Debunked: The Irish Slave Trade /The Slaves That Time Forgot

Summary: Starting in the 17th Century, a whole lot of Irish people were sent to America and nearby islands, often against their will, and served as indentured servents, frequently under harsh conditions. The claim has been made that they were "slaves", that their treatment was more harsh than that of African slaves, and that there were vast numbers of them. This claim has fueled many popular memes which imply that white slave descendents have shrugged off their history of oppression, while black slave descendents are still asking for handouts.

Liam Hogan has done a spectacular job of debunking the many exaggerations that are part of this claim.

A few details and links:

The article currently making the rounds on social media is The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten “White” Slaves, by John Martin. (This was published on 3/17/15 by GlobalResearch, with a deceptive image of a book that is not the source of Martin's information. The article itself actually dates from 4/13/08, when it was published under the title The Slaves That Time Forgot.) Martin makes a number of claims without providing any sources -- for example:

...By the mid 1600s... 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves. ... From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. ... African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. ... The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. ... There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat. ...
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John Martin appears to have taken all his information from a much longer article, Irish slaves in the Caribbean, by James F. Cavanaugh, published on the Kavanagh/Cavanaugh Family genealogical website. Again, Cavanaugh provides no sources for his claims, which are nearly identical but more extensive than those in Martin's article (except that only 132 slaves got dumped overboard instead of 1302!).

How believable is this? Not very, it turns out. Liam Hogan has written a series of 6 articles (with more to follow) which dissect the memes and the underlying claims:

Part 1: Debunking the imagery of the “Irish slaves” meme
This looks at 25 images used in Irish slavery memes, and identifies the source of the image. Some of the photos of alleged Irish slaves are actually 20th Century child laborers, black men being beaten, Amazonian Indians, Andersonville prison victims, etc.

Part 2: How the African victims of the Zong Massacre were replaced with “Irish slaves”
How the murder of 132 to 142 African slaves transmogrified into the murder of 132 or 1302 Irish slaves.

Part 3: The “Forced Breeding” myth in the “Irish slaves” meme
No evidence that it happened, lots of evidence that it was unlikely, and one famous case of a Irish free woman who married a black slave out of love.

Part 4: A review of the numbers in the “Irish slaves” meme
Carefully examines all the numbers and statistics and dates in John Martin's paper. In some cases, he finds an actual source for Martin's numbers to demonstrate the screwiness thereof. For example, the claim of 300,000 Irish slaves, for which there is no evidence, appears to come from a blurb on the back cover of White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, which is about all the white servants sent by the British, not just the Irish ones. This back-cover blurb, in turn, seems to come from this short passage in the book:
How many of those whites who migrated from Britain were subject to the abuses we associate with slavery -- 100,000, 200,000, 300,000? It is impossible to know.
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Part 5: Exaggeration and the appropriation of the torture of enslaved Africans in the “Irish slaves” meme
Traces claims about abuse of Irish indentured servants. Some abuse incidents were real but extraordinary; others are actually stories of abuses committed against black slaves.

Part 6: The Myth of Colonel William Brayne and the “Irish slaves”
I cannot say enough good things about this piece of scholarship. In 1657, the military governor of Jamaica requested that the British send servants (voluntary or involuntary) to help the struggling all-military colony, and promised that "if servants were sent, they that have interest in them will be more carefull of them, and worke them moderately, by which many more lives would be saved, and plantations more forwarded." Hogan shows how this quote was distorted in a 1774 book, and further distorted in an 1828 book, and yet further in 1873, and 1883, and 1926, and 1993, and finally in 2003 by James Cavanaugh in the article that was Martin's source. By this point, it now read:
Colonel William Brayne wrote to English authorities in 1656 urging the importation of Negro slaves on the grounds that, "as the planters would have to pay much more for them, they would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of (Irish)...." many of whom, he charged, were killed by overwork and cruel treatment.
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This article is an exceptional piece of debunking scholarship. Included in an appendix are numerous primary sources (letters sent by Jamaican authorities).

Anyway, I'm posting this here to give Liam Hogan's work a bit more well-deserved publicity, but also because it's such a very good example of how to do debunking.


Senior Member.
Very interesting and informative and nice debunking. But it must be remembered that prior to the establishment of the African slave trade, most of the labour on English / British plantations in the Americas was provided by convicts and indentured labour from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. And whilst these sentences of transportation were in theory for a set number of years, 7 or 10 being the norm, the need to work off the debt these convicts accrued whilst serving their sentences, (remember in British prisons at the time the convict was expected to pay for his own food and lodge - transported convicts were expected to do the same). Therefore on 'release' a prisoner was oft faced with a huge debt, that in all reality could only be repaid via indentured labour, more often than not in conditions that bore little difference to those of the African slaves that were to follow.

What makes this period in UK history even more shameful is the way these convicts were obtained. In the 1660's Bristol merchants who owned plantations in the Americas were so short of labour the local 'charlies' (watchmen provided by the local corporation to police the city) were arresting every vagrant, petty thief and drunk they could and the local magistrates were convicting the lot with 7 years transportation to the Americas (source). And Bristol wasn't alone in this practice, Liverpool, Southampton, London, Dublin and many other places in Britain were doing the same. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1750 around 100,000 convicts left the British Isles for the new world, and the number of willing indentured labourers (often forced into it by poverty and starvation) was several times that number.

This 'white slave trade' ended in the 1770's for the following reasons. 1) The growth of the African slave trade was providing larger numbers of workers at a lower cost. 2) Legal and penal reform in Britain made it harder for plantation owners to obtain the convicts. 3) The growth of the American revolutionary zeal made the authorities afraid that transported convicts would escape and join the revolution against British rule. and 4) The discovery and settlement of Australia gave the British a new land to settle and somewhere else to send their convicts.

However indentured labour in the West Indies did continue through to the 1850's, fueled as it was but continued poverty and events such as the Irish Potato Famine, and given the English traditional contempt of the Irish lower classes at the time, did mean that these labourers were treated very badly. However Hogan is right to make the distinction between indentured labour and chattel labour and his full essay does make very interesting and informative reading.

Liam Hogans Essay in full
Thanks for that informative post, Whitebeard. I think it's important to keep an accurate balance. There's no doubt the Irish were badly abused, and I'm sure there were many cases where their situation was indistinguishable from slavery (except that their children did not automatically become slaves too). It seems to be an unfortunate trait of humans that some of us will try to make slaves of others of us, or as close to slaves as current laws and customs allow.

It's also unfortunate that these events of centuries ago are being distorted today to support one political viewpoint or another -- and it does go both ways.

Exaggerating the number of Irish indentured servants, the fraction of them who were effectively slaves, and the harshness of their treatment, supports the narrative that many peoples have suffered similar oppression in the past, yet somehow Irish-American whites were able to make something of themselves, while African-American blacks still claim to be victims deserving handouts. Obviously this view is popular among anti-black racists, but it's not inherently a racist concept -- it's also shared by many non-racist conservatives and libertarians who believe people should take responsibility for themselves and not depend on governmental wealth-redistribution.

On the other hand, minimizing and overlooking the treatment of the Irish also supports some biased narratives. It fits with the trivialized history we were taught in elementary school in the 1960s, that the English were the very civilized source of American civilization, and indentured servitude was merely a challenging way to pay for your ship fare. Today, it also fits with the concept that all whites have always had an easy life at the expense of blacks and other races, and therefore all whites are responsible for the oppression and poverty of non-whites. Again, this is not inherently a racist concept. But it's wrong to distort history just to support it.
Snopes posted an article about this issue today:

Slave to the Facts

CLAIM: Early in America's history, white Irish slaves outnumbered black slaves and endured worse treatment at the hands of their masters.


WHAT'S TRUE: Like impoverished people of other nationalities, many emigrated from Ireland to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries as indentured servants; a smaller number were forcibly banished into indentured servitude during the period of the English Civil Wars; indentured servants often lived and worked under harsh conditions and were sometimes treated cruelly.

WHAT'S FALSE: Unlike institutionalized chattel slavery, indentured servitude was neither hereditary nor lifelong; unlike black slaves, white indentured servants had legal rights; unlike black slaves, indentured servants weren't considered property. ...
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