Were the Irish Slaves? | HistoryNet

Were the Irish Slaves?

4/21/2015 • Ask Mr. History

Were the Irish slaves or not? Sorry, but being half, or more, Irish myself I’m naturally  curious. I can’t find anything in school textbooks, and everything online is said to be a myth or the truth. I would not ask otherwise, but to me it is important. Please let me know. Thanks.

My best regards.


? ? ?

Dear Jordan,

Slavery had been practiced in Ireland for centuries before a Welsh slave in the 5th century got away, spent some years in France and then returned to achieve a mass conversion among the Irish to become Saint Patrick. Brocca, another slave of the Irish, was the father of Saint Brigit. Dublin was a major slave market, especially after the Vikings came and renovated the town into an efficient port. It must be added, however, that slavery was a looser system in those days, and servitude, whether to Irishman, Roman, Norseman or Norman, did not necessarily mean servitude for life.

The trafficking of the Irish for cheap labor began in earnest when England began colonizing the New World, and at the same time increased their domination of Ireland. Rebels and criminals—and often their families—often found themselves being deported, especially to island plantations in the Caribbean and later to “Van Deman’s Land” (penal colonies in Australia). Most often, however, they were indentured servants, under four to seven year contracts to work the sugar cane, tobacco or cotton fields until their time ran out and they would be released from indenture. In practice, the masters sometimes extended the time of indenture; others, for whom the indentured servant was not the lifelong investment that a black or native American slave was, had no compunction about working the indentured servant to death in his last year.

For the Irish, the worst period of indentured servitude began with their rebellion against English rule in 1641, through the Cromwellian Commonwealth and on through the early 18th century, when there were mass deportations as a means of essentially moving the “Irish Problem” elsewhere. Nevertheless, the vast majority of indentured Irish, once their time was up, left the plantations (save for some 10 percent who had established their own), to try their luck anywhere else in the colonies—and often, in spite of centuries of anti-Irish prejudice, managing to establish new lives and livelihoods.

Still, a good many former indentured servants, released without any education, practical training, money or prospects—and a greatly reduced outlook regarding the value of human life in general—made their way to ports such as Kingston, Jamaica, and found their way into more profitable employment under certain enterprising sea captains such as Bartholomew Portugues, Francis Lolonois and Henry Morgan.

Although, as mentioned above, indentured service could be worse than slavery, it was at least more temporary than that practiced on African slaves, although a myth has arisen equating the two (see below).





Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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13 Responses to Were the Irish Slaves?

  1. Bridget says:

    NOW that we heard your OPINION. CAN you please tell us the difference between a indenture servant and a slave. When did America stop importing indentured servants and when did they stop buying and selling of slaves? AND where the Irish sold any where besides the United States? Why not Haiti? Or Islands like the Africans?

  2. O'Riordan Clan says:

    Spot on Bridget, this is the same old worn out narrative that they were indentured servants and not slaves. Amaideach. This troll who calls himself a researcher would also deny that while our ancestors were starving through the 1840s and 50s the English land barons and their minions were shipping food east across the Irish Sea to the homeland of the rats. Dia an hÉireann, we wil never forget, never surrender..

  3. Sylvia says:

    I think that there was slavery in every part of the world from whites to blacks threw the hebrew who were slaves in Egypt. I believe that there is so much more history around then we are taught as for slavery it was very much alive across the globe as it is very much still alive today only we call it human trafficking. This is just my take on the whole slavery thing the world is so wide spread with countries and culture that we couldn’t have all of the world’s history documented. So I’m just going to keep my mind open and take in what ever and go from there. Thank you and this is just my opinion

  4. Vanessa says:

    My decents are Irish the Hairstons. What part of history did Peter Hairstons play in Ireland?

  5. Roderick Reilly says:

    Don’t know how old this post is, but I do have a comment:

    I do believe that, at least in Virginia, ALL “bonded servants,” including black Africans were indentured, and therefore temporary, servants through much of the 17th century. This, supposedly, began to change in the latter part of that (17th) century. Again supposedly, the Anthony Johnson/John Casor court case set a “precedent” for keeping black African servants in permanent bondage. OTOH, there was a less documented case of a similar issue in 1640 in Virginia.

    The Johnson/Casor case is being cited, incorrectly, as “proof that a Black Man started slavery.” It was, of course, white magistrates who, in reversing an original decision, gave Johnson permanent ownership of Casor. And the obscure 1640 case (Encyclopedia of Virginia) most likely involved a white owner of a bonded servant of black African descent.

    • Carmen Harris says:

      I wanted to suggest that you read Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black which would clarify this issue. Slavery was already legal in the Dutch Colony, New Netherlands (New York). In 1641 Massachusetts was the first colony of British origin on the mainland to legalize slavery. Before the Casor case, which was a civil action, John Punch had been enslaved for live in 1640-1641 Virginia for running away. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/timeline/1641.html. The Punch case (1640) isn’t obscure. It was the standard event taught in classes when I was in school 40 years ago. His owner was white. The Casor case is one that has arisen by people who want to blame shift slave ownership to blacks.

  6. RuthieWorld POV says:

    “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev is a fascinating read! According to this book, there was nothing in the world lower than, or worse than the Irish. Not even Negroes!

  7. jmac55100 says:

    …Although, as mentioned above, indentured service could be worse than slavery…


    What example do you have that indentured service ‘was worse than slavery’?

    • John Smith says:

      Endentured servants who were released got property ownership. Often it was preferable for that servant to die than to collect that 40 acres. Slavery was about money…

  8. Donotask says:

    If they get their way with bringing back net neutrality, this kind of “truth” article will not show up in our search engines for access to. It will allow total government control on internet censorship as they are working hard to make online equivalent to our televisions that “feed” us the “truth” as they say it is/was. Thank you for posting this very informative post. P.S. Snopes is no longer a reliable fact check. Funded and supported by the likes of Soros, which makes it lose all credibility. Enjoy the free roaming internet while you can! Hope they never can control it either!

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