Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irish Slavery Remembered

Every year, I see flashes of the St. Patrick's Day parade on television. When you've grown up near Boston, anything Irish has a resonance to it. I can still remember hearing a friend tell me proudly that his grandfather had fought for Irish independence in the Fenian movement. The teaching profession attracted many capable women of Irish descent who left the generation of my parents far better taught than those being taught today. Although the nuns never told us their family names, they often told us of anti Irish bigotry in Boston towards Irish immigrants. Those stories were told well, and when I retell what I remember of such sad stories, I feel the resonance of indignation.

A friend told me that there was a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Montserrat every year, and that there were many people of Irish descent in Montserrat and in other island nations of the Caribbean. Although there were voluntary Irish immigrants to the Caribbean and to South America, many Irish were deported there as criminals or as slaves.

In the Irish historical narrative, Queen Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell are seen far differently from how they are seen by the British. Under their rule, a campaign of ethnic cleansing that involved murder, deportation and sale into slavery. Irish slavery was not a fluke. It was a systematic trade that served the dual purpose of making money and depopulating Ireland.

Irish slavery was not a departure from the norm but a large component of the slave trade as a whole. According to James Cavanaugh, authour of Irish Slaves of the Caribbean, the English sold more Irish slaves between 1600 and 1699 than they did African slaves. Cavanaugh notes as follows the extent of the Irish slave trade.

"The Proclamation of 1625 ordered that Irish political prisoners be transported overseas and sold as laborers to English planters, who were settling the islands of the West Indies, officially establishing a policy that was to continue for two centuries. 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. "

Cavanaugh tells of shiploads of Irish children who were shipped off. The numbers are staggering. He writes as follows.

"In 1649, Cromwell landed in Ireland and attacked Drogheda, slaughtering some 30,000 Irish living in the city. Cromwell reported: I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbados. A few months later, in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters in St. Kitt. During the 1650s decade of Cromwell's Reign of Terror, over 100,000 Irish children, generally from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from Catholic parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies and plantations from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing free population of the Americas! "

I have heard of the potato famine and how an unyielding land would not support those who had worked upon it. I had heard of the cruel British absentee landlords who took what little was left after the potato blight of 1848 and left Irish sharecroppers to starve. But the story of Irish slaves transforms my image of class structure in prerevolutionary North America.

The Irish slaves married and raised families with the African slaves. They suffered under the yoke of slavery together. There is certainly blood line connections between Irish, Irish Americans and African Americans that have not seeped into how we see ourselves as a nation. The tragedies of the 17th century have created ties to which we pay little heed.

The full story of the Irish slave trade is seldom told. It is presented as a curiousity when it is really a formative part of history, with implications for America and for modern day Ireland.

The full story of Irish slavery must be told and added to the history books with the prominence it deserves. It would be a good start if commemorative stamps were issued in the United States, the British Commonwealth and the European Union. History that is honestly told can have a healing effect on society. Edited history often degenerates into propaganda.

When we are celebrating Irish history and ethnicity, it is fitting to remember the Irish slaves whose descendants live today among us. The pages of history should not be lost with the passage of time. It is up to us to remember.

The picture above is of chained Congolese rubber slaves in 1912. It is by H.E. Hardenburg Sphere: Related Content

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