Slavery and the Irish


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.


Filed under Florida Irish History

14 responses to “Slavery and the Irish

  1. Janet OBrien

    James II wasn’t born until 1633. Please check your facts that you are copying and pasting.

    • Dan

      There are multiple people with the same ending numbers. You should probably identify which James the !! of where are you talking. James the Second, son of Charles I and Henrietta Marie, 1633 – 1701. a Stuart King of England, Scottland and Ireland was also known as James the Seventh of Scottland, Duke of York, Earl of Ulster, Duke of Albany and Duke of Normandy (France).

      The James, who is credited with starting the Irish Slave Trade, when in 1625, he declared it the official policy to ship overseas Irish political prisoners starting with 30,000 of them to be sold as slaves. This is James the First of England, James the Sixth of Scotland and King of France. He was a published expert in Witchcraft and participated in several trials as an expert. He was first crowned at thirteen months when his mother, Mary Queen of Scotts fled to England. As King James of England, 1603 – 1625, he stated, “Monarchy is the Greatest thing on earth. Kings are rightly called gods since just like God they have powers of life and death over all their subjects in all things. They are accountable to God only … so it is a crime for anyone to argue about what a king can do.” It is important to know how much he influenced the Christian world. In 1604, he authorized a new English translation of the Bible (The Tyndall English Bible was 85 years old.) the KJV Bible was finished in 1611. Unlike other translators or sponsors of the past, was divinely chosen, King James was accountable only to God, many people believe him to have been the ultimate authority behind this Bible and thus the KJV Bible is infallible, as was his word on witchcraft and the Biblical justification of slavery, especially of the Irish slaves (political enemies).

      The importance of the KJV and the fight against witches was very important. Check out the “Goodwife” AKA “Goody” Ann Glover, this elderly Irish woman was given a very fair trial in Boston, 1688. When able to recite the Lord’s Prayer only in Gallic and Latin and did so, and not in KJV English. She was rightly found guilty by this forensic evidence and hung as a witch.

      We cannot begin to praise all that King James did for us. I will never forget having questioned a Veteran about his having sex with preteen prostitutes in RVN. He gave me reasons why there was nothing wrong with it: He was not married, they liked it and they made their living doing it willingly, there was less chance of getting VD, and it was not a sin since there was nothing against it in the infallible Word of God, his KJV Bible and they weren’t Christians anyhow.

      How about Ireland’s ten Magdaline Laundries a program run by four religious orders for about 200 years for the redemption of bad children and women’s souls till 1996. Often they were out of wedlock pregnant teen. Even the Irish enslaved Irish for the profits and the justifiable punishment of those who in the eyes of the faithful were bad.

      It is amazing what we can justify doing unto others, if we can just dehumanize them or show how they are sinners.

      • Hi Dan, I saw a movie about the Magdaline Laundries. In fact I could have ended up there! I wanted to be a nun around 1964 and had a visit from a “Mother”. This attitude by the ‘elite’ righteous was really there. In 1969 I had an opportunity (rare) to become a professional actress in a leading Dublin Theatre for six weeks; when I excitedly told my boss’s wife (who lived next to the ‘office’) she said, “How could you do this to us?” In other words, I would have to leave them for a six weeks’ contract. I had worked for half what I was worth for 5 years as a secretary, PA, administrator, accounts, telephone person, receptionist, book-keeper, etc. I had my dream offer and they made me feel so bad that I turned it down. I became anorexic and also could have died from that.
        3 years later I migrated to Australia where I found my independence and true freedom at 23 years of age. I found the only true God (not the religious fake of Ireland), but Jesus Christ, who came to save sinners and not the righteous…
        I also found the best man in the world, a rare find. We are married 42 years and still over the moon in love. I have no regrets and I have had a happy life (with loads of obstacles that I overcame). I know where I am going and how to live life to its true fullness. I am blessed and God did not discriminate against a ‘true Irish woman’ but saved me gloriously in Australia (Land of the Holy spirit – Pedro). All Irish who want freedom should come here if they get the chance. I could put up a few.

    • Mary

      You’re very rude. Simply providing the correct information with a link for the writer would have sufficed. What purpose did being snippy and suggesting the writer was copying and pasting serve? Nobody like’s a bitch..just saying.

  2. Karen

    Why is this not taught in the schools. It should be!

  3. The article, “THE FORGOTTEN WHITE SLAVES OF AMERICA – ITS NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT TO TALK ABOUT THEM” wrongly sites King James II as part of the Irish slave trade. A quick trip through British History reveals that James II was not born until 1633 and that James II had already converted to Catholicism before his reign. The trouble started long before James II and even before Charles I.

    Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the English throne in 1558. Irish parliament then passed an Act of Supremacy confirming her as head of the Irish Parliament. The leaders of both government and the Church were required to swear allegiance to her. But the Gaels and their “Old English” allies remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and not the Monarchy. As kings came and went, Ireland became a divided nation.

    By the time Irish men, women, and children were forced into servitude, Charles I had taken the throne. He ruled from 1625 until his execution in 1649. His son, Charles II is named King by Parliament, but with a forced hand in power, the ruling is made illegal. Charles II was forced into exile in France; his brother James II went to France, as well. Dictator Oliver Cromwell who had defeated Charles I, then came into power. The Monarchy dethroned did not stop the blood shed and enslavement of the Irish. Cromwell went to great lengths to crush the Catholic rebellion in Ireland. Money, power, greed. After Cromwell’s demise, Charles II was invited back into power.

    James II, a Catholic, ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland. Though Parliament chose to continue the suppression of Catholicism, James II did not. This article appears to be more of an email than a historical account. I’d love to read a real historical record of the Irish enslavement and genocide that took place. There is so much history to cover that surrounded it and so many mini-wars and rebellions that took place, if there’s one out there ready to be consumed, please share it!

  4. maryclare delaney lennox

    Raised by my maternal grandparents who were born in 1867 & 1873 in milltown dublin and ballyghadarren roscommon i was told many stories vis a vis the treachery of the english empire — since i now watch the collateral damage is trumpted by greed of its clone,the usa— I am impressed that someone has validated my childhood impression that the irish were the english pariahs and treated as such. how about class action against the english elites who are still living off the wealth acquired through those actions . I am eightyyears old so i don’ have the time left but the b.e. and the us are a country of laws?so i’ ve been told. MCL

  5. Go for it, Mary Clare Delaney Lennox – at least you can try. I trace my mother’s family to an Earl of Sligo (432), and my father’s family Rabharthaigh (originally Bertagh) goes back way before that date. When I arrived in 1948 my mother and father rented an old 2 bed house on Main Street, Leixlip. He worked as a porter in a hotel in Lucan. He lost his job in 1952 and had to go to England to secure a job. I remember my mother hid her only possession, a folding table, in the neighbour’s house because the rent man was coming and she had no rent. She feared he would take her table. We lived on bread and water (collected from a street tap), onions and apples. What a comedown from the rant of Earl? Whose fault was it? We can only surmise that history has its truths and secrets.
    I hold no grudges to the English folk of today (of whom many are of Irish lineage) and England has been trying to repent by good deeds since their terrible history of lording it over the ‘dirty Irish’. We may have been submissive but we are neither dirty or suppressed in our hearts. We live and laugh, and dance (boy we dance). I know God and I am grateful that I am alive to praise the true God of Heaven who will one day bring the only justice we can ever hope for. God bless you Mary, and may the love of God permeate your heart and His righteousness fill your soul. History is filled with atrocities that can never be undone and we can only hope for a brighter tomorrow when Jesus returns (as He promised).
    The whole earth faileth, but He faileth not.

  6. lela

    Ann Glover was the LAST witch to be hung in Salem, not the first (Rebecca Blessing Towne Nurse).

  7. Thanks Lela. Nice to meet you.

  8. Robyn

    Hi there! I want to do my dissertation on how Irish slaves/ indentured servants in the Caribbean are missing from museum and heritage studies. If you have any information backed up by academic sources it would be incredibly useful to me!

  9. Shawna

    That picture subtitled “irish slave warehouse” is actually a replication structure of a 1,000 year old viking settlement colony in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. No connection what so ever with the Irish. Where did you get your facts? Citations please.

  10. Ed Finn

    As an avid student of local history I know a lot a out Newfoundland, but I have never heard of any other references of a slave trade in Newfoundland. Further, that imbeded photo of a “Slave Warehouse” is actually a recently built re construction of a Viking structure in Lanse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. To-wit, look at the sides of the sod, and look at the wooden frame of that structure,
    It Sure doesnt look like a structure that is hundreds of years old….
    Ed Finn
    Carbonear, Newfoundland

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