Debunking the imagery of the “Irish slaves” meme

Those that promote the myth of Irish perpetual hereditary chattel slavery in Colonial America and the Anglo-Caribbean use a variety of images entirely unrelated to indentured servitude to accompany their anti-history. I examined a selection of them.

This is part one of my seven-part series debunking the meme. See Part Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. If you wish to support my work, you can make a donation here.

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

The original

2. The “Redlegs” of Barbados

But this photograph is not from the U.S., nor does it depict “White Irish slaves.”

Historian Matthew C. Reilly has done extensive research on the “poor white” community of Barbados. This photo was taken in Barbados in 1908, and as Reilly has noted none of those pictured have Irish surnames and these families appear to have both African and European ancestry. Reilly writes

“Photograph locally known as “The ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados”. Pictured are fishermen residents of Bath in the parish of St. John taken in 1908. Photo courtesy of Mr. Richard Goddard.”

“The photograph is widely known amongst island history buffs as well as those interested in family genealogy. On several occasions I encountered individuals who had traced their ancestry to one of the impoverished men pictured in the 1908 portrait of the “Redleg” fishermen. Until my conversation with Fred Watson (Figure 7.2), however, I had never heard it referred to as a “family photograph”. Represented are members of the Watson, Goddard, King, and Haynes families, surnames popular amongst the “Redleg” population for several generations and still present in St. John today. Fred was able to identify several of his father’s and mother’s brothers that were pictured in the photograph including his mother’s brother Simeon Goddard found on the lower left and his father’s brother Joe Watson found in center of the back row. The revelation that the photograph depicts an extended matrilineal kinship network was made more significant by the realization that phenotypes indicate that this network involved Afro-Barbadian as well as “poor white” genealogies.”

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

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

5. Child labourers on a Texan farm, 1913

6. The East India Company logo

7. Former Enslaved Children in New Orleans, 1864

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

This “white slavery” meme (which appropriates the Zong Massacre) uses one of Lewis Hine’s photographs. Its caption reads “Group portrait of young girls working as oyster shuckers at the canning company at Port Royal, SC, 1911. From left to right: Josie, six years old, Bertha, six years old, and Sophie, 10 years old.”

Here is the original photograph.

This unbelievably ahistorical meme also suggests that in seventeenth Ireland “it was was no more [a] sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute.” This quote is not from the seventeenth century but the fourteenth, which makes it a full 300 years out of context. The original quote was made in 1317 in the Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs to Pope John XXII. According to Diarmuid Scully (University College Cork) the Remonstrance described Domhnall, its author, as the ‘King of Ulster and by hereditary right the true heir to the whole of Ireland’ who “claims the support of the Irish élite and people, calls for papal backing against English rule and offers the kingship of Ireland to Edward Bruce of Scotland.” It wished to revoke the Laudabiliter. The Remonstrance accuses “the monks of the Cistercian order of Granard, in Ardagh diocese, so too the monks of Inch, of the same order, in Down diocese, shamelessly fulfil in deed what they proclaim in word. For, bearing arms publicly, they attack the Irish and slay them, and nevertheless they celebrate their masses.” This is to illustrate to the papal powers that some of the Christian orders in Ireland were murderous, heretical and did not warrant the Pope’s backing. This was a propagandic retort to Gerald of Wales’ infamous assertion that the English lay claim to Ireland as the Irish were not truly civilised or Christian. The Remonstrance inverts these slanderous justifications for the Cambro-Norman conquest of Ireland. William Petty alluded to this brutal 14th century colonial reality in the Political Anatomy of Ireland (1672)

“The English in Ireland before Henry the VII’s time, lived in Ireland as the Europeans do in America, or as several Nations do now upon the same Continent; so as an Englishman was not punishable for killing an Irish-man, and they were governed by different Laws; the Irish by the Brehon-Law, and the English there by the Laws of England…[then] English in Ireland, growing poor and discontented, degenerate into Irish; & vice versa; Irish, growing into Wealth and Favour, reconcile to the English.”

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

10. The Putumayo Atrocities, 1900s-1910s

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

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.

Here is the original image.


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

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

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

from The Irish Slave Trade- White Cargo

Somehow it has made it from here into the mainstream.

But this image is clearly not an “Irish slave” in the 1800s. It was taken in Delaware in the 1920s and it shows an unnamed black man, fastened to a whipping post, being tortured.

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

Here is a link to the original photograph. This satirical image was intended to challenge the audience by reversing racial stereotypes and it was used to promote the play during it’s run at the Adelphi theatre in London. Dion Boucicault is one of Ireland’s most famous playwrights and The Octoroon was his anti-slavery production based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel The Quadroon.

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)

This exceptionally racist meme features a stock photograph and a photograph of Kevin Cunningham, an Irish-American who became famous after he started an online petition on calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin.

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

This image is actually taken from Barnes’ popular history of the United States of America

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

The ratio of women to men was very low in the colony and so for the benefit of the colonial project, as Edmund S. Morgan describes it, a shipment was arranged by Virginia Company members “of a hundred willing maids, to be sold to the planters who could afford to buy a wife.” (American Slavery, American Freedom, p.95) So the image does not depict Irish women being sold into slavery. It depicts English women being sold into marriage. The planter was paying for the transport costs.

For more information about the role and limited rights of women in Colonial Virginia see Julie Richter’s overview.

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

…and made it into an awful “white slavery” meme.

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

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

This is not an image of “Irish slaves” or indentured servants but of two women in Glenshesk, Co. Antrim planting potatoes. The photograph was taken by Robert J. Welch for the Congested Districts Boards in the late 1890s.

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

21. The Damm family, Los Angeles, 1987

22. Italian Miners in Belgium (c. 1900)

But this photo actually depicts miners in Belgium in the early 20th century.

23. A photograph of the Cliffs of Moher

This meme uses a wistful photograph of the Cliffs of Moher. Here is the uncropped original.

24. An advert for two runaway Irish servants

“Make a toast to all the Irish Slaves who died making America great.”

“It says indented servants?”

“Shut up.”

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

This meme was created by conservative artist JP Hawkins in 2o13.
The caption reads “Obama visits Ireland, but fails to point out that the Irish were 1st slaves! Why?” The background image is a stock image taken from the Shutter Stock website and is tagged ‘Domestic Violence’.

26. A photo of the Irish actor Cillian Murphy

I know what you are thinking. I have no idea either.

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

This ‘Irish slaves’ meme was created and published on Facebook by the self-published author and conspiracy theorist Michael John Melton. This photo however does not show ‘Irish slaves’ nor Irish children at all. It was taken on a beach in the Netherlands by Igor Borisov and all of the children are Dutch.

This is part one of my seven-part series debunking the meme. See Part Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. If you wish to support my work, you can make a donation here.

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

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