William Petty misquoted

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Above: William Petty—‘Not only is Donoghue’s assertion of Petty’s intent to sell the Irish into colonial bondage unsupported by any reference to actually existing sources, it is directly contradicted by the real sources his article misrepresents’.

Sir,—John Donoghue’s article (‘The curse of Cromwell: revisiting the Irish slavery debate’, HI 25.4, July/August 2017) includes misquoted and misleadingly contextualised source material relating to William Petty, architect of the Down Survey. The block quotation on pp 26–7 splices material excerpted from works printed 30 years apart, incorrectly implying that the quotation occurred as a whole in one of Petty’s works and radically changing the meaning of its parts. Here is the quotation as Donoghue presents it (note the ellipsis):

‘You value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as slaves and negroes are usually rated, viz, at about 15 one with another; men being sold for 25, children for 5 … why should not insolvent thieves be punished with slavery rather than death. So as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it.’

Donoghue uses this to argue that Petty’s work in Ireland ‘led him to conclude that, rather than destroying the Irish, English interests in the colonies would be best served by enslaving them like “negroes’”. He further concludes that this ‘proves that some very powerful members of the Cromwellian regime envisioned enslaving Irish and “negroes” in parallel fashion’. Neither conclusion is accurate.

The first part of Donoghue’s quotation (before the ellipsis) is taken from p. 21 of The political anatomy of Ireland (London, 1691); it occurs in the course of Petty’s attempt to calculate the cost of the Irish rebellion and subsequent war (1641–52) in monetary terms. Petty is estimating the value of Irish lives lost, using the price of enslaved Africans as a basis. He is not suggesting that the Irish be enslaved. Here is the quotation as it appears in The political anatomy of Ireland, p. 21. The portions omitted by Donoghue are in bold:

‘The value of people, Men, Women, and Children in England, some have computed to be about 70 l. per Head, one with another. But if you value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as Slaves and Negroes are usually rated, viz., at about 15 l. one with another; Men being sold for 25 l., Children for 5 l.; the value of people lost will be about 10,335,000[.]’

The second part of Donoghue’s quotation (after the ellipsis) comes from The treatise of taxes and contributions, printed in 1662. The passage it comes from discusses the advantages of enslaving rather than executing criminals—English ones. Here it is as it appears in Treatise of taxes (London, 1662), p. 49. Parts omitted by Donoghue are in bold:

‘Why should not insolvent Thieves be rather punished with slavery than death? so as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the Commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it; for if England be under-peopled (suppose by half), I say that next to the bringing in of as many more as now are, is the making these that are, to do double the work which now they do; that is, to make some slaves; but of this elsewhere.’

In other words, neither part of Donoghue’s purported proof text of Petty’s (and by extension Cromwell’s) intent to enslave the Irish relates to such an idea. The first part estimates the cost of Irish lives lost between 1641 and 1652; the second does not concern the Irish, or colonial plantation, at all.

Petty’s role in the Cromwellian settlement and his later advocacy of large-scale planned and coerced transplantations of people between Britain and Ireland are beyond doubt. They are discussed at length, with reference to manuscript and printed sources, in my William Petty and the ambitions of political arithmetic (Oxford, 2009). What is at issue here, however, is not transplantation in general but its context and purposes, and its connection to the intended enslavement of the Irish, as well as their sale in the West Indian plantations. Petty did not embrace any and all transplantations; in fact, he objected repeatedly and in print to the signature transplantation policy of the Cromwellian regime in Ireland, the transplantation into Connacht. As he complained at the time, it interfered with the Down Survey; see T.A. Larcom (ed.), The history of the Cromwellian survey of Ireland (Dublin, 1851), p. 118. Throughout his life, meanwhile, he thought both England and Ireland under-populated—as he wrote in both the Treatise of taxes (London, 1662), sig. A2v, and The political anatomy of Ireland (London, 1691), p.100—and he sought to minimise colonial emigration and all other population loss. As the quotation above shows, indeed, this was why he thought slavery preferable to execution for English criminals. Not only is Donoghue’s assertion of Petty’s intent to sell the Irish into colonial bondage unsupported by any reference to actually existing sources, it is directly contradicted by the real sources his article misrepresents.—Yours etc.,

Dr TED McCORMICK, FRHS
Associate Professor of History
Concordia University, Montreal

 
John Donoghue’s reply

Ted McCormick has correctly identified an error that I made in quoting William Petty. I attribute a block quotation to William Petty’s The political anatomy of Ireland (1691). In fact, the two sections of the quotation in question come from this work as well as The treatise of taxes and contributions (1662). I apologise to the readers of History Ireland for the mistake.

The disputed quotation first appeared in my book Fire under the ashes: an Atlantic history of the English Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 260. The quotation was drawn from the discussion of The political anatomy of Ireland in the text of Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The many-headed hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon, 2000). In the paragraph beginning on p. 146 that continues on p. 147, Rediker and Linebaugh identify The political anatomy as the source for their discussion of Petty. All the quotations from Petty that they include in this paragraph appear in the text as if they came from this work. In my discussion of Petty in Fire under the ashes (p. 260), I draw largely on Linebaugh and Rediker’s work mentioned above. From my reading of the text, I thought that all of the Petty quotations came from The political anatomy. The block quotation from Petty that appears on p. 260 of my book uses separate quotations that Rediker and Linebaugh list on p. 147. I denote the separate quotations through the use of ellipses:

‘You value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as slaves and negroes are usually rated, viz., at about 15 one with another; men being sold for 25, children for 5 … Why should not insolvent thieves be punished with slavery rather than death. So as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it.’

I cite my quotation of Petty in footnote 36 on p. 347. It reads: ‘Petty quoted in Rediker and Linebaugh, Many-headed hydra, 146–147’. Instead of assuming that the quotations in a paragraph discussing The political anatomy all came from this source, I should have checked Linebaugh and Rediker’s footnotes for this paragraph, which cite both The political anatomy of Ireland and The treatise of taxes and contributions. The oversight led to an honest mistake in my History Ireland article, where I attribute the quotation to one source.

It should be clear that my argument does not rise and fall on William Petty’s thinking about colonial transportation. It is beyond dispute that the Cromwellian regime sanctioned the sale of thousands of Irish Catholics into term-bound, chattel bondage. There is an abundance of evidence that Cromwellian officials carried out such a policy, one that they also employed in Scotland and England against poor people, felons and political prisoners. Many contemporaries regarded the colonial bondage that the transported endured as a form of slavery, not the perpetual, racially categorised slavery imposed upon Africans in the Americas, but chattel slavery nonetheless.

Perhaps, as McCormick writes, Petty did not support colonial transportation, but the evidence is not as clear as McCormick insists. McCormick correctly observes that Petty believed that Ireland and England were underpopulated, but this does not mean that Petty was necessarily against the policy of colonial transportation. The wider context of the Cromwellian conquest and the colonial transportation policy, which outlasted the conquest, could provide the answer.

Petty recommended enslaving British thieves, his fellow countrymen, in 1662. The only place where British (or Irish) people could be reduced to a form of chattel bondage in 1662 was in the colonies (most of them were sent to the Barbados). Clearly, Petty did not recommend the wholesale transplantation and enslavement of Irish Catholics. But given that he recommended British thieves for enslavement in 1662, it’s hard to see how, in the 1650s, he would have objected to the colonial transportation of Irish thieves or others, such as the partisan fighters called ‘tories’ that the British regarded as undesirable segments of the population. The fact that he assessed the monetary value of Irish people on equivalent terms with African slaves when he wrote The political anatomy in 1671 suggests that the colonies were never far from his mind when thinking about the productive value of people in Britain and Ireland who posed some kind of political threat or social problem at home.

But McCormick’s objections and Petty’s thinking aside, the over-arching argument that I make about Irish slavery and the Cromwellian conquest in History Ireland has been judged worthy of serious scholarly consideration in many notable venues, including the American Historical Review, which many view as the most prestigious and rigorously peer-reviewed journal for historical scholarship.

Dr JOHN DONOGHUE
Associate Professor of History
Loyola University, Chicago

'


Copyright © 2021 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568