A little argument going on in Ireland. There are those who argue that the English enslaved the Irish and sent them off to the Caribbean to work on the plantations. This being much the same as that enslavement of the Africans for which we should all be doing penance. There are others who argue that this isn’t quite so. Even, that it cannot be so for that would disturb the insistence that black slavery was the original sin for which capitalist free marketry must be pulled down.
The truth being that varied Irish were indeed sent off to those islands. It’s still true that Montserrat uses a shamrock as the entry stamp on a passport – one old one of mine has it to prove it. There are also, perhaps less so these days, those called “redlegs”. Local, natives, islanders, still with that Galway fairness that just never does tan.
But, this is different:
It was one of the most shocking chapters in Britain’s long, bloody subjugation of Ireland: the buying, selling and transportation of Irish chattel slaves to the colonies in America.
Manacled and brutalised, they filled the bellies of ships that crossed the Atlantic and were put to work on plantations in the Caribbean and North America, sweating till they died in service of empire and profits.
The historical focus on slaves from Africa overlooked Irish slaves until recent years when rediscovery of their existence lit up corners of the internet and became a meme.
The only problem: it was not true. Irish migrants experienced indentured servitude, a form of bonded labour, but not perpetual slavery based on race. The notion of Irish slaves is disinformation spread online by white supremacists, mostly outside Ireland, to puncture black people’s anger over slavery.
“Those who propagate the myth tend to live in former white settler colonies like Australia and the US and seek to undermine movements like Black Lives Matter,” said Ciaran O’Neill, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin. “They want to create false equivalence between the Atlantic slave trade and the phenomenon of indentured Irish labour in the Caribbean.”
Forget why this is being asserted – so as not to diminish that sin of chattel slavery and thus the importance of lots and lots of cash in reparations – and accept it as true. Indenture was different from slavery. Indenture was an entirely normal part of the European labour market of the time in fact. It also wasn’t race based as well as not being permanent.
The advantage of accepting this all as being true is that it was and is true.
That means the 1619 Project is wrong then. For 1619 was indeed when the first blacks arrived into British America. They were indeed slaves when they boarded the boat. Proper chattel slaves because that was a status – and fate – that existed in Africa at that time. But they were not slaves when they stepped off the boat, they were indentured labourers. On exactly the same terms and legal status as the whites that stepped off that or any other boat at the time. Largely on the grounds that slavery didn’t exist in English law at the time.
This is different from the Somersett case and so on of a little later. The point here is that the idea, of, the status of, slave just wasn’t there. So, people could not have legally been slaves because there was no law that said that anyone could. And they weren’t they were indentured labour.
Anthony Johnson came ashore in 1620. He’d been a slave in, we think, Angola. By the time he landed in Virginia he was not a slave, he was indentured. He worked his time, gained his freedom, got his land and tools and took on indentures of his own. One of whom was black and one of whom he managed to get the Virginia courts to declare his for life in the 1650s. That’s the beginning of slavery in America – a black man who had been indentured insisting upon the chattel ownership of another black man under indenture.
The Irish here are right. Indenture and slavery are not the same thing. Which does mean that the 1619 Project is wrong. But then we knew that anyway….