My expanded response to CNN reporters’ questions about a DeSantis appointee’s endorsement of “Irish slaves” disinformation
Last week I was contacted by a CNN journalist about a recent Ron DeSantis appointee who has previously endorsed “Irish slaves” disinformation in an anti-Critical Race Theory broadcast. You can read this report here. Below are the expanded versions of the answers I sent back to help support their work in shining a light on this continuing trend by the Right in the U.S. to deny African American history via historical negationism.
- What is the historical basis for the “Irish slaves” myth?
The very real history which the contemporary “Irish slaves” mythos abuses is the Cromwellian policy of forced exile, penal transportation and colonial indentured servitude, which was unleashed by the occupying Parliamentarian forces during, but predominately in the wake of, their military conquest of Confederate and Royalist Ireland (1649–’59).
Transporting POWs to serve a term of indentured servitude in the West Indies was not a new policy for the Parliamentarian government. For instance in the aftermath of the Battle of Preston (1648) we find an order giving Bristol merchants licence to transport upwards of 500 Scottish prisoners to the Plantations.
“…concerning the Disposal of the Scotts Prisoners…It is Ordered…that the Plantations may be first furnished, and then the Service of Venice: And that they that give the best Security be first served…the Gentlemen of Bristoll, according to their Desires, may have Liberty to transport Five hundred, giving the like good Security as others.”
— Journal of the House of Commons, 4 September 1648
The basis for such a policy for the “disposal” of those “burdensome to the State” was discussed soon after the English Civil War broke out in 1642.
“Mr. Rigby, Morley, Holland, Ven, Fountaine, Vassal, Pye, Whitacre, are appointed to consider of the fittest and most convenient way of disposing of such Prisoners as are taken by the Army, and are burdensome to the State, either by sending them to the Indies, or otherwise; and to treat with such Citizens, concerning his Business, as they shall think fit: And have Power to send for Parties, &c.”
— Journal of the House of Commons, 14 October 1642
Initially sporadic numbers of captured Irish soldiers and Royalist English troops were thus shipped to Barbados after Cromwell’s brutal sieges of Irish towns in 1649. This tendency was seized upon by Irish Catholic leaders, who in their Clonmacnoise Decree presented it as evidence that Cromwellian forces were beginning a particular depopulation of the ‘common’ Irish who were to be sent into exile in the Anglo-Caribbean and replaced by English settlers.
“…and for the common sort of people’ towards whom if they show any more moderate usage at the present, it is to no other end but for their private advantage and for the better support of their army, intending at the close of their conquest (if they can effect the same, as God forbid) to root out the commons also, and plant this land with colonies to be brought hither out of England, as witness the number they have already sent hence for the Tobacco Island and put enemies in their places.”
— Catholic Ecclesiastical Congregation of Ireland, 4 December 1649
Cromwell in response tried to assure the Irish people in 1650 that only those “ready to run to arms by the instigation of their Clergy or otherwise” would be at risk of being sent to the “Tobacco islands”. But while their transportation policy in Ireland never approached that feared by the Irish Catholic Ecclesiastical Congregation, either in purpose or in scale, it soon morphed into something much more exploitative and less discriminating in its selection of victims than solely captured soldiers and Tory rebels.
As such Cromwell’s own words soon turned to dust as the focus and scope of transportation changed dramatically in 1653. It was expanded by the Commonwealth occupation forces to include those destitute in Ireland, their destination was the American colonies, their fate was indentured servitude, and coercion was now the policy’s defining characteristic. The application of this policy in Ireland was essentially a radical and colonial abuse of the English Poor Law of 1601, which was originally passed to provide relief for those unable to work but also sought to impose social control by criminalising adult “idleness” and vagabondage. Cromwell’s endorsement of this policy shift can be observed in his letter to Charles Fleetwood, then the Lord Deputy of Ireland, in early 1654 wherein he petitioned on behalf of Bristol merchants to allow them to transport “Irish tories” and “idle and vagrant persons” to the plantations.
Some merchants of the city of Bristol having petitioned to me for licence to transport 400 of the Irish Tories, and such other idle and vagrant persons as may be thought fittest to be spared out of Ireland, for planting of the Caribbee Islands, which address of theirs I do recommend to your consideration that their desire therein may be granted in such a way as to you shall seem fit and expedient.
— Oliver Cromwell to Charles Fleetwood, 30 January 1654
Thus from 1653 to 1657 “vagrants” were specifically ordered to be transported to the West Indies from Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Carlow, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Dublin. The order to ship “disorderly persons” from Ireland to the American colonies was only rescinded by the Council of State in March 1657 because of its repeated abuse by merchants. This was of little comfort to those already shipped across the Atlantic and sold into years of oppressive servitude and unpaid labour to the sole benefit of the planter class in the Anglo-American world. We do not know how many were sent but several thousand is both possible and likely.
The invocation of the language of slavery can thus understandably be found in the Irish poetry, sentiment, memory and propaganda of the time. It is based on the historical truth of forced exile and attempted commodification in English colonies in the Americas.
2. Who is John Martin and why is his work cited so often, despite its fabrication?
After researching this for a number of years I can say that John Martin is an unknown individual and it’s likely that he does not exist at all and is rather a pen name for an individual or group that do not wish to stand over their propaganda when challenged. Far from being an “expert” this “John Martin” had also almost entirely plagiarised the “facts” of his blog from another ahistorical blog published by a Irish-American blogger named “Jungle” Jim Cavaunaugh in 2003.
Peri talks about James II’s Proclamation of 1625, but James II was not born until 1633 (and this proclamation he mentions does not exist) which gives an indication of the sort of nonsense we are dealing with. Peri claims that John Martin wrote a book (he didn’t) and that “70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.” This is a distortion of a line from Richard S. Dunn’s seminal work Sugar & Slaves which reads: “In Montserrat [in 1678] the most important social fact was that 69 percent of the white inhabitants were Irish…despite this superiority in numbers the Irish in Montserrat were still second-class citizens. They were practically all subsistence farmers..” Poor colonists, but not slaves.
Nonetheless Martin’s infamous blog post on “Irish slaves” which was published on the Global Research website in 2008, quickly went viral on social media due to its sensationalist tone and framing. It has been shared tens of millions of times since then and was endorsed for many years by apparently well-meaning people (including national newspapers, celebrities and politicians) who were not aware that it did not contain a single historically accurate claim. This was a worrying case of far-right propaganda flooding the mainstream. I (and a number of other engaged historians) have debunked it consistently over the past few years (you can find my line-by-line breakdown here) which has thankfully narrowed its circulation down to the more right wing extremist circles who continue to use it for their own political purposes.
But the fallout from the mainstream media, museums, politicians and celebrities endorsing this insidious conspiracy theory regarding American slavery has been staggering. Countless numbers of people on social media and in person, and sometimes even at the historic sites of slavery, have casually used the meme to shut down, deflect or diminish discussions about slavery and racism.
3. And can you explain why this is such a pernicious myth?
It’s a dangerous false equivalence that distorts and abuses the historical record by attempting to empty the history of the transatlantic slave trade of its unique racial element. In that sense it really is an example of hate literature that is used to promote racial slavery denialism. I’ve previously likened it to how Neo-Nazis’ invoke the Dresden bombings to diminish the Holocaust.
The core legal and customary distinctions between servitude (as reserved for Europeans) and slavery (as reserved for “Negroes”) in the colonies were fundamentally different. Colonial servitude was temporary, usually voluntary, and, although the courts were often tilted against them, the servant’s legal personhood was recognised. Colonial slavery was permanent, always involuntary, racialised and heritable. The uterine law ensured that the children of slaves inherited the status of their mother. Their children were perpetual slaves. Their children’s children were perpetual slaves. Slavery was social death with no way out.
Slaves were placed outside of common law and so they had no rights — not even the right to life. While there are accounts of servants being freed from their contracts early, after proving that they had been ill-treated by their master, we find the opposite provision for the enslaved. A slave, suffering perpetual bondage, could instead be subjected to an array of grotesque physical punishments such as castration, being burned alive, the mashing of their limbs leading to dismemberment, broken bones, beheadings, the beating out of eyes, slitting of ears and various other mutilations. Colonial Servitude and Colonial Slavery existed on a spectrum of unfree labour but were fundamentally and profoundly different institutions and the latter was justified, entrenched and sustained by racism.
Historians estimate that several thousand Irish people suffered forced transportation to the American colonies during the 1650s. In contrast, the transatlantic slave trade lasted centuries, was the largest forced migration in world history, involving tens of millions of African people, and its poisonous legacy remains in the form of anti-black racism.
It is this very racism which has powered efforts to make the admittedly awful treatment meted out to Irish servants to be equal to or even worse than slavery in a bid to deny its legacy in the present. These false equivalencies are deliberately centered on the plight of Irish Catholic servants (who indeed endured particular discrimination and marginalisation due to colonial antagonisms) when in fact it was people from England that made up the bulk of the bonded labour in the early Anglo-Caribbean colonies. They do so because reactionaries and racists need to ahistorically equate the Irish experience with the African experience in the U.S. to justify their racist propaganda. This spuriously inserts a racial element into Irish indentured servitude which allows them to refer to how a once marginalised “white” group overcame their problems, “so why are black people complaining?” Hence the prevalence of the meme, the canary in the coal mine for anti-black racist sentiment.