The story of Irish indentured servants sent from here to the Caribbean

The story of Irish indentured servants sent from here to the Caribbean
The Oceans Between at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

The story of Irish indentured servants sent from here to Barbados and Jamaica from the 1600s onwards is complex and has become an immersive research project for multimedia artist Marianne Keating, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

SINGER Rihanna is part Irish. The global superstar is from Barbados, 6,000km across the Atlantic, but she has Irish ancestry.

Rihanna’s father, Ronald Fenty, has his origins in the Caribbean island’s Poor White community, where Fenty is a common surname. 

And the Poor White community, sometimes disparagingly known as Redlegs, or ‘Baccra’ (derived from ‘back row,’ the only position they were allowed to occupy in church), are the marginalised remnants of a group of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh indentured servants transported to Barbados to work on sugar plantations in Oliver Cromwell’s time.

Rihanna
Rihanna

The Irish-in-Barbados story is complex. A British colony from 1625 until 1966, the island was a hub of the lucrative global sugar and rum trades, and the wealthy planters prospered due to the brutal slave trade from Africa.

Less known is that Irish indentured workers provided the labour on the island before the importation of enslaved Africans.

Irish artist Marianne Keating spent six years researching the history of Irish workers on another Caribbean island, Jamaica, before broadening her research to Barbados.

Keating was on a residency in Jamaica for a research project about Jamaican fashion designer Trevor Owen.

“I started noticing more and more Irish influence in Jamaica,” she says. “There are Irish words in patois, like ‘ganzie’ for ‘jumper,’ and Irish place names, like Clonmel and Wexford.”

Keating learned that Irish people had worked as indentured labourers, in unknown numbers, in Jamaica, following the abolition of slavery; in the period immediately preceding the Irish famine, shiploads of Irish people opted to escape the increasing destitution by signing contracts to work on sugar plantations. 

“From the information that’s online, I probably would have felt that not that many people went,” she says. 

But when you’re there, the Irish influence is so common that it makes you aware that it had to be quite an amount of people. There’s no definitive number, though.

But a disturbing narrative built around Irish ‘white slaves’ in the Caribbean has emerged, used by US white supremacists to attempt to undermine the vicious history of the African slave trade. 

Keating says it’s not just a question of semantics: That there are important distinctions between slavery and indentured servitude. 

“The white indentured labourers who went to Barbados before the African slave trade began always had contracts of 7-10 years,” she says. 

“After their term, they got freedom. African slaves were slaves for life and their children were born into slavery.

“White workers had more rights; if an Irish man was found guilty of doing something wrong, he had the right to object to the local courts.

“Whether the courts were run by the same planters was a different story, but the African enslaved had no rights. There was still a difference.”

“To me, the white slavery narrative is a false narrative that tries to nullify the actual experience of the people who did go there.”

And conditions were undeniably tough in both Barbados and Jamaica.

Archives from a Limerick newspaper show recruitment ads that promised shipping fare, a house, and land to farm for food in Jamaica if a contract was signed. There was a promise of education and medical care for children, and even a Catholic Church to attend.

The Oceans Between at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.
The Oceans Between at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

But, Keating says, it wasn’t always the deal it seemed. 

“After abolition, the Jamaican planters were facing bankruptcy. Conditions when the Irish arrived were not what they expected; accommodation wouldn’t exist, they’d have to fell trees on the land before they could even begin to build housing for themselves. The British government got extremely angry and made the plantation owners write a report on where the Irish were going and what their conditions were like.”

Keating has focused on the lives of the descendants of the Irish in the Caribbean today, interspersing time spent poring through historical archives in Ireland, England, and Jamaica with visiting people of Irish ancestry in both Jamaica and Barbados.

“In Jamaica, people aren’t very aware of who they’re descended from or how they got there,” she says.

“They might know that their great-grandfather was Irish, but not a lot more than that. I’m not going to make them the standing point for all descendants that have travelled from Ireland to the Caribbean.”

In Barbados, the marginalised status and ethnically white appearance of the Poor White community has made them something of a curiosity.

“There have been a lot of people coming to knock on the doors of the Poor White community, demanding that they take a position on the white slave narrative, which feels like they’re being exploited all over again,” says Keating.

“They’re just living their day-to-day lives. Very few people can say if they’re Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. When I interview people, I focus on our lives today, as opposed to asking questions that fulfil our desires as Western people trying to trace our lineage.”

The Oceans Between at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.
The Oceans Between at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

Having immersed herself in such an extensive research project, Keating says producing a body of work that can tell the intriguing story to viewers is a challenge; she has opted to produce several video installations, one of which, ‘Landless’, is a two-channel film, juxtaposing text of historic correspondence on the welfare of the Irish indentured workers in Jamaica with footage of Irish and Jamaican landscapes.

“How do you communicate 400 years of history in a really short time?” says Keating.

“I didn’t want to make a documentary or re-enact something. Nothing is staged and you get to hear people’s voices and see the places people went and see where they live today.”

Other challenges are also present. Keating has had to forge strong connections in Jamaica, where crime lords rule the roost and gang violence is common. Moral universalism, she says, is not an appropriate response in a country with serious inequality and without the catch-net of social welfare.

“People see the Caribbean as a place where everyone is relaxed and sitting on the beach drinking cocktails,” she says. “But these are countries where people live and work and struggle.”

“One thing I had to learn first was to remove my Western approach to the world. If you’re in a country where there’s no social welfare and people can’t get jobs if they were born into certain communities, the impact on society and on survival is huge. It puts people in situations where they have to work within illegal structures to survive.”

Marianne Keating, The Ocean Between, runs at The Crawford Art Gallery until September 22; crawfordartgallery.ie

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