There has been much controversy recently about whether the Irish transported in bondage to America and the West Indies during the Cromwellian era and later were slaves in the truest sense of the word.
A plethora of articles was published around St. Patrick’s Day debunking the notion of the horrific Irish experience after transportation as slavery.
The controversy has arisen because some far-right groups have claimed that the experience of Irish slaves was interchangeable with (or even in some cases worse than) the experience of black slaves, and have used that as justification for an array of abhorrent racist statements and ideas.
To be clear, there is no way the Irish slave experience mirrored the extent or level of centuries-long degradation that African slaves went through.
But the Irish did suffer tremendously and there is a clear tendency to undermine that truth. Adults and children were torn from their homes, transported to the colonies in bondage against their will, and sold into a system of prolonged servitude.
Some would even call it slavery.
To say that as a bald fact has suddenly become very controversial.
The argument goes that the Irish were indentured servants and therefore could be set free at some point after they had worked like slaves literally for years.
But, as the following court case from 1661 shows, the terms of servitude were not always so cut and dry, with masters extending them at will, with full support of the court system and laws of the day.
What is especially interesting is that indentured servitude was said to be a contract between the servant and his master. However, in this case the contract was between the ship captain who captured the Irishmen and the family he sold them to.
Here is what the two young Irishmen stated. “what Agreement was made betweene Mr Symonds & ye Said master, was neuer Acted by our Consent or knowledge.”
This was not an indentured servant relationship then, in which case, what do you call it?”
The answer seems obvious.
The accounts of the two defendants, Irishmen William Downing and Philip Welch, are heartbreaking as they describe being captured, transported without consent, and forced to serve.
If we accept that a slave is someone “who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them,” as does the Oxford Dictionary, then I say let’s call it what it was according to those who lived and reported it: slavery AND indentured servitude.
We cannot allow racist whites to delineate our history for us, nor politically correct thinking to ignore and deny that any Irish were ever slaves.
Let’s take a look at this one case of the Irish experience in the 17th Century in Massachusetts which certainly looked an awful lot like slavery to me.
The Yale University Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery describes the case as “Law Case, Master Samuel Symonds against Irish slaves. William Downing and Philip Welch.” It was published in the Salem Quarterly Court. Salem, Massachusetts. June 25, 1661. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, vol. II, 1656-1662. The Essex Institute: Salem, 1912.
The case involves two Irishmen, Will Downing (at times spelled Downeing) and Philip Welch, who after seven years of unpaid servitude told Symonds they would only keep working for him if he set them free and paid them for their work. Their master then had them arrested and took the matter to the courts. Symonds had purchased them from the British ship captain, George Dell (at times spelled Dill) who captured them and brought them to the Americas to sell them when they were 14 years old. How the young men were captured and sold makes grim reading. (To read the full case, click here.)
“John King deposed that he with divers others were stollen in Ireland, by some of ye English soldiers, in ye night out of theyr beds & brought to Mr Dills ship, where the boate lay ready to receaue them, & in the way as they went, some others they tooke with them against their Consents, & brought them aboard ye said ship, where there were divers others of their Country men, weeping and Crying, because they were stollen from theyr frends, they all declareing ye same & amongst ye rest were these two men, William Downeing & Philip Welch, and there they were kept, until upon a Lord’s day morning, ye Master sett saile, and left some of his water & vessells behind for hast, as I understood.” Sworn in court, 26.
The two Irishmen, by then 21 years of age, stated they had worked for seven years for no money and were the property of Mr. Symonds:
“Defence of William Downeing and Philip Welch: “We were brought out of or owne Country, contrary to our own wills & minds, & sold here unto Mr Symonds, by ye master of the Ship, Mr Dill, but what Agreement was made betweene Mr Symonds & ye Said master, was neuer Acted by our Consent or knowledge, yet notwithstanding we have endeavored to do him ye best service wee Could these seuen Compleat yeeres, which is 3 yeeres more then ye use to sell ym for at Barbadoes, wn they are stolen in England. And for our seruice, we haue noe Callings nor wages, but meat & Cloths. Now 7 yeares seruice being so much as ye practice of old England, & thought meet in this place, & wee being both aboue 21 years of age, We hope this honored Court & Jury will seriously Consider our Conditions."
The jury reported a special verdict, that if Mr. Dell’s covenant was according to law, then they find would find service due from defendants to plaintiff until May 10, 1663; if not, they would find for defendants. However, they judged the covenant to be valid, returning Downing and Welch into the possession of Symonds. Surprise surprise.
That was the Irish experience. We cheapen it because we are scared of it being taken over by white racists, but we cannot allow them to own our historic reality either.
And there is no reason why acknowledging what those two Irishmen and countless others experienced – torn away from their families, brought across the ocean, sold to the highest bidder, forced to work without wages, and refused their freedom – should mitigate one iota the monstrous experiences that Africans slaves went through.
History does not belong to any group or individual – it belongs to us all. How the Irish were treated in colonial America is a lesson we should never forget.