Irish Slaves, African Slaves, and Hierarchies of Oppression

Irish Slaves

The past is all around us. It shapes the places we live and visit, the people we interact with on a daily basis, and how we personally view the world. The significance we give to places like “Alabama,” “Massachusetts,” “Ireland,” and “Russia” is partly shaped by our understanding of the history of those places and, in some cases, our own past experiences there. Sometimes we stay in and maintain toxic relationships for no other reason than the mental comfort we feel when reflecting on a past time when the relationship seemed perfect.

The past is a part of us, but we cannot live in the past. We can give new meaning to the past by reassessing commonly accepted narratives and adding new layers of history through our own words and actions in the present, but we cannot go back to the way things were in 1850. We are participants in the present and observers of the past, and our participation in the present does much to shape our understanding of the past, much as we’d like to understand the worlds of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr, from their own vantage point.

As participants in the present who experience the world in ways that can be strikingly different from our ancestors, we run the risk of abusing the past by saying things about it that are more reflective of our own perspective than the way things may have actually been. On one side you have the perspective of someone like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who infamously equated the NFL’s labor practices to “modern-day slavery” in 2011. Peterson attempted to criticize the way he and other professional football players were being treated by NFL owners, and some may say that he has a valid complaint. But in finding a vocabulary to express his displeasure, Peterson relied on a poor comparison to chattel slavery that minimizes the actual horrors of slavery, both past and present. On the other side, the recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in response to the killing of unarmed black men by local police forces has elicited a wave of white racism that invokes the myth of “Irish slaves” in the New World to argue that chattel slavery–and more specifically the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Transatlantic world for hundreds of years–wasn’t so bad. And because chattel slavery wasn’t so bad, blacks should “get over” this history and stop using it “as [an] excuse for crap life.” (Liam Hogan of the University of Limerick has a paper on the myth of “Irish slaves” that can be viewed here).

One perspective argues that slavery exists all around us and limits our freedom to live the way we want to and earn a fair wage for our talents, even if we make millions of dollars. The other perspective argues that we must get over slavery (and, by extension, all oppression) because it is long gone and irrelevant to the present. Both perspectives reflect a shoddy understanding of history and a lazy attempt to make historical comparisons across time and space. And both perspectives rely on an irrational hierarchy of oppression that foolishly attempts to rank groups of people by how much they’ve suffered from hardship and oppression, whether that be Irish laborers, African slaves, or NFL players.

Lines like “my suffering is as bad as a slave’s” and “my ancestors were slaves before yours were and my life is great now. Get over it!” are tactically used by these people to shut down debate and invalidate the perspectives of others whose experiences differ from their own. I believe we can acknowledge the tragic victims of oppression–whether that be serfdom, chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or anything else–on their own merits without assessing who’s suffering was the worst. But such comparisons are made anyway because the one making those comparisons believes that he or she’s own suffering is unique and unacknowledged. And going beyond yourself to acknowledge others’ suffering means that one must come to terms with his or her own power and social status today. Not everyone is ready to reckon with that privilege and the implications of its potential loss.

Cheers

Update, 4/27/16: Comments have been closed for this post. Too many people want to personally attack Liam Hogan rather than engage in the actual argument I’m trying to make here.

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23 responses

  1. Nick, Liam Hogan’s analysis is simply wrong. I have read the author’s work elsewhere and he insists that a number of elements like heritability of status, racially defined status, lack of recourse to the courts, etc. are necessary for someone to be a slave. They are not. You can read the State Department’s guidance on slavery for a better understanding of this:

    http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http://www.state.gov/j/tip/what/&h=3AQFu7oYI

    One does not need to be chattel to be a slave.

    Most slaves are not chattel because their governments do not recognize them as property and yet they are held to compelled labor.

    Which tells you that the definition of slavery is much more complex than simply stating the elements of 19th Century black enslavement in America, which is what Hogan does.

    Some black slaves had recourse to the courts in the early years of slavery in America, does that mean that they were not slaves?

    Hogan is engaged in an internal debate with Irish nationalists in Ireland, some of whom would like to project an image of Irish treatment at the hands of the British as particularly barbaric and descending to a level unexcelled by any other people in the world. I sympathize with him in this. However, he distorts the meaning of slavery in order to counter his opponents. That is my problem with his essays.

    He says he is addressing “slavery” but he is really talking about slavery at a particular time and place. You can apply the term slavery properly to various forms of slave labor that are not identical to slavery in the United States in 1860.

    1. Hi Pat,

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I agree that “slavery” is complex and that it means different things over time and space. An institution that has existed for thousands of years and all different places throughout the world is bound to take on a multitude of variations. I do not profess to be an Irish historian and will not attempt to define whether or not “Irish slaves” existed. I am sure that in some circumstances they could be considered as such, and I agree that one does not need to be acknowledged as a slave by the state to actually be enslaved. And I know that slavery still exists in different parts of the world today.

      That said, my biggest issue with the “Irish slaves” debate is the way it is being used by white racists to say that the enslavement of millions of Africans wasn’t a big deal and that we should all “get over” it. Furthermore, it is notable that discussions of “Irish slaves” always pop up when African Americans in contemporary society speak out against perceived injustices through protest. There is more than a casual link between the two. I think we can acknowledge the historical hardships and sufferings of Irish people without debating whether or not they suffered “more” than Africans or any other group of people.

      1. In human rights law we try to avoid this sort of calculus of suffering. There is no point in creating NCAA-style brackets matching up The Holocaust v. The Armenian Genocide, The Great Famine in the Ukraine v. The Irish Famine, etc.

        The misuse of history is something that people like you help guard against. Your daily work and your blog are places where folks can learn to question facile comparisons and unsupported opinions about history.

        That is why I like to come here.

      2. Thank you again for sharing your perspective, Pat, and thank you for the kind words. I appreciate the work you’re doing at Hofstra and wholly agree that “NCAA-style brackets” are totally out of line when looking at these sorts of issues. Getting people to think historically and beyond speculation and false comparison is a challenge that I enjoy tackling on a daily basis as a public historian.

  2. I see the link to the State Department does not work. Here is a good link.

    http://www.state.gov/j/tip/what/

    I just want to note that I have no opinion on whether there were Irish slaves and I offer no evidence for or against that proposition.

  3. Pat, thank you, yet again, for the ahistorical feedback. If we follow your lead and apply this definition of “modern slavery” (as published by the State Department) to the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would infer that the majority of the population of Europe were “slaves”….e.g. “Involuntary Domestic Servitude” enslaves the entire female population with the stroke of pen. I don’t need to tell you how absurd this methodology is.

    I think you have missed the raison d’être for my work on this. I’m solely addressing the false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery. If you acknowledge that these are not interchangeable, then why do you assert that my analysis is wrong?

    You write “he is really talking about slavery at a particular time and place.” Yes, Pat, that’s what we call the study of history. That is what provides the context for our understanding.

    “I just want to note that I have no opinion on whether there were Irish slaves and I offer no evidence for or against that proposition.” That is interesting. You have “no opinion” about the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade being appropriated by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists, but lots of opinions about my work which tackles this lie. Why is this?

  4. Mr. Hogan writes, quoting me:

    ““I just want to note that I have no opinion on whether there were Irish slaves and I offer no evidence for or against that proposition.” That is interesting. You have “no opinion” about the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade being appropriated by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists, but lots of opinions about my work which tackles this lie. Why is this?”

    An unbiased reading of what I wrote would indicate that I have no opinion on whether there were Irish slaves, not, as Mr. Hogan implies “no opinion” about “the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade being appropriated by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists.”

    The excited tone of his comment and the inclination towards distortion are found elsewhere in his writings.

    I have no opinion on “whether there were Irish slaves” because, while I have read a few thousand words on the subject, I do not believe that I am familiar enough with the evidence to form an opinion worth voicing.

    I am not an expert on the history of Barbados or on the early British colonies on the North American mainland. I am a Special Professor of Law at Hofstra University School of Law where I have taught courses on international human rights, refugee law, and humanitarian protections. I have been brought in as an expert on this subjects by parties as diverse as Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I have opinions on various definitions of slavery, but not on the “Irish slavery” that Mr. Hogan writes about. I do not doubt that he knows much more about the facts of the claims of Irish enslavement than I do.

    I have spoken or given seminars on international human rights issues at law schools including Harvard, Columbia, NYU, St. John, New York Law, and Touro. So I feel that I am entitled to have an opinion on the meaning of slavery. Others can accept or reject it, or as Nick says, acknowledge the complexity of the subject.

    I have also represented people who were enslaved. None were Irish. Most were black or Latino.

    To turn to the final point.

    I have an opinion on “white supremacists”, and that is that they are evil people.

    Nationalists, let alone “ultra-nationalists,” are potentially dangerous to peace and often resistant to welcoming the Latin American, African, and South Asian refugees that I work for. My entire career has been devoted to working with non-white immigrants, and I have served for many years in the leadership of organizations dedicated to combating racism. So I have an opinion.

    My friend’s brother was lynched by an anti-Latino gang in 2008 right here on Long Island, so I am personally very well acquainted with white supremacy. I have also been threatened with death by local white supremacists who know where I live and work.

    Unlike Mr. Hogan, I have done extensive work on civil rights cases with leading anti-racist legal groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Latino Justice, bringing politicians, police, and individuals to account for racial discrimination.

    Mr. Hogan’s need for polemical weapons in his dispute with ultra-nationalists and white supremacists in Ireland is understandable. His desire to fight white supremacy with these tools should be leavened with the understanding that the “Irish slave” construct is rarely ever heard in the U.S., and when it is it is as likely to come from an anti-racist source seeking to express solidarity between blacks and whites as it is to come from the far-right.

    1. Thank you for this Pat. I salute your work in your profession and the risks you have taken.

      But to return to less important matters..

      You write “I feel that I am entitled to have an opinion on the meaning of slavery”

      Of course you are. I think this is the source of the misunderstanding. I am not debating the meaning of this word. “Slavery” is a broad, general term. It is applicable in an infinite number of cases.

      What I am discussing is chattel slavery in its historical context. For example, Barbados in 1672.. https://twitter.com/Limerick1914/status/581047635869609984 where it is quite clear who is slave, and who is not a slave…

    2. “I do not believe that I am familiar enough with the evidence to form an opinion worth voicing.”

      And yet, here we are.

      1. Liam, I did not voice any disagreement with you on the evidence, merely with your use of the term “slavery.” I don’t need any expertise on Barbados to make the statements I have made. As for the ahistoricity of applying modern definitions to the past, let us look at another word in the human rights lexicon. The term “genocide” only came into use in 1943 with the work of Raphael Lemkin, yet it was soon employed to describe the treatment of Armenians decades before. In the United States it is not unusual to see this term employed “ahistorically” in re treatment of indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere a century or more before the term genocide was first used.

      2. Pat, the concept of the crime of genocide, as developed by Raphael Lemkin over a number of years, was based primarily on the Armenian Genocide. It was a specific concept, and as such, the term that he coined (‘genocide’) accurately reflects the nature of the crime. This non-contemporary term can be applied to the pre-20th century events precisely because of its specificity.

        Similarly, in the first few pages of my essay I clearly define my terms. That is, I underline that references to slavery in the context of the colonial worlds in the West Indies in the 17th to 19th century, implies chattel slavery and not child labour, imprisonment or domestic servitude.

      3. “I did not voice any disagreement with you on the evidence, merely with your use of the term “slavery.”

        You informed Nick that my analysis was “simply wrong” and that I had “distorted” the definition of slavery for the purposes of supporting my thesis.

        The fact that my analysis and contextualised use of the term “slavery” is based on said evidence seems to have eluded you.

        You also assert that I have exaggerated how often this “Irish slaves” mythology is invoked. I bemused at how confidently you conclude that it is “rarely ever heard in the U.S.” I’ve collated some online examples here https://storify.com/Limerick1914/the-prelance-of-the-irish-slaves-mythology
        Rest assured Pat, it is heard by many African Americans *every* *single* *day* https://twitter.com/FeministaJones/status/584440266364444672

      4. Mr. Hogan writes:

        “You also assert that I have exaggerated how often this “Irish slaves” mythology is invoked. I bemused at how confidently you conclude that it is “rarely ever heard in the U.S.” I’ve collated some online examples here https://storify.com/Limerick1914/the-prelance-of-the-irish-slaves-mythology
        Rest assured Pat, it is heard by many African Americans *every* *single* *day* https://twitter.com/FeministaJones/status/584440266364444672

        His evidence: some tweets.

        I live and work in two majority-minority villages. I’ll ask my African American neighbors if they hear this nonsense “every” “single” “day”.

        In any event, have a nice weekend.

        1. I think we’ve reached a good ending point to this discussion. Thanks to both Pat and Liam for contributing their perspectives to this blog post.

  5. Just for purposes of closure on my part, Mr. Hogan writes:

    “Pat, thank you, yet again, for the ahistorical feedback. If we follow your lead and apply this definition of “modern slavery” (as published by the State Department) to the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century,”

    I just note that Mr. Hogan ahistorically applies a definition of slavery derived from Mid-19th Century United States and applies it to 17th and 18th Century British colonies.

    1. Pat, as you have read my work you should know that this is a false statement in more ways than one. The British version of the chattel slave system was developed in the British colonies in the seventeenth century. The Barbados Slave Code of 1661 was especially influential. It legally codified that slavery was hereditary, perpetual and based on ‘race’, and that slaves were to be treated as chattel [livestock] before the court. This legal code was one of the foundational templates for chattel slavery when it was introduced to Colonial America.

  6. Piareas Ceannt

    Liam Hogan is a revisionist engaged in a dispute with supporters of the Irish Republican cause. Irish Republicans are not “White Supremecists”. He is a poor historian who twists the facts to suit his agenda. His “Irish” slave owners are English landlords who seized land in Ireland under his muses Good Queen Bess and Cromwell. If Diggs Deloitte and Peter Brown, Marquis of Sligo were “mere irish” I’m from China.

    1. Hi Piareas,

      Thanks for reading and commenting, but we are once again straying far from the original discussion that this essay aimed to provoke. I am a historian of 19th Century United States history. I am decidedly *not* a historian of Irish history, and I do not intend to make any claims one way or the other about that history. I have no doubts that within certain contexts and situations there existed someone who could be defined as an “Irish slave.” The point is not to debate whether or not they existed, but to probe the ways the Irish slavery narrative is used here in the United States (and probably elsewhere) to make points about the present rather than anything of historical substance. As I remarked in an earlier comment in this thread:

      “My biggest issue with the “Irish slaves” debate is the way it is being used by white racists to say that the enslavement of millions of Africans wasn’t a big deal and that we should all ‘get over’ it. Furthermore, it is notable that discussions of ‘Irish slaves’ always pop up when African Americans in contemporary society speak out against perceived injustices through protest. There is more than a casual link between the two. I think we can acknowledge the historical hardships and sufferings of Irish people without debating whether or not they suffered ‘more’ than Africans or any other group of people.”

      I will let Mr. Hogan respond to your claims if he wishes, but beyond that we are done debating his credentials here. Thanks again for commenting.

    2. This is an unintentionally humorous comment. Mr. Ceannt is completely wrong about my work on the myth of “Irish slaves” and the genealogy of Messrs Browne and La Touche.

      If Mr. Ceannt had bothered to read my article about the phenomenon of white supremacists using mythical “Irish slaves” to shut down or derail the debate about the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, he would know that I stated that this narrative and pattern of racist/nativist behaviour “exists almost exclusively in the United States.”

      I can assure Mr Ceannt that I am not “engaged in a dispute with supporters of the Irish Republican cause” and where this conjecture is coming from I simply do not know. As an Irish Republican, both in practice and fact, I resent Mr. Ceannt’s false insinuation.

      Mr. Ceannt writes “Irish Republicans are not “White Supremecists”[sic]”

      And who, exactly, is claiming that they are? This is a red herring. I will note, for the record, that one of the targets of my work, Sean O’Callaghan (who wrote the seriously flawed “To Hell or Barbados”) was derided by Brendan Behan in the 1950s for smearing the Republican movement in this way.

      Mr. Ceannt writes “He is a poor historian who twists the facts to suit his agenda.”

      This is a typically lazy ad hominem. I will now reverse the latter half of this baseless insult and turn it back in Mr. Ceannt’s direction. Twisting the facts to suit an agenda. Let’s see. Mr. Ceannt writes “His “Irish” slave owners are English landlords who seized land in Ireland under his muses Good Queen Bess and Cromwell” He then, as evidence for this statement, names two of the slave owning families in Ireland that I have explored elsewhere, Howe Peter Browne of Westport, Co. Mayo and William and Peter Diggs La Touche of Dublin. Despite Mr. Ceannt’s claims, these families were not “English landlords” who “seized land” during the Cromwellian conquest. The Browne family hail from Neale, Co. Mayo (1500s) and in the mid-seventeenth century they married into the famous Bourke family. Col. John Browne actually married Maud Bourke, a great great granddaughter of Grace O’Malley aka Granuaile. Col. Browne was a Jacobite and he raised two regiments to fight for James II against William of Orange. Browne’s grandson became a slave owner when he married Elizabeth Kelly of Lisduff, Co. Galway. Her father, Denis Kelly, was the Chief Justice of Jamaica in the 1740s. He owned over 1000 acres of sugar plantations and hundreds of slaves. Four of his brothers were also based in Jamaica at this time.

      As for the La Touche family, they were Huguenots from France that fled from anti-Huguenot persecution to Ireland after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This family’s settlement in Ireland was around the same time that many Kent’s from England settled in Ulster under less trying circumstances.

      Mr. Ceannt erroneously claims that I used the phrase “mere Irish” in my work. This is also a red herring.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. Thanks for responding, Liam. Great comment.

  7. Sigh, if the response of individuals towards an evil says ‘well Tom or Dick suffered the same fate and they are fine, why are you still distraught,’ then tension remains. Many are willing to overlook the evil of slavery in relation to Africa when they throw that ‘oh but Ireland had slaves too.’ It means continued division, nonchalant attitude and lack of conscience.

  8. it’s not about who suffered more, its that white and blacks suffered equally. It pisses me off when I’m discriminated against for being white. My early relatives were slaves in both England and, America but, I’m not demanding reparations be paid.

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I agree only partly with your reasoning. You are correct that we don’t need to argue about who suffered more, but then why turn around and make a comparison between two groups of people arguing that “white and black suffered equally”? What evidence do you have for that statement, and how would we even quantify such an argument? Are you not trying to make a value judgement about the suffering of groups different from your own in order to boost your own victim status? As I state in this essay, “we can acknowledge the tragic victims of oppression on their own merits without assessing who’s suffering was the worst.” You are entitled to view reparations as mistaken policy, believe whatever you want about discrimination against white people today, and deal with the past in a way that helps you find closure, but don’t denigrate the suffering of others to amplify your own views. That’s the point of this essay. Thanks for commenting.

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