I was reading a book recently called White Cargo. It was a fascinating insight into the early years of slavery and how the Irish people were the prototype for the slave trade. A kind of test run, maybe to see if they could get away with it or maybe just to see it if it would work.
Everybody knows only too well the atrocities of the African slave trade.But not many people, including me, know about the Irish slaves.
The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.
Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. Even in England they gathered up poor, impoverished young children, prisoners, trouble makers, anarchists and dissenters and put them on boats. They told their parents that they were being sent to the Americas to become apprentices in the New World. But in reality the majority of them would be dead within a year and the rest of them would be treated like dogs, being given just enough food and shelter to keep them alive and strong enough to work.
In Ireland it was much easier, they did not even have to make false promises of a better life in the New World. Ireland was in upheaval. The Irish were rebelling against English rule. They could simply gather up whoever they wanted, label them ‘political prisoners’ and ship them off to be sold as slaves.
From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were torn apart, divided and unlikely to ever be reunited. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as well.
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.
They are more commonly referred to as “Indentured Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. The belief at the time was that the person would give their labour for free for five years or more to pay for their transport costs, food and housing and then would be free to leave, however, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Indentured Servants were often their against their will and were treated as nothing more than human cattle.
If a planter whipped 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. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish women, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.
In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.
There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat. None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that time and the history books conveniently forgot.