The fact that black Africans were placed into slavery for centuries is common knowledge. However, there is another ethic group that was forced into slavery that goes unnoticed by history —perhaps because they have never used their historical experience to justify their current problems.
King James II of England began the Irish slave trade in 1625 when he sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners to be sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600s, the Irish represented the main body of slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat —in fact, during that period, 70% of the total population of Montserrat was Irish slaves. The majority of early slaves brought to the New World were white —and Irish.
Between 1641 and 1652, about 300,000 Irish were sold as slaves. Between those that the English killed and sold into slavery, the population of Ireland decreased from 1.5 million to 600,000 in this decade alone. Like the African slaves, families were separated as wives and children were not allowed to accompany their husbands and fathers across the Atlantic. This of course led to a helpless population of fatherless people —England’s solution —they sold the women and children as well.
During the 1650s, more than 100,000 Irish children were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia, and New England. Some 52,000 Irish women and children were sold to Barbados and Virginia during the same period. Another 30,000 were placed on the block and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Lord Cromwell ordered 2,000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
Historians, probably mostly English, tend to use the term “Indentured Servants” to remove some of the stain of the enslavement of the Irish. However, the facts speak for themselves; the Irish that were sold during the 17th and 18th centuries were human labor.
One of the driving forces of the Irish slave trade was the fact that they were cheaper to own than Africans. Africans sold for about 50 pounds sterling while an Irish slave was valued at 5 £ sterling. There were many instances where the Irish were treated more harshly than their African counterparts because their value was far less. If a whipped or branded Irish slave died, it was a far less of a monetary setback than the death of an African slave. Therefore, on balance, the Africans received better treatment.
The children of slaves became slaves as well, which increased the size of the owner’s free workforce. So it was not uncommon for the slave owner to breed Irish women for fun and profit. Seizing on the best of both worlds, slave owners began a “breeding program” by having black males impregnate the white Irish women. These new “mulatto” slaves fetched a higher price on the slave market than the strictly white Irish. The breeding practice became so widespread that legislation was passed in 1681 forbidding the practice of using Irish females to copulate with African men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale. In point of fact, the “mulattos” were undermining the prices in the slave market, and the new laws were passed more to insure the profits of the slave industry than any type of human compassion.
The Irish slave trade continued until 1839 when England got out of the slave trade. However, this only applied to state-sponsored slave trade — it did not preclude the capture or transport of white or black slaves.
The main difference between the slavery of the Irish and Africans is that the Irish have assimilated themselves into the various societies in which they were introduced. Unless one happens upon a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the Irish from any other mainstream ethnic group in America.
The Irish have overcome their unfortunate past and function as if slavery was not even a part of their legacy. Many blacks however, use the centuries past experience to defend their lack of achievement and ascribe the experience to their assorted problems. At the risk of seeming insensitive, how an ethnic group responds to adversity speaks volumes about their corporate character and strength of will.
Have a good week. Bill Shuey is a freelance writer from North Carolina.