Debunking the imagery of the “Irish slaves” meme

1. Sale of a Slave Girl in Rome by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1884)

The is the most common image that accompanies spurious “Irish: the Forgotten White Slaves” articles. It is cropped from a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. In this work, Gérôme imagined a scene in a Roman slave market from about two thousand years ago.

The original

2. The “Redlegs” of Barbados

The “Irish slaves” meme has been embraced by racists and white nationalists. The meme below was shared by a Tea Party Leader in 2013. It accompanied her advice to African Americans to “move on” from slavery.

3. Survivors of a Japanese POW camp during World War Two

4. Union Army soldier on his release from Andersonville Prison in May, 1865

Probably the most perverse co-option of all. Victims of the horror of the Confederate Andersonville prison appropriated by Neo-Confederates to support their racist meme. N.B. the Ferguson hashtag.

5. Child labourers on a Texan farm, 1913

This is another popular image. It is used here to promote an “Irish Slave Trade” movie idea. This photo of child labourers was taken in 1913 by the great Lewis Hine. The children were working on H.M. Lane’s farm near Bells, Texas. Their father (and uncle for some of the children) was working the plough nearby. This photo is sometimes used on Stormfront when discussing “white slaves.”

6. The East India Company logo

The ongoing “we were slaves too!” appropriation of the Atlantic Slave Trade led to this misfire. The East India Company logo tattooed as an “Irish slave” branding. I asked this tattooist about the relevance of the tattoo and he referred me to an inactive (and since deleted) Facebook page named “We Were Irish and Slaves”. This Facebook page was the source and inspiration for the tattoo design. The featured branding irons (first and second images) are from the Wilberforce Museum. The third image, the one that the tattoo is based on, is a stamp of the East India Company, not a branding iron. It goes without saying that indentured servants were not branded like slaves on their arrival in the colonies.

7. Former Enslaved Children in New Orleans, 1864

The comfort and ease at which some Irish and Irish-Americans appropriate the history of black chattel slavery is remarkable and disturbing. Guilty of the appropriation below is the “Ireland Long Held in Chains” Facebook page. They shared this photo of former “white” slave children in New Orleans and labelled it “Irish Slavery — Three Slaves”. This piece of anti-slavery propaganda during the American Civil War was aimed at a Northern white audience. These enslaved children were “the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations.” The fact that many slave owners in Louisiana were of Irish descent only makes this appropriation more reprehensible. In my review of Irish surnames and slave-ownership I found that 159 different Irish surnames were represented among slave owners in Louisiana in 1850. These included Brady, Burke, Carroll, Connolly, Collins, Cullen, Crowley, Darcy, Devane, Hickey, Hogan, Keane, Lynch, Mahoney, McCormack, and Murphy. You can read about the history of these photographs in Mary Niall Mitchell’s article in the New York Times.

8. Group portrait of child labourers in Port Royal, South Carolina (1911)

9. The HMS Owen Glendower, an anti-slave trade frigate

Irish Central decided to use a painting of the HMS Glendower to accompany their article about “forgotten white slaves”. It states that this ship was used to bring “human cargo to South American[sic] and the Indies.” This article repeats the absurd claim that an “Irish slave trade” ended in 1839. But the HMS Glendower was not a slave ship. In fact it was used from 1821 to 1824 to suppress the slave trade.

10. The Putumayo Atrocities, 1900s-1910s

The Ancient Order of Hibernians in Florida (State Board) appropriated an image of heavily chained Putumayo Indians, implying that they are “Irish slaves”.

11. Timucua men cultivating a field and Timucua women planting corn or beans (Florida, c. 1560)

This image of the Timucua people planting their fields appears on some “Irish slaves” and “white slaves” blogs. The Neo-Confederate Save Your Heritage website frames it as “white slaves” working in South Carolina.

Florida Indians planting seeds of beans or maize, c. 1560 by Theodor de Bry, (1528–1598) Engraver: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, (1533?-1588)

12. An illustration of Elizabeth Brownrigg, a torturer and murderer who was executed in England in 1767.

This “Irish slaves” meme uses an illustration of the infamous Elizabeth Brownrigg taken from The New Newgate Calendar, a sensationalist periodical which was published in England in the 1860s. The text of the meme is ridiculous; the values are apparently an invention, and it almost goes without saying that slaves were generally more expensive than servants because they were slaves. Lifetime ownership vs. 4–7 years indentures and slave-owners also claimed their children as their property. Although rare, in times of shortage (when labour demand/wages were high in Britain and thus migration unattractive) white servants’ contracts could be more expensive than slaves. It was a crime to murder a servant, but whipping was allowed as long as it was “moderate correction.” The claim that “African slaves were treated much better in Colonial America” is racist propaganda.


13. ‘Mulatto’ slave being whipped in an anti-slavery novel

This illustration is appropriated from the 19th century anti-slavery novel The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive by Richard Hildreth. The protagonist being whipped is a ‘mulatto’ slave. His mother was enslaved and his father the enslaver.

14. Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co. (1911)

This is the newest version of the racist meme. It appeared online during Black History Month 2016 and has been shared 102,000 times so far. The photo does not depict “Irish slaves” but breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co., South Pittston, Pennsylvania. The original photograph was taken by Lewis Hine in January 1911. Hine was the principle investigative photographer for National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).

15. A black man being whipped in Delaware (1920s)

This image is used by Neo-Nazis on this website to depict “Irish slaves”

from The Irish Slave Trade- White Cargo

16. A promotional photograph for a performance of Dion Boucicault’s play “The Octoroon” in London (c. 1862)

17. A stock photograph of a “crying black man” and a photo of Kevin Cunningham.

Racist meme that appeared on the “White History Month” Facebook Page (November 2015)

18. English Women being imported and sold to Planters in Colonial Virginia (1620s)

This meme of the “selling of Irish women” appears on multiple “Irish slaves” websites (inc. the Ancient Order of Hibernians) and across social media.

Barnes’ popular history of the United States of America, p. 38

19. Edwardian Servants, Byfield, Northamptonshire (c. 1920)

Some of these websites take the term ‘indentured servants’ literally…They turned this image of two maids photographed in a house in Byfield, Northamptonshire, sometime between 1896 and 1920….

from the Irish Slave Trade, Ancient Order of Hibernians (Florida)

20. Two women setting seed potatoes in Co. Antrim (1890s)

Girls setting seed potatoes, breaking clods with spade, c. 1890s

21. The Damm family, Los Angeles, 1987

The “Irish slaves” meme is also used to deny the existence of white privilege. It is often accompanied by an image of the Damm family taken by the photographer Mary Ellen Mark in Los Angeles in 1987.

22. Italian Miners in Belgium (c. 1900)

This photograph was recently published on the far-right “Against Globalist Agenda” Facebook page and appended with the title “Irish slaves imported to America”

23. A photograph of the Cliffs of Moher

24. An advert for two runaway Irish servants

25. An image from a Human Trafficking website and a photograph of President Obama’s visit to Moneygall, Ireland

26. A photo of the Irish actor Cillian Murphy

27. A photo of red-haired Dutch girls on a beach in the Netherlands



Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi

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Liam Hogan

Liam Hogan


Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi