Kiss me, my slave owners were Irish
March 17, 2018 11:08 AM   Subscribe

NO, THE IRISH WERE NOT SLAVES TOO: Historian Liam Hogan has spent the last six years debunking the Irish were slave myth. (Previously)
posted by The Whelk (45 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
And a happy St. Paddy's to us all!
posted by elsietheeel at 11:34 AM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, you're telling me that some Irish people profited directly and indirectly from the Caribbean slave trade?

This makes me think of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, set in Virginia during the antebellum era, the novel examines the issues regarding the ownership of black slaves by both white and black Americans. I read this in an English Literature course and it very much opened my eyes and made me realize how much more complicated history can be. It also opened my eyes to the types of editorializing that occurs in history/education and how that radically shapes our thoughts. This was a great read/post.
posted by Fizz at 11:38 AM on March 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Liam Stack in NYT in 2017
posted by Ideefixe at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, you're telling me that some Irish people profited directly and indirectly from the Caribbean slave trade?

I think one look at Shaquille O'Neal would convince most thinking people of this; he's got a bit more melanin than your average County Mayo resident.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:01 PM on March 17, 2018 [7 favorites]


I think one look at Shaquille O'Neal would convince most thinking people of this

There are lots of Black people with Irish surnames - I don't know whether there's a single answer to why this is.
posted by atoxyl at 12:17 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]



There are lots of Black people with Irish surnames - I don't know whether there's a single answer to why this is.


Same reason there are a lot of black people with English names right? The names were adopted or given to thier ancestors as slaves I assume.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:24 PM on March 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Ive always thought the idea claims by some Irish Americans that Irish immigrants were as bad off as the black population was eye rolling. That was a class issue not a race issue obviously.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:26 PM on March 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


> "The names were adopted or given to thier ancestors as slaves I assume."

Or they were the child of a slaveowner and a slave. They were given the last names for that reason *way* more often than many people seem to expect or believe.
posted by kyrademon at 12:59 PM on March 17, 2018 [17 favorites]


Ive always thought the idea claims by some Irish Americans that Irish immigrants were as bad off as the black population was eye rolling. That was a class issue not a race issue obviously.

I mean, yeah there's such a thing as class oppression. There's also such a thing as colonialism, which is oppressive. Ethnic discrimination/oppression is a common component of colonialism. Racism can be not quite ethnic discrimination, but ethnic discrimination is also not really class oppression. These things all end up—what's the word?—intersecting in such a way that bell hooks—speaking from a few points of intersection—sort of crystalized the core struggle:

The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.

Many, many years ago I shamefully played the "Irish oppression" card. Another soldier was telling me that white people had no experience of slavery as slaves, and then expanded his argument to suggest white people really had no experience of oppression at all.

That was not literally true, but it wasn't really material, either. I don't like remembering how I conducted myself in that particular argument, because it involved blowing straight past the truth he was trying to express with imperfect facts to avoid the point that one of us was probably a beneficiary of racism every single day, and one of us was not; and that my ancestors, having been deprived of their land and having felt forced to flee their home country, eventually got admitted into the ranks of "white people" (in the sense of whiteness as a construct that's not entirely about how pale your skin is) and that really didn't exactly include Irish (or Italian, and still kind of not Jewish) people at varying points.

I don't mean to be all snotty or pedantic, but when the oppression comparisons come out, I go back to that bell hooks quote, take a deep breath, and get on with my day. It just seems fruitless to get out the microscopes and scoring matrixes on this stuff when all systems of dominance are bad, we all should be fighting them, and we all should be kind and patient with fellow soldiers who have to fight another battle in this struggle.

Speaking of: This school banned talk of white privilege after an MLK assembly.
"We have poor people in Oconomowoc who are saying they're not privileged ... and people that say, 'Don, we worked our butts off to have what we have,'" [the school board president] said.
People really do hate to admit—or even consider—that they're the beneficiaries of unfair advantages.
posted by mph at 1:07 PM on March 17, 2018 [23 favorites]


I read a really interesting book about the potato famine a couple of years ago, and was interested to read that a great deal of Irish immigration to the US during that period was indeed involuntary. People were forced onto crowded ships, had a mortality rate approaching 50% in transit, and then were often simply dumped on shore in the US with nothing.

I had always learned that one part of my family emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine, and learning that this migration could have been involuntary, and under such horrific circumstances, was interesting to me. There are certainly parallels to the slave trade in the conditions of the crossing. The Irish were not chained, merely overcrowded and underfed in a way which promoted the spread of disease, but the high mortality rate, for instance, is similar, and the treatment of the Irish is another example of how low the value of a human life was considered to be until quite recently in Western history. The potato famine, like so many famines, was human-made: the Irish suffered because of decisions made by the English about what they could plant, and who would profit from the crops.

I can see where people might read something like this and think, "My ancestors had it pretty bad, too!" But the things that the Irish had in common with Africans are overshadowed by the differences. Dumped on shore, or indentured, but not enslaved, the Irish were free to congregate and create Irish-American communities in port cities like Boston and New York. They could worship in the religion they were accustomed to. Their status of servitude was not passed onto to their children. Their families might be fractured by economic conditions, illness, and so on, but no one could simply sell husbands and wives and children away from each other. They were entitled to the fruits of their own labor, however paltry, and free to start businesses, own property, and move to different living quarters if they could acquire the means to do so. They were as free as any other white American to migrate within North America to improve their lot, if they could. They were subject to mis-treatment by landlords and business owners, but assaults on their bodies, whether rape, beatings, or murder, were crimes. The men, once citizens, could vote. It was not a crime to teach an Irish person to read or write. There might have been social stigma involved, but there was no law against an Irish person marrying someone who wasn't Irish.

I could go on. But it takes only one or two of these differences to account for the different status of the Irish vs. African-Americans in America. For me, a white woman, "my ancestor may have been brought to the US in a pestilential hulk against their will," is just another piece of family history. For black people, that was just the beginning of a whole history that affected individuals, families, and communities in ways that have not been fully ameliorated, that are still present realities.
posted by Orlop at 1:08 PM on March 17, 2018 [100 favorites]


Same reason there are a lot of black people with English names right? The names were adopted or given to thier ancestors as slaves I assume.

It important that we not see names as only a matter of “this is what they were given,” because it is far more complicated and interesting than that. Former slaves could have a lot more control over their own names than that, and naming could be a big part of identity.

After slavery, many, if not most former slaves had to choose a surname for the first time. It could really be anything. It might be the surname of your former master (either by your choice or because your former master suggested it). It might be your father’s name. It might be the town you grew up in. It might be “freeman.” It might be the name of someone you respect or admire. It might be, in one case I’ve seen, the name of the river you were standing at when you learned of your freedom.

It’s part of what makes it very difficult to trace black ancestry through slavery, because there’s often no obvious reason for any given surname. The possibilities are potentially endless.

But it’s important not to see names only as something given to former slaves, because that can very well deny their agency in the matter. I wouldn’t know the history of Shaquille O’Neal’s family, but we shouldn’t make any assumptions.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:31 PM on March 17, 2018 [29 favorites]


The black/white racism in the US is so much of a different beast than nationality based "racism" that one or the other needs their own separate name.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:47 PM on March 17, 2018


I realized I may have misread the comment I was replying to, but anyway, I think it’s a very interesting subject. I’ve studied roll call lists and other lists of names from the 19th century, and there’s a fascinating and huge diversity of names. Someones name could say a lot about them.

It helps drive home the inhumanity of slavery to think of someone having to pick a last name for the first time at the age of 35, because up until that point their name may never have appeared on paper, except as part of an inventory of property for tax or probate purposes. There’s a whole lot more to the topic than I care to write about now, but names are really such an important topic for black Americans after slavery.

(First names are a whole other thing, too. Sometimes you come across names like “Ham” that reflect the depth of cruelty of slavery — because the biblical curse of Ham was often invoked as justification for slavery, and some slaveowners thought that was an appropriate, or worse, humorous name to give someone.)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:52 PM on March 17, 2018 [7 favorites]


I haven't read the link yet, so am being a bad commenter. But: a thing I read a few years ago talked about the pitfalls of the way Black history is taught in the US. It often starts from slavery, and even in good history classes where students aren't taught about slavery with stupid-ass textbooks that call it "migration", where the full ills of slavery are taught, this framing still fundamentally minimizes the harms caused by chattel slavery in the US because it doesn't begin with Black people as fully actualized human beings with their own complex lives, culture, politics, and extensive history. The argument I read pointed out that without this pre-slavery introduction, we don't realize the full brunt of just how evil colonial slavery was in not just harming people, but in erasing all of that history, culture, and humanity from those who were enslaved and their children.

This relates directly to Orlop's comment in that, although many Irish were indeed treated terribly, and even though Irish "migration" may have been similarly forced and unconsenting in many cases, (a) they were allowed to keep and pass down their history and culture, and (b) most of us growing up in the US first learn about Irish culture (or some aspects of it, at least; in the US or in Ireland itself) along with general Irish history and politics before we learn about the potato famine or indentured servitude - so we get to encounter the Irish first as fully actualized humans with a history, culture, and complex politics. Perhaps that skews some people's perception of the severity of the treatment of the Irish (also bad) as compared to actual slavery (very bad)?
posted by eviemath at 2:10 PM on March 17, 2018 [28 favorites]


Call it "fake history."

No. Do not do that. No one but Trumpists and their fellow travellers should use the "fake" construction, or possibly even the word "fake", ever. It should be a clear signal that the speaker is a liar, trying to divert attention from their misdeeds.
posted by thelonius at 2:13 PM on March 17, 2018 [18 favorites]


It important that we not see names as only a matter of “this is what they were given,” because it is far more complicated and interesting than that. Former slaves could have a lot more control over their own names than that, and naming could be a big part of identity.

This is what I meant about there probably not being a single answer. I've also heard that relationships/marriages between free blacks and Irish were not too uncommon but I have no idea the real extent of it.
posted by atoxyl at 2:16 PM on March 17, 2018


I think the thing that pisses me off about this myth most, as a person who was raised with a very strong sense of Irish-American identity, is that it not only reduces the Irish-American experience to a competition with African Americans as to who had it worse (African-Americans, you twits), but it also elides all of the little points of history where some Irish-Americans betrayed the larger Anglo-Protestant American culture in service of more marginalized, more desperate people. It elides the places where many Irish-Americans, as disproportionately poor white people with a strong sense of injustice, came to America and immediately self-identified not with wealthier white people but with people who needed help.

Why wouldn't we want to focus on the places where the suffering of the Irish diaspora inspired generosity and solidarity, dammit? Why do fellow Irish-American assholes keep wanting to focus on a sort of resentful cud-chewing over imagined and real injustices, as if those injustices continued to fetter us today, rather than looking for the places where our people have behaved well and extended agency over their experiences in North America? (I'm saying North America specifically because Quebec was quite a popular destination, in part because of the Catholic culture centered there, and even in the US many Irish-Americans' ancestors came through Canada, not directly to the USA.)

It drives me nuts and it makes me want to grab ears and scream into them. History always has a story, and we use it to inspire us. It's not as if there are no places where the history of the Irish and the US don't meet in a way that inspires generosity, bravery, and solidarity--but these craven, hollow assholes cling instead to a vision of history that makes them feel justified in hoarding resources and wealth, taking on exactly the character of the Englishmen who helped to create the 1847 famine in the first fucking place. By soothing themselves that they, too, were "once oppressed," they tell themselves it's all right to act like an oppressor now, because their families have somehow "earned" the right to be assholes.

Fuck that. Fuck it. You can be proud of a people without that godforsaken bullshit. It just takes a little listening and a willingness to confront the truth of history--and the truth of your own actions and context within your present, too. I have a lot of feelings about St. Patrick's, and this is hitting most of them. I don't think I'm ever going to be able to acknowledge the holiday without having to process and sit with this banked anger. I'm... beginning to be okay with that, I think.
posted by sciatrix at 2:33 PM on March 17, 2018 [33 favorites]


Indentured servitude was more insidious than simply a case of labor exploitation. A four- to seven-year indenture to serve out, bond servants lives' and movements were subject to control and dominance by their masters' even outside of work hours, with punitive restrictions placed on marriage, locomotion, and pregnancy.

So they were treated as slaves, but since it was time limited, they weren't slaves? I don't feel the article really rebutted the myth all that well.
posted by AFABulous at 2:37 PM on March 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is what I meant about there probably not being a single answer.

Yeah, sorry, I realized I had misread you after I wrote my comment!

So they were treated as slaves, but since it was time limited, they weren't slaves? I don't feel the article really rebutted the myth all that well.

You have to take into account that chattel slavery was a totally racialized system across the entire country, north and south. You could be born into it, you could die in it, and no matter how far you ran, you were still someone’s property until you died.

There’s a famous case, and it’s a shame that I’m forgetting his name, but he was a slave who escaped and ran away to Boston, where he became a member of the free black community. Well, his owner eventually traced him there, and the Boston police escorted him onto a ship bound for the south. Even in an ostensibly free state, he was unable to escape the status of property, and that was fully aided and abetted by the government itself.

This drove home what many escaped slaves wrote. They said they did not know true freedom until they made it to Canada. As long as you were black and in the US, you were never safe, and everyone knew it. There was no such thing as a truly “free” state.

Living in slave-like conditions is awful, but as long as there’s an end-point, as long as there aren’t literal patrols to round up you and people who look like you, as long as the police won’t hunt you down in an ostensibly “free” state and return you to your “owner” because you’d never stop being someone’s property in the eyes of the people and the government — yeah, it’s not the same thing at all. Chattel slavery was brutal, all-encompassing, and it affected the entire country in a way that Irish indentured servitude never would or could.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:51 PM on March 17, 2018 [29 favorites]


sciatrix, I was going to recommend that you check out the new post about the San Patricios as it seems to be right up your alley. Then I realized that was your post!
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:01 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


And I’m not trying to minimize what Irish people lived through, because it was horrible. It’s just that chattel slavery is so incomparably awful that you can only do it injustice by comparing Irish bonded labor to it. I didn’t even mention all the awful things about it. People were sold at market like livestock. Families were torn apart with total indifference at best, to the extent that 60 years after the end of slavery, former slaves still talked about the trauma. In many places it was illegal to teach a slave literacy, and they had to gather in secret to teach each other how to read because both slaves and slaveowners recognized what it meant to deny that to someone. I won’t even talk about the physical and sexual violence that was a matter of course for people’s entire lives.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:08 PM on March 17, 2018 [19 favorites]


I think I might've spent too much time in the 00's looking at Deviantart while really stoned because I misread the end of OP's intro as: "Irish were-slave myth." Apparently not similar to "Irish were-wolf myth" Although it does make a kind of sense given the penchant for some white people to imagine themselves magically morphed into the form of peoples in worse historical circumstances.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 3:16 PM on March 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


For me the historical lesson here goes in the opposite direction. I never believed the Irish were slaves, but I also didn't know that a not insignificant number were forcibly deported and sold into indentured servitude. Hogan's conclusion that the concept of Irish people being enslaved in the Caribbean by Cromwellian forces is contemporary with the events themselves and is based on historical truth is the part that's news to me.

I find myself in a similar position to AFABulous, learning that the conditions in which some Irish immigrants were held were closer to slavery than I would have imagined, and would probably describe as slavery myself. I do take the point that shapes that haunts the dusk makes, that the differences between that kind of slavery and the institutionalized racialized slavery of African-Americans were enormous.
posted by layceepee at 3:20 PM on March 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


Right, I'm not comparing the history of the Irish-Americans to the history of African-Americans whatsoever, but the backlash to the racists who do equate the two tends to also elide the truth. It's important not to ignore either history.

I'm sure someone has done this but I'd be interested in reading where the descendants of Irish indentured servants ended up. Did they segregate themselves from Irish immigrants who had always been free? Were they less privileged due to their ancestors' years of lost income and freedom?
posted by AFABulous at 3:31 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


There’s a famous case, and it’s a shame that I’m forgetting his name, but he was a slave who escaped and ran away to Boston, where he became a member of the free black community. Well, his owner eventually traced him there, and the Boston police escorted him onto a ship bound for the south. Even in an ostensibly free state, he was unable to escape the status of property, and that was fully aided and abetted by the government itself.

You are thinking of Anthony Burns, though his case is famous as much an example of popular resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act as it is of the Act's enforcement itself. (Until the Act was passed, people in free states couldn't be tracked down and re-enslaved. Burns' capture brought the reality of slavery home to almost everyone in a Northern city. But I digress.)

Irish indentured servitude happened in a time when the system of slavery in what would become the United States was comparatively lax - slavery in the United States became systematically worse with time, particularly since it could be linked to race. Much of what you are describing is the way slavery was institutionalized in the 1800s, not necessarily the way it was experienced in the late 1600s or even the 1700s. Comparing indentured servitude to slavery isn't just comparing apples to oranges; it's comparing (to stretch the analogy) a one-hundred-year-old variety of apple to a modern orange. The two situations aren't comparable not just because indentured servitude is different from slavery but because the system of Irish indentured servitude was effectively gone by the time slavery evolved into the form that the majority of African-American slaves experienced.

All of which is to say, even had Irish indentured servants been viewed as equivalent to African-American slaves, they would never have experienced the institution of American slavery as we know of it today.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:41 PM on March 17, 2018 [15 favorites]


I read a really interesting book about the potato famine a couple of years ago, and was interested to read that a great deal of Irish immigration to the US during that period was indeed involuntary. People were forced onto crowded ships, had a mortality rate approaching 50% in transit, and then were often simply dumped on shore in the US with nothing.

Many did leave voluntarily but it became a thing to go and the (often absentee) landowners wanted the land and evictions were creating a population of homeless people with a big grudge and so they paid to ship the desperate overseas where they could. It wasn't an organized genocide at the governmental level like some say but the landowners took advantage of a bad situation to get rid of people they regarded as nothing and those landowners were english or anglo and the people they wanted rid of were Gaeilgeoirí. What happened to them once they were gone, they did not care. A lot of bad things happened to a lot of people under those circumstances but it was not the same experience that African slaves and their descendants had. Australia and the Americas ultimately meant freedom from oppression for most poor Europeans who made it there, not the opposite. You can easily discern this by the fact that the survivors of the trip usually sent home for their family members to join them. Quite a telling detail.

I'm sure people will chime in and disagree but try to get everyone Irish to agree on anything at all for more than 5 minutes and you'll see why the country couldn't organize a decent rebellion for 1000 years. The shocking loss of native speakers and native culture during the Famine did galvanize Irish Nationalism in the educated classes over the following generation but during the Famine itself middle class and rich Irish people didn't starve, keep in mind.
posted by fshgrl at 3:50 PM on March 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


The two situations aren't comparable not just because indentured servitude is different from slavery but because the system of Irish indentured servitude was effectively gone by the time slavery evolved into the form that the majority of African-American slaves experienced.

You also have to keep in mind that many if not most working class people were tied to someone's land or mine or house or private army during that era. People openly entered into similar deals all the time or were born into them and those deals had no end date at all. It was a complex system and undoubtedly many of the deals sucked, especially when people were forced or tricked into them but it wasn't at all the same as actual slavery. If it's hard to understand you can explain it easily by pointing out that in a functioning serf type system landowners couldn't simply murder all their servants and expect to replace them the following week.
posted by fshgrl at 3:57 PM on March 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


It’s just that chattel slavery is so incomparably awful that you can only do it injustice by comparing Irish bonded labor to it.

This. Were there enslaved people of Irish descent who were so completely cut off from their culture and traditions that they don't even know what part of Europe their ancestors were stolen from?
posted by snofoam at 4:42 PM on March 17, 2018 [10 favorites]


There are lots of Black people with Irish surnames - I don't know whether there's a single answer to why this is.

Same reason there are a lot of black people with English names right? The names were adopted or given to thier ancestors as slaves I assume.


Some, but not all - there have been free black people here in the U.K. since the Roman era.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 4:56 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Mefi's own Liam Hogan.

The whole Irish-American thing I find quite interesting. Australia also had a large share of Irish immigrants, but that sense of Irish identity is largely absent here (i.e. no Australian whose grandparents or older may have immigrated from Ireland would ever call themselves "Irish", or even "Irish Australian"). There is such a strong narrative in America about this compared to Australia, I guess it must partly be because it's so wrapped up in founding myths/narratives of "America", whereas Australia's (White) founding myths were based more on supporting the British than refuting them.
posted by smoke at 4:58 PM on March 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Were there enslaved people of Irish descent who were so completely cut off from their culture and traditions that they don't even know what part of Europe their ancestors were stolen from?

The sad part is that we have to remind people that African slaves didn't get on the slave ships as English speaking Baptists. There is another group of Americans who can similarly claim that they've had their language, culture, religion, and history systematically ground out of them by a racist system and its not the Irish.
posted by peeedro at 5:09 PM on March 17, 2018 [13 favorites]


There is such a strong narrative in America about this compared to Australia, I guess it must partly be because it's so wrapped up in founding myths/narratives of "America", whereas Australia's (White) founding myths were based more on supporting the British than refuting them.

I'd say it's a lot more to do with the fact that groups like the Gaelic League were very active in the US from early on.
posted by fshgrl at 5:12 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


All of which is to say, even had Irish indentured servants been viewed as equivalent to African-American slaves, they would never have experienced the institution of American slavery as we know of it today.

Yeah, this. I'm not gonna say that I think indentured servitude was nice, bearable, or comfortable. (FWIW: the red state history textbook I grew up with implied it was worse, with the rationale that "employers" had no financial interest in maintaining the health of their servants the way slaveowners had for their slaves. Uncle Tom's Cabin was not mentioned in that chapter.) The "Irish slave" thing only gets brought up as a way to trivialize chattel slavery. People who spread this story would like to suggest some white people suffered, too, so race can't possibly be the driving factor of the most evil in American histroy. I'm not going to say that it was better to be an indentured servant than a slave -- that's a weird thing to quantify -- but it was better to be the child of an indentured servant than the child of a slave. Better to be the grandchild of an indentured servant than the grandchild, even, of a free black person. I don't understand how limited someone has to be to think that -- even if "Irish slaves" were a thing -- all else would be equal.
posted by grandiloquiet at 5:15 PM on March 17, 2018 [17 favorites]


The two situations aren't comparable not just because indentured servitude is different from slavery but because the system of Irish indentured servitude was effectively gone by the time slavery evolved into the form that the majority of African-American slaves experienced.

You also have to keep in mind that many if not most working class people were tied to someone's land or mine or house or private army during that era. People openly entered into similar deals all the time or were born into them and those deals had no end date at all. It was a complex system and undoubtedly many of the deals sucked, especially when people were forced or tricked into them but it wasn't at all the same as actual slavery. If it's hard to understand you can explain it easily by pointing out that in a functioning serf type system landowners couldn't simply murder all their servants and expect to replace them the following week.


You're a couple hundred years off, here. Serfdom effectively ended in England by about 1500 - and I don't know if it ever existed in Ireland or Scotland (it was a Norman institution). By the 1600s, servants were hired by the year. Also, it was always a crime to kill a serf - they were unfree, but they weren't chattal property.

Another note about indentured servanthood - a very good point was made up thread that indentured servanthood in the 17th century wasn't like 19th century slavery. Another point is: a lot of English and Scottish were also sent into indentures, if they had committed crimes.
posted by jb at 5:18 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


And I would second every point made about how indentures!=slavery. Indentured servants were treated differently (they were still people, not property, and could not be murdered with impunity). They were freed after the end of their indenture - and their children were always free (unless indentured due to poverty). It sucked, but it was never slavery.
posted by jb at 5:21 PM on March 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Another point is: a lot of English and Scottish were also sent into indentures, if they had committed crimes.

That was actually a nice bit in the American Gods TV series! If anyone is interested: A Prayer for Mad Sweeney showed the unrepentant thief Essie got sent to America as an indentured servant. She was lucky enough to end up with a seemingly decent person -- and being clever, she soon went from indentured servant to wife. That was a pretty stark contrast to the fate of the slaves (who, upon Anansi's instigation, revolt and burn down the ship rather than live as slaves).
posted by grandiloquiet at 5:43 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


You're a couple hundred years off, here. Serfdom effectively ended in England by about 1500

I knew I shouldn't have used the word serf but I figured it would be an understandable term as an example. Although it did not 100% die out in Europe by 1600 by any means

Serfdom wasnt in Ireland but in the 1850s people were tied to the land still. Not all, but many. If you bought or inherited an estate you couldn't simply fire the people who lived on it. Their labor belonged to you but they had rights too. That's why the landlords if they wanted to clear the land to farm cattle etc had go come up with ways to get rid of people. The baliffs who evicted people were hated but of course if you fought them or the eviction the man of the family would be jailed and or deported. Women and children ended up in workhouses or dead. It was a very deliberate system to take the rights people had to stay and work land their ancestors had but that didn't belong to them. There were parts of Ireland where many poor people lived free but in desperate poverty and they were very susceptible to the famine and the economic downturn and also an important fishery crashes around then too. It was a confluence of events that drove so many people out.

But still attaching yourself hook, line and sinker to a hopefully successful going concern was still very much a thing people did then. It didn't have the same connotations it does now. Your examples of servants only being engaged for a year is cherry picked. Plenty of people took endentured jobs or joined ship crews where you only got paid a share or moved to logging and mining camps they couldn't leave. My great grandparents took servants to south America with them, its not like those people could just say "oh, I'm going home now. I quit".
posted by fshgrl at 6:16 PM on March 17, 2018


Indentured servants were treated differently (they were still people, not property, and could not be murdered with impunity). They were freed after the end of their indenture - and their children were always free (unless indentured due to poverty). It sucked, but it was never slavery.

This is true. On the other hand, Hugh Tinker argued in A New System of Slavery that the system of Indian indentured labour that grew up in the British Empire in the 1830s incorporated many of the structural features of slavery. This is not to suggest that indentured labour was slavery; rather, that the demand for labour that led to slavery (and the wider forces of capitalism and colonialism that lay behind it) didn't just disappear with the legal abolition of slavery in 1833.
posted by verstegan at 6:30 PM on March 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Some, but not all - there have been free black people here in the U.K. since the Roman era.

And also in the US since before the period of settlement. Significant in its own right, but not in any way a reflection of the experience of the far vaster majority. Including the descendants of the many who were shipped here by UK merchants.
posted by Miko at 7:34 PM on March 17, 2018


There is another group of Americans who can similarly claim that they've had their language, culture, religion, and history systematically ground out of them by a racist system and its not the Irish.

And who still had it happening to them within the past century.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:34 PM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


they were unfree, but they weren't chattal property.

I don't know about English serfdom but in under some forms of European serfdom the serfs could indeed be traded between estate holders. I'd have to go digging for details, but I recall that much.

Slavery in America was still something else entirely.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:46 PM on March 17, 2018


Serfs in Russia were only emancipated in the 1860s. But, miserable as serfs' lives were, it wasn't as bad as slavery in the US.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:01 AM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Actually I meant to add: the trade in serfs is the background for Gogol's famous novel Dead Souls.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:04 AM on March 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


There is another group of Americans who can similarly claim that they've had their language, culture, religion, and history systematically ground out of them by a racist system and its not the Irish.

There is more than one such group, shamefully.
posted by nickmark at 7:24 AM on March 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


Why do fellow Irish-American assholes keep wanting to focus on a sort of resentful cud-chewing over imagined and real injustices, as if those injustices continued to fetter us today, rather than looking for the places where our people have behaved well and extended agency over their experiences in North America?

Why, if I were a cynical man, I might speculate that there's a group of people who have a vested interest in making sure that the have-nots don't unite against them, and encourage that sort of thing. I just might.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:00 PM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


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