The “Irish slave” myth has been widely discredited

8 July 2020
What was claimed

Irish people were forced into slavery in British Colonies for hundreds of years.

Our verdict

This is incorrect. Claiming the Irish experience of indentured servitude was chattel slavery is a misrepresentation of history.

We’ve seen numerous claims online that white Irish people were enslaved for hundreds of years.

However, the idea of “Irish slaves” is a common myth, and claims of white Irish slavery have been continually discredited for decades. In 2016, dozens of historians signed an open letter condemning several publications for the repeating of the myth. 

Firstly, the picture attached to this claim is more likely of Belgian coal miners, although the exact source is unclear. Either way, it’s impossible for there to be photos of “Irish slaves” as photography did not exist when the enslavement was claimed to have occurred. 

Next, the text of the majority of these posts comes from a 2008 article from a page on website “OpEdNews” called “The Slaves that time forgot.” It is unclear who the author John Martin is, and the article has no citations.

The key claims in the article have also been discredited. The 1625 proclamation by James I that supposedly required Irish political prisoners to be sold to English people in the West Indies has not been found to exist. The figure of 300,000 Irish people sold as slaves (which many of the posts say happened between 1641 and 1652) was found by Reuters to be impossible, based on the total number of people estimated to have migrated from Ireland to North America and the West Indies over the century and a half around this time. And the figure of 100,000 Irish children was also found to be a huge exaggeration and misrepresents the experience of the Irish children who were transported against their will for servitude.

Away from the article, a key part of the myth is a misunderstanding of the indentured servitude many Irish peoples found themselves in. 

Irish peoples were shipped across the British empire during the 17th and 18th centuries to provide labour and service for a defined number of years, in return for passage, food and lodgings, and eventually freedom. Many, unlike black slaves, did this by choice, seeking new lives and fortunes in the colonies. For others, servitude happened because they were political prisoners, or forcibly deported or sold.

The eventual freedom given to these workers, and their relative rights, is a key difference in the experiences of white European indentured servants and black people in chattel slavery.

In an article for History Ireland magazine, historians Liam Hogan, Laura McAtackney and Matthew C. Reilly note that while those in indentured servitude (who weren’t only Irish but included people from various other parts of Europe) were often treated badly, they had relatively more power and legal rights than black slaves.

“Laws passed in 1661 carefully spelled out the legal distinctions between slavery (as reserved for ‘Negroes’) and servitude (as reserved for Europeans). Earlier laws from the 1640s, which we know only by name, similarly make clear that certain rules and rights applied to ‘servants’ while others were explicitly for ‘Negroes’.

”They also note that while relations between the British and the Irish may have led to some of the poor treatment, Irish masters participated in the brutal punishment of black slaves just as other slave owners and those with indentured servants did.

This is not to say that Irish people were not subjected to harsh, and unfair conditions from British authorities. But comparing this to the infamously horrific experience of Black slavery undermines the latter. 

Several publications note that, in recent years, the Irish slave myth has become a popular tool used by white supremacists to discredit the experiences of black people. Again, speaking to the Southern Poverty Law Centre in 2016, Hogan said: “Why is it used so often to justify anti-black nativism and racism? The sentiment is we were slaves, too, but we moved on, and it speaks to the racist essence of white nationalism.”

This article cites a lot of work done by historian Liam Hogan who has been working to debunk the Irish slave myth for years. If you’re interested in learning more about the myth, you can find his work collected here.

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