As anyone who has successfully navigated fourth grade knows, west Africans were captured in their homeland, forcibly shipped to the Americas, and sold into slavery. The purpose here is not to rehash an elementary school history lesson but to delve into a contemporary counterclaim about a supposed subclass of those held in bondage.
Early in the 17th Century, penniless immigrants, most of them Irish, received an all-expenses-paid trip to North America in exchange for indentured servanthood upon arrival. This voluntary contract obligated them work off their debt for a set period that generally ran about five years. They received complimentary room and board but no other compensation. They worked off the cost of their transatlantic journey and gained training in a trade that provided them a valuable résumé boost.
All the while, slave labor helped fuel the agrarian economy in Colonial America. Slaves continued to be held for nearly 100 years after the signing of the ironically-named Declaration of Independence. Those held in this condition had no say in the matter, had no date of expiration to look forward to, and were never trained on a skill set that would benefit them later.
There are some aspects of slavery about which there are common misconceptions. For example, while Colonial America and the early United States are seen as the lone destination for those captured in west Africa, only about 1 in 12 ended up here. The rest toiled in the West Indies, present-day Mexico, or South America. And those who did end up here were more likely to work on a small farm, perhaps being the only slave there, as opposed to laboring on a plantation.
Many non-historians would be surprised by these facts, but they are accurate, and stating them is not an attempt to lessen the extent to which forced bondage is horrific. By contrast, claims that there were Irish slaves belong almost exclusively to white racists, who charge that modern blacks should get over it because decedents of early Irish settlers aren’t complaining about their lot in life.
But there are many errors with this way of thinking that go beyond bigotry. Most obviously, indentured servitude is voluntary, while slavery by definition is forced. Second, slaves were property and could be legally beaten or killed. While a destitute, indentured 17th Century Irishman servant may not have had the cushiest life, he was entitled to same rights and privileges of all free persons. Someone smacking his indentured servant upside the head could be punished for doing so.
Additionally, servitude was for a fixed period and was not an inherited condition. Finally, the servants were legally entitled to what the conditions of their contract laid out. This was not the case for those held in bondage, nor was there a Fugitive Indentured Servant law. Skin color was a necessary element to being a slave in the Americas. There were no white ones.
In most cases, indentured servitude in North America amounted to an apprenticeship. Persons barely in their teens would enter into an agreement that taught them a trade in exchange for putting this new talent to use for the other party. By the time they reached adulthood, they had years of training and practice that served them well.
The falsehood about Irish slaves has its roots in the distorting a late 19th Century treatise written by someone known only as Col. Ellis. Titled White Slaves and Bond Servants in the Plantations, it told of how someone named Gen. Brayne suggested to Oliver Cromwell that African slaves be imported to Jamaica. The goal was to reduce the reliance on indentured servants, who were treated poorly. Ellis explained that since owners “would have to pay for slaves, they would have an interest in the preservation of their lives, which was wanting in the case of bond-servants.” Those pushing the fabricated narrative of Irish slaves change this so that “bond-servant” reads as “Irish” or “Whites.”
Another lie is to portray skeletal Civil War prisoners as Irish slaves. One more absurdity asserts that 300,000 Irish slaves were sold over a decade in the 1600s. This number is nearly double the number of Irish immigrants, indentured servants or otherwise, who made their way to America between Plymouth Rock and Yorktown.
Irish slave claims have zero historical merit and are reserved almost exclusively for those who are working without compensation to push them, in a sort of indentured servitude to the alt-right.