I have been following with interest an internet meme claiming Irish Americans were slaves too, even before the advent of the African slave trade.
The meme comes in various forms utilising old photos, paintings and engravings from all over the world combined with text suggesting that they are historic images of forgotten “Irish slaves”.
The source of this claim is often quoted as a 2008 article “The Irish Slave Trade-The Forgotten ‘White’ Slaves” by John Martin.
This document broadly claims that indentured and penal servitude to which the Irish were subjected can be equated with racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery as suffered by Africans.
It proclaims that an “Irish” slave trade was initiated in 1612 and not abolished until 1839 and that this concurrent transatlantic slave trade of “white slaves” has been covered up by liberal, cultural Marxist, or politically correct historians.
Whereas it is true that, like impoverished people of other nationalities, many Irish emigrated to America in the 17th and 18th centuries as indentured servants, and they often lived and worked in harsh conditions, sometimes being treated cruelly, unlike institutionalised chattel slavery, indentured servitude was neither hereditary nor lifelong. Unlike black slaves, white indentured servants had legal rights and were not considered property.
The earliest settlers needed labourers, but only wealthy people could afford passage to the New World.
This led to a system whereby those who lacked means were brought from Europe under contract to work off their passage, room and board over a period of two to seven years, until they were considered to have bought their freedom.
No fewer than half of the immigrants who came to the New World during the colonial period arrived as indentured servants.
Limerick-based librarian and historian Liam Hogan takes aim at this notion in a series of papers debunking what he calls the “Irish slaves myth”.
People who claim there were Irish slaves in America are conflating indentured servitude with chattel slavery, two distinct forms of servitude with more differences between them than similarities, says Logan.
Chattel slavery was servitude in perpetuity, a slave was only free once they were no longer alive; it was hereditary, the children of the slave were the property of their owner; their status of chattel was designated by race, there was no escaping your bloodline; a chattel slave was treated like livestock; you could kill your slaves while enforcing “moderate correction” and the homicide laws would not apply; an indentured servant could appeal to a court of law if they were mistreated, a slave had no recourse to justice.
The Irish slave narrative gained traction in 2013 with increasing racial tensions in America, situating it within a larger world view that sought to exonerate white Europeans of blame for the transatlantic trade which brought an estimated 12 million African to the New World in lifelong bondage.
The myth is also a convenient focal point for nationalist histories as it obscures the critically underwritten story of how so many Irish people, whether Gaelic, Hiberno-Norman or Anglo-Irish, benefitted from the Atlantic slave trade and other colonial exploits in multiple continents for hundreds of years.
This narrative is used as an attack dog to shut down all debate about the legacy of black slavery in the United States.
Starting with Ferguson and with almost every subsequent police killing of an unarmed black person from late 2014 through 2015, the myth was used to denigrate the Black Lives Matter Movement.
“Even the Irish, we were slaves. At some point, you just have to get over it”, one commentator was heard to say.
Many of the pictures accompanying the memes proved to be from the Nazi concentration camps during World War II while others were from coal mines in America in the early 20th century and not of Irish slaves as claimed.
This revisionist history project was brought to the fore in a rather comical way soon after the inauguration of Donald Trump when his counsellor Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase “alternative facts” to defend grossly exaggerated figures regarding the inauguration crowd size. Facts were manipulated to fit the narrative of Trump’s popularity.
Nearer home in the run up to Kenya’s general elections many candidates were found to have altered their academic credentials to satisfy the requirements for candidacy. Many social media sites were created to spread “fake news” to influence prospective voters one way or the other.
History is meant to inform us about our past and form a platform for planning our future.
I agree that there will be times when new information about our past will come up, but this must withstand the strictest scrutiny and be based on empirical evidence. It must not be manipulated to justify past events or shape the minds of people in a certain direction.
Whether we are reporting history or current events we must be guided by objectivity and the truth.