Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea
Posted by Gina Foster
For unknown reasons, our educational system in the United States fans the flame of racism in our country. It skews the issue of slavery by presenting it almost exclusively through the lens of the African slaves and thereby marginalizing the enslavement suffered by others throughout history. Without a doubt, the Africans sold into slavery and shipped to the Americas during the Transatlantic Slave Trade endured the extremity of human evil—no one can deny it. Their experience was dehumanizing— unspeakable and inexcusable. But the extent of slavery reaches far beyond the American experience and is not limited to the issue of race. If we continue to present slavery to our students solely through the lens of race, we are preserving a chronic wound. In addition, our students will fail to recognize the full scope of slavery. Emphasizing the oppression of a single group not only minimizes the victimization of others, in some cases, it virtually erases it. This is the case with the Irish.
I’m nearly fifty years old. I attended American public schools K-8 and continued on to an elite private high school in Washington, D.C. I homeschooled my three children for twenty years and taught history in a private school here in Georgia, yet I had never heard of the Irish Slave Trade. Why is this? I’ll tell you why— history books gloss over it by applying the deceptive label: “indentured servitude.” The basic truth is this: tens of thousands of Irish were conned, coerced, kidnapped, or simply captured and shipped off as slave labor for the English colonies in the Americas, bearing the mild label of “indentured servant.” Our high school American history classes present indentured servitude as a paternalistic system where immigrants spent a few years working off their passage to America and then move on to live the rest of their lives. But the reality is this: their freedom was sold for their labor, and more often than not, their existence was that of a slave.
Once the English decided to abandon their search for gold and silver and shifted their focus to farming and plantation building, there was an immediate need for cheap, compliant labor, and the English found it on their own streets. At Queen Elizabeth’s demand “to clear her streets” of the growing poor and homeless population, English administrators started snatching up children, vagrants, and criminals and putting them on ships to the Americas as forced slave labor for the colonies. They decided to do the same with the Irish. The English attitude toward the “barbaric” Irish paired with swelling religious and political tensions gave the English “just cause” to address their “Irish problem.” The English coerced, conned, and forcibly removed the Irish from their land, confiscating it along with their legal rights, and often their lives. Intentional acts by King James II, Charles I, and Britain’s infamous Oliver Cromwell lead to the subjugation of the Irish, which over time would arguably be seen as genocide.
The forced labor in the Americas and Caribbean generated tremendous profits for the English, and propelled them toward their imperial status. In their book White Cargo, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh state that the Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Pulling from personal letters, diaries, and court and government archives, authors Jordan and Walsh explain that “hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away.” The Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock. The removal of the “undesirables” quickly made Ireland the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. According to Jordan and Walsh, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves from 1641 to 1652. Ireland’s population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in a single decade.
The Irish Slave Trade lasted roughly 150 years and preceded the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This shouldn’t be viewed as a “tit for tat” in regards to race. Slavery is slavery. Our perspective and presentation needs to widen. It needs to ring true in our students—in all people—that slavery is not a race issue—it’s a human issue. Before the Africans or the Irish were enslaved, millions of others suffered the same atrocities. Most importantly, we need to recognize that slavery still exists today. A report by CNN indicates that 30 million people are living as slaves around the world today, and largely, it goes undetected by the average person. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, that face of modern day slavery is human trafficking— a $32 billion a year business that exploits people through forced labor or sex labor or the harvesting of internal organs.
Human traffickers prey on the poor, the weak, and the discarded just like the slave traders who handled the Africans and the Irish.
Black Lives Matters, a grassroots movement pushing an agenda to address police misconduct in America, recently insisted on a 2016 Democratic presidential debate focusing solely on the issue of racism. Rising above the race issue, it’s time we operate collectively from the knowledge that ALL LIVES MATTER.