‘Shipped for the Barbadoes’: Cromwell and Irish migration to the Caribbean

Published in Confederate War and Cromwell, Cromwell, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Volume 16

Between 1641 and 1653 Ireland suffered a demographic collapse of staggering proportions. Over a quarter of the population perished as a result of endemic warfare, famine and disease, including the last major outbreak of plague in the country. The architect of the English reconquest of the island, Oliver Cromwell, described Ireland as ‘a clean paper’, which, following the victory of the New Model Army, could be remodelled in the interests of the Westminster parliament. The Act of Settlement, passed in August 1652, outlined in detail the fate of the country and its inhabitants. The preamble reassured the general populace that the parliamentary regime did not intend ‘to extirpate the whole nation’, offering instead to extend mercy to ‘the inferior sort’, as long as they lived peacefully under the colonial government. The act contained a number of clauses, specifically excluding certain groups and named individuals from the general pardon.
Predictably, the first clause condemned those accused of killing Protestant settlers at the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641. The parliamentarians defined ‘involve-ment’ in the broadest possible sense to include not only those actively ‘bearing arms’ but also any person who assisted the rebels in any way. Technically, at least, this covered the vast bulk of the Catholic population. The second clause excluded all Catholic clergy from pardon, and hundreds were subsequently killed or banished overseas. The next clause listed over 100 named individuals, mostly prominent Catholic political and military leaders, some of whom had already departed for the Continent. All of them forfeited their extensive estates, and the colonial authorities in Dublin reserved the right to move any individual to another part of the country if deemed necessary for reasons of ‘public safety’.
Despite the potentially all-encompassing nature of the exclusion clauses, the Act of Settlement was primarily concerned with dispossessing Catholic landowners, thus enabling the parliamentary regime to repay its supporters, both soldiers and financiers, with confiscated land. During the remainder of the 1650s, the government transplanted over 40,000 people across the River Shannon into Connacht, where they could be effectively corralled and controlled. The common soldiers and ‘inferior sort’ provided a lucrative source of revenue for merchants with shipping at their disposal. As the war drew to a close, the parliamentarians, anxious to rid the country of hostile soldiers, licensed military entrepreneurs to transport large numbers into Spanish service. From 1652, articles of surrender invariably contained specific terms enabling Catholic commanders to depart for the Continent with their men. Between 1651 and 1654, as many as 40,000 Irishmen sailed for the Continent, often on English merchant ships. Many of these exiles dreamed of returning home, but few ever did.
While the government encouraged enemy soldiers to leave the country, a different fate awaited those civilians unsuitable for military service. In the early decades of the seventeenth century, England acquired a number of islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbados and Montserrat, and began to develop lucrative tobacco and sugar plantations. African slaves provided most of the field labour, but a demand also existed for indentured servants of European stock, who worked for a fixed period of time, ‘under a yoke harsher than that of the Turks’, before eventually obtaining their freedom. From the 1630s, official accounts record the arrival of the Irish in the Caribbean, many of them kidnapped by press-gangs operating in the vicinity of the principal ports in Munster. The journey across the Atlantic took almost three months, and those who survived the crossing found living and working conditions on the plantations extremely harsh. After seven years of service, a handful did acquire small landholdings, but none that we know of ever returned to Ireland.
The outbreak of the rebellion in 1641 temporarily disrupted the Atlantic trade, but transportations resumed after Cromwell’s invasion in August 1649. The first shipment occurred towards the end of that year, when, after the storming of Drogheda, Oliver Cromwell ordered the few surviving members of the garrison to be sent to Barbados. Over the coming years, thousands of military prisoners were sold in perpetuity to plantation-owners to work in the fields, effectively as slaves. Despite the departure of so many soldiers to the Continent at the end of the war, small Tory bands continued to pose a serious, if localised, military threat throughout the 1650s. Local parliamentary commanders usually executed captured Tories, or else arranged for them to be shipped to the Caribbean, along with those civilians accused of assisting them.
The war had also created a large number of widows and orphans, many of them destitute and homeless. Over the next ten years, unscrupulous merchants shipped thousands of these Catholic women and children across the Atlantic. The authorities in Dublin, concerned by the ‘great multitudes of poor swarming in all parts of this nation’, welcomed this trade as a means of clearing the country of vagrants. They also periodically emptied the jails by sending shiploads of convicts to the colonies, a practice that continued until the late nineteenth century, with Australia replacing the West Indies as the principal destination. In 1655, as part of the war against Spain, an English fleet captured Jamaica. Shortly afterwards, the government in Ireland arranged for over 2,000 Catholic boys and girls to be transported there in an attempt to repopulate the island.
The Irish did not always meekly accept their fate. In 1655, runaway Irish and African slaves in Barbados began attacking local militia forces, killing plantation-owners and destroying crops. It took the authorities the best part of two years to suppress the disorder. The island continued to be plagued by vagrant Irish, encouraging slaves to rebel against their masters. Some of the more adventurous managed to escape from English-controlled territory to the French colonies, such as the Leeward or Windward Islands, while others joined the numerous pirate fleets that roamed freely throughout the Caribbean for much of the seventeenth century. The collapse of the Cromwellian regime and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 brought an end to large-scale transportations. Most of the Irish indentured servants had been freed by 1680, although shipments of convicted Tories continued throughout the reign of Charles II. Their descendants continue to reside in the Caribbean, particularly on the island of Montserrat, where Irish surnames such as O’Connor, Fitzgerald and O’Carroll are still to be found today.

Oliver Cromwell. (National Portrait Gallery)

Oliver Cromwell. (National Portrait Gallery)

Micheál Ó Siochrú’s God’s executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the conquest of Ireland will be published shortly by Faber.

‘When they submitted, their officers were knocked on the head, and every tenth man of the soldiers killed, and the rest shipped for the Barbadoes . . . I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are the satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret’ (Oliver Cromwell on the storming of Drogheda, 17 September 1649).

1630s    First records of Irish in the Caribbean
1641    Outbreak of the Irish rebellion
1649    Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland
1649     Transportations begin after the storming of Drogheda
1650–54    Catholic troops exiled to the Continent
1652    Act of Settlement
1654    Transplantations to Connacht begin
1658    Death of Cromwell brings an end to major transportations
1660    Restoration of Charles II
1680    Last of indentured servants on Barbados freed


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