Seán O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados

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As many readers of this magazine are surely aware, Seán O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados (2000) revived public interest in the colonial connection to Cromwell’s curse. Nursing nationalist outrage about the conquest, O’Callaghan calculated that 50,000 Irish were sold in the colonies, a number that grossly inflates the estimates of modern scholars, which run from 5,000 to 20,000. Even worse, he makes little to no effort in his lurid account to distinguish between the heritable, perpetual slavery of Africans and the bondage suffered by the Irish. In fact, from reading O’Callaghan one would think that the Irish had it worse. Although seventeenth-century commentators such as Richard Ligon remarked that ‘negroes’ could, depending on the master, receive better treatment than servants, this was absolutely not the general practice among slaveholders, and the claim must be qualified because, unlike servants, black slaves and their children served for life. These exceptions occurred during the brief period (c. 1640–70) when the inter-colonial and transatlantic slave trade from Africa to Barbados had just begun to deliver slaves in appreciable numbers, which made them much more expensive then servants. It should hardly be necessary now to emphasise that African slavery far outstripped both the suffering and economic value of Irish servitude. But unfortunately, as with the twentieth-century Holocaust in Europe, white nationalists (as white supremacists now call themselves) in the United States, often drawing upon O’Callaghan, have made it necessary for scholars to make the point loudly and clearly.

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