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BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Slave labour and the Irish


TONY BEST

BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Slave labour and the Irish

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IMAGINE A DISCUSSION about the impact of trans-Atlantic slavery, its brutality and impact on Barbados’ economic development and on the lives of its victims.

Sitting around the fictional table would be Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, the eminent history and vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI); Richard Ligon, the 17th Century English author of the first history of Barbados, where he lived in the 1640s and the 1650s; Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist and political theorist who travelled across the United States in 1831 and studied the contradictions of “freedom” in America amidst abhorrent slavery; and Professor Pedro Welch, now retired deputy principal of UWI, Cave Hill Campus, himself a noted historian whose well documented chapters of Barbadian history have earned him the respect of his peers and the average Bajan.

Inevitably, the discussion turns to the treatment of slaves, servants and indentured labourers by the English plantocracy. Sir Hilary and Welch readily point to the wealth accumulated by the “masters” whose holdings in Barbados were so vast that they have enriched successive generations of British leaders, including members of the royal family. They also cite the branding, indiscriminate killings and raping of women as evidence.

Ligon would join in by pointing out that when it came to the treatment of slaves, servants and indentured labourers, their existence was at the mercy of the “masters” in Barbados and England. “Truly, I have seen such cruelty there done to servants, as I did not think one Christian could have done to another,” wrote Ligon.

Africans, whether slaves or not, were simply brutalised because, as Welch explained in a lecture in New York recently, they were considered “heathenish, brutish, and an uncertain dangerous kind of people”, unfit to be governed under English law.

But why return in 2015 to the horrible injustice and inhumanity of centuries ago? When hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in Ireland and elsewhere, Barbados included, turned to the Irish Times newspaper the other day, they had to confront an important question: “Where there Irish slaves in Barbados?”.

Writing in the Times, John Grenham complained he was rapped on the proverbial knuckles for a sentence he included in a piece on an Irish ancestors website. “In the 17th Century, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian Wars, substantial numbers of the most destitute [in Ireland] were shipped as slaves to Barbados,” he recalled.

It was the use of the word “slave” that brought fire and brimstone on the writer.

“There is no contesting the basic facts,” stated Grenham. “The victorious Cromwellian Commonwealth practiced vicious social hygiene, not just in Ireland, but throughout the three kingdoms (England, Scotland and Wales). Vagrants, petty criminals, homeless orphans and other victims of war were rounded up and shipped out against their will to supply forced labour in the West Indies, Barbados in particular.”

The issue was whether the ancestors of today’s Irish were slaves. Many of them couldn’t bring themselves to accept that they were the offspring of slave labourers in Barbados. Never mind that the treatment of their foreparents couldn’t be equated with the awful suffering of African slaves and indentured labourers from England.

“The labour they did was slave labour, and their circumstances were much worse than those of the indentured workers who travelled at the same time and later, not least because indentured labour, though often harsh, was voluntary and time limited,” Grenham pointed out.

Clearly, Irish slavery in Barbados wasn’t the moral equivalent of the African slave trade. The indignation aroused in the Irish when they were reminded last week of the horrors their ancestors experienced, underscores the demand for reparations now being advanced, quite rightly, by Sir Hilary and a host of others. Reparations are a debt Europe owes the Caribbean.

When Dyland Roof, the racist assassin went into Charleston’s oldest black church this year and killed several black worshippers, the abhorrent act hastened the removal of the confederate flag from outside South Carolina’s statehouse. That flag is a painful reminder of the American Civil War which was fought, in part, to preserve the institution of slavery in the country. But millions of white southerners claim it as part of their “heritage”.

Roof, who was photographed with the flag as justification for a racist manifesto aimed at starting a race war, didn’t see his dream realised. Instead, Walmart, Amazon and other major retailers quickly decided to stop selling merchandise with the confederate flag on them.

That brings us to De Tocqueville, a former foreign minister of France, who had noted before the United States Civil war that slavery and the doctrine of white supremacy had impeded the economic development of the states which clung to it. The differences he wrote in the 1830s were clear in Ohio which had made rapid economic strides while Kentucky remained in the doldrums.

“These differences cannot be attributed to any other cause but slavery,” stated De Tocqueville. “It degrades the black population and enervates the white.”

It took several southern states more than 140 years to catch up with the north and eliminate the economic divide between them. Sadly, Caribbean countries, Barbados and Jamaica among them, remain miles behind England and France.

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