DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
When it came to the colonial era of America in your history classes, you probably recall brief mentions of Irish indentured servants. This is a field that has actually been bitterly contested and only recently more delved into, with a lot of misinformation and blatant overgeneralizations involved. I think this part of history needs to be discussed more, because Irish culture is a part of American life and is celebrated by Americans of Irish and non-Irish descent. To understand the Irish role in North American history means learning about the complexities of Irish life under British rule, which would help Irish-Americans expand their education beyond the Americas and into Britain and Ireland.
Since a large portion of America is of Irish descent, I think that it would be important for them to have a well-rounded, comprehensive historical view of how they would have been treated at these time periods. It would also help create awareness of those descendants outside of the United States and all over the Americas. In the case of the Irish-Barbadians, or “Red-Legs” as their more popularly known, they have incredibly high rates of disease, unemployment, and overall marginalization in Barbados which was described as a “poverty trap.”
Since the Red-Legs were descended from the Irish indentured servants of Barbados who did not immigrate to other islands or the United States, a glimpse can be provided of the circumstances that placed them on Barbados in the first place. Nowhere else is this reality more stark than in the Caribbean, which consisted of British colonies, specifically in Barbados which was described as a “socioeconomic experimentation ground” in the book “Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” published by the University of the West Indies Press. Sugar plantations at that time that originally employed indentured servants helped create the plantation system with African slaves commonly associated with it that would become popular throughout the British colonies.
To briefly define what indenture is, it is a contract that binds a servant to a settler for a number of years in exchange for passage and land. Indentured contracts were often signed since the Irish laborers did not have the money to immigrate to the New World. This was done willingly by a lot of Irish people prior to 1649 when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and “Barbadosed” thousands of Irish men, women, and children. The difference between indenture and slavery fissured in 1661 when Sir Henry Walrond and the Barbados Assembly officiated the distinction, with indenture lasting for three to seven years and slavery lasting for life.
One important piece of information to write is that not all of the Irish in the New World were indentured servants, for there were also sailors, merchants, soldiers, bookkeepers, overseers, and even slave-owners. On the one hand, the indentured servants were forced to work sugar fields (and there were even accounts by former servants who claimed to have lived in slave-like conditions), but there were other Irishmen who were given more privileges and would become wealthy planters who had their own African slaves. In fact, a lot of these wealthy planters in the Caribbean had Irish surnames, such as Bodkin, Blake, Dobbs, Farrell, O’Connor, O’Hara, Skerret, Talbot, and Tuite.
Only when the colonies were becoming more as pigmentocracies did the Irish start to distinguish themselves from African slaves with whom they worked alongside and more with the British ruling class. It is also important to note that as more and more African slaves were imported for sugar production, the Irish contributed to the Caribbean economy in other ways by working either in the colonial militias or managing finances. As to how this applies to the Barbados Assembly’s 1661 decision, race was a major factor in the separation of indenture and slavery, since Africans were seen as being brutish.
Not only was ethnicity involved in Irish-British relations, but also religion. Since the Irish were traditionally Catholic and the British traditionally Protestant, there remains a conflict that continues to this very day, specifically in Northern Ireland. So, I think that what Irish-Americans can take from this, if they are Catholic, is the need to understand that continuous conflict to the point when it is possible to find a solution to the Catholic-Protestant conflict wherever it exists. Depending on how the Irish were treated in the New World depended upon the religion of a British monarch. In the case of James II, who was a Catholic who began his reign in 1685, the Irish were given more dignity; but under Oliver Cromwell, whose Parliament of the 1640’s and 50’s was fundamentally Protestant, that was when the Irish started becoming treated as indentured servants. Since there were Catholic-based European powers that colonized the Caribbean, such as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese Empires, there were moments when the Irish on some of those islands would ally themselves with any of them to fight on their behalf in exchange for fair treatment (including even Protestant-based powers such as the Dutch and Danish Empires).
As such, this delves into the complexities of Irish life in the Americas. In the case of the Caribbean, it depended upon which island in which the Irish were located, whether it was in Barbados, where the Irish indentured servitude first took place, or in Montserrat, where the Irish developed a sense of power and autonomy. Since there were other European powers colonizing the Caribbean, there were a lot of non-British colonies that the Irish often flocked to.
A notable example was John Murphy Fitzgerald Burke who was an Irish-Tortugan soldier who allied himself with the Spanish and held off the British conquest of Hispaniola. He assimilated into the Spanish Empire as Don Juan Morfo Geraldino y Burco. If the relationship between the Irish and the British can be closely examined, then so can the relationships between the Irish and other European powers in order to provide a more holistic view of history of the Americas and may possibly inspire interest in colonial history from the French, Spanish, Danish, and Dutch perspectives.
Understanding these complexities also helps to remove any bias associated with this point in history, specifically the monopoly that conspiracy theorists, political conservatives, and white nationalists claim to have when discussing “white Irish slaves.” What can be extracted from this article is that there is no simplicity in pinpointing the Irish as a completely separate caste, especially since historians such as Krystal D’Costa, Liam Hogan, and Matthew C. Reilly have made it clear that there is a difference between Irish indentured servitude and black slavery. Such simplified points of history are why “identity-based politics are…increasingly inadequate for meaningful analysis of such ethnic performances and cultural constructions.“
I also think that being more well-educated about Irish indentured servitude enables Irish-Americans to attempt to mediate any narrowly focused points of history that family members may have believed. This might inspire Irish-Americans to investigate more into this subject, which would be important when dispelling any political alignment with this point of history.
Of course, during the late 1700’s, the leadership of the United Irishmen, an organization that supported Irish independence and abolition, did compare the treatment of Irish servants to the treatment of African slaves, but it was not to trivialize slavery or condescendingly lecture the latter to “Get over it” or “Deal with it,” rather the purpose of their rhetoric was the exact opposite. It was an effort to empathize with African slaves when advancing abolition.
However much the complexities can separate the Irish and the Africans, what does bring them into agreement is the struggle for independence from imperial rule. Kevin Whelan, in his essay “Liberty, Freedom, and the Green Atlantic,” noted that since the United Irishmen leadership was being dissolved, members of this group would exile themselves to the United States of America after it declared independence and ally themselves with revolutionaries in Jamaica and Haiti. Hugh Boyd McGuckian, a former lawyer who attempted an 1803 Irish insurrection, fled to join the French army and allied with the slaves of Jamaica to attempt to wrest the island away from the British. English planters in the Caribbean already had significant mistrust of the Irish, since a 1692 slave uprising contributed to it, since there may have been Irish servants seen amongst the African slaves who revolted. Expanding the scholarship of Irish indentured servitude also enables Irish-Americans to have some degree of empathy to marginalized groups, specifically groups who were also brought to the New World.
To quote Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician at this time period:
“My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island, it extends itself to every corner of the earth.”
This would enable more communication towards the modern descendants of these groups, which is a particular case to be made in comparing the Caribbean islands to Ireland since parallels were made that they were islands that dealt with British colonization. Indeed, Marcus Garvey looked upon the Irish independence movement as inspiration for his Pan-Africanism movement. There was even relief sent by people of African descent from Antigua, British Guiana, and Tobago to Ireland during the Potato Famine. Notable abolitionists Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass made their visits to Ireland, and the ninth edition of Equiano’s biography was published in Dublin. So this cross-cultural exchange could be beneficial in any period of division by remembering a somewhat shared history.
The famous St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott also saw the comparisons, which was what helped him to create his work “Omeros” which featured Irish characters inspired by real-life Irish historical figures, such as Lord Plunkett and Maud Gonne. In this novel, Walcott explores the concept of belonging, particularly within the context of imperialism when it comes to St. Lucia and Ireland. This exploration of how Irish history can be connected to the history of marginalized people in general would provide opportunities to create fiction and inspire writers like Derek Walcott.
In the present time, there continues to be a sense of Irishness to be found amongst Montserratians when the black population not only has Irish surnames but also retains traces of Irish culture, such as the musical use of the bodhran and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday. This is interesting because the United States also provides the same treatment to St. Patrick’s Day and I think this would help Irish-Americans understand how much Irish history plays a role in the Caribbean, specifically in Montserrat. In the case of learning more about Montserrat, I think that it might inspire more tourism to that island, which had been dubbed “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean Sea.”
By taking Irish indentured servitude into consideration means examining different points of history, geography, culture, and religion. Irish-Americans who are excavating the Irish role in colonial history would not only develop a better understanding of it, but also develop better connection and finding common humanity with marginalized groups. It would be important because it helps to de-propagandize history by extending that understanding from a single label to multiple points of view. Learning about Irishness also means that it can extend to all people who are fascinated by it, whether in America, Montserrat, or anywhere else.