Slavery: The Irish Slaves That Time Forgot
By John Martin
May 28, 2012 "Information
-- They came as slaves; vast human cargo transported on tall
British ships bound for the Americas. They were shipped by the
hundreds of thousands and included men, women, and even the
youngest of children.
Whenever they rebelled or even disobeyed an order, they were
punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their
human property by their hands and set their hands or feet on
fire as one form of punishment. They were burned alive and had
their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to
We don’t really need to go through all of the gory details, do
we? After all, we know all too well the atrocities of the
African slave trade. But, are we talking about African slavery?
King James II and Charles I led a continued effort to enslave
the Irish. Britain’s famed Oliver Cromwell furthered this
practice of dehumanizing one’s next door neighbor.
The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish
prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625
required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to
English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish
were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that
time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish
Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for
English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New
World were actually white.
From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English
and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland’s population
fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade.
Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish
dads to take their wives and children with them across the
Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women
and children. Britain’s solution was to auction them off as
During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages
of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in
the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade,
52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados
and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also
transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell
ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as
slaves to English settlers.
Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they
truly were: Slaves. They’ll come up with terms like “Indentured
Servants” to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in
most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were
nothing more than human cattle.
As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during
this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not
tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more
expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their
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. A death was a monetary setback, but far
cheaper than killing a more expensive African.
The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for
both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit.
Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the
size of the master’s free workforce. Even if an Irish woman
somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of
her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found
emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain
In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women
(in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market
share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with
African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These
new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock
and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than
purchase new African slaves.
This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men
went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681,
legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish
slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing
slaves for sale.” In short, it was stopped only because it
interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.
England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for
more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish
Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America
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.
There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors
of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the
Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those
brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West
Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish
In 1839, Britain finally decided on it’s own to end it’s
participation in Satan’s highway to hell and stopped
transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates
from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded THIS
chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.
But, if anyone, black or white, believes that slavery was only
an African experience, then they’ve got it completely wrong.
Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from
our memories. But, where are our public (and PRIVATE)
schools???? Where are the history books? Why is it so seldom
Do the memories of hundreds of thousands of Irish victims merit
more than a mention from an unknown writer? Or is their story to
be one that their English pirates intended: To (unlike the
African book) have the Irish story utterly and completely
disappear as if it never happened.
None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to
describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that
time and biased history books conveniently forgot.