The founder of Irish Central attempts to whitewash their influential role in spreading ahistorical “Irish slaves” propaganda
After spending a year ignoring an open letter signed by over ninety academics, historians and interested parties, Mr Niall O’Dowd (who is an editor and the founder of the Irish Central website) published an op-ed in March 2017 which tacitly defended and endorsed their bogus “Irish slaves” article. Rather than correct or even admit any error, O’Dowd has decided to turn a blind eye to the fact that Irish Central were responsible for spreading disinformation about “Irish slaves” for approximately half a decade and thus potentially misleading hundreds and thousands of people. Yet somehow he has mustered up the temerity to abdicate responsibility while simultaneously presenting himself as the voice of reason standing between a (false) dichotomy of neo-Nazis on the Right and “political correctness gone mad!” on the Left.
The sad reality is that Irish Central have been promoting the exact same disinformation on this issue as the far-right, for years. As the disinformation remains on the Irish Central website and as O’Dowd links to it in his recent article, he has put it on record that he stands over the editorial decision to publish an article entitled “Irish are ‘the forgotten white slaves’ claims expert” which was a promo for an op-ed by an unknown author ‘John Martin’ syndicated on the Global Research website.
O’Dowd is implying that the content of this article represents a legitimate and verifiable history which has been hijacked by “white racists” and “some far-right groups”.
He goes on to essentially whitewash Irish Central’s role in this sorry affair by suggesting that the real problem is that as white supremacists have co-opted this apparently credible version of Irish history there is now a “clear tendency to undermine” what he describes as “the Irish slave experience”. O’Dowd is reasoning that to challenge, question or expose the propaganda that Irish Central have now promoted for years is a form of “political correctness.”
This is a fantasy version of events.
To begin let’s review the propaganda about “white Irish slaves” that O’Dowd and Irish Central have been feeding to the general public and Irish America in particular.
Part 1: Propaganda
What “Irish slavery” myths have Irish Central promoted for approx five years?
Niall O’Dowd and Irish Central promote the following claims made in a Global Research article which they first publicised on their website in 2012. Irish Central present this bogus “history” to their readers as coming from an “expert” source.
- That an “Irish slave trade” operated from 1625 to 1839. A different Irish Central article states that it was initiated in 1612.
- That “the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did.”
- That “Ireland was the greatest victim of [the] British slave trade…” (the sub-heading of a 2013 iteration)
- That “Irish slaves” were treated “worse” than enslaved Africans.
- That “Irish slaves” were “cheaper” than enslaved Africans.
- That Irish women were forced to breed with enslaved African men.
- That this “forced breeding” practice “was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.”
- That “if a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime.”
- That “Irish slaves” were the victims of the Zong Massacre.
- That “Irish slaves” were “burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives”
- That “70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves”
- That Ireland was “the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants.”
- That “the majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white”
- That from 1641 to 1652 “300,000 [Irish people] were sold as slaves”
- That the use of the term “indentured servitude” is part of a conspiracy to cover up a history of “white slavery”
- That the Irish are “the lost slaves; the ones that time and biased history books conveniently forgot”
- That the unknown author of this ahistorical propaganda, the content of which was mostly plagiarised from a blog published by an Irish American in 2003, is an “expert” on the history of slavery in the Early Modern Atlantic world.
I’ve debunked and contextualised each of these baseless claims in a seven-part series which you can find here (see articles № 6–12)
Therefore this is not a case of “far-right groups” co-opting Irish history. This is a case of a general public (mainly white America) adopting and deploying racist ahistorical propaganda promoted by Irish Central et al.
This is not a situation where a “historic reality” is “being taken over by white racists.”
This is a case of Irish Americans being prompted by the Irish Central media company to adopt and disseminate the myth that Irish people experienced the horrors of chattel slavery as much as African people and their descendants did in Colonial America and the United States.
This is a case of Irish Americans being grossly misinformed by the Irish Central media company that an “expert” said “Ireland was the greatest victim of the British slave trade” despite the fact that (a) there was no “Irish slave trade” and (b) British slavers brought approximately 5.5 million enslaved Africans into their Caribbean colonies over a 180 year period.
Irish Central editors describe their source as “expert”
Irresponsible and incompetent editorial decisions led to Irish Central presenting this bogus history to its readers as coming from an expert source. They remain the only website to append “expert” to this article which was an unforgivable deception that needed to be rectified years ago. Undoubtedly many people who trusted this website enthusiastically shared the article with their friends and family as they assumed the editor was competent and had verified that the author was indeed authoritative in this area. Irish Central editors simply did not bother to do the research, did not trouble themselves to check the veracity of their sources, did not care about the racism it was provoking in their comment sections, did not ask a historian for advice, and did not act when their error was pointed out. They just published, re-published, promoted and thus continued to reinforce this false narrative, the consequences be damned. For one of their editors and founder to continue to stand over these fabrications and exaggerations while attempting to anoint himself a defender of the integrity of Irish history is as contemptible as it is laughable.
The call is coming from inside the house
By doubling down on their original article Irish Central have now committed themselves to the signal boost of a false historical and moral equivalence of black chattel slavery with white servitude to a mainstream audience. From here it is inevitably and continually mainlined into everyday debates (both online and offline) to derail discussions and delegitimise the history and legacies of American slavery i.e. racism and socio-economic inequality. The end result is all too often the seepage of a “slavery is slavery” reductionist fallacy into popular consciousness, which is then used reflexively to equate the transatlantic slave trade and centuries of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery with indentured or penal servitude.
Thus it has been through ignorance, stubbornness and amateurism, rather than ideology or intent, that Irish Central have aided the far-right by acting as a bullhorn for this particular piece of bad history.
Compare the rhetoric of the American neo-Nazi leader Kevin Alfred Strom who stated that the
“Living and labor conditions for Black slaves, bad as they often were, were usually far better than those for White slaves”
with Irish Central who claim that the
“…the treatment of Irish slaves was thought to be more cruel than that of African slaves. If an Irish slave was beaten by their owner, it wasn’t considered to be a crime.”
“You think blacks had it tough with slavery in the Americas? Even tougher was the fate of Irish men, women and children forced across the Atlantic Ocean and into bondage on these shores.”
with the article that Irish Central have promoted for five years
“It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.”
Irish Central are thus partly responsible for the heightened visibility of this base propaganda, which represents one of the most significant cases of the historical negationism of the transatlantic slave trade on record. The editorial decision to stand over this poison masquerading as “history” for five years (and counting) is indefensible and unconscionable.
Irish Central are also partly responsible for making this bad history more difficult to tackle by promoting the associated conspiracy theory that denounces a grand “cover-up” of “white slavery” in Colonial America. The propaganda they have promoted wraps its exaggerations around a paranoid conspiracy theory which encourages those inculcated to shun history books, historians and academics. Thus anyone clarifying or refuting its falsehoods is then instantly deemed to be part of the conspiracy. This makes debate difficult, if not impossible.
The result is that there are now many people out there, who are not neo-Nazis or even associated with the extreme right, parroting a far-right talking point about chattel slavery and defending it using the same internal logic as far-right ideologues.
Surveying the impact of Irish Central’s propaganda
What happened when Irish Central shared this ahistorical “Irish slaves” article on numerous occasions on their social media channels between 2012 and 2016? It provoked a reaction that was invariably angry, resentful and racist. I’ve transcribed a sample of the more overt racist comments that were left when it was shared on the Irish Central Facebook page on 29 September 2014 and 28 March 2015. The anti-black racist vitriol of these individuals revealed itself in reaction to the propaganda that these social media users were consuming on the Irish Central site and social media channels.
Sample of the transcription
“Tell that to the blacks.”
“Send that to black America!”
“Proud the Irish overcame and moved on. Unlike others.”
“You don’t hear us crying about it!”
“Maybe we should loot and riot every time a black person commits a crime on us……oh wait we’re civilized.”
“You don’t hear us blaming this generation (just saying)”
“I have always said this, you don’t hear the Irish whining about it, or using it to get pity!”
“Irish don’t use their backgrounds as some do to get free rides.”
“See and you don’t hear me crying about that….”
“You don’t hear any of the [Irish] descendants staying in the slave mode.”
“Irish are civil about it, not victim Americans.”
“Irish let it go unlike others, it’s all over now, baby blue!”
“A lot of blacks need to think about that for a while! And, NO! You are not special!!!”
“We’re too busy working to play the slave card lol”
“Sometimes [they] would put the Irish in the lower deck under [the] black slaves.”
“White people was sold on the block before blacks come into the USA. So suck it up, stop your crying and go to work [and] stop asking for handouts.”
“What about my pay? I had more enslaved relatives than any black did.”
“The Irish are too proud to use their past history as a crutch… they learned from the past, worked hard, got educated, bought their own land and the rest is just ‘history’.”
“So it’s agreed that black & white slaves were treated unjustly. But there is a difference between the two, hundreds of years later the whites aren’t burning down towns and calling for police blood.”
“Now! Black people, read this and still contend that you are the only ones being persecuted.”
“Yet you do not see us acting the way some other races act over slavery that took place several hundred years ago.”
“Every time someone mentions the race/slavery card we should point out this bit of information!! where’s my check!?! lol”
“We the Americans of IRISH descent have been proven to be treated worse than the African Americans Slaves and sold much more of us “white slaves” !!! But, do you hear this mentioned in history books or talked about amongst our children! NO! You do Not Hear a Freaking word of this un-justice and yet we are always plagued by the name racist!!!! UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!!!!”
“Blacks have laid claim to being persecuted and they have….. But they still keep living it playing the race/slave card. Level the playing field, it’s not a colored thing, so get over yourselves, it’s HISTORY.”
“And the Irish are too proud the lay around expecting for the world to take care of them. I don’t think there’s any Al Sharpton’s they can run to when somebody “offends” them.”
“I had an argument with a Rastafarian one day. He couldn’t believe our people were slaves in the Caribbean long before the Africans, except we don’t want pity from anyone.”
“The ones who want reparations are sitting around collecting welfare funded by the taxes paid for by the rest of us.”
“So do you hear us whining for compensation for the hell our Irish ancestors went through? No.”
“Never heard one Irish child (I know many) ranting in the streets, marching with signs reminding us all of their ancestors who were slaves. We have black history month, why not Irish history month??? Whites must suffer in silence…”
“Absolutely true! More white slaves in America than blacks when the Civil War started. Far worse treatment than black slaves because they sold for 1/5th as much.”
“You will never see that on telly…the blacks would rise up…they lay claim to being the only slaves ever in history…poor poor them.”
Full list of comments transcribed here
Many of the comments made by these Irish Central readers are thus indistinguishable in their racist sentiment to those put forward by the far-right.
Let’s compare notes.
In 2015 the white nationalist American Freedom Party hosted the managing editor of The Barnes Review on its online radio station to discuss the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter activists. The Barnes Review is an anti-semitic, white nationalist, Nazi sympathising journal dedicated to Holocaust denial. During this show these racists accused the media of “giving a forum to disgruntled blacks who are having a hard time admitting that one’s life is what one makes of it” and then discussed “several historical events that deny this narrative” claiming that
“The Irish were the first slaves brought to the New World — not the Africans. But somehow, the Irish overcame this and thrived in America.”
There are other notable and indeed uncomfortable similarities. While Irish Central’s Niall O’Dowd describes the delineation of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery and indentured servitude as a form of “political correctness”, the white nationalists and Holocaust deniers of the American Freedom Party describe the false equivalence inherent in the mythos as “politically incorrect” history from a “non-mainstream perspective.”
The Source of the “Global Research” Propaganda? An Irish American Blogger
While this disinformation may be used for different purposes (to argue for greater solidarity or to justify preexisting racism) this dovetail of Irish American and White Nationalist pseudo-historiographical victimology is not a coincidence. The genealogy of the growth of this narrative reveals a mutually reinforcing web of politically motivated writing and awful scholarship across these spectrums.
It is not well known that the source from which “John Martin” plagiarised all of his disinformation (since shared tens of millions of times online) is from a blog authored by an Irish American named “Jungle Jim” Kavanagh. “Jungle Jim” was the “Clann Chief Herald” of the “Kavanagh Clan” who falsely asserted in his blog in 2000, among many other distortions, that there was no racial discrimination in the Anglo-Caribbean when it came to slavery. The “Global Research” article gleans all of its outlandish claims from Kavanagh’s work.
As many of you will no doubt be aware the disinformation in these various “Irish slaves” articles have been subsequently condensed into internet memes and shared all over the social web over the past four years. For example the Proud To Be Irish Facebook page shared this iteration of the meme in November 2016. This page has over 100,000 followers is purportedly for “anyone who has an Irish Heritage, and Loves Anything and Everything about being Irish!”
Sample of the comments
This racism proliferates the social web as people share the propaganda with their friends and acquaintances. As this has continued for approximately half a decade, a cumulative effect has taken place and the false equivalence has since mutated from “forgotten history” into a truism which is then used as “proof” by racists and neo-Nazis of the racial inferiority of black people.
And of course in parallel to this mainstream adoption, far-right groups like the American Nazi Party were sharing this propaganda with their followers.
The far-right have always had their racist propaganda and myths to support their ideologies. Thus challenging this insidious anti-history was all the more important when it became clear that their disinformation was rapidly gaining a foothold in the public discourse. I recall looking on through my fingers as influential individuals shared these articles as if these claims were true.
I have lost count of the amount of times it has gone viral on the social web and one iteration (the exact same text that Irish Central promote) accrued most of its 2.3 million shares on Facebook in the past nine months alone. It was impossible to keep up with how often this bad history and false equivalence was invoked to mock discussions of the history of racialised slavery or indeed the reality of anti-black racism in the present.
The vast majority of people who absorbed and shared this propaganda were not finding it on Stormfront or in neo-Confederate newsletters. Most were encountering it on Facebook and indeed many would have found the Irish Central “forgotten white slaves” article in their feeds as by my count they clocked up at least 220,000 shares, thus potentially appearing on millions of different social media timelines.
So let me put this bluntly. It was lazy and ill-informed editors that co-opted an ahistorical unqualified source for clicks that influenced this meme spreading to the mainstream. This was not some outreach program by the far-right. This amplified propaganda of great utility to racists was being gifted legitimacy by generic media outlets. So given the dominant direction of this disinformation flow it is hardly surprising to find that Irish Central is cited as the source in a number of “white slavery” posts on Stormfront (a white nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi Internet forum)
There is a whole range (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 , 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31….) of other occasions where Stormfront members have posted the same or similar “Irish slaves” content/false equivalence as endorsed by Irish Central et al. I’ve also collated a significant number neo-Nazi and white nationalist websites that push the same narrative.
Irish Central’s co-option of unrelated imagery as a propagandic tool
An early version of the Irish Central “Irish slaves” article published in January 2013 promoted the false claim that “Ireland was the greatest victim of British slave trade” and it was accompanied by an image which they claimed featured “white sugar slaves photographed in Barbados.”
But this photo, which is no.2 on my list of “Irish slaves” memes, does not feature “white sugar slaves”. Instead it depicts some fishermen residents of Bath in the parish of St. John in Barbados and it was taken in 1908, nearly a century after chattel slavery was abolished in Barbados and almost two and a half centuries after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. None of those pictured have Irish surnames and many of these families appear to have both African and European ancestry.
This basic error is one thing but the source that Irish Central credited for the photograph is quite another. Disturbingly this ‘Snippets and Slappits’ website (which has featured this same “Irish slaves” propaganda since 2012) is an anti-semitic hate site which promotes Holocaust denial. To say that this is a dubious source is an understatement. For Irish Central to have openly named holocaust deniers as a source for an important topic like Irish bondage in the Anglo-American colonies cheapens this history and needlessly associates it with neo-Nazism.
After removing this image Irish Central next used a painting of the HMS Owen Glendower to accompany another article about the “forgotten white slaves” from 2014 to 2016. The Irish Central caption for this painting misinformed their readers that this ship was used to bring “human cargo to South American[sic] and the Indies.”
But the HMS Glendower was not a slave ship. In fact it was used from 1821 to 1824 to suppress the slave trade.
Perhaps an editor Irish Central read some of my work (see no. 9 on the list) as this painting no longer appears in these articles.
Instead a black and white photograph of a family has now taken its place. It appears as if this photo was taken in the late 19th or early 20th century. The caption that Irish Central have added to this image is “An Irish family pictured in Barbados.”
However as this exchange in the comments section between a relative of those pictured and the Irish Central editor Mr. O’Dowd reveals, not only was this photo not taken in Barbados but the Taylor family are not even Irish. Despite writing to Irish Central “years ago” about this juvenile error and distortion of a personal family history, Mr. Taylor states that nothing was done to rectify the situation.
Calling them Out
Our open letter addressed the three mainstream outlets, Irish Central, Irish Examiner and Scientific American, that had lent a veneer of validity to this insidious propaganda. The letter pointed out that the article was not the product of historical research whatsoever but was inaccurate and distorted to the point where it simply amounted to an exercise in racist ahistorical propaganda.
How did they react?
The Irish Examiner newspaper quietly removed the article from their website without comment although an equally ahistorical letter putting forward the same fallacies remains. A more transparent response came from Scientific American. They updated their original article by removing the assertions that were based on a bogus source, and instead included references to actual historical writing and appended a note at the end which reads as follows.
“An earlier version of this article referenced an unqualified source that conflated the difference between bonded laborers and slaves. The information taken from this source has been removed, and a more transparent discussion that highlights the nuances of this period has been instated.”
The most disappointing response came from Irish Central. After a month one instance of their propaganda was removed from the site without comment, explanation or apology. You can access this iteration on the internet archive. Its share count has been wiped but it stood at over 155,000 in March 2016. I assumed that progress had been made, but had it? Another version of the article was then reinstated (without comment) as the primary version in September 2016 and links to the removed version were redirected internally to this one. It has remained on the website ever since and O’Dowd links to it approvingly in his op-ed in March 2017.
He therefore not only ignores that the Irish Central media company played a role in spreading these egregious lies to a significant number of people but also seems to suggesting that this article was not ahistorical at all. His recent op-ed disclaims that “there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through.” But as I’ve made clear above, that’s exactly what Irish Central have been telling their readers (the site receives 3.5 million unique visitors per month) since 2012.
In fact Irish Central endorse the claim that the “Irish slave experience” was “worse.”
It’s a bit embarrassing to witness an editor pretend that he did not read the propaganda that he has helped popularise in an attempt to gain some sort of high moral ground.
He recently had a golden opportunity to put his hand up and admit their were wrong on record. Natasha Varner published a succinct overview of the origins of this propaganda sone months ago and she mentioned how she had reached out to Irish Central to comment on their role in this story. But they declined, not in writing, but by ignoring her. She writes how
“…scholars and supporters have signed an open letter debunking the Global Research article and asking the media to stop their practice of uncritically citing it and related sources. Scientific American responded by heavily revising their story on the topic and the Irish Examiner removed theirs altogether. But Irish Central has made no such revisions and did not respond to a request to comment for this story.”
What is preventing Irish Central and O’Dowd from admitting that they got this badly wrong? After all, newspapers and other publications publish corrections and clarifications all the time, so just what is holding them back in this case? First of all Irish Central have no history of transparent corrections or clarifications on their site. The only correction that was published on their site was the result of legal action.
Secondly, their inaction on this issue points towards editorial incompetence and also apparently reflects how much O’Dowd is invested in promoting this narrative and defending his role in Irish Central’s half-decade of ahistorical vandalism. O’Dowd is linked to another Irish American publication Irish America, of which he is its founding publisher and this magazine also published, and thus endorsed as accurate, the same “Global Research” propaganda in their October/November issue in 2015.
They were called out for publishing this propaganda by Prof Maria McGarrity.
The editor of Irish America magazine responded to McGarrity’s criticism by dodging the issue and instead referred the professor to an obscure secondary source that referred to those transported from Scotland and Ireland in the 1650s as “slaves”.
Setting aside the fact that Cromwellian transportations had all but ceased by March 1657, the source the editor refers to is a “fact sheet” from an NGO and not a historian or peer-reviewed publication. Even more curious is the list of “sources and further reading” as all of them concur that those sent were condemned to a period of indentured servitude in Barbados and not chattel slavery. In fact, the most cited scholar on the Minority Rights Group International (six articles) list is Prof Jerome Handler who recently co-authored a comprehensive article which directly contests the “white slavery” narrative in the Caribbean.
I believe that any admission by O’Dowd of gross and incompetent error on this topic was avoided as it would be seen to be a weakness of sorts, perhaps even of acquiescence with the dreaded “revisionists”. He could not back down as his various publications have directly aided the adoption of this propaganda by Irish America.
It is thus instructive to review how the propaganda has percolated through the ranks of the Ancient Order of Hibernians over the past decade.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians embrace of the “Irish slaves” mythos
O’Dowd claims in his op-ed that it is only problematic when “some far-right groups” seize on “Irish slaves” propaganda but this argument reveals a blind spot closer to home. Apart from its most damaging manifestation, i.e. its insidious presence in wider society, it has been embraced by the Irish American Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) who use it as a point of “Irish pride” to enhance a sense of Irish victimhood and Irish identity. The disinformation has also been promoted, endorsed and disseminated by the leadership of the AOH.
Timeline of AOH adoption of “Irish slaves” false equivalence
I’ve created a partial list of the AOH divisions, leadership and official publications that have promoted ahistorical “Irish slaves” articles or derivatives to their members from 2004 to 2017. It spread through AOH divisions in Kansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri, New York, Massachusetts, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, Maine, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Maryland and Co. Tyrone.
The Global Research propaganda was first published in 2008 and by 2010 the President of the AOH Seamus Boyle decided to publish it word-for-word in the August edition of the National Hibernian Digest, the official bi-monthly magazine of the AOH. He describes that he learned this new disinformation at a meeting of the AOH Division 1 in Cape May County, New Jersey. He writes that he “could not believe the vastness of this issue over so many years and yet we see very little or none of this in our history books in Ireland or here in America” thus echoing the exact tenor of Global Research article which suggests a cover-up or an intentionally ignored “Irish slave trade.” The President of the AOH was convinced that this “Irish slaves” article recounted “factual events” that were “just the tip of the iceberg.” He then recommended that members of the AOH should “pass this information on to your family, children, grandchildren and your friends.” He states that as Irish Americans “do take a lot of flack about our nationality and the stereotyping” it is “incumbent upon all” AOH members “to counter this” and that “one way to educate them and possibly shock them [is] by telling the story of the Irish slaves.”
In the next edition of the National Hibernian Digest the AOH historian Mike McCormack congratulated President Boyle on his article about “Irish slavery” and revealed that “a history professor in Oklahoma had got in touch” to correct one of the errors. “The professor noted that James I was really the one who started Irish slavery while James II was the last Catholic King of England and asked for a correction to rescue James II from being an enslaver of Roman Catholics.” McCormack waved away this error as minor and of no consequence as apparently the rest of the article was historically accurate. He also stated that he received “several e-mails asking for sources where they could learn more about the subject” but of course since these sources don’t exist he was (to put it mildly) in a bit of a quandary.
A senior member of the John P. Holland AOH Division in Connecticut even used the mythos to argue in a regional newspaper that slavery in America had nothing to do with race and that “British colonists were color blind when it came to the slavery business.” This baseless argument aligns with far right rhetoric which buttresses its racism by emptying the history of the transatlantic slave trade of its central racial element.
Susceptibility to propaganda
Like most potent myths, the “Irish slaves” meme is based on a truth. The idea of Irish “slavery” or enslavement in the New World is an old one and based on the historical fact of a transportation policy that forced thousands of Irish people into a period of indentured servitude in the Anglo-Caribbean plantation complex. Some seventeenth century Irish poets described those forcibly shipped to the colonies as being slaves or enslaved. In fact the historic narrative of Irish people being forced into “slavery” in the West Indies by the Cromwellian regime is part of the Irish historiographical canon. Slavery itself is a polysemous term. The use of the term “slavery” did not mean lifelong chattel slavery, it meant slave labour, it referred to subjugation, an illegitimate use of power, deportations. The modern false equivalence in relation to this can be traced back to Sean O’Callaghan’s deeply flawed book “To Hell or Barbados” while the older exaggerations can be found in a multitude of Catholic martyrologies and Irish American victimhood narratives. Most pertinent in the latter case is Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet’s Ireland Under English Rule (1903)
Emmet was a grandson and namesake of the political exile Thomas Addis Emmet (1764–1827) who was a member of the United Irishmen and elder brother of Robert Emmet, the Irish patriot who was executed by the British in 1803. In Ireland Under English Rule Emmet claims that “over one hundred thousand young children…were sent abroad into slavery in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.” (p. 101) This extremely high number is not supported by the historical record. It is an historical impossibility in more ways than one. Thus it can only be a product of the imagination of the author, or, possibly, another martyrology that I have yet to read. Yet for all that, Emmet’s ahistorical claim carried political capital and found its way back to Ireland where James Connolly included the “100,000” figure in his 1915 book The Re-Conquest of Ireland, while in 1919 Lawrence Ginnell alluded to “the sale of Irish youths into slavery in the West Indies at 25 pounds each” in his submission to the Peace Conference.
Yet Emmet’s gross exaggeration of “over 100,000 young children” became even more garbled in the hands of the AOH. During an AOH St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Youngstown, Ohio in 1909, the AOH state board president, J. Barry of Columbus, claimed that there was mass enslavement of Irish children, not during the Cromwellian conquest, but after the Treaty of Limerick almost fifty years later.
“He told of the broken treaty of Limerick followed by persecution…He said that England, desirous to stamp out Irish nationality, had, during one period after the broken treaty of Limerick, taken in all over 100,000 children between the ages of 12 and 16, torn them from their parents and sold them into slavery in the West Indies and Jamaica.”
He followed this with what is now a leitmotif of most contemporary “Irish slaves” articles
“from all of that number the [historians] of Ireland tell us that no message ever came back to relate to the fate of [those sold into slavery.]”
Unlike Emmett, John P. Prendergast actually carried out historical research into the transportation of Irish people to Anglo-American colonies and his Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland (1865, p. 92) he claimed that 6,400 Irish people, mainly civilians and the poor, were shipped to the colonies over the space of four years (1653–1657) before the order to transport those who could not provide for themselves was formally revoked due to reports of its abuse by merchants who were illegally kidnapping Irish and English people ineligible for such transportation. Prendergast does not provide a source to justify his strangely exact number of 6,400, but if we compare it to the Irish servant population in the Anglo-Caribbean around this time it does seems to be a somewhat realistic estimation. But even his scholarship on this issue (which has its own problems) is distorted once it hits Irish America.
In 1910 a Father Collins delivered a series of lectures at Robert’s school house in Missouri on the topic of “Irish slaves and their descendants.” Collins took Prendergast’s estimate of the total number of people transported from Ireland over a period of four years, but distorted his source by reducing the time period when this occurred to “a few days” and that only children were taken.
“the English kidnapped within a few days over 6000 children of Catholic Irish and transported them to the West Indies, to Carolina and Georgia raising them as strangers to all they believed or knew.”
Collins used Emmet’s impossible figure of 100,000 but reserved this number to refer to adults only. Bizarrely he included Kentucky as a destination for these transportees despite the fact that it was not settled as a British American territory until the 1770s, over 120 years after the events in question. He also makes the false claim that those transported were so bound for the colonies because they refused to renounce their faith.
“Over 100,000 adults were transported to Virginia and Kentucky where they were sold as slaves rather than give up [the] Catholic faith.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Part 2: History
The Welch and Downing case
I’m genuinely glad that O’Dowd decided to bring this case to the attention of a wider audience in his op-ed. It’s a rare extant account of the voices of some of the Irish people who were illegally kidnapped in Ireland and shipped to the English American colonies as forced labourers in the wake of the Cromwellian conquest. When I was busy debunking the “white Irish slaves” propaganda promoted by Irish Central et al way back in 2015 I highlighted this exact case as an example of the history that is being damaged by the gross exaggerations that were in wide circulation. You can read my basic account and context for this case here.
I really hate that I have to address this part of the meme. The numbers game is a depressing one and every life is…medium.com
Unfortunately (and despite the fact that I highlighted the Downing and Welch case two years ago) O’Dowd uses it to make a straw man argument against his critics. He writes that “there is no reason why acknowledging what those two Irishmen [experienced]…should mitigate one iota the monstrous experiences that Africans slaves went through.” I agree completely with this sentiment but in this context it is a dishonest argument. Who, exactly, is not acknowledging the horrors of Cromwell’s Irish transportation policy? Certainly not I. What I and many others simply refuse to accept is the propaganda about “white Irish slaves” that Irish Central have been disseminating for five years and counting. That being said, because of the prevalent use of the false equivalence a reflexive pushback can also do harm to the historical record. As I wrote for openDemocracy last November
…while it’s easy to spot those that draw a false equivalence in support of their racism, more difficult is the relative comparison which often, due to a lack of knowledge rather than ill-intent, becomes an absolute equivalence. No less important is the relative diminishing of the exploitation of servants that can occur when correcting disinformation. In other words, as much as we must fight against the ascription of chattel slavery to the Irish in America, we must also confront and illuminate servants’ suffering without trivialising it with quips of ‘not as bad as…’ The historical evidence demands that this too must be resisted.
The aforementioned case of Welch and Downing provides us with a useful teaching opportunity about the differences and similarities between slavery and servitude in Colonial America. Sadly O’Dowd did take the opportunity to explain this in his article. There are also a number of minor mistakes in O’Dowd’s reading of this anecdote, including his reference to that anachronistic title “Law Case, Master Samuel Symonds against Irish slaves” which he claims is how the Gilder Lehrman Center describe it.
If he had checked the primary source he would have learned that there is no reference to “Irish slaves” in the records and files of Essex County nor in any of the court proceedings relating to this case. This anachronistic title was evidently added by someone at the Gerry Tobin Irish Language School (Babylon, New York) which is the organisation credited with submitting the entry to the Gilder Lehrman archives. In 2014 one of the instructors of the Gerry Tobin Irish Language School informed a reporter with the Long Island Pulse that they operated a workshop that focused “on researching Irish slavery in the Americas.”
They were not described as slaves in the contemporary primary sources for the simple reason that they were not regarded as slaves in colonial law and custom. They were instead described as “captives” and “servants”. They were thus governed by the laws regarding indentured servitude and not the laws and customs regarding slavery. Slave-owners did not bring their recalcitrant slaves to court. Slaves were placed outside of common law and had no legal personhood. Their lives were essentially forfeit. So to describe both as slaves in the same context without qualification is as unhistoric as it is unjustifiable as it elides the profound differences between these two institutions.
Broadly speaking the four core characteristics of slave status in the “New World” were
- Chattel property
- Lifetime servitude
- Inheritance of perpetual slave status from a parent (usually the mother)
- Racialisation and deracination
This fourth characteristic, deracination, is key to understanding the depths of horror of chattel slavery. Slaves were alienated from colonial society and European planters attempted to purposefully and permanently strip them of their identity, history, religion, name, choice, community, future; they were forcibly separated from kin, and in many cases their own children. To the planter class they solely existed to labour for their masters, reproduce and die. This process of deracination was enshrined in law and customs across this colonial realm. This was accompanied by the racialisation of slave status. European colonists sought to justify these crimes against humanity by claiming that the natural state of the “negro” was perpetual bondage and degradation.
European servants, if they survived, served their time out and left their years in bondage behind, had the opportunity to integrate into colonial society as free people and become the legal equals of their former masters. As we shall see this is what occurred in the case of a number of those transported to America on the Goodfellow. That of course does not mitigate or minimise the experience of a significant number those who did not volunteer and were the victims of kidnapping and forced labour. It just clarifies that their bondage and exploitation was a term of indentured servitude and not socio-legal slavery (which was perpetual and hereditary) in this context.
What happened to the group of Irish people who were sold into servitude in New England in 1654?
Missing from O’Dowd’s article is the rest of the story. What happened to those who were illegally “spirited” from Ireland on the ship Goodfellow and forced to labour for a number of years in the New England colony? The answer to this question for a number of those stolen from Ireland can be found in Michael J. O’Brien’s Pioneer Irish in New England (1937). While O’Brien’s research is often hagiographical and excessively reliant on patronymics, he has in this instance collected some useful information about the fate of those sold into servitude off the Goodfellow. What he has found illustrates well the primary experiential difference that existed between colonial slavery and colonial servitude, i.e. hope and future. Read it for yourself.
There is also a detailed book about the known life of Philip Welch (mainly appearances in court) entitled Philip Welch of Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1654, and his descendants (1947) which was compiled by Dr. Alexander McMillan Welch. It reveals that Welch was about ten or eleven years of age when he was kidnapped in Ireland.
This explains why his term of service was much longer than some of the other known victims sold into servitude off the Goodfellow. Children (those under fifteen years of age) that arrived in the colonies without indentures were by law to be bound to a master until they turned twenty-one. The historian Jillian Galle has noted that this same law was in force in the Plymouth colony in New England at this time.
She also mentions a related case from 1647 where the Edeth family, evidently struggling to make ends meet, bound out one of their children who was seven years old to a Mr. John Browne as an apprentice. The bond was not to expire until they turned twenty-one. Another case that Galle cites shows how indentured servitude was also used to punish juveniles for committing a crime. In this case two eleven-year old English boys were sentenced to a decade of indentured service. They would not be freed until they turned twenty-one.
“In 1663, Moses Crocker and Richard Man were brought before the General Court for breaking into Edward William’s house, stealing money and goods, and “laying gunpowder about his hearth soe as it fired” (PCR 4:34). Since neither eleven year old boy could repay Williams for the damage they had done, the Court “ordered them to bee put forth to seruice vntill each of them should attaine the age of twenty and one years” (ibid.).
In this case, servitude served a purpose similar to that of a juvenile detention center. The boy’s new masters were asked to pay Edward William five pounds a piece in order to help defray his loses. It appears from the indenture agreements that neither boy would receive compensation or a reward for their service when they reached twenty-one years of age.”
Another law that stated that masters could not shorten the length of service they had agreed to with their servant. It…www.histarch.illinois.edu
This age, twenty-one years, was the legal coming of age or the age of majority for men in colonial society and in the Metropole. In eighteenth century Colonial Williamsburg “parents could control their children’s ability to marry before the age of twenty-one” and it was not until this age was reached that individuals could sign legal contracts and take legal responsibility. It remains an important cultural and social marker to this day.
O’Dowd is therefore wrong to assert that Welch and Downing’s servitude was “extended at will” as that is a misreading of the case. It was originally agreed between Symonds (master) and Dell (ship captain) in 1654 that Welch was to serve for eleven years so that he would be aged twenty-one when he was to enter society as a freeman, just like the mostly English apprentices and servants who were bound to masters across the colony. Their reasoning in 1654 was
“whereas divers english are put out apprentices who at the end of their terme are older than he wilbe; and for incourgament of his master in teaching him what he conceive may do him good, and that it wilbe tyme soon enough to goe out of service & betake himself to mannage a family.”
Downing was slightly older and thus his servitude was for nine years, i.e. until he reached the age of twenty-one.
Denis McCormack on the other hand was evidently over the age of fifteen when he arrived on the Goodfellow and therefore his time in bondage was set for five years.
The use of the term “slavery” to highlight Irish oppression
Much of the confusion I see surrounding this issue is due to the conflation of (a) the use of the term “slavery” as a metaphor throughout Irish history to highlight Irish oppression or mock hypocrisy with (b) literal chattel slavery in the Americas. In other words, when some people who are perhaps not familiar with the issues read about an “Irish slaves” myth they miss the use of quotes and immediately assume that the broad and longstanding history of Irish subjugation is being diminished in some way or called into question. It is for that reason that I usually refer to it as the “Irish slaves” meme. This narrows down the subject matter with regards to the time period, location, historical accuracy and contemporary application of this disinformation. It also underlines its dubious, misleading and dangerous usage in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and also separates it from the legitimate discussions about the full spectrum of bonded labour in the colonial plantation complex as well as the broad and morally motivated use of the term “slavery” to attract attention to past and present-day situations involving forced labour and exploitation.
O’Dowd is surely aware of the issues at play yet decides instead to muddy the waters. He writes that “we cannot allow…politically correct thinking to ignore and deny that any Irish were ever slaves.” Historically there were Irish slaves. Any argument to the contrary is ridiculous and I’m not aware of anyone who is making it. Slavery was a socio-economic reality in Early Medieval Ireland. The most famous example of this is the story of the patron saint of Ireland. In the 5th century the historical St. Patrick was captured in a slave raid on the Cumbrian coast and enslaved in Ireland for six years before he managed to escape. The Old Irish word ‘cumal’ means a female slave and the sense of this word later broadened to denote a unit of value i.e. the value of land was calculated in numbers of slaves. Enslaved Irish were brought by some of the first Viking settlers in Iceland in the 9th century. Slavery died out in Ireland after the Anglo-Norman invasion (replaced with feudalism) and was not extant in Ireland by the end of 12th century. Irish sailors were also among the thousands captured and enslaved by Barbary corsairs in the Early Modern Period. Thousands of Irish people were also forced to labour as indentured servants in the Anglo-Caribbean in the mid-17th century after the imposition of punitive poor law transportation policies by the Cromwellian regime from 1653–1657.
Postscript: How Irish Central whitewashed the history of Irish slave-ownership in Jamaica
An article entitled “Irish roots in the Caribbean” published by Irish Central in April 2015 used the same disinformation about “Irish slaves” to whitewash the history of Irish slave-ownership in Jamaica from the late 1600s to the 1830s. The ahistorical content of the article draws on a bogus blog on the Scientific American website that in turn used the Global Research “irish slaves” article or derivatives as its source. Since our open letter was published Scientific American was revised this article and removed the unqualified source, yet the Irish Central article which depends on it remains exactly the same. Thus when people click on the link which purportedly backs up their argument they will find a completely different and contradictory result. This would be humorous were it not so serious.
They are not alone in this tendency to whitewash Irish participation in the brutality of chattel slavery in Jamaica. Irish business tycoon Denis O’Brien likewise ignored how many Irish people benefited from chattel slavery in Jamaica. During his Commencement Speech at UWI, Mona Campus on 30 October 2015 he stated that
“From the day I walked through Kingston airport back in 2000, little did I know that I would find a home away from home. Places like Irish Town and Dublin Castle in the cool hills of St. Andrew — Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine.
I have travelled Leinster Road, Leitrim Road, Sackville Road all in Kingston and St. Andrew. If I close my eyes I hear melodic accents similar to what I find back home. Luck played a role in all our lives and it was luck that in 1655 — Admiral Penn and General Venables failed miserably at taking Santa Domingo in Hispanola and, not wanting to return empty handed, proceeded to turn their attention to Jamaica where the Spanish settlers could only put up token resistance.
Along the way, these Spanish settlers freed many African slaves who took to the hills and became “Maroons”. The English quickly captured Spanish Town but they lacked workers to exploit their conquest. Records show that the vast majority of the first wave was made up of young Irish men and women — bonded slaves. Or trouble makers from Ireland vanquished by Oliver Cromwell. These people created the unique bond between Jamaica and Ireland that exists to this day. I believe these early bonded slaves from Ireland created the DNA that ultimately made us as a foreign direct investor coming from Ireland so welcome.”
O’Brien thus purposefully elided the history of Irish slave-owners, planters and overseers that settled in Jamaica over the course of 180 years while claiming that Irish people were forcibly indentured by Cromwell in Jamaica in the 1650s. Corporate cherry picking par excellence.
A quick note on this false claim. Henry Cromwell (then Major General of the Parliamentarian army in Ireland) made the suggestion, not his father Oliver. It also did not seek to convert Irish children and adolescents into chattel slaves but to use them in the conquest and planting of Jamaica as apprentices, bond servants and wives. It was seriously discussed by Cromwell and Secretary Thurloe over a prolonged period and the plan was for 1000 boys and 1000 girls, aged between 12 and 14, to be sent to Jamaica from Kinsale and Galway. Cromwell admitted to Secretary Thurloe that force would have to be used capture the 1000 girls, but that it was “for their own good.” In the absence of any further evidence, however, historians are certain that this scheme did not proceed. Dr Karst de Jong argued this case convincingly in his unpublished MA thesis on the Irish in Jamaica.
So, how do we know that Irish people and people of Irish descent were slave-owners in Jamaica?
When chattel slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, the following Irish surnames were present in the long list of compensated slave-owners.
Barry, Bourke, Boyle, Brady, Brennan, Broderick, Buckley, Burke, Byrne, Carey, Carroll, Codd, Coleman, Collins, Conway, Corbett, Costello, Cowan, Creighton, Crowley, Cuming, Cummings, Cummins, Curran, Dalton, Daly, Delaney, Devaney, Devoy, Dillon, Doran, Downes, Doyle, Duggan, Dunn, Dunphy, Egan, Farrell, Fennell, Fenton, Fergus, Finn, Fitzgerald, Fitzhenry, Fogarty, Foley, Garvey, Gaynor, Geary, Geoghegan, Gildea, Gill, Gilmore, Grace, Guerin, Hackett, Hayes, Hennessy, Hoare, Hynes, Kearney, Kelly, Kennedy, Kenyon, Kirby, Lalor, Larkin, Lynch, Madden, Magee, Maguire, Mahon, Mahoney, Mahony, McCarthy, McDermott, McDonnell, McGrath, McInerney, McKenna, McNaughton, Murphy, Nolan, Nugent, O’Brien, O’Connor, O’Hagan, O’Leary, O’Neill, Phelan, Prendergast, Roche, Ryan, Sheridan, Sullivan, Tierney, Tyrrell, and Walsh.
Some overlap there with Scottish genealogies, but you get the picture. Jamaica was one of the most lucrative colonies for Irish planters in the Anglo-Caribbean in the 18th and early 19th century.