Irish Catholics Indentured in Colonial Barbados

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Oliver Cromwell

Irish Catholics and Scots “Barbadosed” by Oliver Cromwell did not fare well as indentured servants.

With both religious and political origins, Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649 led to the forced deportation of an estimated 50,000 Irish Catholics to Barbados. A similar story occurred after the Battle of Dunbar in Scotland. While many Scots and Irish indentured themselves voluntarily in the early years of the Barbados colony, kidnapping became so common that the term “barbadosed” emerged to refer to it.

Types of Indenture

The cultural custom of indentured service traditionally involved a contract between the servant and master outlining the terms of indenture. Farm laborers sold their services in return for a plot of land upon completion of the term, often up to ten years. “Freewillers”, those who willingly contracted, did not initially realize the hardships they would face in the tropical heat of the West Indies. Within a short time fewer and fewer volunteered for service.

Sugar planters in Barbados did not really concern themselves with the freewill of their workers, however. Many were coerced into signing contracts or outright kidnapped by English slavers and sold with the slaves. Those “barbadosed” by Oliver Cromwell arrived no better than slaves, prisoners of war with no true contract of indenture to rely upon.

Oliver Cromwell’s Prisoners of War

Cromwell’s brutal invasion of Ireland and Scotland during the mid-17th century resulted in much bloodshed. It is debatable whether those prisoners shipped to Barbados suffered a better or worse fate than those who remained behind. What is known is that they suffered. While many were men involved in an armed conflict, many more were poor women and children who refused to clear their land after losing their provider. Unable to support or defend themselves, they were ripe for transport to the West Indies.

Conditions for Indentured Servants in Barbados

Harsh working conditions were the norm for white indentured laborers in Barbados. Most Irish and Scots workers had difficulty acclimating to the intense sun. In most cases they were treated no better than African slaves except that planters needed a magistrate’s permission to flog them. Given the documented animosity and mistreatment by the British toward the Irish Catholics at the time, it is not hard to imagine it extended to the Caribbean as well. Jorge Chinea, in his article titled “Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650-1800” for the Society of Irish Latin American Studies states:

“English masters considered their Irish servants as belonging to a backward culture, unfit to contribute anything beyond their labor to colonial development.”

The fact that the Caribbean earned the distinction as a “white graveyard” and up to 50% of indentured servants on Barbados died before their term of service expired, attests to the substandard living conditions.

Chinea further describes the animosity of English planters toward the Irish:

“They were often mistreated by a biased judicial system, ‘imprisoned, publicly flogged, [and banished] for arbitrary or minor offences”

The increasing lack of white labor that resulted led to the increase in African slavery, but the Irish who remained began to resist as well. Indentured servants participated in plots for slave uprisings as early as 1649 on Barbados. Violent uprisings in St. Kitts and Monserrat resulted in many Irish abandoning the islands with the French. This led to later problems with the British who feared Irish Papist plots to assist the French in taking over the islands. Even beyond their indentured service, the Irish were never fully accepted into mainstream society in Barbados.

The term Redlegs, a pejorative term, has come to refer to the poor whites that descended from these indentured servants. This is much like the pejorative term that evolved to refer to African slaves and is equally offensive. Conditions for these Irish immigrants did not improve significantly over time. Today they continue much as they lived before in the poorest of neighborhoods on the fringe of society. Although the Irish have programs to assist Irish communities in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, Europe and Asia, they have no assistance programs in place for Irish communities in the Caribbean.

Sources:

  1. Global Irish.ie. “Government to Help Irish in Barbados?”
  2. History Journal.ie. “Indentured Servants.”
  3. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America: Society for Irish Latin American Studies. “Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650-1800.”
  4. Yale University. “Tangled Roots.”
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