His essay The Irish Slave Trade — The Forgotten White Slaves is about the 100,000 Irish people and probably far more, sent as slave labour to the new British colonies in the 1650s to 1660s. It began in 1625 when James 11 issued a proclamation that 30,000 Irish political prisoners be sent to the Caribbean. It escalated 25 years later under Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. By his death in 1658 from pneumonia safe in his England home, the Irish population of 1.5 million was down to an estimated 600,000.
What happened to the rest? They were killed in battles, resisting his well-armed force, large land thefts by his supporters leading to starvation and famines. His was the most successful of English conquests. It led to more men, women and children being shipped to Liverpool port and to the British colonies of the Americas and Caribbean islands.
Many were held on Spike island in Cork’s lower harbour. They were sold in the slave ‘markets’ to plantation owners for sugar, which was highly prized for the middle classes of England and Western Europe. This was political policy and documented at the time from debates in Westminster parliament. PR spinning disguised the reality of this human trade.
John Martin wrote “But are we talking about African slavery? King James 11 and Charles 1 also led a continued effort to enslave the Irish. Britain’s famed Oliver Cromwell furthered this practice of dehumanising one’s next door neighbour.”
It is not my first time reading this, as the Co Cork born journalist and writer Sean O’Callaghan’s book To Hell or Barbados was published in 2001, shortly after he died and tells the same story.
The scale of it is shocking. Or at least it should be. He wrote how the history of sugar in the Caribbean is also the history of slavery and oppression on a scale that Europe had never known.
He was a journalist for a Kenyan newspaper in the 1960s and in the 1980s wrote a book on modern slavery in parts of Africa.
Oliver Cromwell could be charitable and was a family man — but he and his army generals were seriously bad news for the Irish, Scottish and perhaps England’s Catholics too.
It is worth a thought, that we, who are born of Irish families going back 400 years in Ireland, are the descendents of those who were not taken.
For further reading see White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America published by New York University Press, 2008.
They also published the US edition of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine in 2012, after it was first published by Cork University Press to great praise for its research, maps and detail.