The Internet facilitates the spread of ignorant revisionism like never before. One peculiar myth that has gained currency amongst the TLDR crowd is that of the ‘Irish Slaves’. What sounds like a good story over a couple of pints has become a keystone of white supremacist theory in the USA. Liam Hogan delves into the bullshit peddled and outlines how it seeks to distort arguments about contemporary racial politics in the good ol’ US of A.
In the wake of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, thousands of people from England, Ireland and Scotland were banished by Parliamentarian forces from their homelands and forced into indentured servitude in the British West Indies in mid-17th century. Many of them suffered under extremely harsh conditions, dying from disease or unsparing work.
The planter class sought to exploit them as much as possible during the duration of their service. Their lives, while bound to service, were commodified. They could be sold, traded and left in wills. This detestable form of bondage was temporary, but only if you survived long enough. Terms could last between 3 and 7 years, and for convicted criminals and PoWs, sometimes as long as 10 years.
Planters in Barbados in the 1640s were well aware of the brutal labour regimens they imposed on both groups thus “in case of uproar….either by Christian servants or negro slaves” their homes incorporated defensive features such as battlements and bulwarks. It is roughly estimated that around 10,000 of our Irish ancestors suffered this fate. Each victim is significant and it is important that this brutal part of our history is remembered. It is equally important that it is remembered accurately.
Over the past few years it is possible that you have encountered one of the various “Irish slaves: the forgotten white slaves” articles on social media. It is important to know that these pernicious articles contain not a single historically accurate claim. What’s worse, they fallaciously equate white indentured servitude with black chattel slavery for political ends. This is an abuse of history. Black chattel slavery in the British colonies was perpetual. There was no end. It was hereditary.
The uterine law ensured that the children of slaves inherited the status of their mother. Their children were perpetual slaves. Their children’s children were perpetual slaves. And so on. The colonial slave codes did not treat them as fellow humans, but as livestock. They could be mutilated, executed, raped and killed with almost complete impunity. This slave system existed in British North American colonies for almost 200 years. The fundamental distinctions that developed between these labour systems are crucial to our understanding of their legacies. But this “we were slaves too!” narrative ignores them all.
Based exclusively on “bad history” these works have inspired a dangerous mythology, becoming a popular argument to bolster racist sentiment. From Stormfront to the American Nazi Party, white supremacists and Neo-Nazis have taken this narrative to their fascist hearts. To an extent it has also entered the mainstream discourse, used confidently by some to derail discussions about the impact of racism, the legacy of American slavery and the growing calls for reparatory justice in the U.S. and the Caribbean. To be clear, the “Irish slaves” they refer to are not our unfree ancestors that suffered horrendously. They do not care about them.
Their lives are co-opted by KKK types and used as a rhetorical device to mock the Black Lives Matter protestors of the police killings of unarmed black citizens in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. Indeed the Council for Conservative Citizens, the racist Neo-Confederate group that helped to radicalise Dylann Roof, have promoted the false narrative on their website since 2013. Bad history can be as dangerous as bad chemistry.
So, why do racists embrace this narrative? It is quite simple. They argue that slavery is not about race. In a general sense they are correct. Slavery is a general term, there have been, and are, many types of slavery. So we need to differentiate by being specific and recontextualising. If you ask them what they mean exactly by an “Irish slave” they will resist answering or else reply with disinformation. What they want to obscure, by being non-specific, is the fact that the transatlantic slave trade was sustained by racism.
As the legal architecture in the British North American colonies developed, it by degrees justified the perpetual hereditary enslavement of Africans by painting them as “sub-human”, soulless, inferior, beasts of burden who were born to be worked to death on plantations.
They try to diminish the scale of the slave trade. 5.5 million enslaved Africans were brought by British slave ships into their colonies over a 180 year period and only 800,000 remained when slavery was abolished. The retention rate of 15% suggests that this was genocide. They use their “white slave” tropes to minimise and reinforce the present day repercussions of this racism.
They want to delete from collective memory the racial oppression that followed emancipation in the US; how white supremacy was reasserted through racial terrorism; imposed by thousands of lynchings, racial segregation, redlining, Jim Crow, miscegenation laws, anti-black pogroms, police and paramilitary brutality, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, racial discrimination for housing, education and employment. They hope to justify their racism by claiming “we were slaves too, and we don’t complain!” while they burn the history of four hundred years of anti-black oppression in the North American continent.
Those inculcated by the “we were slaves too!” narrative are encouraged to ignore history. Instead of engaging in further research and the interrogation of sources, the spurious articles are shared and the false narrative grows stronger, damaging the history of the exploitation of servants and slaves in the British West Indies.
More from Liam Hogan here.
Illustration by Mice Hell