Comparing and Contrasting African and Irish Slavery in Revolutionary America

When the term "slavery" as it pertains to the United States is mentioned, almost all minds immediately turn towards thinking of the enslavement of Africans by pre-Civil War American citizens. While the images that are conjured up by contemplating this era of human indignity certainly fit the bill, all too often it is the only instance of slavery that comes to mind. As a result, other instances and time periods of human slavery become lost in the shuffle. Even in regards to African slaves in the United States, what may be forgotten is the fact that this group was originally brought to the country by Great Britain while the U.S. was still one of its many colonies. Furthermore, an entirely different population of enslaved people is almost wholly disregarded: the Irish. While an inherent degree of distinction can certainly be found to contrast Britain’s Irish and African slavery, the number of similarities shared by the two groups, and the depths to which these commonalities reach are nearly mind-blowing; especially when viewing them as a build-up to the American Revolution.

Throughout the century that led up to America’s battle for freedom, its colonizing ruler, Great Britain, was engaging in an ungodly amount of slave trade and practices. Unbeknownst to a great deal of the general public, the enslavement of Africans and Irish by the English both began at nearly the same time during this generation. The first African slaves arrived on the North American continent in Jamestown in 1619 (Morgan). Upon settling in the Virginia, Maryland, and Carolina colonies during the mid-1600s, British colonists began importing African slaves for the purpose of decreasing their labor costs in the production of tobacco (Morgan). Their numbers rose so dramatically, that by the time the American Revolution rolled around the number of African slaves in the colonies had reached a total of around a half-million people; nearly one-fifth of the entire American population (Morgan). Similarly, Irish slaves began to be shipped to the New World following King James II Proclamation of 1625 (Jordan and Walsh). They too saw their numbers dramatically rise between 1640 and 1660, ultimately rising to a level of around 300,000 (Jordan and Walsh).

A quick comparison of how the English went about enslaving both Africans and the Irish presents another direct correlation. Regardless of race, Imperial Brits did not even think twice when it came to tearing family structures to shreds; they shipped fathers across the sea and purposefully forced them to leave their wives and children behind (Jordan and Walsh). While the horrors of the mistreatment of African slaves aboard these ships have been widely documented, Irish slaves were treated in similar fashion. On one occasion, British sailors who feared that their food rations would not hold out for the entire voyage, resorted to dumping 1,300 Irish slaves overboard (Jordan and Walsh). Even if they survived these voyages, the end result for both African and Irish captives was the same: sold at auction to the highest bidder.

Despite the eye-opening similarities between African and Irish slaves, as demonstrated by these comparisons, a couple important differences did exist that must be briefly addressed in contrast. The first main discrepancy was made evident during the actual auctions referenced above. Here, the level of value attached to a slave varied greatly depending on their race. African slaves were considered expensive, going for around 50 Sterling, whereas their Irish counterparts were viewed as cheap, selling at less than 5 Sterling (Jordan and Walsh). The other substantial difference between African and Irish slaves was how they were dealt with under colonial and British laws respectively. In America, Protestant influence from non-British colonists led to African slavery being either banned or limited in 12 of the 13 colonies by the conclusion of the Revolutionary War (Morgan). Conversely, English law continued to permit the trade of Irish slaves throughout the 18th Century, as thousands more were sold across the world, even to remaining British loyalists in the recently created United States (Jordan and Walsh).

Yet these distinctions are outweighed by one major categorical similarity that also deals with how slaves were viewed and treated while captive; the sexual mistreatment by slave owners. The British colonialists who settled in America’s Southern colonies brought with them a brutal culture of patriarchy, under which African slaves were viewed as mere chattel (National Humanities Center). This objectification of African slaves, particularly women, empowered colonists to such a horrific extent that they thought nothing of sexually abusing them. This practice was best summed up by one fugitive slave, who stated: “Plenty of the colored women have children by the white men. Then they take them very same children what they have they own blood and make slaves out of them” (National Humanities Center, 1). Once again, this patriarchic sense of entitlement was not isolated to African slaves. Instead, it was quite the norm amongst British slave masters who owned Irish “chattel,” as they too sexually abused their slaves for pure pleasure and for the purpose of breeding more slaves (Jordan and Walsh).

Finally, the level at which African and Irish slavery parallel one another reaches its apex upon uncovering perhaps the most surprising common-ground shared by the two groups; to call this final aspect a similarity would be an injustice. Instead, the British attempted to literally combine the two together, as slave masters forced their female Irish and male African subordinated to breed with one another (Jordan and Walsh). Soon thereafter, this type of degradingly inhumane treatment imposed upon Africans and Irish alike would prove to be the demise of British Imperialism; slaves of all colors and creeds took arms during the American Revolution and helped to establish a sovereign nation that eventually afforded freedom to all.

Works cited can be provided at request.

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Tags: Africa, Irish Freedom Struggle, Slavery, United States


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