THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF IRELAND
The slave trade between the Dark Continent and the Americas is well chronicled. But, for reasons that defy logic or explanation England’s enslavement of not only its own peoples but those of Ireland hardly get a footnote of history mention.
Perhaps it is the scale of the horror. More likely the reason is in disbelief that any nation could treat its own peoples as savagely as did England. Comparisons can be made with the Bolsheviks and certainly, the horrors of the Gulag Archipelago defy belief. But, the tens millions of martyrs were victims of a different ethnicity to their own. In this is perhaps the explanation. What is harder to understand are cruelties inflicted upon peoples who in appearance, culture, religion and blood are the same as one’s own?
The Irish slave trade began when James II (1633 – 1701) sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies.
By the mid-1600s the people of Ireland 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.
The unspoken holocaust: From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by England’s soldiery and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. The English did not allow Irish fathers 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 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
Many people today avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were. The preferred term is ‘Indentured Servants’ to describe what occurred to the peoples of Ireland (and England). In most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish and English slaves were nothing more than human cattle.
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. In fact, England sold both Irish and English slaves to African slavers.
Besides, African slaves were very expensive (£50). Irish slaves were cheap (£5) and most often were either kidnapped from Ireland, or forcibly removed. The Irish slaves could be worked to death, whipped or branded without it being a crime. Many times they were beat to death and while the death of an Irish slave was a monetary setback, it was far cheaper than the death of an expensive African. African slaves were treated much better in Colonial America.
The Irish arrived 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.
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 to end its 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.
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