Critique of Sean O’Callaghan’s “To Hell or Barbados”

Originally published on academia.edu in 2014 and now updated and republished here since I’ve moved my profile to the non-profit Humanities Commons.

“Wonderful” — The Irish Times

“Essential reading” — The Irish Examiner

“A fascinating read.” — The Sunday Tribune

Sean O’Callaghan was at least considerate when he warned his readers on page nine of To Hell or Barbados that he was not a historian. Indeed a brief review of his bibliography reveals a penchant for sensationalism, fantasy, pop journalism and exaggeration.

Pertinently we find that he consistently used the umbrella term “slavery” to describe human trafficking, prostitution, child labour, forced marriage, forced labour and concubinage, across a series of books. A glance at the titles White Slave Trade (1967), Yellow Slave Trade (1968), White Slave Traffic (1969) shows that he was prone to using racial archetypes. Over the years O’Callaghan has also received criticism for his tenuous grasp of writing history. The Irish Times review of his first book The Easter Lily (1957) lamented that the author lost “no time in making it clear that history is not his strong suit” and then ran through a litany of his basic errors

O’Ceallacain of Cashal (sic) becomes, by rising against Brian Boru, the “first recorded Irish rebel,” while a later O’Ceallacain defies Elizabeth’s troops and welcomes Owen Roe O’Neill after the latter’s cross-country march from Donegal to Cork. This sort of thing prepares us for “Thomas Davies, the Protestant poet,” “the Irish Parliament in Stephen’s Green,” “Cumman-Na-Mban” (for Cumann na mBan) and “Teactara-Dáil” (for Teachta Dála)…the examples quoted are as straws in the wind. There are as many more as would fill a haggard.
— 23 March 1957

Likewise the Irish playwright Brendan Behan was distinctly unimpressed with The Easter Lily and explained that he “would not trouble [himself] with [O’Callaghan] one way or another” but for the fact that the book suggested, without any supporting evidence, that many members of the I.R.A. were racist. Behan claimed that this was

A line of attack that Sean O’Callaghan has picked up in England since he went over there and it is to be taken more seriously than the Zane Grey bits of his book, because it is less easy to disprove.

Brendan Behan, To the Editor of the New Statesman and Nation, 9 March 1957, The Letters of Brendan Behan, 95–96.

I lament that I did find the time to review Sean O’Callaghan’s reporting in the 1950s with the East African Standard, a colonial newspaper in Kenya. This newspaper represented the white colonists’ viewpoint and “continued in its great white way” until 1975 when it finally appointed its first African editor. For more on this see Frederick K. Iraki, Cross-media Ownership and Monopolizing of Public Spaces in Kenya, (Re)memebring Kenya: Identity, culture and freedom, Mbũgua wa Mũngai, G. M. Gona (ed.), 144.

The Irish Times reviewed his next book The Jackboot in Ireland (1958) and concluded that

[O’Callaghan] garnered widely, and his synthesis, if not of high historical value, has all the merit of well-spun yarn.

Mr. O’Callaghan seems to dull the edge of his own exploration with an unnecessary sense of horror and shock. He is also so steeped in racial clichés as to be disconcerting. Egyptians are fat and wet-palmed; Arabs are mysterious and skulking; Africans are amoral; and “Negresses” have cool bodies… — May 1962, 51

Articles you can find in many men’s true adventure magazines.

The Irish Times reviewed his book Drug Addiction in Britain (1970) and found it be “informative, enriched by occasional insights and potentially very valuable” yet let down by being “unbalanced, out-of-date, lurid and sometimes inaccurate pop-journalism.” In this case the reviewer (5 September 1970) noticed how he massaged and manipulated his source material.

[O’Callaghan used] a single interview, repeated from different angles, to illustrate different points in such a way as to make it seem like several different interviews.

O’Callaghan also declines to mention the European custom of holding “negroes” to perpetual hereditary slavery prior to legal codification. As Alissandra Cummins has explained

While it is true that the English colonists initially avoided defining the nature of slavery, they worked out the problem pragmatically and built up piecemeal a regulatory structure governing their relations with slaves. In [1636] in Barbados the Government Council decreed that ‘Negroes and Indians, that came here to be sold should serve for life..’ — Caribbean Slave Society, Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity, Anthony Tibbles (ed.), (2005), 48.

As there is no record of how the Irish on the slave ships were treated, we have to assume that they were treated the exactly the same as African slaves were treated, for which there are many records.

The tabloidesque conflation continues as O’Callaghan declares that the public auction of the contracts of indentured servants was possibly the same as the sale of African chattel slaves

Like the African slaves, it is even possible that they were stripped before being put on the auction block. — p. 113

This racial bias is crystallised by O’Callaghan in the final section of the book wherein he discusses the “Redlegs” or “poor whites” of Barbados. He introduces a local named Patrick Kelman Roach, who was his guide and mentor during his time on the island. Roach, it is claimed, is of Irish descent and his ancestors were from Limerick and they apparently settled in Barbados in 1638 (p. 216). This Roach family were planters and O’Callaghan praised them, without any supporting evidence, for “[alleviating] the sufferings of their fellow countrymen transported by Cromwell.” Yet he makes no reference to the slaves these planters would have owned, bought and sold. These slaves, whose history he has relentlessly hijacked and appropriated, do not exist in the text when they are no longer useful to his central narrative. Thus O’Callaghan obscures the possibility that this particular family of Roach’s exploited chattel slaves for nearly two hundred years. It is shown in the slave compensation records that close to forty different individuals in Barbados with the surname Roach claimed for the loss of their slaves in 1834. None of these claimants were large planters in 1834, which suggests a complex and perhaps mixed race genealogy.

O’Callaghan also lamented that although he was not searching for his “roots”, he did not find a fellow O’Callaghan among the “Black Irish” of Barbados. If he had widened his research into the links between the O’Callaghan surname and slavery he might have discovered the story of Michael Callaghan, a slave trader based in Bristol who shipped over a thousand slaves to the colonies in the early 18th century. See Rodgers, p. 97.

Most disturbing of all is that O’Callaghan occasionally moves from conflation and sensationalism to outright fabrication. Without a shred of evidence, nor a single citation, he asserts that

  1. Irish servants were branded like slaves on their arrival to Barbados;
  2. That “paedophiles and homosexuals” bought Irish children, insidiously making this disgusting and notorious e conflation. See O’Callaghan, pp. 112–116 and p. 119. He also appropriates the history of slave-owners in the West Indies prostituting their female slaves. See Marisa Joanna Fuentes, Buried Landscapes: Enslaved Black Women, Sex, Confinement and Death in Colonial Bridgetown, Barbados, and Charleston, South Carolina, (Berkeley 2007), PhD Dissertation, 51.
  3. That Irish women were sold to small planters who operated “stud farms” and forced them to breed with African slaves;
  4. That Irish women were “sexually cold and unresponsive, having to be whipped into submission.”;
  5. That Irish women were stripped naked and whipped by mulatto drivers who then “satisfied their lust by taking them from the rear.”

In the absence of proof/primary sources, all of this is part of O’Callaghan’s fantasy and its inclusion helps to explain Don Akenson’s quip in Ireland, Sweden, and the Great European Migration, 1815–1914, that O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados is

An end-of-the-pier-act that is just a shade short of being hate literature.

Perhaps much worse than this is his decision to include Dickson’s description of the miserable conditions and horrific punishments that chattel slaves had to endure in eighteenth century Barbados. Thus O’Callaghan purposefully endeavoured to let the reader believe that this is how Irish deportees were treated in Barbados in the seventeenth century. See p. 177.

O’Callaghan particularly derisive of the “Redlegs” of Barbados

In our article for History Ireland, Dr. Matthew Reilly (whose PhD dissertation is on this very topic) Dr. Laura McAtackney and I demonstrated how O’Callaghan had exploited the “redlegs” of Barbados by demeaning and mangling their complex history in the service of his “white slavery” narrative.

Aside from serving white supremacist agendas, the “white slave” narrative has been equally problematic in its exploitation of the “Redlegs” of Barbados. The “poor whites” that currently reside along the east coast of the Barbados have been used as living fossils of the Cromwellian invasion of the Ireland. Television documentaries, works of fiction and non-fiction, radio programs, magazine articles, photography exhibitions, and online publications all highlight the impoverishment of the contemporary Barbadian “Redlegs,” as they are pejoratively referred to, and identify them as the descendents of the forgotten Irish or Scottish “slaves.”

The discriminatory and damning descriptions of the “Redlegs” are used to demonstrate the brutality experienced by the “white slaves” whose descendants are still portrayed as suffering. Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados is particularly derisive in its exploitative treatment of these people, claiming that “Today, Red Legs are of a sallow complexion and subject to many diseases like epilepsy, hookworm and anaemia. They look down on the blacks and have never intermarried with them, and because of over 300 years of inbreeding, many are now mentally retarded with a low literacy rate.” Such unethical treatments of the “Redlegs” are seldom concerned with the attitudes, centuries-long history, and daily lives of these very people. Simply used as victims of a history of “white slavery,” these Barbadians are stripped of their humanity and defined by erroneous notions of laziness, destitution, inbreeding, alcoholism, and mental retardation. Additionally, their strong ties to Afro-Barbadians through centuries of intermixing and daily social interactions, are largely omitted.

The relative lack of critique of O’Callaghan’s work since its publication means that this insulting stereotype of the “poor white” community in Barbados has been accepted in Ireland as wholly accurate. This explains how the National Maritime Museum, an official institution of the Irish state, could equate slavery and servitude while they confidently smeared an entire community as “pitiful” due to being “degenerated” from “three-hundred-fifty years of inbreeding”. It also falsely equated this community with the Native American reservation system and erased the history of Irish colonialism, slave-ownership and slave-trading in Montserrat.

Slavery was not confined to Africans. At the close of Cromwell’s war in Ireland, tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish were shipped to the Caribbean to work in the sugar-cane fields. To this day a colony of several hundred Irish slave descendants live in reservation-like conditions on the Northern shore of Barbados. Unfortunately, three-hundred-fifty years of inbreeding, coupled with the excesses of rum and cannabis have reduced them to a pitiful state of degeneration. However, their Irish accents are unmistakable. Yet another group of Irish slaves’ descendants live on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat. Curiously they still celebrate Patrick’s day and fly the Irish flag. (2009)

To Hell or Barbados is a work that is riddled with basic errors and there is not enough space nor time to enumerate and expose them all. It is a book about an important and traumatic period in Irish history that is utterly ruined and discredited by flights of fancy, a compulsive need to conflate indentured servitude or forced labour with the experience of the chattel slave. Despite the large number of fallacies that this work promotes, it has had a considerable and disturbing influence on Irish public memory of the Cromwellian conquest. Thus an important question needs to be asked, how did such a flawed work gain a prominent position in Irish culture, inspiring numerous documentaries, novels, articles and even songs and albums? How was this work, which appropriated the horrific punishments meted out to enslaved Africans across the Anglo-Caribbean, being continuously and uncritically absorbed by thousands of people each year?

Firstly, O’Callaghan’s book focussed on what was then a relatively overlooked piece of Irish history and it was in turn universally lauded by a number of leading national newspapers in Ireland. It was described as a “fascinating read” (The Sunday Tribune), “wonderful” (The Irish Times) and “essential reading” (The Irish Examiner). Notably none of the reviewers were historians of slavery, or the Early Modern Period, and so they simply did not have the knowledge to recognise the archive of errors within.

But even Irish historians have amplified O’Callaghan’s e.g. History Ireland magazine published an article about the Cromwellian transportations in the July/August issue authored by the current head of the History Department of Trinity College Dublin, Prof Micheál Ó Siochrú. To its detriment this article included a number of ahistorical assertions which had been evidently lifted directly from Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados. I say evidently, because To Hell or Barbados is not cited, yet most of these falsehoods originate there.

(1) Lifetime servitude myth

Ó Siochrú: Irish military prisoners “were sold in perpetuity” in Barbados (2008)

O’Callaghan: “These prisoners were not sent as indentured servants, but were sold in perpetuity…” (2000)

The problem here is that no European servant was ever sold into lifetime service in the Anglo-Caribbean.

(2) 25 years of indentured servitude myth

Ó Siochrú: “Most of the Irish indentured servants had been freed by 1680” (2008)

Ó Siochrú’s timeline at the end of the article “1680: Last of [Irish] indentured servants on Barbados freed.”

Sean O’Callaghan: “by the time the census of 1680 was taken, most of the white servants had become freemen and women.” (2000)

This problem here is that (a) this contradicts the previous false claim of perpetual service while (b) also falsely implying that Irish people who were forcibly transported from Ireland in the 1650s were sold to planters in Barbados for terms of twenty five years or more. We know that those who survived, who had not already served out their time, were pardoned at the Restoration in 1660.

(3) The myth that Irish servants killed planters and attacked the militia alongside African slaves

Prof Ó Siochrú: “In 1655, runaway Irish and African slaves in Barbados began attacking local militia forces, killing plantation-owners and destroying crops.”

The problem here is that this is a summation of a narrative found in Sean O’Callaghan’s work which equates the status of Irish servants with enslaved Africans. Furthermore there is no evidence that Irish servants in Barbados ever attacked local militia forces, killed plantation-owners or destroyed crops in concert with African slaves. We do have evidence of an instance in Barbados in 1655 when some Irish servants and African slaves ran away together and refused to work. This was an individual case of maroonage not an organised revolt. As Hilary Beckles has concluded that “Fear outran fact in this regard: no certain evidence exists that servants or freemen ever attempted to participate in [a] violent uprising of slaves. The reality was that the poor whites benefited, though marginally, from black slavery.”

(4) The myth that the collapse of the Cromwellian regime is what ended the mass transportations from Ireland

In this article Prof Ó Siochrú also created his own myth.

Prof Ó Siochrú: “The collapse of the Cromwellian regime and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 brought an end to large-scale transportations.”

The problem is that the historical evidence informs us that the major Cromwellian transportations of the supposedly “idle and vagabond persons” from Ireland to the West Indies were initiated in 1653 and ended in March 1657 due to abuses by merchants. Their cessation had nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell being alive or dead.

The Cromwellian cancellation order (dated 4 March 1657) reads as follows

“…having received many complaints of the abuse of some orders granted to several persons to carry away idle and vagabond persons to the West Indies, who…employ persons to delude and deceive poor people by false pretences, either by getting them aboard the ships or in other by-places into their power, and forcing them away, the person so employed having so much a-piece for they so delude, and for the money’s sake have enticed and forced women from their husbands and children from their parents, who maintained them at school, and that they have not only dealt so with the Irish but also with the English [the Council now] do think fit and order that all Orders, granted to any person whatsoever (being now in force) to take up and carry idle and vagabond persons as aforesaid, be henceforth made null and void.”

(5) The myth that Tories were transported to Barbados by Charles II

Prof Ó Siochrú: “…shipments of convicted Tories continued throughout the reign of Charles II.” (2008)

Sean O’Callaghan: “The traffic in Irish slaves continued during the entire reign of Charles II…Tories convicted by the court were still “barbadoed”.” (2000)

The problem with Ó Siochrú taking from O’Callaghan on this point is that none of these apparent “shipments of convicted Tories” post-1660 are substantiated in O’Callaghan’s work. It appears that Charles II’s regime tried to manage attacks by Tories in Ireland through a pardon system, see The Proclamations of Ireland 1660–1820, Volume 1, Kelly and Lyons (ed.) and transportation as punishment for convicted Tories is not mentioned. That being said, an older Cromwellian ordnance from June 1657 (see below) includes Irish Tories in passing in its remit and one of the potential punishments listed is transportation to the “Plantations in America”.

“That then the said Justices are hereby authorized and required to commit him or them to the common Goal for the said County, Shire, or Sheriffdome, there to remain without Bail untill the next Quarter Sessions for the Peace, where they the Justices of Peace for the said respective Counties, Shires or Sheriffdomes, are hereby authorized and required, and impowred by Order of Court, to continue him or them in prison, or commit him or them to the House of Correction until such time as he or they shall procure such Security as beforesaid, or otherwise to Transport him or them to some of the Plantations in America, belonging to this Commonwealth, not to return for seven years without License from his Highness the Lord Protector or his Successors, under the penalty of Felony.”

We need to find some evidence of transportation of Tories to America post-1660 for this claim with regards to Charles II to hold any water, which is the inverse to how historical writing usually occurs.

So it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence this publication has had on the Irish imagination as it sat on bookshelves across the country for sixteen years without receiving any public criticism from Irish historians or historians of slavery. Tragically it was increasingly seen as a definitive account of what happened. Little wonder so many people were confused and felt personally insulted by my work tackling the “Irish slaves” meme. This is also why I was initially quite sympathetic with Gerry Adams’ claims in the wake of his well-publicised social media faux pas re: Django Unchained. If you don’t recall it, he equated chattel slavery with involuntary indentured servitude in a kamikaze bid to justify his use of the word n***** on Twitter, and also claimed that “50,000 Irish slaves” were transported by Cromwell to the West Indies.

That he used this figure is understandable as he was sourcing this number from Sean O’Callaghan’s popular book. This figure of 50,000 remains on blurb of the book and on the publisher’s webpage. O’Brien’s Press to this day sell copies of this book using the tagline

“The previously untold story of over 50,000 Irish men, women and children who were transported to Barbados and Virginia.”

“There were transported of them into Spain, Flanders, France, 34,000 Soldiers; and of Boys, Women, Priests, &c.no less than 6000 more, where not half are returned.” — William Petty (The Political Anatomy of Ireland, 1672) p. 19

Adams was subsequently challenged on his claim of “50,000 Irish slaves” by a well-informed Aine Lawlor on RTÉ national radio. He seemed slightly bewildered by her criticism and just brushed it off. The explanation for this is straightforward. Cromwell’s “Irish slaves” are canon in Irish nationalist historiography. James Connolly in the Re-Conquest of Ireland(1915) claimed that “over 100,000 men, women and children were transported to the West Indies, there to be sold into slavery” and in a fiery speech in Mallow in 1843 Daniel O’Connell asserted that “80,000 Irishmen [were] sent to work as slaves.” But these were rhetorical claims, based on a truth, but greatly exaggerated for effect and are not to be confused with historical accuracy.

Adams was thus hammered by the Irish media on all sides for both using the racial slur so casually and for drawing a direct and grossly misleading parallel. As much of my recent work has challenged popular disinformation about “Irish slavery” I was approached by a number of media outlets to write an op-ed in response. Seeing how this could be made into political hay, I was very wary of how I could be used. After all it took at least one year of my time, a slew of articles and an open letter signed by over one hundred historians and academics to get a particularly bad piece of “Irish slaves” propaganda removed from the website of The Irish Examiner, a national newspaper. So why were the Irish media now moving so quickly to clarify that what the Irish experience in the Anglo-Caribbean was indentured servitude and not chattel slavery? As far as I’m aware none of them have ever criticised the publishers of To Hell or Barbados for continuing to make a profit from spreading O’Callaghan’s “unhistorical shit.” Thus I declined these op-ed offers and instead gave quotes to theJournal.ie where I clarified that

They were sold as indentured servants, not racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slaves. This was similar and brutal but not the same. So even though [he had to trawl] back to the 1650s to justify his tweet, his analogy does not fit. The exploitation and dehumanisation of African people by Europeans in the Americas has no analogy in Irish history and this fact should be respected.

I added on twitter that

There is a significant difference between (a) recognising the solidarity between civil rights movements and (b) using the n-word to co-opt history.

I also spoke to The Irish Times

Solidarity must include an understanding of the differences between different histories, as well as recognising the commonalities. What is lost — if not unconsciously erased — in the defensive reaction to all this is that the system of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery that was developed and enforced by Europeans on African people in the Americas was the most lethal, brutal and genocidal form of slavery that we have ever known, built on dehumanisation and the erasure of identity, its direct legacy is ongoing anti-black racism. I think the overwhelming lack of knowledge about the history of the transatlantic slave trade is a symptom of this and this apathy about the exact details speaks volumes.

But sadly my sympathy evaporated when instead of revising his stance, Adams doubled down on his inaccurate claims by moving the source of his disinformation from the flawed O’Callaghan to the bogus and hyper-exaggerated “Irish slaves” propaganda found online. Bizarrely he then attributed this ahistorical propaganda to O’Callaghan.

Gerry Adams, ‘Parallels in Struggle’

Adams’ decision to adopt this unhinged propaganda when challenged is a microcosm of how this has played out across social media since 2014.

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi https://ko-fi.com/liamhogan