7 Slavery Myths DebunkedRoundup
The Irish Were Slaves
Is it true?: If we’re talking about slavery as it was practiced on Africans in the United States—that is, hereditary chattel slavery—then the answer is a clear no. As historian and public librarian Liam Hogan writes in a paper titled “The Myth of ‘Irish Slaves’ in the Colonies,” “Persons from Ireland have been held in various forms of human bondage throughout history, but they have never been chattel slaves in the West Indies.” Nor is there any evidence of Irish chattel slavery in the North American colonies. There were a large number of Irish indentured servants, and there were cases in which Irish men and women were sentenced to indentured servitude in the “new world” and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. But even involuntary laborers had more autonomy than enslaved Africans, and the large majority of Irish indentured servants came here voluntarily.
Which raises a question: Where did the myth of Irish slavery come from? A few places. The term “white slaves” emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, first as a derogatory term for Irish laborers—equating their social position to that of slaves—later as political rhetoric in Ireland itself, and later still as Southern pro-slavery propaganda against an industrialized North. More recently, Hogan notes, several sources have conflated indentured servitude with chattel slavery in order to argue for a particular Irish disadvantage in the Americas, when compared to other white immigrant groups. Hogan cites several writers—Sean O’Callaghan in To Hell or Barbados and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh in White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America—who exaggerate poor treatment of Irish indentured servants and intentionally conflate their status with African slaves. Neither of the authors “bother to inform the reader, in a coherent manner, what the differences are between chattel slavery and indentured servitude or forced labor,” writes Hogan.
This is an important point. Indentured servitude was difficult, deadly work, and many indentured servants died before their terms were over. But indentured servitude was temporary, with a beginning and an end. Those who survived their terms received their freedom. Servants could even petition for early release due to mistreatment, and colonial lawmakers established different, often lesser, punishments for disobedient servants compared to disobedient slaves. Above all, indentured servitude wasn’t hereditary. The children of servants were free; the children of slaves were property. To elide this is to diminish the realities of chattel slavery, which—perhaps—is one reason the most vocal purveyors of the myth are neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups.
Bottom line: Even if many Irish immigrants faced discrimination and hard lives on these shores, it doesn’t change the fact that American slavery—hereditary and race-based—was a massive institution that shaped and defined the political economy of colonial America, and later, the United States. Nor does it change the fact that this institution left a profound legacy for the descendants of enslaved Africans, who even after emancipation were subject to almost a century of violence, disenfranchisement, and pervasive oppression, with social, economic, and cultural effects that persist to the present....
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