The Forgotten History Of The Irish Sold Into Slavery

“What captivity has been to the Jews, exile has been to the Irish. For us, the romance of our native land begins only after we have left home; it is really only with other people that we become Irishmen.” —Peter Ackroyd, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

In A Nutshell

An often-overlooked chapter in the history of slavery was the part played—unwillingly—by the Irish. Alongside the millions of people uprooted from West Africa and shipped to the New World as slaves were thousands of Irish, banished from their homeland at the behest of Oliver Cromwell. Most ended up working as slaves and servants in Barbados, Brazil, Antigua, and the southern part of the United States.

The Whole Bushel

When exploration opened up the New World, European countries scrambled to claim their footholds in these new, rich territories. One of the first agricultural colonies in the New World for England was Barbados, where the conditions for growing tobacco and sugar were ideal. With the establishment of this new agricultural colony came the need to staff it with workers. Between 1627 and 1807, it’s estimated that somewhere around 387,000 people were shipped from Africa to Barbados and put to work as slaves. Lesser known, however, is that thousands of Irish were similarly rounded up and deported to the colonies for a life of slavery.

After Oliver Cromwell firmly entrenched himself in power at the end of England’s civil war, he turned to bringing Ireland to heel beneath his rule as well. Between 1641 and 1652, approximately half a million Irish people were killed by war and famine, and the country’s population suffered another blow at the end of the war. Men, women, and children alike were rounded up, loaded on slave ships, and sent off to English colonies. Numbers are very, very sketchy and were badly kept, but it’s estimated that anywhere between 80,000 and 130,000 Irish were ousted from their homeland and sold into slavery.

Cromwell was making a massive land claim, and evicting Irish of all social standing from long-held lands, especially in Munster, Leinster, and Ulster. Any of those people who chose to fight back—or any of those that he felt to be a threat to the English—were rounded up. An issued declaration stated that any Irish who didn’t leave Connaught or County Clare in a determined amount of time were fair game to be shipped off to wherever Cromwell and his men saw fit.

The same declaration specified that men were to be used as bondsmen, while women and girls would be made available to plantation owners for their “solace.”

Among those were women and children who had lost husbands and fathers in the fighting. Deemed unable to support themselves in Ireland anymore, many were sent to Barbados and Antigua to make a living for themselves based on their hard labor. It’s estimated that at least 50,000 of the total number of Irish slaves were women and children.

During the process of Irish exportation, Cromwell’s agents roamed the countryside, armed and on horseback, rounding up people and getting £4 for each one they handed over to slavers. Those that were caught were branded before they were loaded onto slave ships bound for the colonies, where they were put to work on plantations. Not surprisingly, Irish workers struggled in the heat and blistering sun of Barbados, earning them the derogatory name “Redlegs.”

For Cromwell and the slave traders, it was a winning situation. They got rid of the troublesome Irish, and they got slaves that could be more easily transported to their final destination (travel time was shorter than it was from Africa, and that meant higher profits).

The Irish slave trade continued throughout the 17th century, with hundreds if not thousands more Irish shipped off to plantation work every year. Numbers are difficult to determine, as most accounts group them as simply “slaves” or, in some cases, those that were taken to the colonies as so-called “servants” were considered English if the ships that they were on left from an English port.

Show Me The Proof

History Journal: The Irish Slave Trade
England’s Irish Slaves, by Robert E. West
History Journal: Cromwell’s “ethnic cleansing”
BBC History: Slavery and Economy in Barbados

  • Jimmy

    Throughout history more white people have been victims of the slave trade than black. It’s funny how it’s not as well known. It’s not like it was any better for the whites. It’s probably not as well known because the slave trade that affected America mainly involved blacks and as we know it only matters if it affects America. Someone could use this for their next nut.

    • There are currently more people enslaved then the during the entire trans Atlantic slave trade. Slave is far from ended, and it not only black on white.

  • Hillyard

    Good article. We always hear about the African slave trade, but not the Europeans and others that were forced into slavery.

  • Joseph Wilson

    Listen to Flogging Molly’s “Tobacco Island”.

  • Quinby

    “cracker”: Scots-Irish for a braggart; “redneck”: a 17th century Scots border raider. The English enslaved and shipped out pretty much anyone they could catch; many Irish and Scots were sent to America, and weirdly enough, they didn’t get along with their Brit masters. The Scots and Irish who ran away from homes and plantations and pushed ever Westward basically founded America. Their legacy lives on today; I trace my people back to exiled Scots sent to Ulster who were then indentured to Brits in the American South; my own name is Scots and means ‘by the knife’; I share it with a town, a bridge, and a clan.

    • Stevven Leroy

      “Cracker” was a term coined by the African slaves & it referred to their white master’s and the “crack” of the whip.

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  • William Griffith

    Sean O’Callaghan’s book “To Hell or Barbados-The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland” is a very well written book and I can recommend it highly.