformation.
This body of alt-history literature is characterized by many more errors than just this one disingenuous word substitution. They take photos of prisoners in POW camps and mislabel them as Irish slaves in America. These books and articles always exaggerate the numbers of Irish egregiously. For example, the total number of people who migrated from Ireland to the Americas before the American Revolution is legitimately estimated as 165,000. Yet one sentence alone in the Global Research article says that in a single 9-year period in the mid 1600s, 300,000 Irish were "sold as slaves" by the English. There is so much absolutely untrue garbage in these articles that it is virtually impossible to know where to start to debunk them.
Who are the people inventing, exaggerating, and propagating these stories of Irish slaves, throughout all these years? Unfortunately there are a number of groups whose preferred narrative this misinformation fits into, so they are strongly preconditioned to believe it. The most obvious come from the realm of white supremacy, who wish to see whites as having been victimized in history just as much (or more so) than blacks. This is also evidenced by the crossover of interest in Irish slavery with Holocaust denial, another dogma driven predominantly by racism. A few advocates are Irish seeking to excuse Irish complicity in the African slave trade. Some come from the anti-American or anti-Western schools of thought who prefer to view Western establishment in as negative a light as possible, so evil that it would enslave everyone regardless of race (as if that's any more evil than enslaving because of race). People who tend to believe in conspiracy theories often embrace this narrative, as it purports to upend mainstream accepted history — a fundamental attraction of conspiracy theories.
But whatever the reason some believe in it, or wherever you may have heard about it, the idea of the first slaves in the Americas having been white Irish is one about which you should always be skeptical.
Correction: An earlier version of this mistakenly listed the original article by Col. A. B. Ellis as having been first published in 1833. The 1893 date is correct, when it appeared in both a British Guiana newspaper called Daily Argosy and in the Popular Science Monthly magazine, referenced below. –BD
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