The strained juxtaposition of the Irish experience of involuntary indentured servitude in Barbados in the mid-17th century with the entire history of the transatlantic slave trade has led to a festival of disinformation. The most offensive aspect of this trend is the appropriation of African suffering to embellish the narrative. Recent iterations of these spurious “Irish slaves” blogs now claim that 132 Irish people were purposefully “dumped overboard to drown because ships’ supplies were running low. They were drowned because the insurance would pay for an “accident,” but not if the slaves were allowed to starve.”
This unmistakably refers to the murder of between 132 to 142 African people by the crew of the slave ship Zong in late November 1781. The appropriation of this crime serves to bolster the claim made at the end of these “Irish slaves” articles that “slavery is not about race.” It is true, there are many types of slavery and this is exactly why the co-option fails. The transatlantic slave trade was sustained and justified by anti-black racism.
Enter John Lee, the solicitor general who defended the owners of the Zong. He argued that the murdered Africans were not people, but property.
“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”
Was this lie manufactured or is this a case of distortion? How did so many people read this and not recognise it as referring to one of the most famous legal cases involving the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade?
To answer the first question, we need to track how this aspect of the myth developed.
This distortion of history is rooted in the political attempt to hyper-inflate Irish victimhood and to obscure Irish participation in the transatlantic slave trade and racial oppression of African Americans. The initial juxtaposition of the Zong Massacre with Irish oppression can be traced back to James Mullin’s polemical article Out of Africa — Out of Ireland. Mullin, who was the Chair of the New Jersey-based Irish Famine Curriculum Committee, published this article about 15 years ago and it was carried on various websites. He did not replace the African victims of the Zong massacre with “Irish slaves”, nor did he intend for this to happen, but his constant interweaving of two different histories sparked this journey to complete co-option. If you read the following trail of sources you will see how confusion was encouraged until finally (and perversely) we find Black History Month Ireland promoting the “Irish slaves” version of the Zong Massacre.
20 August 2002
18 June 2003
14 April 2008
31 December 2013
25 November 2014
22 May 2015
This distortion of Irish history damages our actual history of oppression. There is no need to exaggerate what our ancestors endured. As Henry Parnell put it, “you may trace Ireland through the statute-book of England, as a wounded man in a crowd is tracked by his blood.” This refusal to differentiate between indentured servitude and racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery via the transatlantic slave trade, only feeds white supremacist myths.
The second question I posed can be answered quite simply. That so many failed to recognise this appropriation of the Zong massacre speaks volumes about the critical mass of wilful ignorance surrounding the history of the transatlantic slave trade.