The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: servants or slaves?

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Letters, Volume 24

Sir,—This article in your March/April issue (HI 24.2, 2016) asked more questions than it answered and contradicted itself on many occasions.

I understand that the term ‘indentured servitude’ relates to individuals who signed a contract and agreed to a certain number of years of servitude. This was in exchange for passage across the Atlantic, and when their term of servitude ended they were free. This clearly cannot be described as slavery, but the authors also described classes of involuntary indentured servants who were forcibly sent to the Caribbean without a predetermined period of service. The authors go on to say that ‘many of these due to brutal treatment did not live to see the end of their servitude’, which was in any case indeterminate. They also describe families that were forcibly deported and were purposely sold to different planters as part of their punishment. These two latter groups are surely fundamentally different from voluntary indentured servants, and the differences are of such significance that they can only be classed as slaves. The authors make great play on the legal rights of indentured servants when compared to chattel slaves, but then exclaim that it is unclear how regularly they were able to take advantage of such rights and follow that by saying that they were all temporarily (if they survived long enough) unfree.

Karl Watson, former Professor of History at the University of the West Indies, states that:

‘In Barbados, which received close to 10,000 Irish in the seventeenth century, their experiences and level of degradation and oppression mirrored that of African slaves. So much so that the two groups on at least two occasions united in common revolt against their English masters.’

I note that the authors found it necessary to reinterpret contemporaneous accounts of credible witnesses because it did not suit their narrative, and in doing so diminished the suffering of many who died who did not fill the profile of indentured servants and who should have been classed as slaves. What underlies the ‘historiographical vandalism’ of their narrative is their attempt to exaggerate the role played by Irish planters in the overall scheme of things and thereby deflect criticism from their account. It would appear that the main purpose of the authors’ arguments is to counter the narrative of white supremacist conspiracy theorists, whom they say exist almost exclusively in the United States and whom they say have now adopted the ‘Irish slaves’ myth. But in espousing their current stance they have unfortunately manufactured a myth of their own.—Yours etc.,

Co. Waterford


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