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.

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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

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