Most people have heard of the Great Famine, which reduced the population of Ireland by around 25%.
That pales in comparison to the disaster that England inflicted upon Ireland between 1641 and 1652, when the population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000.
Then things got worse.
What to do with the Irish?
From the Tudor reconquest of Ireland until Irish Independence in 1921, the English puzzled over the problem of what to do with all those Irish people.
They were the wrong religion. They spoke the wrong language. But the big problem was that there were just too many of them.
The English had been practicing a slow genocide against the Irish since Queen Elizabeth, but the Irish bred too fast and were tough to kill. On the other side of the Atlantic, there was a chronic labor shortage (because the local natives tended to die out too quickly in slavery conditions).
Putting two and two together, King James I started sending Irish slaves to the new world.
The first recorded sale of Irish slaves was to a settlement in the Amazon in 1612, seven years before the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown.
The Proclamation of 1625 by James II made it official policy that all Irish political prisoners be transported to the West Indies and sold to English planters. Soon Irish slaves were the majority of slaves in the English colonies.
In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters. But there were not enough political prisoners to supply the demand, so every petty infraction carried a sentence of transporting, and slaver gangs combed the country sides to kidnap enough people to fill out their quotas.
The slavers were so full of zest that they sometimes grabbed non-Irishmen. On March 25, 1659, a petition was received in London claiming that 72 Englishmen were wrongly sold as slaves in Barbados, along with 200 Frenchmen and 7-8,000 Scots.
So many Irish slaves were sent to Barbados, between 12,000 and 60,000, that the term “barbadosed” began to be used.
By the 1630’s, Ireland was the primary source of the English slave trade.
And then disaster struck.
After Oliver Cromwell defeated the royalists in the English Civil War, he turned to Ireland, who had allied themselves with the defeated royalists. What happened next could be considered genocide.
The famine (caused by the English intentionally destroying foodstocks) and plague that followed Cromwell’s massacres reduced the population of Ireland to around 40%.
And then Cromwell got really nasty.
Anyone implicated in the rebellion had their land confiscated and was sold into slavery in the West Indies. Even catholic landowners who hadn’t taken part of the rebellion had their land confiscated.
Catholicism was outlawed and catholic priests were executed when found.
To top it off, he ordered the ethnic cleansing of Ireland east of Shannon in 1652. Soldiers were encouraged to kill any Irish who refused to relocate.
Instead of trying to describe the horror, consider the words from the English State Papers in 1742.
“In clearing the ground for the adventurers and soldiers (the English capitalists of that day)… To be transported to Barbados and the English plantations in America. It was a measure beneficial to Ireland, which was
thus relieved of a population that might trouble the planters; it was a benefit to the people removed, which might thus be made English and Christians … a great benefit to the West India sugar planters, who desired men and boys for their bondsmen, and
the women and Irish girls… To solace them.”
I can’t help but notice that the exact same language and logic used to justify enslavement of the blacks was used to justify enslavement of the Irish.
It is something for those who think slavery was simply a matter of skin color to consider.
As for the Irish slaves, Cromwell specifically targeted Irish children.
“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, [Oliver] Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.”
For some reason, history likes to call these Irish slaves as ‘indentured servants’. As if they were somehow considered better than African slaves. This can be considered an attempt at whitewashing the history of the Irish slave trade.
There does exist indentured servitude where two parties sign a contract for a limited amount of time. This is not what happened to the Irish from 1625 onward. They were sold as slaves, pure and simple.
In reality, they were considered by some to be even lower than the blacks.
“…the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period,” writes Martin. “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.”
African slaves were still relatively new, and were expensive to transport such a long distance (50 sterling in the late 1600’s). Irish slaves on the other hand, were relatively cheap in comparison (5 sterling).
If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African. The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master’s free workforce.
Because Irish slaves were so much cheaper, the loss of investment from torturing and killing them was not considered an effective deterrent. In an ironic twist, this caused some to recommend importing African slaves instead for humanitarian reasons.
Colonel William Brayne wrote to English authorities in 1656 urging the importation of Negro slaves on the grounds that, “as the planters would have to pay much more for them, they would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of (Irish)….” many of whom, he charged, were killed by overwork and cruel treatment. African Negroes cost generally about 20 to 50 pounds Sterling, compared to 900 pounds of cotton (about 5 pounds Sterling) for an Irish. They were also more durable in the hot climate, and caused fewer problems. The biggest bonus with the Africans though, was they were NOT Catholic, and any heathen pagan was better than an Irish Papist.
“Truly, I have seen cruelty there done to servants as I did not think one Christian could have done to another.”
– Richard Ligon, 1657
It’s impossible to estimate the exact number of Irish sold into slavery during this period. More Irish slaves were sold in the American colonies between 1651 and 1660 than the entire free population of those colonies. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves in the America’s during the 17th Century than Africans.
The typical death rate on the slave ships was around 37%.
The Irish did often have one advantage over African slaves – most of the time their time in slavery was limited. They were often sold into slavery from 7 to 20 years, while the only way Africans could get out of slavery was to buy their freedom.
While the number of Irish being sent into slavery dropped off considerably in the 1660’s, it did not just end.
After the Battle of the Boyne in 1691 there was another load of Irish slaves sent to the new world. Following the failure of the 1798 Irish Rebellion there were tens of thousands more Irish slaves.
Interesting historical note: the last person killed at the Salem Witch Trials was Ann Glover. She and her husband had been shipped to Barbados as a slave in the 1650’s. Her husband was killed there for refusing to renounce catholicism.
In the 1680’s she was working as a housekeeper in Salem. After some of the children she was caring for got sick she was accused of being a witch.
At the trial they demanded she say the Lord’s Prayer. She did so, but in Gaelic, because she didn’t know English. She was then hung.