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  • 13

    White Slavery and Indentured Servitude in the Age of Imperialism, Part 1
    History; Posted on: 2007-04-19 22:07:54 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]

    Part One: Irish Slaves in the West Indies

    Revisionism (n.): The radical deconstruction of established historical narratives by way of objective inquiry, which asserts a need for the re-contextualization of assumed ‘truth’.


    The aftermath of the recent devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina upon the predominantly Black city of New Orleans, Louisiana, followed by accusations of gross incompetence on the part of government agencies to adequately cope with it, has only further pried open the ever-widening floodgate of racial animosity which has long teemed beneath the surface of the American body politic. A recent speech delivered by Kamau Kambon, a prominent radical Black nationalist, which was aired live on a special program on C-SPAN entitled "Black Media Forum on Image of Black Americans in Mainstream Media" on October 14, 2005 provided a voice for this growing contempt for White America which has become commonplace within segments of the Black community and the radical Left. To the shock of many ordinary viewers, he explicitly called for the total extermination of all Whites as the only solution to the socio-economic problems faced by many Blacks. Although clearly an extremist among many of his peers, the basic historical notions and accompanying “perpetual victim-hood” narrative used by Kambon to justify this sentiment have actually become strongly rooted in popular culture and thus taken for granted over the last few generations.

    The primary assumption underlying the content of his speech, which is accepted dogmatically by many within modern day Left-leaning academia, is that the disadvantages faced by a large percentage of modern Blacks, come as a result of universal White privilege. In his own words he summed it up as such, “we are in a war… every White person on earth [is] a plantation owner.”(1) This sentiment is rooted in the historical notions regarding the past institution of African slavery, both in the context by which it is popularly portrayed to modern students of history as well as the underlying cultural and social assumptions which inevitably emerge as a result. In many ways, this has been aggressively used to foster notions of universal White guilt for the tragic period of human bondage suffered by many Africans in the New World. Essentially, it is to assume that only Blacks suffered as ill-gotten human property during this period and that Western civilization as we know it today, came wholly at their own collective expense.

    Was the institution of slavery in the colonies of the New World, as is commonly assumed by many, a uniquely African collective experience of human tragedy and oppression? Furthermore, was it a wholly racial institution, or is there also evidence of more subtle and broader underlying economic and socio-cultural aspects, which transcend a simple explanation of “White-on-Black” exploitation? Does conflicting evidence exist, which calls into question many oversimplified, superficial, and commonly held perceptions regarding the phenomenon of slavery? Also, was slavery during its heyday strictly a European upon non-European venture? Or was enslavement of Whites by non-Whites practiced in other parts of the world at the same time? If a deeper investigation does indeed reveal discrepancies in the modern cultural assumptions of the history of slavery, how much bearing would this critical revisionism have upon notions of collective White-guilt, demands for reparations by Black advocates, and ultimately the contemporary popular notion that Europeans are uniquely guilty of the social evil of human bondage for material exploitation?

    As has been hinted above, many misperceptions to this extent are indeed widespread in modern Western culture, due to the one-sided and often politically motivated portrayal of the human tragedy that was slavery from a strictly Black perspective. The intent of this research is, therefore not to discredit or question the historical suffering of countless African slaves, but rather to provide a broader and more objective picture of the practice of human bondage and forced labor in order to address these questions. Through this analysis herein lies a hope that a more complete understanding may emerge regarding the unseen forces, which gave birth to and governed this cruel institution in its most recent context. It is an interesting side-note to this sad tale of human bondage that the very word "slave" itself had originated with and had historically referred to the East European Slavs (2), who were sold or taken into captivity to serve in the Middle East and Western Europe in great numbers from the 10th through 16th centuries. Prior to the institutionalization of Black slavery on any sort of racial basis, an entire Indo-European subgroup was subjected, evident in its very name, to a prescribed life of bondage and exploitation. Indeed, as far as Western Europe was concerned, the White slave trade in fact predated the sale of Black captives, which only began in the 15th century with the emergence of the great empires. This is in continuity with the form of slavery practiced as early back as within ancient Greece as well as the Roman Empire, which defined slavery in terms of social class, rather than race. We shall see that to a great extent, the distinctly "racist" nature of slavery, as we understand it as it emerged in its most recent context, is in fact an historical anomaly and atypical in the broader history of this practice.(3) It only seems reasonable to assert that after 1492 and the beginnings of the European imperial era that much of the reinvigoration of the slave trade was at least initially in continuity with the practices of the past, which largely ignored race as a determining factor of servitude. It was only in its latter period that slavery eventually did become a predominantly racial institution in the several centuries before its outright abolition.

    White Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies of the West Indies

    Although it is an inarguable fact that Africans were cruelly enslaved en masse by many European empires, most notably the British and French, as well as within the American republic as forced labor, there was also, however, a far less commonly known and rarely mentioned dimension of White, in particular Irish, slavery which also occurred as a consequence of empire. Much like many unfortunate Africans, the collective memory of the Irish of this era of British imperialism is one of persecution, dispossession, enslavement, and other untold sufferings. The brief but bloody reign of Oliver Cromwell following the English Civil War gave birth to an era of brutal oppression and exploitation of the subject Irish population. From 1652 until 1659 alone, it is estimated that well over 50,000 men, women, and children of Irish descent were forcibly transported to British imperial colonies in Barbados and Virginia to serve as slave labor in the plantation economy.(4) Other prisoners of war, as well as political dissenters, taken from conquered regions of England, Wales, and Scotland were also sent into permanent exile as slaves to Barbados. This essentially enabled Cromwell to purge the subject population of any perceived opposing elements, as well as to provide a lucrative source of profit through their sale to plantation owners.(5) The extent to which White prisoners were transported to Barbados was so great, that by 1701, out of the roughly 25,000 slaves present on the island’s plantations, about 21,700 of them were of European descent.(6) Later, as the African slave trade began to expand and flourish, the Irish slave population of Barbados began to drastically recede over time, due in part to the fact that many were worked to death early on in their arrival and also as a result of racial intermixing with Black slaves.

    In stark contrast to the small number of White indentured servants present on Barbados, who could at least theoretically look forward to eventual freedom no matter how bad their temporary bondage may have been, White slaves possessed no such hope. Indeed, they were treated the same as slaves of African descent in every manner imaginable. Irish slaves in Barbados were regarded as property to be bought, sold, treated and mistreated in any way the slave-owner saw fit. Their children were born into hereditary slavery for life as well.(7) Punitive violence, such as whippings, was liberally employed against Irish slaves, and was often used on them immediately upon their arrival in the colonies to brutally reinforce their enchained status, and as a warning against future disobedience.(8) The dehumanizing and degrading cattle-like physical inspections used to assess and showcase the "qualities" of each captive for prospective buyers, which reached infamy with the Black slave markets, was also practiced upon both White slaves and indentured servants in the colonies of the West Indies and North America. Irish slaves were marked off from their free White kinsmen through a branding of the owner’s initials applied to the forearm for women and on the buttocks for men by a red-hot iron. Irish women, in particular were seen as a desirable commodity by White slave owners who purchased them as sexual concubines. Others found themselves sold off to local brothels. This degrading practice of sex slavery made Irish men, women and children potential victims to perverse whims of many unsavory buyers.(9)

    In reality, White slaves fared no better a fate as unwilling human property than did contemporary captive Africans. At times they were even treated worse then their Black counterparts due to economic considerations. This was especially true throughout most of the 17th century, as White captives were far more inexpensive on the slave market than their African counterparts, and hence were mistreated to a greater extent as they were seen as a conveniently disposable labor force. It was not until later that Black slaves became a cheaper commodity.(10) An account dating back to 1667 grimly described the Irish of Barbados as “poor men, that are just permitted to live,… derided by the Negroes, and branded with the Epithite of white slaves.” A 1695 account written by the island’s governor frankly stated that they labored “in the parching sun without shirt, shoe, or stocking”, and were “domineered over and used like dogs.” It was common knowledge among the Irish of this era that to be deported, or “barbadosed”, to the West Indies meant a life of slavery.(11) In many cases, it was actually common for White slaves in Barbados to be supervised by mulatto or Black overseers, who often treated captive Irish laborers with exceptional cruelty. Indeed:

    The mulatto drivers enjoyed using the whip on whites. It gave them a sense of power and was also a protest against their white sires. White women in particular were singled out for punishment in the fields. Sometimes, to satisfy a perverted craving, the mulatto drivers forced the women to strip naked before commencing the flogging and then forced them to continue working all day under the blistering sun. While the women were weeding in the fields in that condition, the drivers often satisfied their lust by taking them from the rear.(12)

    Such instances of horrific rape and unwilling sexual union between Irish female slaves and Black slave-drivers, was actually implicitly encouraged by many of their White masters. Mulatto children, who resulted from such unions, both willing and unwilling, were seen by the plantation masters as a potentially unlimited breeding stock of future native-born slave labor, acquired free of charge and without the costs of transportation.(13) Existing public records on Barbados reveal that some planters went as far as to systematize this process of miscegenation through the establishment of special “stud farms” for the specific purpose of breeding mixed-race slave children. White female slaves, often as young as 12, were used as “breeders” to be forcibly mated with Black men.(14)

    The enchained Irish of Barbados played a pivotal role as the instigators and leaders of various slave revolts on the island, which was an ever-present threat faced by the planter aristocracy. Such an uprising occurred in November 1655, when a group of Irish slaves and servants escaped along with several Blacks, and proceeded to attempt to spark a general rebellion among the enchained community against their masters. This was a serious enough threat to justify the deployment of militia, which eventually overcame them in a pitched battle. Before their demise they had wreaked considerable havoc upon the ruling planter class, having hacked several to pieces in brutal retribution for their bondage. They had not succeeded in their broader strategy of completely laying waste by fire, the sugar fields in which they had been forced to labor for the enrichment of their masters. Those taken prisoner were made examples of, as a grim warning to the rest of their kindred Irish, when they were burned alive and their heads were thereafter displayed on pikes throughout the market place.(15)

    As a result of a steep increase in Black slave labor migration to Barbados, compounded with high rates of Irish mortality and racial intermixing, White slaves, which had once constituted the majority of the population in 1629, were reduced to an increasingly dwindling minority by 1786.(16) In the present era, there remains only a miniscule, yet significant community within the native Barbadian population comprised of the descendents of Scots-Irish slaves, who continue to bear testimony to the tragic legacy of their enchained Celtic forebears. This small minority within the predominantly Black island of Barbados is known locally as the “Red Legs”(17) , which was originally a derogatory name, understood in similar context to the slur “redneck”, and was derived from the sun-burnt skin experienced by early White slaves who had been previously unadjusted to the tropical Caribbean climate. To this day, a community numbering approximately 400 still resides in the northeastern part of the island in the parish of St. Andrew’s, and has vigorously resisted racially mixing with the larger Black population, despite living in abject poverty. Most make their living from subsistence farming and fishing, and indeed they are one of the most impoverished groups living in modern Barbados.(18)

    A similar process of Irish slave labor migration occurred to the plantations of Jamaica under Cromwell’s reign. Previously, a Spanish colonial possession, Jamaica came under Imperial British rule in 1655, through a decisive and quick military conquest.(19) Due to a shortage of manpower, as well as a difficulty in recapturing escaped Black slaves, known as “maroons”, who had been abandoned by the retreating Spanish, Irish slave-laborers deported from their own nation were brought to fill the void. By 1656, Cromwell had already shipped roughly 2,000 enslaved Irish men and women to labor in the sugar plantations of Jamaica.(20) We know little of what became of this unfortunate lot, as the documentation pertaining to their ultimate fate which had resided in the Dublin Customs House was destroyed in a fire in 1922.(21) It is safe to assume that based upon what we know about the treatment of the Irish slaves of Barbados that their experience was nothing short of harrowing. It is most likely that they were largely worked to death, while others interbred with the larger African slave population, hence the preponderance of Irish surnames among many modern Black Jamaican families.(22)

    Horrific as Oliver Cromwell’s historic crimes were against the men, women, and children of Ireland, they were neither unique nor innovative, in regard to the systematic subjugation and exploitation of the Irish slaves under British imperial rule. Indeed, forced slave labor migration to the colony of Virginia had begun even earlier under the reign of James I in 1620, beginning with the arrival of 200 enslaved Irish political prisoners. This traffic in unwilling human cargo continued unabated up until the rule of Charles I, who was overthrown by Cromwell’s forces.(23) Such a trade can be traced even further back to 1612, with the first documented case of Irish slaves, who were shipped to labor on the Amazon in South America.(24) For all of his exceptionally arbitrary cruelty, Cromwell, therefore, had been merely acting upon a precedent established long before his own tyranny as a sustained policy under royal English rule. Prior to the expansion of the African slave trade, as it became more commercially viable in the late 17th century onwards, the majority of slaves and other “unfree laborers” brought against their will into the New World were in fact, actually White.(25)


    (1)WorldNetDaily, October 22, 2005 “Professor: Exterminate White People Seen as Solution to Problems Faced By Many Blacks”, Available from the World Wide Web: (http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=46973)


    (3)Lance Selfa, "Slavery and the Origins of Racism", International Socialist Review, Issue 26, November–December 2002, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.isreview.org/issues/26/roots_of_racism.shtml)

    (4)Sean O'Callaghan, To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland, (Dingle, Ireland: Brandon, 2001), p.9

    (5)O'Callaghan, p.93

    (6)Kelly D. Whittaker, White Slavery, What the Scots Already Know, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.electricscotland.com/history/other/white_slavery.htm)

    (7)O'Callaghan, p.111

    (8)O'Callaghan, p.118

    (9)Ibid., p.113

    (10)Michael A. Hoffman II, They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America, (Coeur d'Alene, Idaho: The Independent History & Research Company, 1992), p.50

    (11)Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp.144-145

    (12)O’Callaghan, p.119

    (13)O'Callaghan, p.168

    (14)Ibid., p.115

    (15)Ibid., pp.123-125

    (16)Dr Karl Watson, Slavery and Economy in Barbados, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/barbados_03.shtml)


    (18)O'Callaghan, pp.207-208

    (19)O’Callaghan, pp.140-141

    (20)Robert E. West, England’s Irish Slaves, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/SLAVES.TXT)

    (21)O'Callaghan, p.151

    (22)Robert Mulally, "One Love": The Black Irish Of Jamaica, Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.thewildgeese.com/pages/jamone.html)

    (23)O'Callaghan, pp.161-162

    (24)James F. Cavanaugh, Irish slaves in the Caribbean, Available from World Wide Web: (http://kavanaghfamily.com/articles/2003/20030618jfc.htm)

    (25)Selfa, “Slavery and the Origins of Racism”
    News Source: WVW News

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