|Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
Irish slaves is a term and a myth which refers to the supposed historical exploitation of Irishmen as slave labor. It is frequently evoked by white supremacists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, Stormfront users and Neo-Confederates claiming that the enslavement of Africans doesn't matter because "White people were slaves too."
The origin of this myth is from a 1993 book called They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of The Enslavement of Whites in America self-published and written by conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman II. The myth was further advanced in Ireland by journalist Sean O'Conaghan in the book To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland and other books such as White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves. Since then, the "Irish slaves" myth has been repeated frequently on social media such as Facebook often with unrelated images as "pictures" of Irish slaves. One common version, debunked by Reuters, is that "the first slaves imported into the American colonies were 100 White children in 1619, four months before the arrival of the first shipment of Black slaves". In fact, the first slaves imported were black Africans, and there's no evidence of the 100 white children.
The most common themes of the "Irish slaves" myth according to Wikipedia are:
- The media and historians are covering it up.
- The Irish people were enslaved after the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland in 1649
- Irish slaves were treated worse than African slaves and female Irish were forced to reproduce with male Africans.
- Using a forged 1625 declaration attributed to King James II sending thousands of Irish prisoners to the West Indies as slaves (despite the fact James II hadn't even been born yet).
- Taking actual slave atrocities such as the 1781 Zong Massacre and substituting African slaves with Irish ones.
The problem with this whole idea is that the "Irish slaves" were in fact indentured servants. While both indentured servitude and chattel slavery may be considered subcategories of "slavery," and indeed both are banned within the United Nation's 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, the two are very different concepts in practice. Indentured servants agreed to work for a period varying between 2 to 7 years in exchange for being transported to the Americas. At the end of this period, they were free. Chattel slavery, however, as is well known, was permanent and persisted to the descendants of slaves. While indentured servants probably had it bad, the difference between indentured servitude and slavery is enormous, as described by Liam Hogan:
“”Chattel slavery was perpetual, a slave was only free once they were no longer alive; it was hereditary, the children of slaves were the property of their owner; the status of chattel slave was designated by ‘race’, there was no escaping your bloodline; a chattel slave was treated like livestock, you could kill your slaves while applying “moderate correction” and the homicide law would not apply; the execution of ‘insolent’ slaves was encouraged in these slavocracies to deter insurrections and disobedience, and their owners were paid generous compensation for their ‘loss’; an indentured servant could appeal to a court of law if they were mistreated, a slave had no recourse for justice. And so on…
It's also relevant that the period in which Irish people were placed in indentured servitude was during the 17th century, whereas black slavery continued for another 200 years: most "Irish slaves" were exported to the Caribbean by the British. Where "Irish slaves" augmented an existing workforce, the enslavement and exploitation of black slaves was an integral part of the economy. "Irish slaves" were primarily exported by Oliver Cromwell, some hundreds of years before the major waves of Irish immigration to the US, so it was never really relevant to Irish Americans—in fact, many Irish people moved to the South and strove hard to become slaveowners themselves. The American Dream, huh? It was such an issue that prominent Irish politician Daniel O'Connell began petitioning Irish Americans not to take part in the slave trade.
Actual Irish Slaves
Throughout antiquity, the medieval period, and as recently as the early modern era, there were in fact many Irish slaves and slave raids on the island. However, these were orchestrated by Gaelic raiders, Vikings, and Barbary pirates. St. Patrick was said to have been a slave for a part of his life and many Irish throughout history could find themselves as the slaves or enslavers of other Irish. By the 18th century the threat of the Irish being enslaved had faded into history as the institution was abolished on the island and British naval power meant Barbary pirates were no longer a threat.
Similar claims have been made about Scottish people, including on the American website Electric Scotland, where an article suggests "the Alba, Scots, Irish and Picts have been the longest race held in slavery." Again, actual claims relate either to Vikings in the early medieval period or to indentured servitude from the 17th century. This has also become tangled up with people who seek to deny that Scots were involved in the transatlantic slave trade: in reality, Scots were deeply involved in running plantations and profiting from the goods produced there (even Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet, considered a career as an overseer on a slave plantation). But some eccentric Scots move from denying Scotland's complicity in the cruelty of slavery, to assert falsely that Scots were actually the victims of slavery rather than some of the perpetrators; Stephen Mullen, author of It Wisnae Us: The Truth About Glasgow and Slavery, has debunked these myths.
- The unfree Irish in the Caribbean were indentured servants, not slaves, Liam Hogan, Laura McAtackney, and Matthew Connor Reilly.
- The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies, Liam Hogan
- Debunking the imagery of the “Irish slaves” meme
- Slavery Myths Debunked
- Fact check: First slaves in North American colonies were not “100 white children from Ireland”, Reuters, June 17, 2020
- United Nations Treaty Collection, Chapter XVIII: Penal Matters
- ‘Irish slaves’: the convenient myth, Liam Hogan.
- Medieval Ireland (2005): An Encyclopedia, Ed. Sean Duffy, 2017, Taylor & Francis. p 430-431.
- The Scale of Slave Raiding and the Slave Trade in Northumbria and Ireland, 7th-11th Centuries. Fontaine, Janel M.
- "St. Patrick". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 7 April 2013.
- White Slavery, what the Scots already know, Kelly D. Whittacker, Electric Scotland
- The myth of Scottish slaves, Stephen Mullen, Sceptical Scot, March 2016