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A View North Cromwell’s legacy of Irish slavery

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

On a day in late October 1657, six Irishmen were tried before a British court and condemned to death. Nothing unusual in that, you might remark, given the period. But this trial took place in Bridgetown, the capital of the Island of Barbados, and the six were slaves. They and 14 African slaves were among a large group who had run away from their owners, and when the militia was sent to find them, they fought back, killing 12 of their pursuers. Some of the slaves escaped into the forest, but 20 were captured.

All were condemned to death. Women from the big houses got the seats in the front row to make sure they had a close-up view as the 20 prisoners were stripped naked, stretched on the ground, then crucified with pegs of hardwood driven through their hands. As they lay writhing in agony, a lighted torch was used to burn them slowly from the feet up.

After death relieved them of their sufferings, they were decapitated. Their heads were fixed on spikes and displayed in prominent spots in the market place.

The six Irishmen were among an estimated 50,000 Irish people, including thousands of women and children, who between 1652 and 1659 were sold into slavery by the British. Most seemed to have been transported on the slave ships to Barbados to work the sugar plantations, but many ended up in Virginia. The grim story is told in the recently published "To Hell Or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland," by the late Sean O’Callaghan, whose works include "The Slave Trade" (translated in 13 languages) and "The Easter Lily."

Slavery had already been introduced into the Caribbean with the rise of the sugar cane plantation, a labor-intensive crop that in the 17th century enriched white colonists and in doing so created "oppression on a scale that Europe had never known," according to O’Callaghan. The vast majority of the millions who were enslaved were Africans. The enslavement of the Irish came about as a direct result of Oliver Cromwell’s war in Ireland.

Cromwell spent about nine months in Ireland, between August 1649 and May 1650, on a mission of revenge for the massacres of Protestants in Wexford during the rebellion of 1641. In a campaign of unprecedented barbarity, the Irish were put to the sword, burned and hanged or they died of starvation, plague and the other diseases that follow in the wake of war. In 1641, the population of the country was 1,668,000. By 1652, it had been reduced by one-third to 1,100,000.

The technology for their complete extermination did not exist, however. So Cromwell decreed a plan for the wholesale clearance of the land of native Irish (except boys of 14 and girls of 12) in the provinces of Ulster, Munster and Leinster. They were to be transplanted to Connaught, the bleakest and poorest of the provinces, where they received 10 percent of the acreage that they had formerly occupied.

Cromwell had earlier thought of the idea of selling between 30,00 and 40,00 Irish prisoners of war as slaves to the Barbados but it had not been possible. The idea came up again in 1652 as an answer to the resistance to the land clearances that had sprung up throughout the country. This time it was put into force.

On Aug. 24, 1652, it was decreed that the Commissioners of Ireland had the power to "seize and transport anybody of whatever rank who was judged dangerous to the Commonwealth." Specially targeted were the so-called Tories, landowners who refused to transplant and instead took to the mountains and forests to fight a brutal guerrilla war against the colonists. But the order also included women, many of whom had been left destitute because of the loss of their husbands, either killed in the wars or compelled to flee overseas, where they became mercenaries in the Spanish and French armies. The order stated that "Irish women, as being too numerous now — and therefore, exposed to prostitution — be sold to merchants, and transported to Virginia, New England, or other countries, where they may support themselves by their labor."

O’Callaghan quotes the lord protector’s son Henry Cromwell as remarking that young Irish women were especially prized. The sugar planters wanted them as sex slaves, "having had only Negresses and Maroon women to solace them."

Man-catchers were paid 4 pounds or 4 pounds, 10 shillings for every young woman or child they brought in.

"They became the first white slaves in relatively modern times," writes O’Callaghan, "slaves in the true sense of the word, owned body and soul by their masters."

He describes the horrors of the voyage to the Caribbean on the slave ships, the humiliations of the auctions in Bridgetown, and then the brutality of the conditions on the sugar plantations. Some planters kept stud farms, where young Irish women bred with African slaves because it was thought the female offspring of such unions made particularly good concubines and fetched a high price in the brothels of Bridgetown.

There were rebellions. One in 1655 composed of Irish indentured servants and slaves along with African slaves. They launched attacks on the sugar plantations, dragging owners from their beds and hacking them to death. It is not known how many of the rebels eluded capture. Those who were hunted down often preferred to commit suicide rather than endure the sadistic cruelties inflicted upon them before they were executed.

This book reminds us of the fact that civilization often, if not usually, coexists with barbarity. Indeed, at times it can only thrive through the use of barbarities. The sorry history of mankind unfolds this paradox in every age. Cromwell’s rule was just one example of it, but in many ways he was no worse than his contemporaries.

Slavery had been a fact of life before and during classical times. The rise of Christianity did nothing to better the slaves’ lot. As the 17th century showed, being a slave under a Christian master was every bit as brutal an experience as it had been for those who lived and died in their countless and nameless millions under the yoke of Roman or Greek slave owners. "To Hell or Barbados" manages to put a few names and faces on those otherwise anonymous victims.

("To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland," by Sean O’Callaghan. Available through Irish Books and Media, 1433 Franklin Avenue East, Minneapolis, MN 55404-2135. 256 pp. $25.95.)

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