In a previous article about early Irish settlers in St. Augustine, the 1783 Spanish Census of East Florida revealed that many of these Irish settlers owned slaves. Many Irish owned slaves in Florida, and in the rest of America, prior to the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Many African-Americans have Irish surnames, and many have some Irish ancestors. Slavery was, and remains, the “Great Shame” of our country’s history. There is, however, a lesser known connection between slavery and the Irish.
They came as slaves, a vast human cargo, transported on tall British ships, bound for the Americas. They were shipped by the hundreds of thousands, and included men, women, and even the youngest of children. Whenever they rebelled, or even disobeyed an order, they were punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their human “property” by their hands and feet, and set them on fire, as one particularly severe form of punishment. They were sometimes burned to death, and then had their severed heads placed on pikes, as a warning to other captives. This may sound like a description of the atrocities of the African slave trade, but we are not talking here about African slaves. We are talking about white, Irish slaves.
Irish slave shipments to the American British colonies began under the reign of King James I in 1620, with the transportation of 200 enslaved Irish political prisoners. The Irish slave trade continued, and greatly increased, when King James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid-1600’s, the Irish were the most numerous slaves in the British West Indies. From 1641 to 1652, over 300,000 Irish were sold as slaves, and another 500,000 were killed outright, as Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in a single decade.
Irish Slave Shackles
In the 1650’s, Britain’s “Lord Protector”, Oliver Cromwell, succeeded in capturing the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and was keen to colonize it, and make it profitable for England. It was a much larger island than any other previously colonized by Britain in the Caribbean, and required a new approach to populate it, and make it viable. Cromwell launched appeals within England and the America’s for planters to settle in, and send labor to, the colony of Jamaica. This met with very little success; so Cromwell turned to his "man-catchers" in Ireland, and ordered them to round up and transport several thousand women, and "as many young men as could be lifted out of Ireland", to work on the Jamaican plantations as slaves. There was also a specific request for 2000 children to be taken, transported to the colony, and put to work. Conditions on Jamaica for the Irish were horrific.
They worked long hours in the searing sun and heat, and most died and were buried in the sugarcane fields where they toiled. The deaths of Irish slaves in these conditions were rarely reported; so the fate of many thousands remains unrecorded. There were severe punishments for those who attempted to escape. First offenders were whipped savagely, and had a year added to their term of bondage. Repeated escape attempts were punished by hanging. Slaves who struck plantation owners were burned alive in a gruesome manner. One visitor to Jamaica at the time recorded: "they are nailed to the ground with crooked sticks on every limb and then applying the fires by degrees from the feet, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their pains are extravagant.”
Cot Daley was 10 years old when she was kidnapped
from Galway, Ireland and sent as a slave to Barbados.
During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their homes and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. The Cromwell government in Ireland gave slaving monopolies to “good Puritan” merchants, who then sold their “merchandise” to other “good Puritans." In fact, the first “witch” to be executed at the notorious Salem, Massachusetts “witch trials” was an elderly Irish woman named Anne Glover, who had been kidnapped by Cromwell forces in Ireland and sold into slavery in the 1650’s. A pious Catholic, she could recite the Lord’s Prayer in both Irish and Latin; but she couldn’t speak English; so Cotton Mather and the Salem Puritans hanged her as a “heretic witch” in 1688.
An Irish Slave Warehouse in Newfoundland Canada
Many people avoided calling Irish slaves what they truly were. Instead, they often used the British euphemism: “indentured servants”. However, in most cases, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish indentured servants were treated as nothing more than human chattel. An indentured servant was usually sold for a fixed period of time, typically six or seven years. While the indenture was supposed to last for a fixed period of time, if the indentured person did not “abide by their Master’s rules”, their indenture could be extended indefinitely. In the seventeenth century, nearly two-thirds of émigrés to America came as indentured servants. While many émigrés sold themselves into indentured servitude, in exchange for passage to the New World and a promise of employment, training and pay, most Irish “servants” were involuntarily “indentured”, and were often kidnapped from their homes or off of the streets of Ireland.
Indentured servants could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment, and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. Theoretically, indentured servants could look forward to eventual release from bondage. If they survived their period of labor, indentured servants were supposed to receive a payment known as "freedom dues", and then become free members of society. For most of the seventeenth century, however, indentured servitude differed little from permanent slavery.
Both male and female indentured servants were often subject to violence, resulting in death. The large number of indentured servants who ran away or committed suicide suggests that the conditions of their lives during their time of bondage were unbearable. Female indentured servants were often raped. Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, or to have their testimony given any weight. Given the high death rate for indentured servants, many did not live to achieve their freedom. During the 17th century, 33 to 50 percent of indentured servants died before the end of their terms of bondage.
After the Civil War, in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery and involuntary servitude. Ultimately, the enslavement of Africans had persisted in the American South and West until 1865, however, the enslavement of the Irish had not lasted that long. The system still existed until the early 1780’s, but following the American Revolution, the British supply of slaves and indentured servants from Ireland to America and the Caribbean dwindled, and stopped altogether after the British slave trade was abolished by Parliament in 1839.