Whilst we can only assume that the Romans and Norse invaders took some Irish and Scots into slavery, it is not possible to estimate how many there may have been. In all probability they were relatively few. During the 8 to the 11 centuries Rouen in France was where Irish and Flemish slaves were assembled to sell on to Arabian nations. During the eleventh century the main traders were Vikings. Norwegian Vikings carried out slave raids against not only the Irish and Scots, who were frequently called Irish, but took Norse settlers in Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland as well.
As told in part one, the traditional socio-economic systems of Celtic people were different to the English feudal system to the point that the vast majority of rural people were never free. The influence of the feudal system merged into the Celtic ways as Norman lords became landowners with almost unlimited powers over their tenants. A few centuries later it was over when farming became increasingly ‘industrialised’, thus the need for smallholding tenants whose labour and produce was mostly for their landlords declined. People were displaced, some perished for lack of anywhere to go whilst others swelled towns and cities to add to the poverty and squalor of many of those places. People who were rootless became so-called vagabonds who could be punished for poverty, some committed petty crimes to survive whilst others were imprisoned as ‘rogues’ considered a threat to the ruling classes. Indeed, some became rebels whose risings made them criminals. With the Reformation and its longer term attempts to suppress and end the influence and practice of Roman Catholicism, refusal to convert to Protestantism became a crime. Many of the rebels and those who refused to change their religious practices were rounded up as political prisoners because they were considered a threat to the established order of that time.
The recognised Irish slave trade began when around 30,000 Irish prisoners were sold as slaves to the New World in line with the King James I Proclamation of 1625 that required Irish political prisoners be sent to the colonies to be sold to English settlers, mainly in the West Indies. During the mid 1600s, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat to the extent that 70% of the total population of Montserrat consisted of Irish slaves. Ireland became an important source of human livestock for English merchants. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 1641 to 1652 when more than 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves.
Families were torn apart because Irish men were forbidden to take their wives and children with them, which led to a sizeable population of homeless women and children that was resolved by auctioning them into slavery too. During the 1650s, in the region of 100,000 Irish children between ages 10 and 14 were taken from parents to be sold as slaves in the West Indies and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
Nowadays it is normal to avoid calling Irish slaves what they actually were which was slaves. Instead it is common to see or hear terms like ‘indentured servants’ or ‘bondsmen’ to describe what happened to Irish people bought and sold during the 17 and 18 centuries who were considered little more than human cattle. The African slave trade was just beginning at about the height of Irish slavery. It was recorded that African slaves were not ‘contaminated’ by Catholic theology that was considered abhorrent by the mainly Protestant English settlers; anyway they were also more expensive and often treated far better than their Irish counterparts who used Christian pleas for compassion instead of brutal exploitation and abuse. Those appeals were disregarded because the Irish slaves were Catholics. African slaves were very expensive during the late 17 century, at least £50 each, whereas it was recorded that Irish slaves often cost no more than £5. If a planter whipped, branded or beat an Irish slave to death, those were never seen as crimes. Since deaths were financial loss it was far cheaper to kill Irish than more expensive Africans.
English masters began to use Irish women for their own personal pleasure and for profit. Slaves’ children were automatically slaves, thus increasing their owner’s workforce.
If an Irish woman gained her freedom, her children remained slaves of her master so that because they would seldom abandon their children they effectively remained in servitude. The English slaveholders thought of a more profitable way to using the women and girls by interbreeding the Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a lighter complexion and less distinctly African facial features. The mulatto slaves brought a higher price than pure Irish and saved their owners the expense of purchasing new African slaves. Pairing Irish females with African men went on for several decades until legislation was passed in 1681 ‘…forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale’ although it was primarily stopped because it reduced the profits of slave traders who were losing sales of their Africans to the less expensive sales of mulattos.
Scots fared no better than the Irish in the slave trade. The traffic in Scots slaves to the American colonies began around 1630 and lasted nearly 150 years. One man who had been transported, Alexander Stewart, wrote an account of his time as a slave, ‘The Lyon in Mourning’, that includes how he was transported across the Atlantic in chains in 1747. He was auctioned to a Doctor Stewart and his brother who had known that Alexander was on the slave ship from Liverpool. The brothers paid nine pound six shillings for the purchase of Alexander in Maryland. He was a slave by any other name although he was probably considered to be a bonded or indentured, which were simply more urbane expressions. Between 1718 and 1775 when the impending war ended shipping ‘convicts’ across the Atlantic, around 90% of 50,000 people transported were sold in Chesapeake to meet the demand for cheap, white slave labour. Many of them had committed petty crimes or even had simply been accused thus tried and sentenced. They were customarily referred to as bonded labour or indentured servants. Still slaves by any other name. Bonding was often for life, whereas indenture would normally have been seven to fourteen years but was often for life. If any had the fortune to do so, they could buy their way out of slavery and some had compassionate owners who freed them and others escaped and managed to remain free. Another whose enslavement was recorded was Jeremiah Howell, an indentured servant for life, owned by his uncle in Virginia in the early 18 century. His story tells how his son, also Jeremiah, gained his freedom by fighting in the Revolution. They were just examples of hundreds of thousands of Scots sold into slavery in colonial America.
The Egerton manuscript, held in the British Museum, records the enactment of 1652 that says: ‘it may be lawful for two or more justices of the peace within any county, citty or towne, corporate belonging to the commonwealth to from tyme to tyme by warrant cause to be apprehended, seized on and detained all and every person or persons that shall be found begging and vagrant.. in any towne, parish or place to be conveyed into the Port of London, or unto any other port from where such person or persons may be shipped into a forraign collonie or plantation.’ Between 1662 and 1665 judges in Edinburgh ordered the enslavement and shipment of a large number of Scots to the colonies who were described as ‘rogues’ and other petty offenders who were described as making life unpleasant for the upper class.
There were exceptionally high proportions of Scots plantation owners in the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Jamaica, as too Virginia in the American colonies. Scots merchants and investors financed Scots slave traders such as Richard Oswald who organised large scale undertakings to capture, transport and sell slaves from West Africa with voyages leaving from all the main UK ports that transported about 3.4 million of the 10 million Africans to slavery in the colonies in America and the Caribbean. What is less well known are the large numbers of Scots, estimated at around 100,000, were rounded up and transported to the colonies to be sold into slavery, many of them as a result of the Highland Clearances after the union with England in 1707 and particularly after the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Political prisoners were regularly sold into slavery and the 1746 Act of Proscription stated that anyone wearing tartan or Highland dress would be transported.
Wealthy, influential local government officials and well off merchants, some of whom already had invested in the plantations and slave trade, bought poor, homeless and what were considered nuisance Scots were rounded up or even kidnapped to be sold. Some merchants made special requests to the Edinburgh city council to fulfil specific requirements and preferences for the people they bought with young women desirable for the pleasure of sailors during long voyages. Children were no exception to that trade. Conditions on ships were unspeakable, thus many of the Scots slaves would not survive the long, arduous journeys and the cruel treatment that was often used without reason.
That trade had started a little earlier than the Irish trade in the early 1600s when ships from Leith and Port Glasgow sailed to the colonies with cargos of Scots who had been rounded up to be sold into slavery. The numbers taken as slaves were large; according to the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies of 1701, we find that there being an estimated 25,000 slaves in Barbados, 21,700 of them white, known as Redlegs or Redshanks by the locals because of the sunburn they suffered working on plantations.
It was though Ireland that became the biggest source of human livestock for mainly English merchants so that the majority of early slaves sent to the New World were actually white. The evidence is plentifully there but these few examples give a brief insight into how the trade was viewed. In his Parliament Diary for the years 1656 to 59, Thomas Burton recorded a debate in parliament that focussed on the sale of white slaves from the British Isles to the New World in which it refers to those people as ‘whose enslavement threatened the liberties of all Englishmen.’ Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, who built the street in which the Prime Ministers of the UK now reside, wrote a letter to John Winthrop, the Colonial Governor of Massachusetts, in 1645 in which he said ‘planters who want to make a fortune in the West Indies must procure white slave labour out of England if they wanted to succeed.’
Ulrich Phillips in his ‘Life and Labour in the Old South’ stated that white enslavement was crucial to the development of the slave system that set up for the white slaves governed, organised and controlled the system later used for the black slaves who he said were ‘late comers fitted into a system already developed.’ In his ‘History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860’ Lewis Cecil Gray examined Sir George Sandys’ 1618 plan for the Virginian colony, regarding bonded white people dispensed to the treasurer’s office that they ‘…belong to said office forever. The service of whites bound to Berkeley Hundred was deemed perpetual.’ In 1619 slave owner John Pory declared that ‘white slaves are our principle wealth.’
People from the British Isles, mainly but not only Irish and Scots, sentenced to transportation for petty crimes, others kidnapped, were put in chains then packed into ships that transported hundreds of them bound for Virginia Boston, New York, Barbados and the West Indies. The white slaves were treated the same or even worse than black slaves. White slaves did not sell for a good price at auctions, thus it has been recorded that planters treated blacks better than their ‘Christian’ white servants. Even Africans recognised that thus showed contempt for white men who were worse off than themselves.
There are many more examples, particularly of Irish slaves, often hidden behind the epithet ‘white servants’ although use of the word slave was frequent enough to be certain that was the reality. Recent revived interest in the slave trade such as the exemplary work of The Guardian has revealed a great deal about the contributions to the fortunes, indeed the basis for the wealth, of still prospering families that included the ancestors of the present UK monarch. The reasons for the white slave trade and its influence today will be examined in the third and final part of this story.