Some years ago I needed to know more about slavery than I thought I already knew. Whilst there is enough material available to have made that a relatively quick and easy task I was nonetheless shown that the simplest definitions we tend to know are only part of a bigger picture. It is not just Africans in chains who were transported in slave ships to the Americas. Similarly, it is not the earlier Roman slaves. It is a far wider set of definitions and a much bigger picture that includes grades of slavery, near-slavery or conditions of what I now consider to be ‘unfreedom’ and limits on liberty when that is not absolutely the case. History has placed emphasis on what we commonly believe epitomises slavery and quite a lot of detail about the ‘slave trade’ with a growing list of its beneficiaries and who is to one degree or another living on its proceeds that were at the very least the basis on which some family fortunes were built. What we do not see as a rule is a less palatable side of the story in which people from within the then United Kingdom or its earlier manifestations throughout the British Isles. History is often full of convenient exclusions. A set of articles explores that seldom headlined history that itself steers us toward a greater knowledge of the disproportionate use of power against those we can call Celtic or Gaelic people.
This opening article begins by looking at what we often assume to be slavery or slavery-like and its roots. With emphasis on Ireland and Scotland, particularly the former, it moves on to examining what some people confuse with slavery, the ‘ownership’ of dehumanised people, but was actually a state of being not exactly owned but without personal freedoms such as the right to move freely, own property and sometimes goods, to put the wealth of those to whom they are tied before any vague dream of personal wealth and uncompromising loyalty to those people however they are treated by them.
I wish to avoid the obvious attachment of blame on the descendants of nobility, royalty and what we now call capitalists or entrepreneurs of those times in England that held prime place in the conventional history of British slavery. In fact in Ireland and Scotland people with the power to do so exercised their control over ‘their’ people, those who lived on their manorial lands. Among them were the ‘most Irish’ of all Irish, nobility with Norman ancestry whose families had been landowners for many generations and the lairds in Scotland who chose their allegiances to their advantage, especially many disowning Catholicism during the Reformation to their further advantage, especially after the 1707 union with England and the periods of upheaval culminating in 1715 and 1719 with the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. That defeat lead to the massive Clearances in Scotland. In most cases the responsible people were themselves Scots, many the heads of clans that had aligned with the Hanoverian monarchy.
During March 2023 The Guardian began a series of articles, videos and podcasts on slavery. The emphasis was on the African slave trade with little examination beyond that part of history. It has been exception high quality investigative journalism that I was absorbed by. Professionally I have touched the edge of slavery on a number of occasions but was never immersed in it. So when I was talking about Ireland with my daughter who is studying in Ireland and told her about Irish slavery, it made me look at that history a little closer than the passing mental note made many years ago. I have long had an interest in the post 1600 and especially the post 1745 Highland and Lowland Clearances in Scotland that are often touched on by historians, sometimes in reasonable depth, but seldom to the point that the slavery topic is thoroughly included. I have occasionally looked at that for a long time, but gave little thought to Ireland as a source of people definably enslaved however that is expressed.
It prompted me to re-examine the history of slavery taking into account exaggerations and denials, over enthusiasm and dismissal, well researched and evidenced material as well as a bounty of almost fictively compiled stories. Somewhere, either side of the middle and often toward either extreme, there is a clear picture that can be considered at the very least representative. As with many things, hard evidence is often not the easiest to find, so in a way one has to be cognisant of one’s own bias whilst attempting to be absolutely objective.
So whilst my starting point was and remains Irish and Scots, or what we might call either Celtic or Gaelic, slavery, I am also including a certain amount of the history of what is often flippantly called ‘white slavery’ but without moving into the contemporary in which that expression has been devised to achieve an end that separates the past and present. So, it is what some people will argue is archaic rather than meaningfully historic. That may be the case if people wish to dismiss history. History does not repeat itself as people too often say, but it does give us good reason not to make the same or similar mistakes that have been historically recorded and often very profoundly examined and re-examined. In order to get to the nub of the matter it is also important to look at what was not slavery but was at the same time not freedom, very much the case in Ireland.
When so-called ‘white slavery’ is looked at it tends to be in the context the present or recent trafficking of European girls and women into prostitution or servitude, sometimes boys and young men for much the same purpose. Historically it is far more often forgotten or at least the vocabulary of servitude makes it appear not to have happened. Julius Caesar led the Roman army to victory against the Gallic tribes between 58 and 52 BCE taking as many as a million of the vanquished Gauls as slaves. In 43 CE the Romans began an invasion of Great Britain that lasted around 45 years during which all of what are now modern England and Wales were occupied, incursions into Scotland, then Caledonia, took places several times with the lower half of contemporary Scotland occupied although, with the north of England, frequently rebelling. It is known that captured Scots and English were taken into slavery. Gaels and Picts were enslaved as early as the first century BCE. Varro, the Roman philosopher, recorded that white slaves were considered only ‘things’, property with voices, instrumenti vocali, in agricultural manuscripts.
Ireland, on the other hand, was never conquered. At most there has been very little evidence of settlement, a few coins, artefacts and a small number of ruins near modern Dublin suggest trade between the two, including possible permanent Roman trading posts. It is, therefore, unlikely they took slaves.
In 795 CE Norse raids on Ireland began, but it was not until the tenth century they began to form permanent settlements. Although the Scandinavian invaders were, amongst other things, slave traders, there is nothing to suggest that Irish slaves were taken. It may be that some may have been taken in the many years before what became a co-existential relationship between Gaelic people and their Viking invaders. Then in 1169 the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland took place. They progressively conquered and acquired large areas of land from the Irish over which the Angevin kings of England claimed sovereignty, purportedly sanctioned by papal bull Laudabiliter. The bull had been issued in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope ever. It granted the right of the English king King Henry II to invade and govern Ireland in order to enforce the Gregorian Reforms on what was the semi-autonomous church in the country. They introduced English language, common law to supplant the ancient Brehon law, a rudimentary parliamentary system and built large castles from which they ruled. To this day the many family names including Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Fitzmaurice, Joyce, Lynch and Butler survive and are considered typically Irish. There were many years of war and over time numerous uprisings but until the 20 century Ireland was occupied by the English. In Ireland, the legal and political Brehon laws had governed the social system from the prehistoric period until the Norman occupation. There had been a completely different system of land tenure that did not include serfdom.
Serfdom was the status of many peasants in many European countries under feudalism. It was a form of debt bondage and indentured servitude with similarities to slavery, which lasted until the mid-19 century in some countries. However, contrasting with slaves, serfs could not be bought or sold although they could be exchanged or sold together with land. By the time English common law was effectively imposed in Ireland, particularly property laws, serfdom was dying out in England. It was never really established in Ireland but a vestige of the pre-invasion system of land tenure persisted under which many people had a status similar to that of serfs in the feudal system. They were villeins, peasant tenants entirely subject to the lord of the manor to whom they paid dues and services in return for a number of strips in each field which they could farm. They lived in a village surrounded by two or three very large fields in which crops were grown. The larger share of each crop went to the lord, the rest was theirs.
In Ireland and large parts of Scotland this system lasted until their respective unions with England. Ireland has effectively retained the system of land ownership to this day, although the Irish state ‘owns’ the country instead of the occupying England, then nominally the monarch. Until around 1900 most of the land in Ireland, recorded as 97% in 1870, was rented out to tenant farmers rather than owners farming or otherwise exploiting it themselves. They were not permitted to own land or even have secure tenancies. They were effectively enslaved without being slaves since they were only on their small plot of land of land, living in hovels, at the behest of their landlords. Just as in England, the individual wealth of the land owning class varied considerably on the quality and location of properties. Small estates in the east were far more valuable than large tracts of more or less uncultivable bog in the west. There were probably fewer than 10,000 proprietors of 100 or more acres in 1830 but this number included many who owned relatively small estates and a few aristocratic magnates. During the Great Famine, the Irish Potato Famine, the period of starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1852, there was no actual shortage of food in Ireland but, ironically, plenty of water. When people could not feed themselves due to the potato blight, thus not supply the feudal due of labour as well as rent to their landlord masters, they were evicted to the side of the road. By law, their hovels were knocked downed and they were driven out of whatever shelter they could find. People were consequently commonly found living in holes in the ground and dying or dead by roadsides. The law permitted landlords to harvest then carry what could have been food that would have sustained their peasant tenants past the dying, yet legally have no responsibility for the consequences. Dispossessed people were seen as objects rather than human beings deserving pity and support.
However we look at those histories we see very little evidence of anything more than subjugation, what we might more appropriately call ‘unfreedom’. People were taken into slavery, usually by invaders, but within their own countries Irish and Scots were not slaves. The next part of this series begins to describe actual slavery, how and to an extent why it happened but not the overall outcome which is veiled in the abolition of slavery when the liberty of slaves of African origin are usually the main focus, in as far as they at least became notional free. It has some parallels with the Holocaust story that places emphasis on the extermination of Jews, sometimes includes Roma, less often Slavs but overall tends to overlook all of the other groups unless addressed specifically and exceptionally, mostly by people with particular interests in those ‘minorities’. Therefore, these articles perhaps attempt to set out to do the same. Either way, it is a story that needs to be told.