You Best Not Miss.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians, History Ireland magazine and the legitimisation of ahistorical propaganda
“Few realize that for 100 years after the post-Cromwell restoration of the Crown…there were more Irish sold as slaves than Africans.”
Mike McCormack, the national historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, The National Hibernian Digest, 3 October 2010.
When one opens the pages of the reputable History Ireland magazine it’s naturally assumed that the topics being discussed or debated are based on history, that is to say, writing which is derived from an analysis or interpretation of primary sources and thus have a grounding in an historic reality. It was therefore a surprise to browse the September/October issue of the magazine and encounter an article-length letter to the editor by Mike McCormack, the national historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which contained a series of basic historical errors, infamous myths, fraudulent historical claims and a reductionist fallacy which equated indentured servitude with racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery. Readers unfamiliar with the pseudo-historical narrative about “Irish slaves” promoted by the leadership of the AOH since 2010 would be forgiven for believing that these claims warranted further discussion and propagation in print. The fact that they were accommodated in the letters page means that these assertions were now bestowed a comparable weight with actual historical research and thus worthy of further “debate”.
Black Lives Matter
This AOH historian’s letter also attempted to delegitimise the Black Lives Matter movement by whitewashing (a) the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black people by the police and (b) the lack of accountability for same, by stating that BLM are merely protesting “a minuscule number of questionable cases and ignoring the number of black policemen assassinated by black perpetrators…” The question has to be asked, what place has such base political commentary in an Irish history magazine? More galling still, History Ireland readers had to endure this misdirection twice as this same quote served as the caption to a photo of Black Lives Matter activists on the next page. One can but wonder if History Ireland would even consider publishing a similar photo of e.g. a Civil Rights march in Derry and caption it using a similarly mocking quotation about a “minuscule number” of killings just because they received a letter labelling it as such? Additionally we must query if any the 38 chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement were offered the right of reply before publication? If not, why not? After all this was not some random comment on a Facebook page, this appeared in print in a national history magazine.
Defamation of character
It is also assumed that when one reads a magazine — whose editorial board consists of professional historians— that the defamation of the character of an Irish scholar would not sully its pages. I was thus stunned to find that this AOH historian was granted the space to smear my credibility, professionalism and motivation in a textbook ad hominem attack that has no place in a magazine of this nature or stature. The decision to print this smear took liberties with the trust that all historians and researchers place in the editor, i.e. that we would never be subjected to belittling personal insults in the pages of History Ireland.
“Fake history and alternative facts”
While I’m satisfied that History Ireland have publicly apologised to me for this lapse in their editorial standards I do note that there is no apology forthcoming for their readers for being subjected to a letter that contained so much “fake history and alternative facts”, which was ironically the title of the same issue’s editorial. That the letter made it all the way to print in Ireland’s only history magazine suggests that the ahistorical rot imbued by Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados (2000) runs deep in some sections of the academy. When I eventually get around to writing a book about all of this, it will include an entire chapter dedicated to tracing all the monographs, journal articles, newspaper columns and dissertations that have uncritically leaned on that discredited work, rather than the primary sources, to buttress their arguments. For instance History Ireland themselves published an article about the Cromwellian transportations in the July/August 2008 issue authored by the current head of the history department of Trinity College Dublin, Prof Micheál Ó Siochrú. To its detriment this article included a number of ahistorical assertions which Ó Siochrú had lifted directly from Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados. See note 1 at the end of this article for more detail.*
So in the spirit of public service, but especially for those History Ireland readers in possession of the September/October edition, I’ll now break down exactly why this letter from the AOH historian was of no value to a reader who is interested in Irish history or the history of the Irish diaspora.
1. A Fake “Redleg” quote gleaned from Yahoo Answers
The AOH historian claims that a member of the so-called “redleg” community in St. Kitts spoke to an interviewer and inquired why people in the United States did not learn about “Irish slavery”. He writes
One old man said, ‘When I was a boy in St Kitts, we learned about Irish slavery, why doesn’t [sic] Americans?’
Firstly, the redlegs or “poor whites” are a unique community in Barbados, not St. Kitts, and if you wish to learn more about this community I would strongly recommend Dr Matt Reilly’s PhD dissertation.
Secondly, what is the source for this quote? It is described as if it was transcribed from an interview, either audio or video, so why then does McCormack include a [sic] as if there was a misspelling? It turns out that this quote is not from an “old man” in St. Kitts, it was instead apparently taken from the title of a post on Yahoo Answers in 2012.
As you can see the author of the Yahoo Answers post wrote “doesnt” (rather than “don’t”) and also forgot to include the apostrophe, but thankfully this AOH historian was there to put things right for History Ireland subscribers.
2. The Forced Breeding Myth
This AOH historian takes his cue from the lurid fabrications found in O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados when he describes
“…documents of parentage saved from the archives of the Montserrat Library during the June 1977 volcanic eruption that destroyed much of the island. These documents read like animal pedigree papers, showing the pairing of young Irish girls with Mandingo warriors to breed a better slave, more capable of working in the burning sun.”
O’Callaghan’s forced breeding myth was based in Barbados, not Montserrat. The volcanic eruption in Montserrat occurred in 1997 and not 1977. The inference (in this non-existent source) that African people were genetically suited for enslavement, and that the Irish were not, is racist. It echoes the biological determinism of the Mississippi secession statement of 1861 which defended racialised chattel slavery on these same grounds “by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear the tropical sun.” It’s thus quite remarkable to see this reproduced in a national history magazine without editorial comment in 2017.
This AOH historian’s use of the stereotypical term “Mandingo warriors” and belief in a forced breeding myth involving “young Irish girls” brings to mind the enslavers’ Mandingo theory or the “animalistic conceptualisation” of men of African descent. Marques P. Richeson has posited that
“At the core, this construction of the oversexed black male parlayed perfectly into notions of black bestiality and primitivism.”
This echoes the racially charged fears of the slave-owning and slave-trading Bishop of Charleston, one Patrick Neeson Lynch (of Co. Fermanagh) who wrote to Archbishop Hughes in 1862 protesting President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. His objections included fantasies of a “big black beast who had been a slave of African descent” raping white women.
To conclude, the AOH historian’s claim about forced breeding in Montserrat is fraudulent as the documents, which he claims to have read, don’t exist. This tale of a forced breeding program in Montserrat is fantasy, not history, and I’ve explored a variant of it in detail in part three of my series on the “Irish slaves” meme.
3. The Myth of Mass Irish Enslavement in Montserrat
McCormack’s distortion of the history of seventeenth century Montserrat does not end with forced breeding myths. He also writes that
“At one time Montserrat was near 70% Irish slaves…”
The root of this falsehood is the distortion of a sentence found in a Robert E. West article in the American Irish Newsletter (1995). This Political Education Committee (PEC) newsletter was published by the American Ireland Education Foundation. The relevant sentence is when West cited the historian Richard S. Dunn in stating that
“…as early as 1637, on Montserrat the Irish heavily outnumbered the English colonists, and 69 percent of Montserrat’s white inhabitants were Irish.”
While not clear on the dates, this is an accurate, evidence-based statement based on census records from the Leeward Islands that were returned in 1678.
So what goes wrong? Jump forward to 2003 and we find James F. Cavanaugh’s blog post entitled Irish slaves in the Caribbean. Mr. Cavanaugh, a “Clann Chief Herald”, fundamentally altered the meaning of the sentence above, changing the Irish from colonists to “slaves”.
“By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.”
All of the other rehashed “Irish slaves” blogs in circulation pull this piece of disinformation from Cavanaugh’s distortion and McCormack’s letter is no different. It’s quite humorous then that McCormack attempts to appeal to the authority of the historian Richard S. Dunn in support of his propaganda. What does Dunn have to say about the myth that 70% of the population of Montserrat were “Irish slaves”? The following quotes are from Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713.
“Most of the early colonists on Montserrat were Irish…”(35)
“As early as 1637, Gov. Anthony Briskett, an Irishman from Wexford, was trying to draw his fellow countrymen to Montserrat. They answered his call and soon heavily outnumbered the English colonists.” (122)
“In Montserrat [in 1678] the most important social fact was that 69 percent of the white inhabitants were Irish…despite this superiority in numbers the Irish in Montserrat were still second-class citizens. They were practically all subsistence farmers, and the few big planters on the island were mainly Englishmen.” (130)
Thomas Warner “encouraged” Irish and English Catholics in St. Kitts to settle in Montserrat in 1632. Natalie A. Zacek noted that when the Irish Catholic priest Father Andrew White visited Montserrat in 1634 he remarked that it contained “a noble plantation of Irish Catholiques.” In 1666 it was reported that Montserrat was “chiefly inhabited by Irish, and some English” while in 1667 Lord Willoughby described Montserrat as “almost an Irish colony”. The Irish in Montserrat were governors, planters, labourers, indentured servants, not slaves. Unlike Barbados, many of these Irish servants would have been bound to Irish masters. In 1690 Lieutenant-General Codrington observed that “the Irish [Catholics] in Montserrat enjoy their estates as freely and happily as the English.” By 1729 two-thirds of the white population in Montserrat were Irish, which is virtually an unchanged ratio compared to 1667. Nini Rodgers reports that “124 households with recognisable Irish names possessed slaves” with a further 17 not owning slaves. Rodgers briefly explains this transition
In 1678 the majority of these Irish people may have been servants, bonded and free, but by 1729 they had disappeared either by dying, emigrating elsewhere or becoming smallholders. Some of these obviously lived not by farming but by renting out their slaves. Garret Fahy had sixteen slaves, four horses and one cultivated acre. Anthony Bodkin, described as a planter, had thirteen slaves and no land at all. John Conner, labourer, had two slaves, a man and a woman. By the first decade of the eighteenth century, Montserrat’s slave population stood at 3,570: by 1729 it was up to 6,063, and as of 1775 had climbed to 9,834 (Sheridan 1974:182). The ‘almost Irish colony’ had thus achieved a Caribbean demographic norm.
The migration of Irish to Montserrat continued and in 1734 it was asserted that “there is one parish almost wholly Irish Roman Catholicks, as indeed is the better half of the inhabitants in all the Island” and by 1778 it was claimed by the author of The Present State of the West-Indies that “the first settlers were Irishmen, and the present inhabitants are principally composed either of their descendants or of natives of Ireland, so that the use of the Irish language is preserved in this island, even among the Negroes.” As James H. Stark noted in 1893 “it is not surprising therefore that the descendants of the slaves that belonged to the Irish settlers all have Irish names…” Thus if you refer to “Irish slaves” in Montserrat and do not take care to delineate indentured servitude from chattel slavery, you are co-opting and erasing the experience of people of African descent enslaved by Irish people.
4. The Myth of 25,000 “Irish slaves” sent to St. Kitts
The modern origin of this myth is Maurice Lenihan’s History of Limerick (1866) which on page 668 claims that “twenty-five thousand Irishmen, sold as slaves in Saint Kitt’s and the adjoining islands, petitioned for a priest.”
Firstly, when placed in historical context these numbers make little sense. While there was sporadic cases of forced transportation to the West Indies prior to this date, the infamous Cromwellian transportation policy that forcibly shipped several thousand Irish people into indentured servitude in the Anglo-Caribbean (and some to Virginia and Massachusetts) did not begin until 1653. It lasted until March 1657 wherein it was abandoned by the regime due to ongoing abuses by merchants who were deceiving and even kidnapping people ineligible for transportation, i.e. they weren’t Tories, priests and they could support themselves. Prendergast in The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland (1868, p. 246) has claimed, albeit without any supporting citation, that 6,400 Irish people in total were shipped to the Americas in this time period. So if we take this figure as being realistic (and it is) that’s around 7,000 people transported from Ireland to the West Indies in the mid-seventeenth century and all of which occurred post 1650 which makes a nonsense of Lenihan’s assertion.
Secondly, Lenihan is misreading his sources. He conflates Father Matthew O’Hartegan and Father John Stritch as if they were the same person. They were two different priests. Father Hartegan answered a petition of French and Irish Catholics in St. Christopher in 1643 not 1650 and the majority of these Irish would been voluntary migrants, not forced exiles. Matteo Binasco’s article The Activity of Irish Priests in the West Indies: 1638–1669 discusses the exaggeration of these numbers in contemporary sources.
As the French missionaries overstated the number of natives, so the Irish priests exaggerated the number of Irish Catholics in the West Indies in order to draw attention and financial support. The 20,000 Irish people that O’Hartegan reported living on St. Christopher was an exaggeration, considering that this number was six times the estimate of the total Leeward population [Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Anguilla, &c.]
What’s more the total male population in St. Kitts in 1678 was 676, of which just 176 were Irish (Zacek, 48–50) while the total population of the entire island was 1,898 thus we can deduce that a couple of hundred were Irish. It must be kept in mind that the population of this colony reduced due to an exodus in reaction to the 1666–7 war between the French and the English, but 25,000 “Irish slaves” in 1650? Not supported by the evidence.
5. The Mythical “Proclamation of 1625”
This AOH historian’s commitment to weaving a fable and then trying to pass it off as history involves the following convoluted paragraph.
Luminaries such as Aubrey Gwynn…Richard Dunne [sic] as well as more than 50 bibliographic references in Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados all verify the findings in Thurloe’s State Papers of 1742 that King James I sold thousands of Irish as slaves to the New World. His proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners to be sold to English settlers in the West Indies.
This passage may distract some readers into thinking that the author of this letter has carried out diligent research into the topic at hand. The opposite is true. This is an exercise in copy-and-paste from a couple of different websites and thus a pretence of expertise. Let’s break it down.
(A) Aubrey Gwynn makes it abundantly clear that the bonded Irish (whether voluntary or involuntary) in the West Indies were indentured servants, not slaves. His 1930 article in Studies is even entitled Indentured Servants and Negro Slaves in Barbados (1642–1650).
(B) Richard S. Dunn delineates the differences between indentured servitude and chattel slavery in all of his work.
(C) Sean O’Callaghan’s book contains many errors, falsehoods, fabrications and misuse of sources, but it does not refer to this specific piece of propaganda.
(D) Thurloe’s State Papers do not date to 1742. This is when they were collected, edited and published. John Thurloe was Cromwell’s Secretary of State and spymaster. His papers run from 1638 to 1660. They contain no reference to a 1625 proclamation.
(E) These misrepresentations aside the fundamental problem with this paragraph is that the “Proclamation of 1625” which supposedly stated that “Irish political prisoners” were to be sold as servants to English colonists in the West Indies, does not exist.
(F) It is for this reason that his three named sources (Dunn, Gwynn and O’Callaghan) do not refer to it, despite the AOH assurance that they actually verify it.
We can thus conclude that this AOH historian has not read any of the secondary sources that he uses to support his arguments.
6. The Myth of the Execution of “Irish slaves” in Barbados in 1657
The AOH historian tells History Ireland readers that
One document noted that in October 1657, 6 Irish slaves were among a group of 20 captured after running away and were put to death by a British Court which wouldn’t surprise anyone, except that it happened in Bridgetown, Barbados.
There is no historical evidence to support such a tale. McCormack has taken this narrative from Jack Holland’s Irish Echo review of Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados (2000). The central problem here is the fact that Sean O’Callaghan invented a narrative whereby six Irishmen were among a group of twenty runaways who were burnt to death in Barbados in 1657. Without any evidence to support it, this narrative is fiction. Here is the relevant passage in To Hell or Barbados
As there is no evidence to support it, we can safely say that this “engagement” never happened. O’Callaghan’s concocted tale is based on (a) a distortion of some details about the 1685–86 and 1692 slave conspiracies in Barbados and (b) the appropriation of the torture and execution of enslaved Africans in the Anglo-Caribbean, which I’ve discussed at length in part four of my series.
The 1692 slave conspiracy involved plans by the enslaved to recruit “four or five Irish men”, it’s unknown whether they were servants of freemen, to enter the main fort and get the matrosses drunk and then open the doors for them. This echoed the alleged 1685–86 slave conspiracy where the planters worried that a “rising designed by the Negroes…[in] combination with the Irish servants … to destroy all masters and mistresses” — Irish servants were questioned they were released due to the lack of evidence (Handler, 1982). We can reasonably assume based on the lack of punishments meted out that this was more a projection of the planter’s fears than any actual collaboration. That the enslaved considered recruiting Irishmen as potential co-conspirators in 1692 suggests that they were well aware of these same ongoing colonial antagonisms. But these plans were never realised. The plantocracy punished the slaves named as conspirators by applying extreme levels of violence. Many were hung, others were burned alive. Seven were hung in chains alive so as to starve them to death. Forty-two were castrated of which four died of their wounds. All of this butchery was legal and the owners of these slaves were compensated by the council. To be clear, none of those executed or tortured were Irish or servants. All were African and enslaved.
The exact description of the torture of enslaved Africans that Sean O’Callaghan co-opted in this passage in To Hell or Barbados actually comes from the work of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane documented in great detail how enslaved Africans were brutally tortured in Jamaica in the 1680s and it is obvious that this is the source for O’Callaghan’s embellishment.
“The punishments for crimes of slaves, are usually for rebellions burning them, by nailing them down with the ground on crooked sticks on every limb, and then applying the fire by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their pains are extravagant. For crimes of a lesser nature Gelding, or chopping off half of the foot with an ax.”
The depressing aspect about these myths is that there is a real and valuable history of Irish resistance to the situation they were forced into in Barbados and Bermuda in the mid-seventeenth century. The more nuanced picture is being displaced by propaganda.
Handler and Reilly surmise that
“Scholars agree that Barbados received most of the many thousands of servants of all nationalities who went to England’s New World colonies during most of the seventeenth century, but the actual number is unknown. Moreover, there are no figures or authoritative estimates in the primary sources on the numbers (both voluntary and involuntary) who came to the island during this period. Although the size of Barbados’s Irish population is also unknown, there is scholarly agreement that Irish nationals comprised the island’s largest group of servants.
Most of the Irish were Catholic and from the laboring class. They suffered particularly harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of English masters and colonial authorities who perceived them to be rebellious and undesirable even though their labor and service in the island’s militia was needed. The friction between the Irish and English in Barbados was fuelled by tensions that had begun many years earlier in Ireland, and were surely exacerbated by labor conditions in Barbados, the treatment that indentured servants experienced, and their reactions to this treatment. These reactions included occasional violence against individual English masters, absenteeism and escapes from the island, as well as joining with slaves in several revolt plots and other forms of collective resistance.”
Irish resistance to this exploitation is scattered among the colonial records. See the report made to the Barbados Council in 1655 which warned of “..severall Irish servants and negroes [slaves] out in rebellion in ye Thicketts.” In response the Council raised a militia to “follow the said servants and runaway Negroes” and “suppress or destroy them.” To complicate this history further, Nini Rodgers reminds us this same militia undoubtedly “contained Irish freemen and servants.” Indeed by 1667 around half of the colony’s militia were Irish.
A law was passed in Barbados in 1657 (repealed three years later) that only applied to the Irish. It declared that those of the “Irish nation, freemen, and women and servants…who wander up and down from Plantation to Plantation as vagabonds refusing to Labour [are to be] whipt according to the Law.” It is interesting that this law also applied to the free Irish on the island which suggests that the resistance was not solely related to exploitative labour practices but possibly a wider resentment about the Cromwellian conquest of their homelands and the discrimination they faced in Barbados. It also illustrates how the English plantocracy in Barbados distrusted the Irish Catholic population on the island as a whole and did not hesitate in applying collective punishment measures.
While the planters in Barbados were rightly fearful about Irish servants and freemen organising and allying themselves with enslaved Africans, this rarely happened. The available evidence points to occasional incidents of collaboration for mutual benefit, like the aforementioned case of marronage, but not common revolt on any scale. Prof Hilary Beckles, scholar of white indentured servitude and black slavery in Barbados, concluded that
“Fear outran fact in this regard: no certain evidence exists that servants or freemen ever attempted to participate in [a] violent uprising of slaves. The reality was that the poor whites benefited, though marginally, from black slavery…”
Rodgers concurs with Beckles and she likewise concluded that
“In the last resort, the Irish did not make common cause with the slaves. They were white and wished to exercise the advantage it conferred upon them.”
Thus the Catholic Irish in the seventeenth century Anglo-Caribbean were much more likely to combine in an organised manner with their co-religionists, i.e. the French and the Spanish. There are a number of examples of this in various islands where the Irish actively fought with the “invading” Catholic forces. A notable case is that of St. Kitts in 1666 when the Irish forces in the English ranks opened fire on their own side to aid the French advance. Frances Sampson wrote to his brother how
“…the Irish in the rear, (always a bloody and perfidious people to the English Protestant interest) fired volleys into the front and killed more than the enemy of our own forces.”
It’s also likely that St Kitts was used as a base by the French to organise and land a party of Irish on English Anguilla in 1688. In describing this event Oldmixon underlines how the English classified the Gaelic Irish.
“…the Wild Irish, we call them so, to distinguish them from the English in Ireland [invaded Anguilla] in the last war…” — British Empire in America, vol. II, 1708
Some Irish people (likely military prisoners, tories and vagrants) forcibly transported in the 1650s were also sold as servants in Bermuda and the mutual distrust and hostility between Irish servants and English authorities in Barbados was also present. In a mirror image of a similar order in Barbados in the same year, in 1657 the Bermudian court warned the masters of Irish servants “to take care that the straggle not night nor daie, as is too common with them.” The court also ordered that no colonist in Bermuda was to “buy or purchase any more of the Irish nation whatsoever.” A similar anxiety about Irish servants joining forces with enslaved Africans was also evident as in 1661 the governor of the colony announced that he had been informed of a “dangerous plott or combination by the Irish and Negroes.” He added:
“If the said Irish cannot have their ffreedom their intentions are…to cutt the throats of our Englishmen.”
Yet there are no records of any trials or arrests. Pertinently we find in Governor William Sayle’s proclamation about this supposed plot an explicit reference to the 1641 massacre in Ireland. To explore the tensions in the Anglo-Caribbean it’s important to be aware of the antagonisms, psychologies and scars of the home nations.
7. The Myth that Goodwife Glover, who was executed for witchcraft in Boston in 1688, was an “Irish slave”
This myth is old and its repetition by this AOH historian in the pages of Ireland’s only history magazine underlines the need to contextualise it. It is but the latest in a long list of secondary sources that reproduce the following erroneous claims;
(A) That Goodwife Glover had been shipped to Barbados from Ireland during the Cromwellian period as a “slave”
(B) That her husband was also enslaved in Barbados and that he was murdered by Puritans for refusing to renounce his Catholicism.
There is even a commemorative plaque in Boston recounting this narrative.
Unfortunately the apparent certainty around this aspect of the narrative is entirely based on a pseudo-historical article that appeared in The Ave Maria magazine in 1905. After researching this in depth over the last year, I can conclude that Harold Dijon, the author of the Ave Maria piece and a former editor of Catholic World magazine, simply invented a series of supporting quotations in an effort to transform Goodwife Glover into the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts. I’m currently drafting Part 7 of my series wherein I’m tracing the development of this pseudo-historical narrative in detail, secondary source by secondary source, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. To cut the historiographical genealogy of this myth short, pre-1905 there is no certainty in the secondary sources with regard to Glover’s origins and no primary sources make any link between her case and Barbados or slavery. There is no evidence to suggest that she was an indentured servant in Barbados prior to living in Massachusetts. It’s certainly a possibility, but that belongs in the realm of conjecture and not enshrined on a plaque as a history to commemorate. The story that her husband was murdered in Barbados on account of his religion is a transparent piece of ahistorical martyrology and the sole source for this claim appears to have been the active imagination of one Harold Dijon.
8. The historical negation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
By far the most historically objectionable aspect of the publication of the AOH historian’s letter in History Ireland magazine is that it blatantly engaged in the historical negation of both the scale of the transatlantic slave trade and the socio-legal reality of the system of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean. The AOH historian writes in his conclusion that
“…the true number of how many Irish and Blacks actually endured the brutality of bondage will never be known…”
What the AOH historian is doing distorts, obscures and does great damage to the historical record pertaining to racialised chattel slavery and indentured servitude. We know, as a matter of historical certainty, that approximately 12,500,000+ African people were shipped to the Americas and sold into lifelong, hereditary slavery. We know that there is no evidence (bar one case which I uncovered in 2015) that any Irish or English or Scottish person was ever shipped to the Americas and sold into lifelong and heritable bondage. The historical difference, that this AOH false equivalence obscures, is between 12,500,000 and 0.
Yet as the opening quote to this article shows, the AOH historian has in the past gone much further that equating the largest forced migration in world history with a decade of Irish servitude in Anglo-American colonies. In 2010 he grossly misinformed AOH members in their official publication when he claimed that
“…for 100 years after the post-Cromwell restoration of the Crown…there were more Irish sold as slaves than Africans.”
The Restoration occurred in 1660. So the AOH claim is that from 1660 to 1760 “more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans.” The estimated number of Africans enslaved by Europeans in their colonies from 1660–1760 is 5 million. The estimated number of Irish enslaved by Europeans in their colonies from 1660–1760 is zero. The AOH motivation here is to hyperinflate Irish victimhood but by doing so they have engaged in the historical negation of the impact, scale, reality and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. That this propaganda is not perceived as being as toxic as the false immoral equivalencies associated with soft Holocaust denial shows how proximate this intentional vaguery is to the mainstream discourse.
The AOH historian then goes on the proclaim that “slavery is slavery” which is one of the most common reductionist fallacies used to by those who attempt to draw a false equivalence between racialized chattel slavery and indentured servitude. The reason this reductionist fallacy should be strongly resisted by historians is because racialised chattel slavery in the Americas was arguably unique in world history. This is spelled out in no uncertain terms by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles of the University of West Indies in Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide (2013), page 18–19.
The political position of the British government, then, is that all other European governments were involved in slavery, and this made it an international standard which was not considered criminal. The racism of Europe, therefore, that enabled the British (the English and Scots principally) to practice chattel slavery by targeting blacks as the only racial group for lifelong property status has, in turn, become the legal basis of a political position held by the current British state.
None of this, however, stands up to historical, legal or moral scrutiny. It is not a serious legal argument that there was no crime in enslaving blacks since all white people were doing it, and it was a common enough activity for European colonisers. Neither can it be sustained that the African governments were doing it to their subjects, since this is not historically accurate. African states did not define their subordinate workers, political prisoners and others subject to criminal punishment as legal non-humans, perpetual property and reproductive chattels.
In much the same that the English state facilitated the growth of a colonial labour market in white indentured servants — convicts, political prisoners, vagrants, petty criminals and so forth — the African political process generated subordinate, alienated labour. The English did not allow for the chattel, lifelong enslavement of white servants, whose humanity was recognised in legal and moral codes. Neither did African states propose, practise or permit the legal classification of blacks in the slave trade as legal non-humans no different in law from other forms of property.
The early modern world witnessed various forms of slavery and servitude as systems of labour, but neither in Europe nor in Africa did this subservience involve the branding of persons as chattel. This developed in the Caribbean as a special and specific European practice that targeted Africans. No other racial or ethnic group that entered the English colonial Caribbean received this legal classification. This invented brand of property was developed by the Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth century and perfected by the English in the seventeenth century. It was a moral and legal break from any African or European tradition of labour. It constituted, furthermore, the most dehumanising, violent, socially regressive form of human exploitation known to humankind.”
The general public should be educated about this history so that they will be capable of identifying the refusal to differentiate as being a form of transatlantic slave trade and racialised slavery denialism.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the cover of this issue of History Ireland features the Irish revolutionary leader Theobald Wolfe Tone. A contemporary of the absolute peak of the transatlantic slave trade, Tone made reference to this crime against humanity on a couple of occasions in his writing.** Yet rather than express his solidarity with its victims or voice opposition to the slave trade, Tone used enslaved Africans as props to highlight British hypocrisy or to embellish his own situation.
Shocked at the lack of space and comfort on board his ship to the United States in 1795, he wrote
“…the slaves who are carried from the coast of Africa have much more room allowed them than the miserable emigrants who pass from Ireland to America.”
Yet Tone also records that he was accompanied by his wife, children and sister, and while the ship was overcrowded due to the “avarice of the captains”, they spent time drinking wine with other passengers and watching the marine life. He notes that one person died en route and none of his party suffered from sea-sickness. Thus if you ignore the self-pitying comparison in the initial sentence — enslaved Africans were packed more densely than any other group crossing the Atlantic, and “between 12 and 13 percent of those embarked did not survive the voyage” — you end up with the transatlantic journey of a late-eighteenth century migrant experiencing less space than one of his social class was used to.
That being said, the spectrum of unfree labour in the late-eighteenth century Atlantic world is brought dramatically into view during this voyage when Tone narrates that he was almost impressed into the British navy when his ship was intercepted by three British frigates and boarded by officers. According to Tone they proceeded to impress most of the ship’s crew along with almost fifty of his “unfortunate fellow-passengers.” This was a notorious practice and the British Navy impressed many thousands of passengers and crew to fill their ranks — indeed the impressment of American crew members and citizens by the British navy was one of the causes of the American war of 1812.
It is thus tempting to pass Tone’s “more room” remark off as a case of hyperbole or a figure of speech, but Tone also favourably compared the lot of enslaved Africans to that of “Irish slaves” in his 1792 address to the Grand Jury of the City and County of Londonderry. Pointing out what he believed was a double standard in the British response to the political demands of Irish Catholics and those of slave trade abolitionists, he said
“the friends of Africans meet the applause of all mankind; the friends of the more miserable Irish slaves have drawn down upon themselves the heavy censure and anathema of the Grand Jury…”
Thus, according to Tone, not only did enslaved Africans travel in better conditions across the Middle Passage than Irish emigrants, those who stayed behind in Ireland were also in a “more miserable” condition than chattel slaves due to political “slavery”.
Despite such comments we find the American historian David Brundage confidently claim in Irish Nationalists in America: The Politics of Exile, 1798–1998 that Wolfe Tone “strongly opposed the ownership and trade in human beings” while Prof Bill Rolston asserted in History Ireland that “the abolition of black slavery” was a cause “dear to [his heart]”.
The issue with both of these statements is that there is no evidence to support them. In all of Tone’s extant writings there exists no censure of the slave trade or race-based slavery in the European colonies. On the contrary, his hyperbole amounts to a deflection of the mass death and torture of the transatlantic slave trade by a contemporary observer during its peak years of operation.
This appears to be all the more remarkable in light of the fact that a number of the United Irishmen, and those associated with them (some of whom were Tone’s close friends) were anti-slavery activists or anti-slavery in their outlook, including Thomas Russell, Mary Ann McCracken, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas McCabe, William Drennan, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Samuel Nielson, Peter Byrne, James Napper Tandy, Andrew Bryson and Dr James McDonnell to name but a few.
It is difficult to argue against Rodgers’ conclusion in Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612–1865 that Tone was an example of a revolutionary who “took little interest in the plight of the Negro.” Prof Martyn Powell was perhaps too sweeping when he pointed out that the “1790s United Irish movement imagined a common cause with oppressed colonial peoples in struggle against Ascendancy plantation owners.” In Tone’s case this imagined commonality was not present. Tone’s vision of a liberated Ireland was singular and this meant that the African victims of the transatlantic slave trade only appear in his writing as rhetorical devices used to highlight the necessity of his political cause or temporal grievance. This stands in stark contrast to the revolutionary librarian Thomas Russell. In his perceptive article ‘We will have equality and liberty in Ireland’: The Contested Geographies of Irish Democratic Political Cultures in the 1790s David Featherstone highlighted how Russell drew similarities between the oppressed Irish and enslaved Africans not merely “to emphasise the plight of the Irish poor” but rather to use it “as part of a broader argument that England should be opposed, because of England’s wealth from and support for the slave trade.”
However, with regards to the broader United Irish movement Featherstone concluded that
“There was no homogeneous linkage between United Irishmen and anti-slavery politics. Russell had various arguments with the editors of the Northern Star in relation to slavery. Merchants like William Sinclair, a leading industrialist and linen producer and founder member of the UI, were benefiting directly from the provisioning of the West Indian plantations. Most strikingly, many of the United Irishmen who were exiled to the US in the wake of the 1798 rebellion became either proponents of slavery or active participants in it. As David Wilson has argued, accounts of the UI’s anti-slavery stance are seriously undermined by the unpalatable reality that “virtually every prominent United Irish exile who settled south of the Mason-Dixon line became a slaveholder men such as Harman Blennerhassett, who owned a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Territory and constantly fretted over the price of slaves.” The links of Belfast merchants to Atlantic trade noted by Rodgers suggest there were continuities in the different relations of UI figures to slavery and the slave trade.
These multiple and contested links between the UI, slavery, and anti-slavery warrant serious engagement with the different political opinions/identities within the UI. It would be attractive to mobilize Russell’s analysis of the geopolitics of slavery and the links between Equiano and the United Irishmen to support Kevin Whelan’s assessment that the United Irishmen offered an “exemplary form of cultural pluralism.” However, this would be to ignore important evidence that problematizes straightforward support by UI for anti-slavery politics. It would also marginalize the role of figures such as Equiano, McCracken, and Russell in intervening in the construction of the democratic political cultures of the UI. For these figures made significant interventions in linking anti-slavery positions to United Irish democratic cultures which are missed if an unproblematic anti-slavery position is assumed.
The debates over the relations between the UI and the politics of slavery emphasize some of the limited and contested notions of liberty and equality adopted by the UI. As David Wilson has argued of the United Irish exiles in America, not only “did their egalitarianism stop at the boundaries of white male society,” they also “refused to countenance class conflict within those boundaries,” being hostile to labor combinations.
In fact one commander of the United Irishmen who escaped from Ireland after the rebellion became a slave trader. Dr. R.R. Madden writes how James McGlaherty “who fought at Antrim, in what he considered the cause of liberty, proved a recreant to his principles. He escaped from Ireland — he ended his days on board a slave ship, on his way to the coast of Guinea.”
9. The misuse of an image from an 19th century anti-slavery novel of a “mulatto” slave being whipped in a bid to portray “Irish slavery”
While not included in the AOH historian’s defamatory letter to History Ireland, an earlier blog on the website of the New York State Board of the AOH in March 2017 (which was rehashed to form the bulk of the aforementioned letter) featured the following image which is purported to show “Irish slaves”
This meme is no. 13 on my list of debunked “Irish slaves” images wherein I explain that this illustration was appropriated from the 19th century anti-slavery novel The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive by Richard Hildreth. The protagonist being whipped is a ‘mulatto’ slave; in the novel his mother was enslaved and his father the enslaver. It has nothing to do with “Irish slavery.”
Below is an example of how this co-opted image is wielded on social media in support of the “Irish slaves” meme.
10. The author plagiarised a comment left beneath one of my articles in June 2016
He wrote this in March 2017 (and similar version of these sentences in the History Ireland letter)
“Don’t you think that if Irish slavery was a myth, more accredited professors with doctorates in history would be coming out and saying so instead of a few nondescript yellow journalists and bigots? They aren’t because they know you can’t change history.
Compare with the following comment.
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Prof Ó Siochrú published an article in History Ireland magazine in 2008 which included the following ahistorical assertions which he evidently drew from Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados.
(A) Prof Ó Siochrú: Irish military prisoners “were sold in perpetuity” in Barbados.
Sean O’Callaghan: “These prisoners were not sent as indentured servants, but were sold in perpetuity…”
Problem: No European servant was ever sold into lifetime service in the Anglo-Caribbean.
(B) Prof Ó Siochrú: “Most of the Irish indentured servants had been freed by 1680” and the professor also includes it in the timeline at the end of the article as “1680: Last of [Irish] indentured servants on Barbados freed.”
Sean O’Callaghan: “by the time the census of 1680 was taken, most of the white servants had become freemen and women.”
Problem: This contradicts the previous false claim while also falsely implying that Irish people who forcibly transported from Ireland in the 1650s were sold to planters in Barbados for terms of twenty five years or more. We know that those who survived, who had not already served out their time, were pardoned at the Restoration in 1660.
(C) Prof Ó Siochrú: “In 1655, runaway Irish and African slaves in Barbados began attacking local militia forces, killing plantation-owners and destroying crops.”
Problem: This is a summation of a narrative found in Sean O’Callaghan’s work which equates the status of Irish servants with enslaved Africans. Furthermore there is no evidence that Irish servants in Barbados ever attacked local militia forces, killed plantation-owners or destroyed crops in concert with African slaves. We do have evidence of an instance in Barbados in 1655 when some Irish servants and African slaves ran away together and refused to work.
(D) The article also creates its own myths
Prof Ó Siochrú: “The collapse of the Cromwellian regime and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 brought an end to large-scale transportations.”
Problem: The evidence informs us that the major Cromwellian transportations of the supposedly “idle and vagabond persons” from Ireland to the West Indies were initiated in 1653 and ended in March 1657 due to abuses by merchants. Their cessation had nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell being alive or dead.
The cancellation order (dated 4 March 1657) reads as follows
“…having received many complaints of the abuse of some orders granted to several persons to carry away idle and vagabond persons to the West Indies, who…employ persons to delude and deceive poor people by false pretences, either by getting them aboard the ships or in other by-places into their power, and forcing them away, the person so employed having so much a-piece for they so delude, and for the money’s sake have enticed and forced women from their husbands and children from their parents, who maintained them at school, and that they have not only dealt so with the Irish but also with the English [the Council now] do think fit and order that all Orders, granted to any person whatsoever (being now in force) to take up and carry idle and vagabond persons as aforesaid, be henceforth made null and void.”
(E) Prof Ó Siochrú: “…shipments of convicted Tories continued throughout the reign of Charles II.”
Sean O’Callaghan: “The traffic in Irish slaves continued during the entire reign of Charles II…Tories convicted by the court were still “barbadoed”.”
Problem: None of these apparent “shipments of convicted Tories” post-1660 are substantiated in O’Callaghan’s work. Charles II’s regime tried to manage attacks by Tories in Ireland through a pardon system, see The Proclamations of Ireland 1660–1820, Volume 1, Kelly and Lyons (ed.) and transportation as punishment for convicted Tories is not explicitly mentioned. That being said, an older ordnance from June 1657 (see below) includes Irish Tories in passing in its remit and one of the potential punishments listed is transportation to the “Plantations in America”. We need to find some evidence of transportation of Tories to America post-1660 for the claims above to hold any water, which is the inverse to how historical writing usually occurs.
“That then the said Justices are hereby authorized and required to commit him or them to the common Goal for the said County, Shire, or Sheriffdome, there to remain without Bail untill the next Quarter Sessions for the Peace, where they the Justices of Peace for the said respective Counties, Shires or Sheriffdomes, are hereby authorized and required, and impowred by Order of Court, to continue him or them in prison, or commit him or them to the House of Correction until such time as he or they shall procure such Security as beforesaid, or otherwise to Transport him or them to some of the Plantations in America, belonging to this Commonwealth, not to return for seven years without License from his Highness the Lord Protector or his Successors, under the penalty of Felony.”
In his memoirs Tone used a purported quote by Christopher Dillon Bellew which distanced Irish Catholics from enslaved Africans by stating that
“It is time for us to speak out like men. We will not, like African slaves, petition our task-masters.”
The inference was that enslaved Africans were politically emasculated and that they were incapable of challenging their oppression except through meek petitions to their enslaver via (potentially duplicitous) intermediaries. The Irish, in contrast, were to “speak out like men” and take control of their destiny with direct action. Tone’s dichotomy of Irish manhood and enslaved African emasculation is evident in Tone’s aforementioned 1792 address wherein he immediately followed his rhetoric about the “more miserable Irish slaves” by asking the Grand Jury to consider that
“…as men, you will admit it is allowed to the unhappy to complain; and, as politicians, that it is the privilege of the subject, when aggrieved, to petition. The Catholics of Ireland, degraded as they are, are still men, and what is more, they are subjects.”
This recalls Josiah Wedgwood’s famous anti-slavery medallion (1787) which rhetorically questioned “am I not a man and a brother?” In contrast Tone was asserting beyond question that (unlike enslaved Africans in the British colonies) Irish Catholics were both men and subjects of the realm and thus their oppression and suppression was all the more unjust.
What’s also interesting is that the quoted Bellew line “It is time for us to speak out like men. We will not, like African slaves, petition our task-masters” is a reordered and partly contradictory variant of the recorded comments made by Christopher Dillon Bellew at a meeting of the Catholic Convention on the 6 December 1792. We know this because it was Wolfe Tone himself who took notes at this meeting and they were published in the addenda in the Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone in 1826. Tone paraphrased Bellew’s comments about the Catholic petition as follows
“Objected disrespect to Government. Answers it is intended. African slaves would not petition their task masters. Time to speak out like men.”
It is remarkable how much Bellew’s original sentiment differed from Tone’s later dramatisation. There are two possible readings of this. In the first, Bellew was using the plight of enslaved Africans to make the point that that the oppressed do not engage in respectability politics with their direct oppressors if they wished to have any hope of success. In this context his hyperbole was used to support his view that the petition from the Catholic Convention should go directly to the King and bypass Dublin Castle (“the task masters”). But on another level was he implying that enslaved Africans had agency and did “speak out like men”, as evidenced by the ever present resistance to their exploitation? This was most impactfully illustrated at that time in Saint Domingue (the slave revolt began in August 1791) but also seen in the activism of Olaudah Equiano and the recent debates about the slave trade in the House of Commons.
The other reading of this is that Bellew was referring to African slaves petitioning their owner (The King) rather than their overseer (Dublin Castle) as purely a figure of speech and thus was not an expression of solidarity or commonality and it did not contain any anti-slavery sentiment whatsoever. Bellew was a paternalistic land owner, an adherent to the supremacy and legitimacy of the Crown’s rule over Ireland and his family’s ownership of slave plantations in Dominica means that this is likely the more accurate reading.
The following letter was circulated, signed and sent to the editor of History Ireland magazine prior to the publication of their public apology to me. Its signatories include arguably the two most distinguished historians of slavery and servitude in seventeenth century Barbados, Sir Hilary Beckles and Jerome Handler.
We the undersigned would like to challenge, in the strongest possible terms, the editorial judgment that led to the publication of the letter by Mike McCormack in History Ireland Sept/Oct 2017. Mr McCormack states that his letter was in response to an article ‘The Curse of Cromwell: revisiting the Irish slavery debate’ (Jul/Aug 2017) regarding the Irish experience in the colonial Caribbean. However, the publication of this particular letter was problematic for more than one reason.
First, McCormack does not focus on the aforementioned article, but instead on an unwarranted attack on historian and research librarian Liam Hogan, who was not the author. Second, McCormack’s evidence includes many historical inaccuracies, distortions and conceptual leaps that, even in a letters page, warranted fact-checking, as well as an editorial disclaimer and a full right of reply from Mr Hogan in the same issue. Many of these inaccuracies are so rudimentary that it would distract from the subject of this letter to outline them here. It is sufficient to say that, given the editorial topic for this issue of History Ireland was ‘Fake History and Alternative Facts’, it is astounding that such a letter would be published with no signs of editorial scrutiny of its contents.
Mr Hogan is well known as a respected historian who is rigorous in his research, not only into the Irish experience of the colonial Caribbean, but also into its contemporary misuse by elements of what are known as the ‘alt-right’ in the US. His work has been especially influential in revealing how the misappropriation of the (unquestionably horrendous) experiences of the Irish indentured servant has been used to underline a racist, white supremacist agenda. This conflation of indentured servitude with chattel slavery has been used to denigrate the Black American experience and minimise the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. It is well known as a white nationalist trope, and needs no reproduction here (but please see a co-written article by Hogan, McAtackney & Reilly published in History Ireland in Mar/Apr 2016 on this subject: ‘The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: slaves or servants’). For his endeavours in revealing and critiquing this ‘fake history’, Hogan’s integrity has been called into question in this letter at two separate points.
First, Mr McCormack claimed, without offering supporting evidence, that Mr Hogan’s motivation in circulating his research ‘was trying to create an audience for his controversial book on white racism’. His integrity as a historian, as well as the credibility of his numerous co-authors, was also called into question through the comment: ‘Don’t you think that if Irish slavery were a myth more accredited professors with doctorates in history would be coming out and saying so instead of a few nondescript members of the liberal community and bigots?’ Mr Hogan published an article in History Ireland in Mar / Apr 2016 with two university-based researchers, both of whom have doctorates and many years experience working in the Caribbean. Publishing a comment that calls Mr Hogan’s reputation as a scholar into question, along with the reputations of those of us who support and collaborate with him, based purely on a presumption of political views McCormack finds uncomfortable, is not something we take lightly.
This is both from our perspectives as scholars who strive to meet high standards of academic and intellectual integrity, and as researchers who are increasingly aware of how ‘fake history’ can be used to support the kind of ‘fake news’ that fuels white supremacy and violent nationalism. This is why the letter, along with the editorial topic for the Sept/Oct issue, is such a dangerous combination. Mr Hogan’s work has been cited by many academic researchers working on topics relating to Irish histories of migrations and the diaspora, including many of the undersigned, and he is rightfully relied upon as an authoritative source; we all unreservedly support him and the integrity of his research.
We expect (1) a full apology will be provided to Mr Hogan (2) Mr McCormack’s letter be removed from the History Ireland website and future reprints (3) the editorial board will take seriously their responsibilities in preventing the propagation of ‘fake history’ through such a usually respectable outlet.
Dr Lauren Arrington, University of Liverpool
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of University of the West Indies
Dr Ciara Breathnach, University of Limerick
Dr. Margaret Brehony, NUI Galway and President of Society for Irish Latin American Studies
Dr K. Brisley Brennan, Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto
Dr Deirdre Bryan, University of Alaska Anchorage
Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, NUI Galway
Dr Liam Chambers, University of Limerick
Professor Linda Connolly, Maynooth University
Dr John J Cronin, Irish Association of Professional Historians
Professor Alison Donnell, University of East Anglia
Associate Professor, Aaron Eastley, Brigham Young University
Professor Bryan Fanning, University College Dublin
Dr Catherine Gander, Maynooth University
Dr Lisa Gosdon, National College Art & Design
Dr Sarah Greene, Research Archaeologist
Professor Jerome Handler, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
Dr Stephen Harrison, University of Glasgow
Trevor Joyce, Writer
Dr Catherine Lawless, Trinity College Dublin
Dr. Fergal Lenehan, Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena, Germany.
Professor Lee Jenkins, University College Cork
Dr Damian Mac Con Uladh, Historian
Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí , University College Cork
Dr Sarah May, University College London
Associate Professor Laura McAtackney, Aarhus University, Denmark
Dr Mary McAuliffe, University College Dublin
Professor Lucy McDiarmid, Marie Frazee — Baldassarre Chair, Montclair State University
Professor Maria McGarrity, Long Island University, Brooklyn
Dr Stephen Mullen, University of Glasgow
Professor Evelyn O’Callaghan, University of the West Indies
Dr Maureen O’Connor, University College Cork
Dr. Peter D. O’Neill, University of Georgia
Professor Aidan O’Sullivan, University College Dublin
Dr Stephanie Rains, Maynooth University
Dr Jennifer Redmond, Maynooth University
Dr Conor Reidy, Irish Association of Professional Historians
Assistant Professor Matthew Reilly, City College of New York
Associate Professor Krysta Ryzewski, Wayne State University
Gisele Scanlon, Trinity College Dublin
Assistant Professor Jessica Smyth, University College Dublin
Dr Clodagh Tait, Mary Immaculate College
Dr Gavan Titley, Maynooth University
Dr Fionnuala Walsh, University College Dublin
Dr Margaret Ward, historian and author
Associate Professor Graeme Warren, University College Dublin
Professor John Waters, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University