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Irish White Slavery Under Cromwell

This page will tell the story of Irish white slavery as a result of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. Slavery as an Irish history topic? Yes.

Two soldiers of Cromwell's New Model Army that invaded Ireland in 1649.

The Cromwellian New Model Army was the best organized army in the world at the time. Their heavy assault guns and other weaponry were far superior to what the Irish were fighting with a lot of who were fighting with pikes and pitchforks when they did not have rifles.

The First Victims Were Irish Soldiers

After victory of the Parlamentarian Army, professional Irish soldiers were put into internment camps. About 38,000 of them were sold into the armies of nations not at war with England, such as Spain, Portugal, and Poland.

From a strategic viewpoint it was understandable that Cromwell wanted rid of the soldiers. Irish soldiers had a reputation internationally for being fierce fighters.

The soldiers were shipped off as soon as possible, and they were not allowed to bring their dependents. This meant there was now a huge population women and children that were financially unsupported, destined to go hungry.

The Hunt For More Slaves

Then, Cromwell systematically made sure the next harvest was destroyed. He had organized that the army bring scythes. Houses, which in those days were mostly wooden and wattle and daub cabins, were burned.

Many people were driven off the land and sought refuge in the towns. This strategy increased the numbers of destitute. And those figures were used to justify the rounding up of people to sell them into slavery.

It was easy to target the homeless in towns. So called ‘man hunters’ went around settlements on horseback with long whips forcing people, men, women and children, into holding pens outside the towns from which they were marched to the major ports, Kinsale, Bantry, or Galway. English slave ships picked them up at the ports.

To sell the Irish as slaves was seen by the English as a natural and normal thing.

The prevailing attitude was that an Irish Catholic was less than human. To kill them was a heroic act, profiting from Irish White slavery was seen almost as a humanitarian act.

White Slavery On Barbados

Most slaves were sent to Barbados, believe it or not, which today is a holiday resort. Back then, it was an English sugar plantation that needed slave labour. Irish slavery was the answer.

Anyone who was considered to be a ‘vagrand’ or vagabond (in other words homeless) or an enemy of the new regime such as the entire Catholic clergy that was young enough to be useful for slave labour, was transported.

It is estimated that transportation to Barbados was the fate of 50,000 Irish people between the years of 1652 and 1656. The practise had become so popular, one resident wrote, that people had started to "make a verb of it, to Barbados you“.

In Barbados today there are still some descendants of those Irish that were captured and sold as slaves. They are called the Red Legs, a poverty stricken group of the population. Apparently they owe their strange name name to sunburnt legs emerging from their kilts when stepping of the slave boats first.

Read More About Cromwell In Ireland

Read here about the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland.

Read about the lifestyle of the new ascendancy after Cromwell, and the architectural legacy left by this elite.

Some Irish people were sold as slaves into tobacco plantations in Virginia. In both places, the treatment of white slaves was even worse than that of African slaves because Irish slaves were much less docile than Africans. Irish slaves led many rebellions in Barbados. Beatings and torture of various kinds were common place as well as unsafe and hazardous working and living conditions. None of the Irish sold into slavery by Cromwell ever returned to Ireland.

At home, the slaves were forgotten, until the publishing of an excellent book on the subject of Irish White Slavery which we have used a resource for all the facts and figures quoted here: To Hell or Barbados by Sean O Callaghan.

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