Liam Hogan, Irish historian and writer who works at the Limerick City Library, has been working feverishly over the past six years to debunk a pernicious falsehood that has been circulating social media – that the Irish were white slaves. He was interviewed by Pacific Standard magazine about his work, and you may read his comments here. Let us examine this harmful nonsense about how the ‘Irish-were-slaves too’, why it is a dangerous, and why we should exert efforts to combat it. In fact, let’s take the last part first.
If something is patent nonsense, then surely by just ignoring it, it will eventually disappear? Unfortunately, this is not possible in this case. Why? The Southern Poverty Law Centre provides the answer. In an article entitled ‘How the Myth of the “Irish slaves” became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online”, the author of the essay states that:
Propaganda is cheap to produce on the web. And a purposeful lie in an age of “viral content” not only can race around the world in a day but resurface time and time again with surprising resiliency.
The article continues:
Such is the case with the myth of “Irish slaves,” an ahistorical reimagining of real events weaponized by racists and conspiracy theorists before the Web and now reaching vast new audiences online.
It is not entirely surprising that this toxic myth of ‘Irish-were-slaves’ has attracted the support of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Holocaust deniers on the Internet. This claim of Irish-white-slavery has gained prominence since the emergence of anti-racist movements in the United States, such as Black Lives Matter. The purpose of this meme is not to unify, but to divide. This myth serves to derail current conversations about race, racism, ethnicity and slavery.
When African American organisations raise the issues of racism, police brutality, the legacy of slavery, current economic inequalities – there will be an army of online trolls who will divert the conversation into the blind-alley of ‘but the Irish were slaves too, and they got over it.’ You may see an example of such a claim here, in an article written by Liam Hogan. The statement is ‘when was the last time you heard an Irishman bitching about how the world owes them a living? You won’t……The Irish are not pussies looking for free shit.’
In 2015, at a neo-Confederate rally to support the continued flying of the slave-owning flag in Mississippi, one white supremacist demonstrator said that “There were a lot more white Irish slaves then there were blacks. And the Irish slaves were treated a lot worse than the black slaves.”
Indentured servitude versus perpetual racialised chattel slavery
Let us be clear on what we are talking about. This is not a matter of debating semantics. This is not a matter of quibbling over the meaning of words. Granted, academics can spend an excessive amount of time and energy debating the meanings of this or that word. However, we can examine the historical record and find the falsity of the ‘Irish were slaves too’ meme.
In daily conversation, we use the word ‘slavery’ to mean any kind of forced labour. There have been many types of slavery throughout history. Various empires – the Assyrians, Romans, Greeks – used slaves in their economies. The British, in their conquest of Ireland, were brutal, vicious and unrelenting. The Irish, mainly Catholics, were shipped off to Barbados, Montserrat and other British colonies as indentured servants.
Here is where the duplicity and deceitfulness of the ‘Irish were slaves’ myth becomes apparent. There are significant, qualitative and vast differences between indentured servitude and racialised hereditary slavery. The myth of the ‘Irish were slaves’ deliberately conflates the two different forms of forced labour. Indentured servitude involved a fixed contract, usually between four-to-seven years, and the servant was recognised as a legal person with rights. It was a harsh existence, brutal and exploitative to be sure – but it was a different form of forced labour than slavery.
The transatlantic slave trade was racialised; black Africans were kidnapped as property. They had no rights whatsoever – they were slaves in perpetuity. Their slavery was hereditary – their children were slaves, their grandchildren were slaves. Families could be sold off, and children separated from their parents. The African slaves were treated as livestock. The legal architecture of the British colonies, such as in the North Americas and the Caribbean, relegated the black African to that of a sub-human, soulless, beast of burden who could be worked to death.
Irish in Barbados and Montserrat
The deliberate conflation of indentured servitude and the transatlantic racialised slave trade does not have any foundation in the historical record. The British, when first settling the Leeward islands, such as Barbados and Montserrat, established a legal system for distinguishing the rights and responsibilities of indentured servants as opposed to African slaves. The indentured Irish included prisoners of war, the poor, vagrants, any Irish Catholic deemed undesirable – and they were transported to a harsh existence in the Caribbean, working in the sugar plantations. Many died during their term of service.
The transatlantic slave trade however, involved the transport of millions of black Africans, who were worked to death in the sugar and tobacco fields. The island of Montserrat became the one place in the British empire where the Irish were the majority of white settlers – and they participated in the slave trade. The Irish became slave owners and slave traders. They participated in the economic ascendancy of the white planter class in the Caribbean. It was not only in the Caribbean where the Irish were slave owners and slave traders.
In the slave-owning states of the United States, Irish planters had established themselves and gained their wealth through the slave trade. Since the beginnings of the transatlantic racialised slave traders, Irish entrepreneurs established themselves in Liverpool, Bristol and other cities to take advantage of this slave trade. Former Irish indentured servants, having survived their servitude, took up the slave trade and acquired their own wealth after their servitude contract expired.
Bonded servitude was a form of labour used by the British empire to get rid of persons that were deemed undesirable by the English ruling class. Irish political prisoners, among others, ended up transported to Barbados, Montserrat – and eventually the British penal colonies in Australia. None of this is to deny the brutal reality suffered by the Irish indentured servants. Our purpose is not to diminish the suffering of those transported to the colonies.
This system of indentured servitude was a world apart from the the transatlantic African slave trade. Indentured servants had recourse to the courts to challenge any mistreatment; the African slave had no standing because they were not considered a human being. Black African slaves could be worked to death, even killed, without any consequences to the slave owners. When Britain formally abolished the slave trade in 1834, former slave owners including Irish, were compensated for their ‘loss of property’ by the British government.
Australia today has millions of citizens claiming to be of Irish background – and every March 17 – Saint Patrick’s Day – the shamrock and green colours are prominent in the many ‘Irish pubs’ in Australia. The Irish in Australia have a long and proud history. Wearing the shamrock, decked out with a green shirt and drinking green beer – these are harmless pursuits, and so we say good luck to you. If you wish to engage in the Paddy Whackery that accompanies Saint Patrick’s Day, then that is your pleasure.
These are harmless passtimes. However, the ‘Irish were slaves too’ myth is a toxic meme, recycled and regurgitated whenever there are conversations about racism and racial issues today. Not only does this poisonous nonsense deceitfully equate indentured servitude with racialised perpetual slavery, it is also serves to remove the guilt of white supremacy. If the racial component of African slavery is removed, then the crimes of white supremacy can be written out of the historical record.
When Kanye West, American rapper and serial egomaniac, stated earlier this year that slavery was just a lifestyle choice, he was – whether intentionally or not – removing the culpability of white supremacy and white racism. When the current Housing Secretary in the United States, Ben Carson, refers to slaves as just immigrants, he not only demonstrates his woeful ignorance of American history. He is removing the racial guilt attached to white supremacy. In this day and age of social media, millions read these comments and follow them.
Debunking this myth is not merely an academic exercise. To use an expression even Trump-supporters can understand – this is fake history, weaponised in a modern context against the struggle of African Americans. This false and deceitful equivalence of suffering only serves to validate the viewpoint of the racist Alt-Right; if the Irish were slaves too, and they got over it, why can’t the blacks? The ‘Irish were slaves too’ meme originates from a position of division, not from empathy or solidarity in suffering.
The emphasis of the ‘Irish were slaves’ myth is to divert attention from the crimes of white supremacy and promote a pseudo-historical narrative of ‘white victimhood’. The rise of ultra-rightist white nationalist anti-immigrant politics and rhetoric has provided a renewed platform for toxic memes such as the ‘Irish were slaves’. It is no coincidence that the ‘Irish were slaves’ meme has spread in those societies built on white settler-colonialism, such as the United States and Australia. Stories of ‘white victimhood’ only poison current discussions and moves towards combating racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia.