Sunday, 12 February 2012

Barbados - Cromwell, Red Legs and the ethnic cleansing of Ireland

Quite by chance, as I was browsing through a bookshop in Belfast a few years ago, I came across a copy of Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland.  It’s a fascinating book that deals with the little known ‘white slavery’ in the Caribbean islands, when many Irish, Scottish and, indeed, poor English were sent off to islands like Barbados to work as indentured servants on the labour-intensive sugarcane plantations.

To Hell or to Connaught
The title of O’Callaghan’s book needs no explanation to anyone, like myself, who was educated in the Republic of Ireland – ‘to Hell or to Connaught’ is a phrase famously attributed to Oliver Cromwell, when he invaded Ireland and tried to force the native Irish population to move to Connaught, Ireland’s western-most and poorest province. 

The idea was to populate Ireland with Protestant Dutch and English settlers, much as Elizabeth had authorised the plantation of Ulster with Protestant settlers in the late 16th century. Needless to say, after the chaos of Cromwell’s conquest, Ireland proved to be an unattractive destination for potential settlers, who preferred to risk their lives with the savage 'Red Indians' of New England, than the unruly native Irish in Leinster and Munster. 

Ethnic cleansing in the 17th century?
Ethnic cleansing is a term that is bandied about a lot these days, stemming from the etničko čišćenje of the 1990's, that characterised the breakup of Yugoslavia.  I think it’s difficult to apply a term like this to a 17th century context, as ethnic cleansing somehow infers a concept that is particularly rooted in the late 20th century.  Having said that, it’s clear that Cromwell would have preferred to remove all native Irish (and Catholics) from Ireland and it’s scary to think that, in a 20th century context and with modern technology at his disposal, he could have committed genocide in Ireland or ‘ethnically cleansed’ the country in the way that O’Callaghan seems to suggest. 

It didn’t work, of course – the reality was that the people most predisposed to live and work in Ireland were the native Irish and Cromwell’s army found that the only way they could work the land in the 'ethnically cleansed' provinces, was by employing native Irish labour.

Indentured service in the Caribbean

Beach at Bathsheeba by IrishMBO
Another way of getting rid of lots of native Irish men, women and children was by sending them as indentured servants to Barbados.  Far from being the slightly upmarket tourist destination that Barbados is today, a trip to Barbados in the 17th century was nothing less than a death sentence.  O’Callaghan does an interesting comparison of the conditions of indentured servants versus the conditions of the slaves imported from Africa. 

He points out that, as indentured service was nominally for a fixed period of time, usually 7 years, the plantation owners had little interest in the long-term well-being or health of their indentured servants.  Slaves, on the other hand, were a long-term investment and it was in the plantation owners’ best interest to get the most out an adult slave during their working life.
Barbados Parliament by IrishMBO
For that reason O’Callaghan claims that the life of an indentured servant was, in some ways, worse than that of a slave.  He claims that they had worse living conditions than the African slaves and almost as little control over their destinies.  Many of the Irish people who were sent to Barbados couldn’t speak English and had little idea what was written in the contracts they were signing.  Worse than all of this, O’Callaghan portrays the grotesque living conditions of indentured servants – he describes how the women were often raped whilst working in the fields and how indentured servants could be beaten to death or hanged, if they tried to escape, with few legal repercussions for their ‘employers’

Anti-Irish racism
Some of the language used by Cromwell and his troops is shocking in how they described Irish people as somehow 'sub-human'.  It’s no surprise that there was little sympathy in Cromwell’s England for a race of people considered to be worse than animals.  The extreme nature of Cromwell’s Protestant revolution also meant that anyone professing the Catholic faith was considered to be a natural enemy of England.

The Irish in Jamaica
Ironically it was Cromwell’s hatred of Catholics that led to freedom for some of the Irish sent to Barbados.  His ‘Western Design’ was an attempt to take all Catholic Spain’s Caribbean possessions and bring them into the English commonwealth.  Two of Cromwell’s henchmen, Penn and Venables, led a disastrous campaign to capture the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  They led a rabble of thieves, criminals and newly-freed indentured servants which suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Spanish. 

Not wanting to retreat from their campaign empty-handed (and therefore invoking Cromwell’s wrath), they decided to invade another Spanish island instead, even though it the island was strategically unimportant and with little natural wealth.  The campaign to capture Jamaica was successful and the island remained in British hands until the 20th century.

Jamaica provided a great opportunity for those Irishmen and women who had survived their servitude in Barbados, to start again with an offer of land and work.  There weren’t many others who were willing to colonise Jamaica and the Irish population ultimately integrated with the black slave population, which might explain why Jamaican English has a distinctly Irish lilt!

The 'Red Legs' of Barbados
It would seem as though most of the Irish who remained in Barbados completely lost their language and identity.  Many were brought to Barbados as children, with little to anchor them in their ancestral culture.  O’Callaghan describes a definite policy of (what he describes as) ‘miscegenation’, when plantation owners would use Irish women and West African men to produce a new race of mixed-race slaves, that would be the property of the plantation owners and could be employed in the fields or sent to the whorehouses of Bridgetown.  It makes pretty grim reading and it’s a shame that there is so little recorded history of what happened to Irish women and the children they gave birth to in Barbados.

Dad swimming by IrishMBO
One remnant of 17th and 18th century ‘white slaves’ in Barbados is the small population of ‘red legs’ who still live on the island.  They seem to occupy the lowest level on Barbados’ social scale and it’s unusual to come across a country where a ‘white’ population is in a lower social strata than a black population.  I find the survival of the ‘red legs’ fascinating, although they are more likely descended from Scottish settlers, who were sent to Barbados in the 18th century, than the Irish servants who were sent at the time of Cromwell. 
The ‘red legs’ of Barbados are notoriously reclusive and O’Callaghan’s attempt to communicate with these descendants of Irish and Scottish servants was relatively unsuccessful.  I wonder what responsibility, if any, Ireland and Scotland have towards these people.  Perhaps the governments of Ireland, Scotland and Barbados could work together to ensure greater opportunities and prosperity for a population that seems incredibly isolated and vulnerable?

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me.

All other images have been shared with us by flickr member IrishMBO, aka Mary Beth Kurspahic, who is a retired school teacher from the US.  Mary has lovely collection of Barbados photos, which you can see on her photostream.  You can also find out more about Mary at her website. Thanks to Mary for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

1 comment:

Sean McNamara said...

Thank you for the information. I am an American of Irish ancestry. I was first enlightened about Cromwell and his roundheads thanks to "Tabacco Island", a song by the group Flogging Molly. In America, we pride ourselves on being a land of immigrants, but forgotten to our text books is how those who came here were not welcome with open arms, and in fact the Irish, in particular, were demonized by the Anglo-Protestant groups that ran the country. We Irish have been considered a second class race for most of our history, and yet have contributed so much to the world, including the building of much of it, albeit as endentured servants. Not that this experience is isolated to the Irish. Sadly several ethnic groups were (and often still are) treated as inferior.

Sorry for the rant. Thank you for this posting.