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According to folk etymology, the name is derived from the effects of the tropical sun on their fair-skinned legs. However, the term "Redlegs" and its variants were also in use for Irish soldiers of the same sort as those later transported to Barbados by the English. The variant "Red-shankes" is recorded as early as the 16th century by Edmund Spenser in his dialogue on the current condition of Ireland.
In addition to "Redlegs", the term underwent extensive progression in Barbados and the following terms were also used: "Redshanks", "Poor whites", "Poor Backra", "Backra Johnny", "Ecky-Becky", "Poor Backward Johnnie", "Poor whites from below the hill", "Edey white mice" or "Beck-e Neck" (Baked-neck). Historically everything besides "poor whites" were used as derogatory insults.
Many of the Redleg's ancestors were forcibly transported by Oliver Cromwell consequent to his Conquest of Ireland. Others had originally arrived on Barbados in the early to mid-17th century as indentured servants. Small groups of Germans and Portuguese were also imported as plantation labourers.
By the 18th century, indentured servants became less common. African slaves were trained in all necessary trades, so there was no demand for paid white labour. The Redlegs,[which?] in turn, were unwilling to work alongside the freed slave population on the plantations. Therefore, most tried to emigrate to other British colonies whenever the opportunity arose, which reduced the white population to a small minority; and most of the white population that chose to stay eked out, at best, a subsistence living. The Redleg descendants of indentured servants today are extremely poor, almost all living in shacks in the countryside. Many Redlegs reside in St. John's Parish.
Because of the deplorable conditions under which the Redlegs lived, a campaign was initiated in the mid-19th century to move portions of the population to other islands which would be more economically hospitable. The relocation process succeeded, and a distinct community of Redleg descendants live in the Dorsetshire Hill district on St. Vincent as well as on the islands of Grenada around Mt. Moritz and Bequia.
For the small Redleg community still living on Barbados, most live a poorer standard of life than the blacks, relying on farming or running small shops and brothels that serve the wealthier blacks.
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- Sheppard, Jill (1977). The "Redlegs" of Barbados, their origins and history. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-527-82230-9.
- Fraser, Henry (1990). A-Z of Barbadian heritage. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann Publishers (Caribbean). p. 90. ISBN 978-976-605-098-6.
- Magan, Manchán (1 January 2009) Red Legs in Barbados. The Irish Times: "...most tend to be poorer than the black population. They farm smallholdings of sugar cane on the arid eastern coast of the island or live in Bridgetown, the capital, drinking in local grog shops or running white brothels for middle-class blacks."