Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh –
That’s funny, you guys don’t look Irish
Irish Slavery in America
One of the topics of interest to a number of our people is the Irish language in America. This is intimately related with the subject of indentured servitude and slavery in America. Gerry Kelly has contributed the following information, as a sample of the research he and others do on this subject.
The following website is an excellent overview of slave revolts although, unfortunately, the author doesn’t mention Irish slaves or the mixed Irish/African slave populations: Enslaved African Resistance and Revolts
Please note in particular:
- “First serious enslaved African conspiracy in Colonial America, Sept. 13. Servant betrayed plot of White servants and enslaved Africans in Gloucester County, Va.” I haven’t done any research on this rising but given that it’s in 1663, these “White servants” were probably Irish slaves captured and sold during the heyday of the Irish slave trade (1649-1657) under Cromwell. The Cromwellian (i.e., Puritan) government in Ireland gave the slave monopolies to good Puritan merchants who then sold on to other good Puritan merchants in the Caribbean, Virginia, and New England. (The Royalists/Anglicans got nearly nothing out of the Irish slave trade.) The first witch killed (1688) in the famous Massachusetts witch trials was an old Irish slavewoman (Anne Glover) who had been captured by Cromwellian forces and sold as a slave in the 1650s. She could recite the Lord’s Prayer in Irish and Latin, but didn’t speak English. So Cotton Mather and the boys hung her. Cotton Mather was quite proud of his visiting the poor woman in jail and interviewing her (tormenting her) at length on the nature of religion and her ‘sins’ through an interpreter. He wrote a book about it (Memorable Providences, which you can find at COTTON MATHER, MEMORABLE PROVIDENCES, RELATING TO WITCHCRAFTS AND POSSESSIONS The book included detailed descriptions of the torments witches can inflict on their victims. It became a best seller in Old and New England, was read in the home of the teenage girls who started the Salem witch-trials, and is now put forward as one of the likely sources of inspiration for their fantastic accusations. Talk about the crimes of a people coming back to haunt them.
- “Series of suspicious fires and reports of enslaved Africans conspiracy led to general hysteria in New York City, March and April. Thirty-one enslaved Africans and five Whites were executed.” I’ve seen some documents on this before. It’s called the “1741 Negro Conspiracy” or “New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741.” The 5 whites were Irish indentured servants of the “Teague” sort. Teagues were Irish-speaking papists. You’ll note that ‘Teague’ is still British Army slang for an Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland today.
(Another nice reference to “Teagues” is found in the trial transcripts related to the Boston Massacre which killed Crispus Attucks (African-American), Samuel Gray, James Coldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr (Irish-American?). John Adams, representing the accused British soldiers, blamed the initial stone-throwing, abuse, and rabble-rousing which started the incident on Teagues in the crowd, which was no doubt accurate. Teagues were noted throughout the American colonies for their trouble-making and hatred of British authority. From Newfoundland to Barbados, the British felt they could always trust a Teague to be at the bottom of any political trouble.)
- “The Berbice enslaved Africans Rebellion breaks out (at the time when Berbice was a separate Dutch colony). It begins on one estate, but soon spreads to others along the Berbice River. The revolt is the result of the cruelty with which the Dutch plantation owners have been treating the enslaved Africans, and it was led by a an enslaved African named Coffy.” Although this is a Dutch colony, it’s interesting to note that Coffy is an Irish Gaelic surname. Was he (or an ancestor) sold from a British colony to the Dutch?
- “The Irish presence in Montserrat dates back to the 1630s, when the first pioneers — Roman Catholics — sailed over from St. Kitts because of friction with British Protestant settlers there. The Irish planters brought Enslaved Africans to work their sugar cane fields. Soon the enslaved Africans outnumbered them 3-to-1 and began rebelling. In 1768, the enslaved Africans planned an island-wide attack on St. Patrick’s Day, when the planters would be celebrating…. But someone leaked the plan…. Local authorities punished the enslaved Africans severely, hanging nine. Today people mix their annual celebration of shamrocks and green beer with memories of an aborted enslaved African revolt against Irish planters. The result is a Caribbean amalgam of colonial culture and African pride — a week long fete with islanders dancing Irish jigs one night, then mocking their one-time masters the next by cracking whips and masquerading in tall hats like bishops’ miters. “We are celebrating the rise of the African freedom fighters said historian Howard Fergus.”
Unfortunately, the author does not note here that Montserratans know and accept that they descend from both Irish and African slaves. In fact, the shamrocks, jigs, mitres, and whips reflect a combination of pride, sorrow, and memory of both lineages. English planters soon followed Irish planters onto the island, and both groups owned Irish and African slaves. I’ll bet if we researched this we’d find out that the 9 hung were Gaelic-speakers of mixed Irish/African ancestry, like most other Montserratans of the time. Most Montserratans spoke Irish Gaelic until about 1900.
About 100 years after the 1768 rebellion, a ship crewed by Irish-speaking Corkmen dropped anchor at Montserrat. At the dock, they were amazed to hear black Montserratans speaking Irish. As cordial conversation went forward between the two groups in formal Gaelic fashion, the Montserratans referred to Cork as “Corcaigh na gCuan” (Cork of the Harbors), a poetical term for Cork used by the filí (hereditary prophet-poets of the Irish nobility) which had not been in common use in Ireland since the destruction of the Gaelic social system in the 17th century. Eventually, as things loosened up a bit, it’s said the Montserratans also informed the Corkmen with good humor and a straight face “Tá sé sin ait, ní fheictear mar Gaeil sibh” – “That’s funny, you guys don’t look Irish.” This was a great hit with the Corkmen and reported widely enough among Irish speakers that eventually even I read about it.
Now the icing on the cake which I have first-hand from Eileen Zurrell, an Irish teacher and friend of ours on Long Island who used to teach at the Gerry Tobin Irish Language School until about 6-7 years ago. About 20 years ago now, a little black girl walked up to Eileen, confirmed that Eileen was an Irish teacher, and then recited a Gaelic poem taught to her by her Montserratan grandmother. Creidim uaim é, níl mé ag súgradh / Believe me, I’m not kidding.
The Irish Slave Trade
The early slave trade in the 1600s is well documented with misery inflicted upon possibly up to 11 million people torn forcibly from West Africa to labour in appalling conditions in the the United States and the Caribbean.
History Journal has uncovered fascinating research into the role of Irish people exposed to the same suffering in the early
slave trade with Irish deportees and indentured servants sent to the same dreadful conditions initially in Antigua and Monserrat and later in Barbados and the United States.
From the early 1600s to 1800 many 1000s of irish people were sent to slave conditions in the carribean and US as part of the trade in human labour that marked the start of the slave trade.
Irish and african people suffered under dreadful conditions in Barbados, Antigua, the southern states of the US and Brazil. The legacy of this trade in Irish people still remains today with a strong Irish mark left on the culture of the Carribean.
Although there are records of Irish people being transported to South America as early as 1612, the earliest confirmed records of indentured servitude date from 1636.
Cromwell had a devastating effect on the population of Ireland in the 1600s, reducing it by 500,000 just 1.1 million from 1641 onwards. During his reign, more than 50,000 Irish people, mostly women and children, were forcibly deported to Barbados to work on sugar plantations.
Redlegs in Barbados and Antigua
The Irish in Bardados earned the pejorative term ‘Redlegs’ as they struggled in the extreme heat and sun on sugar plantations. Their legacy remains to this day.