Letter 2 – The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: servants or slaves?

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

Sir,—Your article ‘The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: servants or slaves?’ (HI 24.2, March/April 2016)insiststhat there is an urgent need to refute a pervasive belief that Cromwellian-era Irish prisonersofwar and indentured servants experienced the same brutality as African slaves in the plantation societies of the British West Indies. In reality, those who advance this argument with malicious intent on social media and elsewhere are an insignificant minority derided by professional historians, and indeed by anyone outside Tea Party circles in the US. John Grenham, the author of the seemingly offending article in the Irish Times (7 September 2015),makes explicitboth his revulsion at white supremacists’ attempts to exploit this complicated history and his insistence that the experience of those swept up in the ‘vicious social hygiene’ of the period, ‘not just in Ireland, but throughout the three kingdoms’, was qualitatively different to that of the millions victimised in the supply of African slaves to the New World.

The distinctiveness of racially based New World slavery is well established by now. Though they are lost sight of in your feature, two other aspects of that system are also key: the importance of chattel slavery in a global regime of unfree labour; and the evolution of black chattel slavery as the last in a series of experiments carried out by New World planters anxious to solve their ‘labour problem’.The revealing point in much of the literature on white indentures is that their masters abandoned the importation of white ‘filth and scum’ not out of any sense of racial solidarity but because British domination of the African slave trade rendered it possible to supply plantations with an alternative labour source that was both cheaper and more plentiful. The distinguished anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes that ‘planters were, in one sense, completely without prejudice [and] willing to employ any kind of labor…under any kind of arrangements, as long as the labor force was politically defenseless enough for the work to be done cheaply and under discipline’.

It was not a crusading white supremacist but the race-conscious editor of Jet magazine, Lerone Bennet Jr, who wrote in 1970 that the ‘Afro-American was third in slavery’, having ‘inherited his chains, in a manner of speaking, from the pioneer bondsmen, who were red and white’.After the decimation of native populations, at least, the Caribbean sugar colonies depended on large black majoritiescontinually replenished after being literally worked to death. White labour was peripheral in this context. But to the north, in what became the southern United States, a more racially mixed workforce prevailed until the late seventeenth century, when an evolving racial hierarchy hardened in response to the threat of a multi-racial rebellion.

Liam Hogan and his collaborators are not mistaken in arguing that slavery-for-life differed in important ways from the variety of arrangements characterisingNew World indenture. But in emphasising the lines of demarcation, they lose sight of the common entanglement of blacks and poor whites from across these islands in a harsh system of exploitation which none of them controlled.—Yours etc.,

Queen’s University, Belfast


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