A primer on the ongoing proliferation of ahistorical “Irish slaves” articles and memes

Liam Hogan
Mar 18, 2016 · 7 min read

Whether one entered into it by force or by choice, an important distinction, indentured servitude in the mid 17th century Anglo-Caribbean was an system of unfree labour that facilitated the migration of Europeans across the Atlantic. It was a colonial innovation that had no direct equivalent in England, Scotland or Ireland. As the planter class controlled the councils and paid for the future labour of their servant years in advance (in contrast the voluntary servant had been paid in advance) this created a new exploitative dynamic with a built-in conflict of motivations between the two parties. Yet this was not a conflict of equals as one had power and the other had almost none. This new labour system thus commodified the servant to the extent that they were now a capital investment. Their labour, the “time” they owed, was now legal property and it could be traded as such. Planters sought to extract the maximum return from their investment by working their servants from the moment they arrived into their “care” to the moment the indenture expired. Many of the laws passed in the colonies with regard to the regulation of servants were focused on ensuring the servant was under strict control while bound.

Hence their rights were significantly limited. Anything that interrupted the delivery of this pre-paid labour was punished. Servants could not marry without permission, they could not get pregnant, and if they absented themselves without notice or ran away their indenture was extended. Servants could be beaten and whipped for not working fast enough. Eyewitnesses like Ligon and Biet attest that the life of many servants was a miserable one. Servants could complain to the courts about mistreatment (some did and won) but it’s likely that they would have more frequently ran away from their master for relief rather than risk incurring their wrath after a failed attempt to secure justice. In cases where a servant was being abused, and was captured after running away, sometimes, if they explained their situation before the courts, they were freed or avoided punishment. See this study of a sample of fugitive servant abuse cases in seventeenth century Maryland. I’m not aware of a similar study of these cases in Barbados, but it would be useful to compare the outcomes.

From “Corrected Above Measure”: Indentured Servants and Domestic Abuse in Maryland, 1650–1700 by Becky Showmaker

European servants made up the majority of the labour force on Barbados from the 1620s to the 1650s, after which planters increasingly turned to enslaved Africans to make their money. This racialised slave system was then continued on the island for the next two centuries. Barbados received circa 600,000 enslaved Africans yet only 83,000 remained at emancipation in 1834. That’s a 14% retention rate.

The core legal or customary distinctions between servitude (as reserved for Europeans) and slavery (as reserved for ‘Negroes’) were fundamentally different from the beginning, and they were by degrees deepened and extended over time on a colony by colony basis to ensure complete subjugation and control of the growing slave populace. Nevertheless, the living and working conditions for servants and slaves would have been similar at this point and the claim that European servants and African slaves were exploited for profit and suffered hardships is indisputable. Harlow concluded that the experience of indentured servants in Barbados was “persistently severe, occasionally dishonourable, and generally a disgrace to the English name.”

Furthermore thousands of Irish people (loosely categorised as PoWs, vagrants and the victims of illicit kidnapping and deceptions) were forced into servitude in Barbados and other Anglo-Caribbean colonies throughout the 1650s. Some Irish servants resisted, in various ways, the imposition of this harsh existence by running away, refusing to work or threatening their captors. A law was passed in Barbados in 1657 (repealed three years later) that only applied to Irish servants. It sought to restrict their movement by introducing a permit system. It seems that a number of Irish servants were visiting other plantations encouraging other servants to runaway and/or defy the planters, a familiar pattern we would come to expect from slave resistance across the Caribbean. As Handler (1982) put it “the hostility of Irish servants toward their masters was also manifest in the apparent involvement of some in later slave plots or alleged plots, as well as being reflected in various precautions that planters took against the possibility of revolt, both by servants and slaves.” Those that survived, and keep in mind that mortality rates were high for all groups, were pardoned by Charles II in 1660. Thus this history is important and needs to be remembered

The problem we have to contend with is that a whole series of spurious articles and memes are damaging this history through exaggeration, fabrication and racist intent. By inventing an “Irish slave” class they purposefully mislead the reader into believing that the colonial slave laws (or customs pre-1661), as reserved for ‘Negroes’, also applied to Irish and other European servants and that calling them “servants” is merely semantics. There is nothing semantical about delineating the differences between racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery and temporary indentured servitude by using different terms. Underscoring this is the fact that around 17,000 former servants voluntarily left Barbados (in search of better opportunities) between 1650 and 1666; a possibility a chattel slave could never have.

These articles and memes are also tactically centered on the plight of Irish Catholic servants (who indeed endured particular discrimination and marginalisation due to colonial antagonisms) when in fact it was people from England that made up the bulk of the bonded labour in the early Anglo-Caribbean colonies. They do so because they need to ahistorically equate the Irish experience with the African experience in the U.S. to justify their racist propaganda; this spuriously inserts a racial element into Irish indentured servitude which allows them to refer to how a once marginalised “white” group overcame their problems, “so why are black people complaining?” Hence the meme…(and yes, they’ve moved the goalposts from Barbados to the US without blinking)

These articles have also created an unbroken Irish slave trade timeline, ostensibly a fantasy, which runs from 1612 to 1839. This is to make it appear that there was a concurrent transatlantic slave trade of “Irish slaves” that historians have covered up because of “liberal bias”. Historically, several thousand Irish were forcibly sent to the Anglo-Caribbean in the 1650s and sold as servants. In contrast, the actual transatlantic slave trade lasted centuries, was the largest forced migration in world history, involving tens of millions of African people, and its poisonous legacy remains in the form of anti-black racism. Ergo this neo-Nazi propaganda is false equivalency on an outrageous scale. These racists have essentially dug up the bones of our ancestors and sharpened them into an anti-black derailment and slave trade minimisation tactic. I intend to challenge them at every turn.

So this is not a dispute about the dictionary definition of the word slavery. This about the mainstream media, museums, politicians, and celebrities unwittingly endorsing insidious conspiracy theories regarding slavery that are usually found on Stormfront. Inevitably such endorsements have consequences, not least, the evidence on social media of thousands of people using this distorted version of history, built on the reductionist “slavery is slavery” fallacy, to justify racism and oppression in the present. For example take a look at some of the comments that were left beneath an Irish Central post endorsing this propaganda on Facebook.

Related to this discourse is the inherent complexities involved in discussing or explaining slavery and indentured servitude in the seventeenth century colonial context. After all, slavery is a word that has broad application and meaning, whether as metaphor, rhetoric or to describe an actual system of slavery. Because the transatlantic slave trade had such an impact on world history, and such a lasting legacy for millions of people the word “slave” is now commonly understood, rightly or wrongly, to be shorthand for an enslaved African in the ‘New World’ colonies. Edmund S Morgan alluded to this when describing the plight of European servants in Colonial Virginia: “although the tobacco barons of the 1620s bought and sold and beat their servants in a manner that shocked other Englishmen they did not reduce them to slavery, as we understand the term.”

As we understand the term.

This is a key point and perhaps the root of the problem.

As Michael Guasco illustrated in “Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World” (2013), slavery was almost ubiquitous in many regions of the world in the Early Modern Period but that the creation of race-based plantation slavery “ultimately [reconfigured] the social meaning of slavery throughout the Atlantic world.”

So this is less about whether you consider penal labour or forced labour as being different forms of slavery and more about being specific. And this is also why the careless use of the term can feed political myths and misunderstandings.

Be specific.

Differentiate.

If you are adamant that an indentured servant was a “slave” in the exact same context as race-based slavery, then you need to qualify it. Something like a non-racialised non-hereditary non-perpetual slave who had legal personhood, limited rights and who predominantly entered into this theoretically temporary period of servitude willingly. Or you could refer to this unfree bonded labourer as a servant.

The choice is yours.

CLICK HERE

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