Lately when I write these essays I continually mutter to myself “I can’t believe I have to write this.” Here in America we have a strange and damaged relationship with the concept of race. There are many topics that white Americans aren’t comfortable talking about. We don’t like talking about slavery, we don’t like talking about Jim Crow laws, we don’t like talking about how African Americans and other minorities are still treated like second class citizens in many ways. We don’t like to talk about problems that don’t affect us. So we’ll talk about how ‘Immigrants are Stealing Our Jobs’ or we’ll talk about ‘White Genocide’, or we’ll shout from the roof tops about how ‘The Irish Were Slaves Too!’ I’m gonna address the issue of Irish slavery later. First we’re gonna learn about the African slave trade and slavery in general.
What is a slave?
Well, dictionary.com defines slaves as: “
What’s the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade?
The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade refers to the slave trading routes between Western Africa and the Americas. We can actually point to pretty specific years for the start and end date of this massive slave trading operation. The first European man to buy a West African slave was Antão Gonçalves, a Portuguese explorer in 1441 CE, and Brazil was the last country to officially ban the slave trade in 1888. In that span of years perhaps 10 million Africans were sold into slavery (in the US alone). Not all of the slaves who were captured in Africa made it to the America’s though. Altogether, for every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 had died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.
But, slavery is over in America right? So what’s the big deal?
Oh man, that’s… *sigh* ok. Yes, the practice of keeping slaves in the United States has ended. This is a legal fact. Slavery officially ended, legally, in the United States when Congress ratified the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. So yeah, from that day on slavery was no longer allowed in the US. That wasn’t the end of racism though. We didn’t all get together in a big group hug and suddenly love each other. Slavery had begun in the United States in August of 1619. It didn’t end until 1865. That’s 246 years of slavery in the US. 246 years of virulent racism. 246 years of treating Africans and African Americans like property. 246 years of dehumanization, of treating Africans as less than human. 246 years. You think we’re gonna solve that in a day. That’s not even something that we’ve solved today.
But it’s been…
152 years since slavery was legally ended, by a Constitutional Amendment. Slavery in the US still has nearly a century on Abolition. Following the ratification of the 13th Amendment Congress also passed the 14th, and 15th Amendments. Both were designed to try and improve the political lives of African Americans. The 14th defined a citizen as any person born in or naturalized in the U.S., overturning the Dred Scott V. Sandford (1857) Supreme Court ruling stating that Black people were not eligible for citizenship. The 15th prohibited governments from denying U.S. citizens the right to vote based on race, color, or past servitude. This didn’t stop many Southern States from passing what would come to be called “Jim Crow Laws”.
What are Jim Crow Laws?
Jim Crow Laws are the name given to the wide series of State and Local laws that sprang up following the Reconstruction Period which were designed to keep African Americans from voting and to segregate White and Black populations. Some key examples include poll taxes and literacy tests. Jim Crow laws also included those measures that segregated bathrooms, schools, and dictated to African Americans that they had to sit in the back of the bus. Following the death of legal slavery in the US, racism continued as people still felt racially superior to African Americans.
But this all happened over 100 years ago.
Not even close. Technically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Still, that was only 53 years ago, and it only states what’s supposed to happen legally. It does nothing to change what’s in the hearts and minds of people. African Americans are jailed 600% more often than white people. Of a prison population of about 2.3 million people, 1 million are African American. This isn’t because African Americans commit more crimes than white people. It’s because even 53 years after the Civil Rights Act, the effects of racism still effect relations between the races. African Americans, and indeed all minority groups within the US, are marginalized and in many ways still treated as second class citizens. Read through the wikipedia article on institutional racism if you want to know more about it. There’s still racism in this country. Legal, institutional racism, that is keeping African Americans and other minorities in a lesser position socially and economically.
Ok, but what does any of that have to do with Irish Slavery?
Excellent question! It has nothing to do with Irish Slavery, but everything to do with why people use Irish Slavery as their own personal “I’m not racist card”.
I don’t understand…
I know you don’t, you’re just an internal dialogue I use to order my thoughts. You don’t really exist. Allow me to share with you a very brief history of anti-Irish sentiment in Europe and America, and then we’ll get into the meat of “Irish Slavery”.
Why did you put quotes around Irish Slavery that time?
You’ll see! Back in the early days of the 12th century Pope Adrian IV signed a Papal Bull giving King Henry II of England the power and authority to conquer Ireland and so bring the Irish Church under the authority of Rome. This Bull was later ratified by Pope Alexander III. Both Popes considered the Irish to be a rude and barbarous nation with filthy practices.
When Viking raiders came to the British Isles they took English, Irish, and Scottish slaves. There’s nothing truly particular about the Irish in this instance. The Vikings made anyone they could defeat and capture a slave or thrall. The Irish were also among the first to settle Iceland, though they did so as slaves, and not freemen. While the British Isles did have slaves, and Irishmen were enslaved, Britain was never a “slave society” it was merely a “society with slaves”.
Still, the lot of the Irish was not an easy one. Even Voltaire, the patron saint of liberal ideology thought the Irish were a savage and backwards people. As Protestantism became a more and more powerful force on the British Isles, the Irish refusal to denounce their Catholicism also earned them the ire of the English.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the Irish as drunk and violent. This particular stereotype grew out of Victorian Era England and the 19th century United States. In media the Irish were often depicted with an ape like face and were considered an inferior race compared to Anglo-Saxons.
We also absolutely have to mention the Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine. From 1845 until 1852 there was a massive blight on the potatoes in Ireland. The blight struck most of Europe and there’s a great deal of debate on where the blight came from before it got to Europe. Despite the presence of the blight all throughout Western Europe, the Irish were hit the hardest. A large percentage of Irish citizens were utterly dependent upon the potato as a crop for a variety of reasons. They also only had one variety of potato growing in Ireland. The Irish Lumper. So when the Blight hit, Ireland got hit hard. By 1846 about 75% of their potato crop was lost. It’s estimated that around 1 million Irish citizens died as a direct result of the Blight and there’s still fierce political debate concerning whether the famine, or more particularly the British response to the famine, constitutes genocide.
We also have to talk about the period of American and English history affectionately called the “We Don’t Want to Hire You, You Filthy Stinking Irishman” era. Following 1860 there were a large amount of signs on shops and job postings in newspapers that came with the addendum. No Irish Need Apply or Irish Need Not Apply. So yeah, the Irish have had a rough go of it. That much we can easily say.
So Irish Slavery is talking about the Vikings?
Nope. That was just a historical example of a time when the Irish were enslaved. No, the truth about “Irish Slavery”, and why I’ve started putting it in quotes, is that it didn’t exist. It’s true that the Irish were discriminated against. They were persecuted for their religious beliefs, they were subject to dehumanization, we didn’t even talk about what Cromwell did. They were discriminated against for jobs and faced a long string of harmful stereotyping. The Irish have had a rough history.
When people talk about “Irish Slavery” they’re not talking about the Vikings. They’re referring to the 17th and 18th century tradition of penal transportation and indentured servitude that the Irish dealt with. Indentured servitude was a pretty common system. It was how a lot of people got to ‘the New World’ when they didn’t have the money for passage. You have someone else pay your way over and then you owe them a contractual obligation of unpaid labor for a period of time. Usually seven years. The main difference between indentured servitude and slavery is, both the fact that indentured service is temporary, and that indentured servants were still considered people. While the indentured servitude system could be abused, and many indentured servants faced very poor conditions. No comparison can be made.
We also have to consider the modern context of this argument. The “Irish Slave” myth is often summed up like this: “The Irish were enslaved too, but you don’t here us whining about it.” What this is, is a gross distortion of history and just further racism against black Americans and descendants of African slaves. To even begin to make the comparison between penal servitude, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery. Is just plain wrong. You know who trumpets the horn of “Irish slavery” the most? White supremacists and white nationalists. Ask yourself, are those really groups that we want to associate with? But don’t take my word on the myth of the Irish slaves. Read this.
The final nail in the coffin of “Irish Slavery” though, isn’t even that it doesn’t exist. It’s the awful racism that Irish immigrants inflicted on Black people in America. The Irish learned pretty quickly that they could increase their social standing by stepping on the backs of the only group white America hated more. Free Black people. The Irish worked menial jobs for less money than they should have. Then once they had an Irish monopoly on menial labor, they could command any price they wanted to. They also did everything they could to keep Black people out of their workforce. The Irish knew that if they kept working alongside Black people they’d forever be painted with the same brush. They did everything they could to maintain the system of slavery in the US. In order to improve their lot in life they knocked Black people down and used them as stairs to climb up to the level of ‘being white’
So yes, we have to recognize that the history of the Irish people has not been a happy one. They’ve been slapped around the British Isles and the United States for a long time. They faced conditions of racial prejudice, job discrimination, famine and a potential genocide at the hands the British. But you’re all missing the huge White Nationalist elephant in the room. The Irish are white. They may have started their journey in the US as third class citizens and indentured servants. They may have faced all the discrimination they did, but Irish and Irish American culture has assimilated into the greater Americana. They are such a huge part of the greater American culture that when St. Patrick’s Day roles around “everyone is Irish” (you’re not, but the problems of the American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day will have to wait for another time).
So while the Irish are now part of the classic whiteness of America, African Americans are not. They are still a marginalized group. Their battles for their rights ended only a short time ago, historically speaking, and in many ways they still don’t have equal rights. They endured being considered property for centuries, and are still fighting to be treated as full citizens. They’re still fighting for reparations over the racial terrorism that they’ve faced in this country, beginning with slavery and not ending today. So when you equate “Irish Slavery” with the actual horrors of African Slavery, you sound like a racist. Don’t compare the two.
Words and how we use them are important. Calling what the Irish dealt with “slavery” cheapens the slavery that Africans face and the slavery that still exists in our world today. It’s important that we call things what they are, so that when we use words like slavery or genocide. They mean what they are, and society feels the full impact of those words. Not the lessened impact of the boy who cried “white racism.”