Over and over again on our Facebook group, the topic comes up about Irish slaves. Digging into this subject, there has been a LOT of contradicting information.
On the one hand websites like Irish Examiner(now removed) and Irish Central talk about the allegedly “forgotten white Irish slaves.”
Then after reading this very interesting article on the NY Times, they openly debunk it.
Last year, over 80 Irish scholars and writers signed an open letter denouncing the Irish slave myth and asking publications to stop mentioning it.
Some complied, removing or revising articles that referenced the false claims, but the letter’s impact was limited.
The open letter about Irish slaves:
To bring the attention back to this open letter and to give you some more insight I have attached the article below. Full signing including the many comments is available for reading here.
To whom it may concern,
As you are aware, the Irish Central, Irish Examiner (since removed) and Scientific American (since revised) websites currently host articles about the allegedly “forgotten white Irish slaves.”
- Irish Central, “Irish are ‘the forgotten white slaves’ claims expert”, 27 March 2015
- Irish Central, “Irish roots in the Caribbean run deep”, 20 November 2015
- Irish Examiner, “100,000 Irish children sold for slavery during 1650s”, 29 January 2013 (update: article has been removed without explanation)
- Scientific American, “It’s True: We’re Probably All a Little Irish — Especially in the Caribbean”, 17 March 2015 (update: article has been revised with explanation)
The Irish Central and Irish Examiner articles quoted extensively from an op-ed article published on the “Global Research” website based in Canada. This website supports the 9/11 Truther movement and its “Irish slaves” article, apparently authored by John Martin for opednews.com, is an exercise in racist ahistorical propaganda. The Scientific American blog used an older and equally ahistorical article from a Kavanagh family genealogy site. This blog post entitled “Irish slaves in Caribbean” was evidently an important source for the “Global Research” article.
It is imperative that newspapers and scientific journals aim for truth and accuracy in everything they publish. It is thus our duty, as historians, scholars and interested parties, to inform your shareholders and your customers that you have failed to carry out any semblance of fact-checking on this particular article. More damaging still is that your promotion of it, for a number of years, has added a veneer of credibility to what is a well known white nationalist conspiracy theory more commonly found on Neo-Nazi and Neo-Confederate forums.
Journalism and scholarly historical research differ in various ways but they share one thing in common. If they are not based on reliable sources, they are worthless. Readers who may not be privy to the source of the information will likely take it at face value. Sometimes, the result is merely misinformation, but more dangerously, it can be used disingenuously to propagate a political myth. Scholarly articles undergo a process of peer review to make sure that they are evidence based and accurate. We do not expect newspapers to exercise the same level of rigour but a degree of common sense is called for since lifting material from such websites, which have no sources and are written by an unknown author, is poor journalistic practice.
Furthermore we are deeply disturbed to find that the Irish Central article (shared on social media over 150,000 times) asserts in its headline that this “Irish slaves” disinformation comes from an “expert” source. What underlines this baseless claim is the fact that every single line of the quoted article is a distortion, or a fabrication or an egregious exaggeration. We will not go through the inaccuracy of each line here, that is your responsibility, but we will ask you two questions. Do you, the editors of Irish Central and the Irish Examiner (update: now withdrawn) stand over the claim that an “Irish Slave Trade” was abolished in 1839? Or that “Irish slaves”, not enslaved Africans, were the victims of the Zong Massacre?
The intent of the article is thus patently clear; to insidiously equate indentured servitude or penal servitude with racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery. This is an obscene rhetorical move which decontextualises and dehistoricises the exploitation of both groups. There have been many different forms of slavery, across space and time. That is not the issue here. We are addressing the mainstream endorsement of a growing white nationalist campaign built on the reductionist fallacy of “slavery is slavery” which is inevitably used to justify racism in the present. For example, the spurious “we went through the same thing, but we don’t complain” sentiment which is now frequently deployed to silence debate and to mock demands for justice and truth-telling.
This has little to do with remembering the brutality of indentured servitude and all to do with the minimisation of the scale, duration and legacy of the transatlantic and intercolonial slave trade. The racist contemporary application of such bad history can be observed spreading like a virus across social media on an hourly basis.
Thus your mainstream endorsement of this distorted version of history has consequences. We therefore call on you to revise these articles, to correct the errors and to remove the false claims.
What side to take on Irish slaves?
Now, first of all, I am not saying I am an expert by any means. In fact, I probably still know a tiny fraction in compared to what some of you are reading this have studied or know.
All I am doing with this article is bringing the conversation to you.
Are the memes/articles that are regularly circulated just some click bait or is there much more to the story than many of us are lead to believe?
This debate is not new, and I am sure this topic will come up more and more again in the future. What are your thoughts? Comment below: