Why No One Talks About Irish Slaves On 'Stuff You Missed In History Class'

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, more and more people are learning about America’s less-than-savory history of slavery, discrimination, and racial violence against Black people for hundreds of years. But it seems that there’s always one person on any given Internet thread who likes to derail the conversation by bringing up white slavery, specifically slavery of Irish people. So on this episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey tackle the history of Irish indentured servitude, how it differed from the enslavement of African people and their descendants, and why bringing them up in the same conversation is not only incorrect, but does a disservice to the actual history of these two communities in the country.

In the 1600s when the British were colonizing America and the Caribbean, they needed cheap – preferably free – labor to get the job done. At first, they enslaved the indigenous population, either to work on plantations in Barbados or transporting them to Europe to sell for profit. Effectively they stripped the island of its native population, and the transatlantic slave trade was getting big, so African people and their descendants made up more of the enslaved workforce. But the colonies also profited off of indentured servitude, a practice where a person could sign a contract promising 5-8 years of service in exchange for a trip to the New World. At first, people did this voluntarily as a way to start a new life, though England made transportation and indenturement a punishment for crimes, as well. And lots of these were political prisoners of the War Between the Three Kingdoms, when England brutally subjugated Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. 

In Barbados, sugar was the main export, and its production was difficult and dangerous. Overseers were often so violent in their dealings with slaves and servants that more Europeans stopped volunteering for servitude – which meant they relied more and more on slaves and involuntary indentures. Plenty of indentured servants had time added onto their contracts for petty infractions, were abused or mistreated, and some didn’t live to see the end of their contract. They ate the same food, lived in the same housing, and did the same work as slaves. But there were key differences: Firstly, indentured servants were still seen as people, where slaves were not. Indentured servants had legal protections – they could take overseers to court over mistreatment or testify against them; no provision was in place to allow overseers to capture and punish them for leaving before their contracts were completed; married couples had to be sold together; most of all, their bondage was temporary. 

None of this was true for the Black slaves. It was written into law that they would be enslaved for life; that their children would be slaves, too; married couples and parents and children were separated whenever it was profitable; it was perfectly legal to beat, torture, and kill slaves who misbehaved. “To be very clear, England oppressed Ireland systematically and violently for centuries and Irish people were involuntarily deported to Barbados and other colonies in massive numbers as indentured servants,” Tracy says, but conflating their struggle with slavery “glosses over the centuries of sustained racism and violence, hundreds of years of hereditary-based slavery, Jim Crow violence, housing and education discrimination, exclusions from many New Deal programs and most elements of the GI bill….you can go on and on.” Learn more about this complex history on this episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class.

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