Lesson #339: The Irish Slaves in the West Indies

The early to mid 17th Century was not a good time for the Irish. It started with the Plantation of Ulster (which is the event at the root of the current Anglo-Irish question in Northern Ireland) in 1609 and ended with the English killing roughly half a million of them and James II and Oliver Cromwell selling 300,000 of them, of whom about 10% were political prisoners, into slavery in the West Indies. In the course of the decade(ish) between 1641 and 1652, the Irish population fell from just under a million and a half to 616,000.

By 1652, 70% (!) of the white population of Montserrat was Irish; through the entire decade of the 1650s, there were more Irish slaves living in the Americas than there were free citizens.

The first recorded instance of Irishmen being sold into slavery is 1612, when James II sold a group of them to a settlement on the Amazon. With the issue of a 1625 proclamation* that stated that Irish political prisoners (which considering the politics of the time, was all Irishmen) were to be banished overseas, the practice of selling the Irish into slavery became widespread.

In the 1650s, somewhere between 80,000 – 130,000 (depending on which source you read), Irish — many of whom were kidnapped — were sold into slavery in New England, Virginia, and the Caribbean. The reason for this? They were much cheaper than African slaves. African slaves cost between 50-60 pounds sterling; the Irish cost five. Turns out that the reason for this price difference is that the Africans weren’t tainted by Catholic dogma. Serio. As a result, they were treated a hell of a lot better than the Irish. For a while, realizing they could turn a sweet profit on it, slave owners bred Irish women (and, let’s be real, girls) and African men to create an entire generation of mixed-race slaves who brought more money than the Irish at market, but weren’t as expensive as the Africans. The practice was so widespread that in 1681 a law was passed outlawing “the mating of Irish women and African men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale,” not because it was immoral, but because it was cutting into the profits of the Royal African Company, which provided African slaves to the New World. 

Part of the reason the number of Irish slaves was so high is because Cromwell continued the work the Plantation of Ulster started, issuing a decree that stated that all Irish must relocate west of the Shannon River into Connaught (the westernmost of the four Irish provinces) or County Clare (part of Muenster, but the county immediately south of Connaught).** By 1657, he had issued a law that gave the Irish six months to abandon their lands east of the Shannon or be held as traitors and banished to America, never to return lest they “suffer the pains of death as felons by virtue of this act, without benefit of Clergy.”***

While the flow of Irish into the West Indies (and America) ebbed after 1660 (because the English had already sent off nearly everyone they could), there was still a continuous trade in Irish slaves throughout the rest of the 17th and into the 18th century. After the 1798 Irish rebellion, thousands were sent to be sold as slaves in the United States and Australia.

Transportation of Irish slaves finally ended in 1839 when Britain decided to end their involvement in the slave trade.

For more, see here, hereherehere, and here.

Interesting side note: there was a brief Irish uprising in the Barbados in 1649, which Cromwell quickly crushed. He had the perpetrators drawn and quartered and mounted their heads on pikes.

*I can’t find whatever proclamation these sources talk about, but there are a slew of sources cited (including Abbott Smith’s Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labour in America, 1607-1776), so at some point, someone actually read it.

**If you’ve ever been to Co. Clare, you understand why this is a bit of a problem. It’s super cool terrain, but, being mostly rock, not so good for farming.

***I also can’t find this law, but it’s also cited in a ton of places (including Rhetta Akamatsu’s The Irish Slaves: Slavery , Indenture, and Contract Labor Among Irish Immigrants), so ostensibly someone read that one too.


Lesson #162: Nottingham Caves

Autobiographical note: I secretly love the Robin Hood story. I blame Disney’s singing foxes for this. My parents will be able to give a fairly accurate estimate of how many times my brother and I watched the Disney version of Robin Hood when we were kids. It was a lot. Each of us has a copy of it on DVD — he gave me a copy of it and Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights on DVD for Christmas a few years ago.*

So here’s what I know about Nottingham: The evil Sheriff of Nottingham lived there and made Robin Hood’s life difficult.**

Here’s what I learned today: There are a whole bunch of caves underneath Nottingham. Like 500 of them. That were used as far back as the medieval times for a wide variety of things. Like tanning hides and storing stuff. And probably hiding. Anyway, the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey have teamed up and are mapping out the caves in highly accurate 3D renderings. And you can fly through them should you be so inclined. I am so inclined, so I totally spent half an hour playing on the Nottingham Caves website.

*And lest you think this is freakish, half the people on my floor the second (and last) year I lived in residence were obsessed with that movie. We had at least three viewing parties over the course of the year.

**I choose to ignore the fact that Robin Hood was effectively just a highwayman.

Lesson #73: The Wars of the Roses

Is there a more awesome name for a series of wars in history? How violent can wars of roses possibly be?*

The War of the Roses was a medieval civil war that officially spanned from 1455 to 1485 and was fought between two opposing families with interests in the throne. It is so called because the Houses of Lancaster and York were said to be represented by badges bearing red and white roses respectively. Interestingly, the idea of the battling flowers is actually derived from Renaissance literature; in reality, the badges were simply markers for household servants. Neither the House of Lancaster nor the House of York is represented by a rose on its official coat of arms. The name “war of the roses” is, in fact, an even later invention than Shakespeare’s references to the flowers in Henry VI.**

Anyway, the whole bit of contention all came about because the royal family was all related to itself and so there were challenges to the throne of England. Richard the II, son of Edward III was deposed by Henry of Lancaster whose heirs ruled for some time…until Henry the VI. Being childless and not really having an heir, Henry VI was encouraged to appoint Richard, Duke of York and direct descendant of Edward III to an “overseas post” (read: exile). Which Richard didn’t so much love and so he amassed an army. And then there was a whole bit with the York family’s cousins having a feud with some other people and then getting together to fight their enemies together and then their enemies amassed armies*** and then the Duke of York and his army ended up fighting their enemies’ armies (the Lancastrians) for thirty years with the House of York taking all but four of the fifteen battles. Over this time there was also the ascension to the throne of Edward IV (House of York), Henry VI (again), Edward IV (again), Edward V and Richard III (also House of York) before an obscure Welsh relation of Henry VI’s called  Henry Tudor marched in with an army of his own, married Edward IV’s daughter, took power as Henry VII and had his family rule over England and Wales for 120 years.****

*Well, given that this took place in the mid- to late 1400s and killed 100,000 – 105,000 people, it was actually pretty violent. Those numbers can be found here, but it should be noted that at least one modern source suggests that the casualty rates were exaggerated by the Tudors and Tudor historians to make themselves look like saviours and since history is written by the victor, this is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

**That bit of information is here.

***I find this hilarious, because it makes it sound like they’re raising chickens. The idea of just deciding to do so one day and then amassing an army in modernity is absurd.

****More information on the wars of the roses here, here and here.