Irish slaves myth

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The Irish slaves myth is a conflation of the penal transportation and indentured servitude of Irish people during the 17th and 18th centuries on one hand, and the chattel slavery of Africans relating to the Atlantic slave trade and their descendants on the other, usually used to undermine contemporary African American demands for equality and reparations. It is also employed by some Irish nationalists, both to highlight historical British oppression of Irish people and to obscure the fact that many Irish people benefited from the African slave trade.[1]

The myth has become increasingly prominent since the 1990s and has been prominent in online memes and social media debates.[2] This has led a large number of historians to publicly condemn it.[2][3]

Background[edit]

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, tens of thousands of British and Irish indentured servants emigrated to British America. The majority of these entered into indentured servitude in the Americas for a set number of years willingly in order to pay their way across the Atlantic, but at least 10,000 were transported as punishment for rebellion against English rule in Ireland or other crimes, then subjected to forced labour for a given period.[4][5]

During this same period, the Atlantic slave trade was enslaving millions of Africans and bringing them to the Americas, including the British colonies, where they were put to work. In Ireland, Africa, and in the Caribbean, Irish people benefitted from the African trade, as slave merchants, factors, investors, and owners. According to historian Nini Rodgers, "every group in Ireland produced merchants who benefited from the slave trade and the expanding slave colonies." [6] Unlike Irish indentured servants, enslaved Africans generally were made slaves for life and slave status was imposed on their children at birth.[2] African slave's grandchildren and future bloodline became property—legally, like livestock.[7]

Origins and propagation[edit]

The myth is especially popular with apologists for the Confederate States of America, the secessionist slave states of the South during the American Civil War.[8] According to research librarian and independent scholar Liam Hogan, the most influential book to assert the myth was They Were White And They Were Slaves: The Untold History of The Enslavement of Whites In Early America, self-published in the US in 1993 by conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier[9] Michael A. Hoffman II (who blamed Jews for the African slave trade).[10]

This was followed in Ireland in 2000 by the book To Hell Or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland by the journalist Sean O'Callaghan.[11][2] The book continued Hoffman's themes and introduced the concept of Irish women being forcibly bred with African men in order to produce mulattos, who are represented as being more valuable than slaves of purely Irish ancestry.[12][13] It is not made clear why this is the case,[citation needed] or why it was not possible to achieve the same result with the physical union of European men and African women,[citation needed] a far more frequent interracial union. Other authors repeated these lurid descriptions of Irish women being compelled to have sex with African men,[14][15] which have no basis in the historical record.[16] Liam Hogan and other historians have described the book as shoddily researched.[2]

According to the New York Times, "In America, [O'Callaghan's] book connected the white slave narrative to an influential ethnic group of over 34 million people, many of whom had been raised on stories of Irish rebellion against Britain and tales of anti-Irish bias in America at the turn of the 20th century. From there, it took off."[2] O'Callaghan's claims were repeated on Irish genealogy websites, the Canadian conspiracy theory website Globalresearch.ca, Niall O'Dowd's IrishCentral, Scientific American and The Daily Kos. The 2008 article on Globalresearch.ca has been a major online source for the myth, having been shared almost a million times as of March 2016.[17] The myth has become popular on white nationalist message boards, neo-Nazi websites, the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars, and has been shared millions of times on Facebook.[2]

The myth has been a common trope on the white supremacist website Stormfront since 2003.[8][18][19] It has circulated widely in the United States, and has recently begun to become common in Ireland after the "Irish slaves" meme went viral on social media in 2013.[20][13] After the 2014 arrival of the Black Lives Matter movement, the myth was frequently referenced by right-wing white Americans attempting to undermine it[21] and other African-American civil rights issues, according to Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.[22]

In August 2015, the meme was referred to in the context of debates about the continued flying of the Confederate flag, following the Charleston church shooting.[23][24] In May 2016, it was referenced by prominent members of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, after their leader Gerry Adams became involved in a controversy over his use of the word "nigger".[1] Irish Times columnist Donald Clarke describes the meme as racist, saying "More commonly we see racists using the myth to belittle the suffering visited on black slaves and to siphon some sympathy towards their own clan."[25] According to the New York Times, the myth is "politically motivated" and often used as "racist barbs" against African-Americans.[2]

Common elements[edit]

Common elements to memes that propagate the myth are:[2][26][27]

  • The conspiracy theory that historians and the media are covering up Irish slavery.
  • That Irish people were enslaved after the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in 1649.
  • Irish slaves were treated worse than African slaves.
  • Irish women were forced to reproduce with African men.
  • Intending to diminish the discrimination that African-Americans have historically experienced, with memes like "The Irish were slaves, too. We got over it, so why can't you?".
  • Using photographs of victims of the Holocaust or 20th century child laborers, claiming that they are Irish slaves.
  • A reference to an alleged 1625 declaration by King James II to send thousands of Irish prisoners to the West Indies as slaves. James II had not been born yet; he was born in 1633 and started his rule in 1685. 1625 saw the end of James I's rule and the rise of Charles I to the throne.
  • The substitution of the victims of actual atrocities committed against African slaves with Irish victims. The far-right conspiracy website InfoWars, for instance, substituted the 132 African victims of the 1781 Zong massacre with Irish victims. Several online articles about "Irish slaves" have inflated the number 132 to 1,302. Historian Liam Hogan traces the first juxtaposition of the Zong massacre with Irish suffering to 2002, when James Mullin, chair of the New Jersey-based Irish Famine Curriculum Committee and Education Fund, wrote a lurid article blurring the lines between the history of African enslavement in the British Americas with the history of Irish colonial indentured servitude.[28][29]

Academic criticism and responses[edit]

The Irish Examiner removed an article that cited John Martin's Globalresearch.ca piece from its website in early 2016 after 82 writers, historians and academics wrote an open letter condemning the myth.[3][30][2] Scientific American published a blog post, which was also debunked in the open letter, and later heavily revised the blog to remove the incorrect historical material.[31]

According to Liam Hogan, "Irish Central" an Irish-American website also played a role in spreading the myth:

The most disappointing response came from (Niall O'Dowd's) Irish Central. After a month one instance of their propaganda was removed from the site without comment, explanation or apology. You can access this iteration on the internet archive. Its share count has been wiped but it stood at over 155,000 in March 2016. I assumed that progress had been made, but had it? Another version of the article was then reinstated (without comment) as the primary version in September 2016 and links to the removed version were redirected internally to this one. It has remained on the website ever since and O’Dowd links to it approvingly in his op-ed in March 2017.

(Niall O'Dowd) therefore not only ignores that the Irish Central media company played a role in spreading these egregious lies to a significant number of people but also seems to suggesting that this article was not ahistorical at all. His recent op-ed disclaims that “there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through.” But ... that’s exactly what Irish Central have been telling their readers (the site receives 3.5 million unique visitors per month) since 2012.[32]

O'Dowd, had written in the op-ed that Hogan refers to:

The controversy has arisen because some far-right groups have claimed that the experience of Irish slaves was interchangeable with (or even in some cases worse than) the experience of black slaves, and have used that as justification for an array of abhorrent racist statements and ideas. To be clear, there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through.[33]

Nonetheless, the op-ed goes on to draw comparisons between indentured servitude and slavery.

Sean O'Callaghan's book To Hell or Barbados in particular has been criticised by, among others, Dr Nini Rodgers, who stated that his narrative appeared to arise from his horror at seeing white people being on a level with blacks.[34]

Historian Mark Auslander, an anthropologist and director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University, states that the current racial climate is leaning toward denial of certain events in history, saying "There is a strange war on memory that's going on right now, denying the facts of chattel slavery, or claiming to have learned on Facebook or social media that, say, Irish slavery was worse, that white people were enslaved as well. Not true."[35]

Matthew Reilly, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University with an academic background in Barbadian slavery, asserts that "The Irish slave myth is not supported by the historical evidence." Historians note that unlike slaves, indentured servants willingly entered into contracts with another person, only served for a finite period, did not pass their unfree status on to their children, and were still considered human.[2][36] Historian Donald Akenson, writing in If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730, states that on the island of Montserrat, "White indentured servitude was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience."[37] According to Liam Hogan, the debate over the exact definition of slavery, as well as a tendency of some Irish nationalists to gloss over the ways in which Irish people benefitted from the African slave trade, allowed for a grey area in historical discourse that was then seized upon as a political weapon by white supremacists.[20][13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Linehan, Hugh (May 11, 2016). "Sinn Féin Not Allowing Facts Derail Good 'Irish Slaves' Yarn". The Irish Times. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Stack, Liam (2017-03-17). "Debunking a Myth: The Irish Were Not Slaves, Too". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-20. 
  3. ^ a b Hogan, Liam (8 March 2016). "Open letter to Irish Central, Irish Examiner and Scientific American about their "Irish slaves…"". medium.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  4. ^ Bartlett, Thomas. "'This famous island set in a Virginian sea': Ireland in the British Empire, 1690–1801." In The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume II: The Eighteenth Century, by Marshall, P. J., Alaine Low, and Wm. Roger Louis., edited by P. J. Marshall, and Alaine Low. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 256.
  5. ^ Handler, Jerome S.; Reilly, Matthew C. (1 January 2017). "Contesting "White Slavery" in the Caribbean" (PDF). New West Indian Guide (Nieuwe West-Indische Gids). 91 (1-2): 30–55. doi:10.1163/22134360-09101056. Retrieved 29 May 2017. 
  6. ^ Rodgers, Nini. "The Irish and the Atlantic slave trade". History Ireland. Dublin: History Publications, Ltd. 15 (3: May/June 2007). 
  7. ^ O'Carroll, Eoin (2018-03-16). "No, the Irish were not slaves in the Americas". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2018-03-19. 
  8. ^ a b Gettys, Travis (April 20, 2016). "'Irish slaves': Historian Destroys Racist Myth Conservatives Love to Share on Facebook". rawstory.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  9. ^ Barkun, Michael (2003). "Millennialism, Conspiracy, and Stigmatized Knowledge". A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. University of California Press. p. 34. ISBN 9780520238053. Retrieved March 15, 2013. Michael A. Hoffman II, a Holocaust denier and exponent of multiple conspiracy theories 
  10. ^ "Ernst Zundel interviews Michael A. Hoffman author of They Were White and They Were Slaves". davidduke.com. 20 April 2008. 
  11. ^ Hogan, Liam; McAtackney, Laura; Reilly, Matthew C. (29 February 2016). "The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?". History Ireland. 
  12. ^ Martin, John (April 14, 2008). "The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten "White" Slaves". globalresearch.ca. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  13. ^ a b c Amend, Alex. "How the Myth of the "Irish slaves" Became a Favorite Meme of Racists Online". Hatewatch (blog). Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  14. ^ Kelleher, Lawrence R. To Shed a Tear: A Story of Irish Slavery in the British West Indies. Writers Club Press. p. 73. ISBN 0595169260. Some of the physically larger blacks were made guards and were given certain privileges, namely Irish women. There had been several Irish killed trying to protect the Irish women from being assaulted by these savage blacks. 
  15. ^ Nixon, Guy (2011). Slavery in the West: The Untold Story of the Slavery of Native Americans in the West. p. 12. This African would serve as a stud for the inexpensive Irish women slaves…[these breeding programs were stopped] because it was reducing the profits of the Royal African Company…[but] due to the profitability of these breeding programs the practice continued until well after the end of Ireland's 'Potato Famine' 
  16. ^ Hogan, Liam (23 October 2015). "The "Forced Breeding" Myth in the "Irish Slaves" Meme". medium.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  17. ^ Costello, Norma (March 17, 2016). "Black Lives Matter and the 'Irish slave' Myth". aljazeera.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  18. ^ Riley, Ricky (18 March 2016). "Myth Busted: Scholars Fire Back Against Memes Pushing Narrative of Irish Slaves in the Americas". atlantablackstar.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  19. ^ Deignan, Tom (May 7, 2016). "Racial Tensions of 2016 and the Myth of Irish Slavery - Opinion". nj.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  20. ^ a b Hogan, Liam (12 January 2015). "'Irish Slaves': The Convenient Myth". opendemocracy.net. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  21. ^ Kireini, Douglas (March 8, 2018). "Any attempts to rewrite history must be rebuffed". Business Daily. Retrieved 2018-03-19. 
  22. ^ Ferguson, Amanda (May 2, 2016). "Adams Comparing US Slavery With Nationalist Plight 'Overblown'". The Irish Times. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  23. ^ Tucker, Neely (18 August 2015). "In Mississippi, Defenders of State's Confederate-Themed Flag Dig In". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 February 2017. 
  24. ^ Hogan, Liam; McAtackney, Laura; Reilly, Matthew Connor (6 October 2015). "The Unfree Irish in the Caribbean Were Indentured Servants, Not Slaves". Yahoo News. Retrieved 17 February 2017. Inevitably the myth gained prominence in the wake of Dylann Roof's terrorist attack in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the Confederate flag. 
  25. ^ Clarke, Donald (30 July 2016). "Free Us From Myth of US Irish Slavery". The Irish Times. Retrieved 16 February 2017. 
  26. ^ Pogachnik, Shawn (March 16, 2017). "AP FACT CHECK: Irish "slavery" a St. Patrick's Day myth". Dublin: The Seattle Times. Associated Press. Retrieved 2017-04-14. 
  27. ^ Varner, Natasha (March 16, 2017). "The curious origins of the 'Irish slaves' myth". Public Radio International. Retrieved 2017-03-20. 
  28. ^ Hogan, Liam. "How the African victims of the Zong Massacre were replaced with "Irish slaves"". Medium. Retrieved 30 January 2018. 
  29. ^ Mullin, James. "Out of Africa, Out of Ireland". 
  30. ^ Dempsey, James (March 9, 2016). "Irish Historians Add Their Names to Open Letter Criticising the "Racist Propaganda" of 'Irish slavery'". Newstalk. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  31. ^ D'Costa, Krystal (March 17, 2015). "It’s True: We’re Probably All a Little Irish—Especially in the Caribbean". blogs.scientificamerican.com. Retrieved February 18, 2017. 
  32. ^ https://medium.com/@Limerick1914/niall-odowd-whitewashes-history-by-denying-the-role-irish-central-continue-to-play-spreading-b602522a11f8
  33. ^ O'Dowd, Niall (30 March 2017). "Why the Irish were both slaves and indentured servants in colonial America". Irish Central. Retrieved 22 July 2018. 
  34. ^ Rodgers, Nini. Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-77099-3. 
  35. ^ Eversley, Melanie (17 February 2017). "Slavery-Era Embroidery Excites Historians, Evokes Heartbreak of Its Time". USA Today. Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  36. ^ Davies, Madeleine (March 17, 2016). "Let's Squash the Myth That the Irish Were Ever American Slaves". jezebel.com. 
  37. ^ Akenson, Donald (1997). If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 9780773516304. 

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