Over the past few years, I’ve heard claims there were Irish slaves in the Americas. Were there? If by “slaves,” you mean, “not slaves,” then yes. But, if there weren’t Irish slaves, then why are there claims that there were?
As with many things that aren’t true, we have a Holocaust denier to thank for this one. Specifically, Michael A. Hoffman II, who in 1993 decided to take a break from anti-Semitism to write the book, “They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America.” Ah, who am I kidding – he also said Jews were responsible for the Atlantic slave trade. Some men see things as they are and say why; Michael A. Hoffman II dreams things that never were and says, why not make this anti-Semitic? This may be giving you the wrong impression, though. While Hoffman is first and foremost a Holocaust denier, he proved more than capable of denying other parts of history, too. We also have other people to thank for this myth, like Sean O’Callaghan, who helped popularize it with his book, “From Hell to Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland.” This book claimed, among other things, that Irish women were forcibly bred with African slaves – a claim for which there is zero evidence. In fact, if you know anything about the history of racism, you know that white women having sex with black men was long viewed by white society as pretty much the worst thing ever. There were laws all over the English colonies, then the United States, expressly forbidding it (while staying surprisingly silent on white men having sex with black women).
When the British had American colonies, many people from Ireland (and other places) came over. It was expensive to travel across the Atlantic, so many came as indentured servants. This meant that someone else would pay for their travel, then they would be their servant or worker for a set number of years (up to seven). While most of the people did this willingly, some came…not so willingly. And, even those who came willingly were sometimes doing so to escape less-than-ideal social or economic circumstances. As the name implies, indentured servants were servants. Some of them were abused and some were treated harshly. So, if some people were forced to become indentured servants, some were abused, and they were doing forced labor, why WEREN’T they slaves?
When you became an indentured servant, you signed a contract. You had access to the courts. When your time was up, you were supposed to be freed. You were the only one bound by your contract. And, even if every single one of these was abused by the person you were indebted to, at the end of the day…you were white. The laws governing African slaves were much harsher than those governing indentured servants. African slavery was what is known as “chattel slavery,” which means that enslaved people were treated as the private property of owners. They could be bought or sold, and their children would also be slaves. Chattel slaves had no rights. They couldn’t testify in court. They could be executed to deter other slaves from rising up against masters. If your owner didn’t free you or you didn’t somehow escape, you were born a slave and died a slave. As did your children, and their children, and so on. Simply put, an indentured servant was considered a person. A slave was not. The 3/5’s Compromise only applied to African slaves and their descendants, not indentured servants. It’s important to remember the discrimination faced by the Irish in the colonial period and beyond, but they were NOT slaves.
So, if the Irish weren’t slaves, why does this myth persist? First, there is a legitimate history of discrimination against the Irish, going from English-controlled Ireland all the way to the United States. This myth feeds into that history of discrimination. The second reason, and the reason this myth came about in the first place, is racism. As I mentioned before, an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier is the main reason this myth exists. And, where anti-Semitism goes, racism often follows. The Irish slave myth is very popular on racist websites, because it allows racists to minimize African slavery by claiming there were white slaves at the same time. Some also use it to minimize racism in general. There is a history of racism in the United States, but claiming that white people were just as discriminated against as every other race makes everybody sound equally oppressed.
Since the Irish weren’t slaves, there’s no evidence that they were. So, proponents have to either distort history or make it up altogether. Distortions include taking literally when the Irish are called “slaves” figuratively. Or, saying photographs or paintings of other groups of people (like Holocaust victims, child laborers, or ancient Roman slaves) are actually of Irish slaves. Sometimes proponents will even try to claim that a well-documented tragedy about African slaves was actually about Irish slaves. This happened, for example, with the Zong massacre, in which an English slave ship threw African slaves overboard to try to collect insurance on them. Then, there are blatant lies, like the claim that King James I sent thousands of Irish prisoners to the West Indies to work as slaves in 1625. It would have been quite a feat, since James I wasn’t born until 1633.
There’s no need to make up discrimination against the Irish, since history has plenty of real examples. And, while there were certainly abuses of indentured servitude, the rules for indentured servants were never as bad as they were for African slaves. In one you were a person; in the other, you were a product. Also, the myth of Irish slavery was created by an anti-Semite and is actively promoted by racist groups, so there’s that…