Irish roots in the Caribbean run deep

Montserrat: Known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, it the only country outside Ireland where March 17 is a public holiday.

The Irish has been a huge presence and influence in the Caribbean, claims a recent blog at Scientific American.

In Jamaica, the influence can be found in place names such as Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. There is also a surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough.

So how did the Irish wind up in the Caribbean?

Krystal D’Costa of Scientific American writes that after the Battle of Kinsale, the Irish clan system was abolished and around 30,000 prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and United States.

“The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record-keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.”

This would become a common practice after the Proclamation of 1625.

Celebrations in Monserrat during the St. Patrick's Day festival.

Celebrations in Monserrat during the St. Patrick’s Day festival.

“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.”

The Irish were a more desirable “slave stock” than Africans, who had to be “caught,” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit. Because they were “cheaper” the Irish would often suffer harsher punishments from their plantation masters.

It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers. D’Costa says that “while most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to a single island giving rise to the identifications we know today as Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, and British Caribbean,” the Irish presence in the Caribbean became firmly established and can be found on practically all of the Caribbean islands.

In the United States, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. This Irish national holiday celebrates Saint Patrick who is—potentially—the most recognizable of Irish saints, known for championing Irish Christianity (and using a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity). The observance of St. Patrick’s Day has also been viewed as a one day break from the abstinence of the Lenten season. While it still has religious undertones, for a vast majority of people, it’s a day for merry-making—jovial gatherings and free-flowing alcohol are characteristics of celebrations in the United States. Everyone is supposedly a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but there is more truth to this saying than most recognize. It’s not merely a loophole allowing for the uninhibited consumption of Guinness. The Irish have traveled to all corners of the world, and like other immigrant groups, wherever they have stayed they have left a mark.

With its distinct culture, people, and linguistic markers, the Caribbean might be the last place you would think to look for the Irish. But much in the same way the spirit of the Dutch is alive and well in New York City in street and place names, so too do the Irish have a presence in places such as Montserrat, Jamaica, St. Kitts, and elsewhere throughout the British Caribbean. In Jamaica alone one will find Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. Not to mention the surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough. How did the Irish wind up in the Caribbean, so far from their emerald island? The surnames above may not carry the prestige of a New York Astor or a Schermerhorn, but they tell of a history that is no less important.

Following the Battle of Kinsdale, the Irish clan system was largely abolished and the English seized most of the land of Ulster. The 30,000-something prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States.

The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.

The Proclamation of 1625 would make this a common practice. Irish political prisoners would be routinely packed up and sold off as laborers:

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.

The Irish were desirable “slave stock” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit, whereas traders needed to pay to have Africans “caught,” minimizing their profit margins. And because they were cheaper in this sense, the Irish often suffered harsher punishments from their plantation masters. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers, contributing to a massive population reduction in Ireland. In 1652, Ireland’s population was 616,000, down from 1,466,000 in 1641. Of course, this change was not solely due to to the slave trade—famine, wars, and disease certainly played a role.

Nonetheless, the Irish presence in the Caribbean had been firmly established. While most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to a single island giving rise to the identifications we know today as Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, and British Caribbean, the Irish looked for opportunities and found homes wherever circumstances took them. They’re found on practically all of the Caribbean islands and in the circum-Caribbean zone.

The Caribbean is unique in this way. Its role in the colonial power struggle has brought together people from many different backgrounds, resulting in a cultural mixing not truly seen elsewhere. In Trinidad, for example, the combination of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and others has created blended cultural artifacts in the forms of food, festivals, music, religion, and clothing. Intermarriage between groups has strengthened these blended artifacts giving them a particular authority in these areas. Trinidadians, being enthusiastic rum connoisseurs have taken to Guinness, that popular Irish brew, and created their own version of the Guinness Float (Guinness and ice cream: Guinness mixed with carnation milk—I can vouch that it’s really quite good.

So in the middle of the parades and happy hours today, if you can spare a moment, think about the ways we are all connected via histories and relationships that may not be so apparent at first glance. And go ahead and enjoy the holiday however you choose to mark it—after all, we are all a little Irish.

And if you’re interested in reading more about the Irish diaspora, there’s a great list of resources that you can check out. I would also recommend—in the name of social science—that is you can claim a connection to Ireland, that you register with the Irish Diaspora project.

Referenced:

  • Chinea, Jorge L (2007). Ireland and the Caribbean. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5 (3), 143-144. [document]
  • Rodgers, Nini (2007). The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5 (3), 145-156.

Ireland and the Caribbean

By Jorge L. Chinea

The Caribbean was the first American region to come to the attention of sixteenth-century Europeans. It was here that they at first marvelled at the pristine beauty of the New World, were puzzled by the ‘strange’ Arawak and Carib natives, lorded it over the indigenous people and their countryside in the name of religion, civilisation, and mercantile expansion. They thereby set in motion the largest trans-oceanic migratory movement in the history of the world. The pursuit of riches and fame lured enterprising people from throughout the ‘Old World,’ fascinated by the unique languages, spiritual beliefs, and cultural artefacts of the people of the ‘New World’. While it is tempting to describe this process using modern-day multicultural clichés like the ‘melting pot’ ideology of the United States or ‘mestizaje’ in Latin America, it must be remembered that intense friction accompanied the post-1492 re-settlement of the New World.

The newcomers brought with them their centuries-old quarrels, and these were played out in the Antillean archipelago in the shape of inter-imperial competition and warfare. These carry-overs from Old World politics, in turn, would influence the various ethnic, religious, and racial groups that came to be a part of the re-settlement of the Americas. The Caribbean and its surrounding littoral exemplify this legacy. Perennial clashes between Spain, France, England, Denmark and Holland, the five leading European countries whose subjects carved out colonies there, have characterised much the history of this region over the past five centuries. Even Sweden, which at one point occupied the tiny island of Saint Bartholomew, was involved in these economic and territorial battles.

Although the region-wide violence perpetrated by pirates, privateers and armed military expeditions, who raided, pillage and killed is now largely behind us, it has been replaced by another type of discord: the politics of representation. The area’s present-day historiography, particularly in relation to the colonial period, mostly focuses on the Spanish, French, British, Danish and Dutch settlers, and their various attempts to gain the upper hand. Colonists, fortune-hunters, adventurers, clerics, voyagers, coerced labourers, prisoners, religious dissidents and mercenaries from other parts of Europe who also had a role in the demographic, economic and political evolution of the Antillean archipelago, are generally marginalised or silenced.

The Irishmen and women whose varied experiences are featured in this special edition of Irish Migration Studies in Latin America are certainly some of them. With the possible exception of the Irish association with the eastern Caribbean island of Montserrat, they are not in the mainstream of academic and popular discussions of Caribbean Studies. It is hoped that the essays that follow will shed some light on their voluntary or compulsory arrival, successes and failures, misfortunes and strokes of luck, virtues and shortcomings, contributions and blunders, in short on their ‘lived’ experiences.

Perhaps one of the most revealing findings in this collection is the fact that the Irish diaspora in the Caribbean was not limited to any one historical period, group of individuals, or geographical area. Their presence in the region stretched across time, from the indentured servants in the 1650s to mercenaries and freedom fighters in the early nineteenth-century Spanish American wars of independence. Unlike many other European colonists, who generally came as single men, one finds both Irish men and women among the pioneers. Some, like Byrne’s John Hooke, arrived voluntarily; others crossed the Atlantic under duress, like the transported and forced labourers studied by Rodgers.

Most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to one or another island or group of islands, hence the modern-day expressions Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, British Caribbean, and so on. The Irish, on the other hand, looked for and found new homes wherever opportunities or other circumstances took them. They resided on practically all of the islands of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean zone, as demonstrated in the papers by Rodgers, Anderson, Power and Chinea, among others. Some of them were undoubtedly trans-colonial, multilingual, and highly adaptable to changing environments.

The Irish also helped to shape the demographic, social, economic and political evolution of the areas under study. Early on, Irish servants and religious dissidents comprised the bulk of the white population of the British Caribbean. When the islands made the transition to sugar cultivation, and Africanisation set in, this numerical advantage faded away. Since the presence of whites now became a matter of public safety, some of the Irish exploited this shift to their advantage whenever possible, by seeking or demanding access to the more prestigious positions of master artisans, overseers and planters.

In some cases, as shown by Power, Irish people took leading mercantile positions in the expanding world of transatlantic trade. Others escaped from servitude or defected to England’s Catholic rivals, especially France and Spain. In Cuba, Irish railroad workers became part of the plantocracy’s unsuccessful ‘whitening’ scheme, as described in Brehony’s article. Politically, the vital roles played by the O’Reilly-O’Daly team in revamping defences in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, as examined in Chinea’s article, or John ‘Dinamita’ O’Brien during the Cuban insurrection of the 1890s, analysed in Quintana’s article, are also acknowledged in this volume. They are but a few examples of a long tradition of Irish military presence in Spain and its American colonies.

Finally, the Irish impact in the region went beyond their physical activities as servants, planters, merchants and soldiers. Attempts to draw comparisons between the colonial experiences of Ireland and the Caribbean have also sparked the creative energies and imagination of writers. Two examples in this volume are Tewfik’s insightful deconstruction of Lorna Goodison’s poem, ‘Country Sligoville’, and Novillo Corvalán’s original search for a literary kinship in the works of Derek Walcott and James Joyce. Their work shows the enduring cultural, linguistic and political cross-pollination resulting from the Irish presence in the Caribbean, one that challenges the notion of discreet colonies or nations evolving in relative isolation. Instead, the authors show how writers in both the Caribbean and Ireland see or have come to grips with their common experiences with servitude, oppression and forms of colonialism.

Jorge L. Chinea
Wayne State University

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s