by Liam Stack
It has shown up on Irish trivia Facebook pages, in Scientific American magazine, and on white nationalist message boards: the little-known story of the Irish slaves who built America, who are sometimes said to have outnumbered and been treated worse than slaves from Africa.
But it’s not true.
Historians say the idea of Irish slaves is based on a misreading of history and that the distortion is often politically motivated. Far-right memes have taken off online and are used as racist barbs against African-Americans. “The Irish were slaves, too,” the memes often say. “We got over it, so why can’t you?”
A small group of Irish and American scholars has spent years pushing back on the false history. Last year, 82 Irish scholars and writers signed an open letter denouncing the Irish slave myth and asking publications to stop mentioning it. Some complied, removing or revising articles that referenced the false claims, but the letter’s impact was limited.
Fact vs. Fiction
The Irish slave narrative is based on the misinterpretation of the history of indentured servitude, which is how many poor Europeans migrated to North America and the Caribbean in the early colonial period, historians said.
Without a doubt, life was bad for indentured servants. They were often treated brutally. Not all of them entered servitude willingly. Some were political prisoners. Some were children.
“I’m not saying it was pleasant or anything — it was the opposite — but it was a completely different category from slavery,” said Liam Hogan, a research librarian in Ireland who has spearheaded the debunking effort. “It was a transitory state.”
The legal differences between indentured servitude and chattel slavery were profound, according to Matthew Reilly, an archaeologist who studies Barbados. Unlike slaves, servants were considered legally human. Their servitude was based on a contract that limited their service to a finite period of time, usually about seven years, in exchange for passage to the colonies. They did not pass their unfree status on to descendants.
Contemporary accounts in Ireland sometimes referred to these people as slaves, Mr. Hogan said. That was true in the sense that any form of coerced labor can be described as slavery, from Ancient Rome to modern-day human trafficking. But in colonial America and the Caribbean, the word “slavery” had a specific legal meaning. Europeans, by definition, were not included in it.
“An indenture implies two people have entered into a contract with each other but slavery is not a contract,” said Leslie Harris, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern University. “It is often about being a prisoner of war or being bought or sold bodily as part of a trade. That is a critical distinction.”
‘The Irish Were Slaves, Too.’
The memes sometimes pop up in apolitical settings, like history trivia websites, but their recent spread has mirrored escalating racial and political tension in the United States, Mr. Hogan said. Central to the memes is the notion that historians and the media are covering up the truth. He said he has received death threats from Americans for his work.
“These memes are the No. 1 derailment people use when they talk about the slave trade,” he said. “Look in any race-related or slavery-related news story from the last two years and someone will mention it in the comments.”
The memes often have common elements: the false claim that Irish people were enslaved in America or the Caribbean after the 1649 British invasion of Ireland led by Oliver Cromwell; the false claim that Irish slaves were cheaper and treated worse than African slaves; the false claim that Irish women were forcibly “bred” with black men.
Some of them are easy to disprove. Many of the memes use photographs, including of Jewish Holocaust victims or 20th century child laborers, to illustrate events they claim happened in the 17th century, long before the invention of photography. Many reference a nonexistent 1625 proclamation by King James II, who was not born until 1633.
They often hijack specific atrocities committed against black slaves and substitute Irish people for the actual victims. A favorite event to use is the 1781 Zong massacre, in which over 130 African slaves were thrown to their deaths off a slave ship.
InfoWars, the far-right conspiracy site favored by President Trump, is one site that has falsely claimed Irish people were the victims of the Zong massacre, whose death toll it inflated by adding a zero to the end.
“It almost becomes a race to the bottom of who suffered more,” Mr. Reilly said, adding that the memes are “an effort to claim a certain ancestry of suffering in order to claim a certain political position.”
The Roots of a Wrong Idea
The white slavery narrative has long been a staple of the far right, but it became specifically Irish after the 2000 publication of “To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland,” a book by the late journalist Sean O’Callaghan, which Mr. Hogan and others have said was shoddily researched. It received positive reviews in Ireland, however, and was widely read there.
In America, the 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.
Mr. O’Callaghan’s work was repeated or repackaged on Irish genealogy websites, in a popular online essay, and in articles in publications like Scientific American and The Daily Kos. The claims also appeared on IrishCentral, a leading Irish-American news website, where many of the Facebook comments were critical of African-Americans.
The memes became popular on white nationalist message boards, neo-Nazi websites and far-right sites like InfoWars. On social media, they are primarily a creature of Facebook, where they have been shared millions of times.
Fake History as a Weapon
Ireland has a long history of verifiable tragedies: centuries of British occupation, famine, emigration and sectarian violence. Three decades of armed conflict in Northern Ireland ended only in 1998, and paramilitary violence has intermittently flared ever since.
Mr. Hogan said it was upsetting for many Irish people to see that history “used as a weapon” by Americans who claim a connection to the country. He said that for some people, it seemed like the meme was “replacing the actual history of their Irish heritage.”
It is true that anti-Irish sentiment was present in the United States until well into the 20th century, but that is a separate issue from 17th century indentured servitude, Ms. Harris said. The descendants of indentured servants, Irish or otherwise, did not face a legacy of racism similar to the one faced by people of African descent, she said.
Nevertheless, she called the meme’s existence unsurprising. “There has been a huge backlash against talking about slavery that continues to this day,” she said, not to mention Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination against blacks that “grew out of enslavement.”
“This continued misuse of Irish history devalues the real history,” Mr. Hogan said. “There are libraries filled with all the bad things that actually did happen. We don’t need memes and these dodgy articles full of lies.”