The myth of ‘Irish slaves’ and of an ‘equality of suffering’ between enslaved Africans and white Europeans has gone mainstream, appearing everywhere to legitimate racism and to undermine black rights struggles.
In January 2015 I published an article on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery addressing the use of an ‘Irish slaves’ mythos and online memes to attack the Black Lives Matter movement and to mock calls for reparatory justice for American and Caribbean slavery. What is the ‘Irish slaves’ mythos? In short, the false equivalence of indentured or involuntary servitude with: (a) the transatlantic slave trade; (b) racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery; and (c) its legacies that continue to affect millions of people today. My motivation was the pressing need to publicly counter the campaign that decontextualises and equates these different but related histories in the service of white supremacist projects.
I hoped that the trend would fade as quickly as it had come to prominence. Instead, the memes went viral. For nearly two years now I have tracked the trajectory of the ‘Irish slaves’ mythos online and in that time the memefication of this myth has reached unprecedented levels of visibility and popularity across the social web, primarily in the United States. Google searches for the term ‘Irish slaves’ have exploded since October 2014, with September 2016 as the highest month on record so far.
It is a modern incarnation of an old transatlantic custom to deflect, diminish or excuse the unique reality, history and significance of racialised chattel slavery in the New World. We’ll get to that later, but first let us take stock of the present situation.
The flight of a false meme
The most popular instance of the ‘Irish slaves’ meme, published on the “Irish Americans” Facebook page in March (below), has been shared by over 463,000 Facebook users in the past seven months; 200,000 of these shares were accrued in the last month alone. If Facebook users have an average of around 338 friends then this means this propaganda has potentially appeared on over 150 million different timelines.
Bear in mind that this is just one instance of the meme in circulation. The data I’ve collated suggest that the meme, along with ahistorical blogs, have been shared at least 4 million times on social media over the last three years.
The insidious flow of disinformation helps explain why Trump supporters in North Carolina told a reporter for TIME magazine that “Irish slaves had it worse than African slaves”, and why theJournal.ie, a popular internet news publication in Ireland, felt it necessary to publish a ‘fact check’ article to clarify that ‘Irish slaves’ did not build the White House. The idea has permeated the collective consciousness of the social web to such an extent that few articles on the transatlantic slave trade or racism now slip by without someone introducing ‘white Irish slaves’ into the comments section.
After tracking this trend for two years, I believe that its surging growth was a canary in the mine. It forewarned the normalisation of white nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric and political application of ethno-nationalistic sentiment found in the UK (UKIP/Brexit) and the US (Trump/Breitbart). My geotagging of a random sample of 1,500 Facebook users who shared the meme confirms that the overwhelming majority are white and live in countries with a mostly unreconciled history of racialised slavery, racial terrorism and racial segregation (i.e. the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa).
This conspiracy theory about slavery has shifted from the margins to the mainstream, and now white people from across all classes and professions can be found lashing out by centring themselves as the descendants of ‘forgotten white slaves’ to silence the demands of minorities for racial justice.
If we were all slaves once, none were
‘But the Irish were slaves too’. ‘Blacks weren’t the only slaves’. ‘All races were enslaved at one time’. ‘Irish had it worse and they don’t complain, so why do you?’ These are the sentiments that accompany so many of these posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Within them we find a deeply disturbing blend of historical relativism, nationalist narratives of victimhood, and contemporary racism.
The ‘Irish slaves’ memes have found such a foothold in the current political climate because, in the blink of an eye, they give individuals an excuse not to engage with uncomfortable history as well as offer strident justification for pre-existing racial prejudices. Those enthusiastically posting such memes on social media use them to ‘prove’ that black protests against police brutality are not only without basis, but that the unrest confirms protesters’ racial inferiority.
By equating their propaganda with evidence-based history, they take their racism and project it as evidence of an unfounded black pathology of unique victimhood. I’ve previously labelled this a derailment tactic, but by focussing on the micro level I missed the bigger picture. This is but one part of a larger white supremacist strategy to dilute the unique history and legacy of racial slavery in America and the Caribbean.
A rising tide
The system of racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery that was developed in the New World by Europeans has no equivalent in history. As Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles has succinctly explained, it “was a moral and legal break from any African or European tradition of labour. It constituted, furthermore, the most dehumanising, violent, socially regressive form of human exploitation known to humankind”.
But the general ignorance of historical slavery in white western society is allowing far-right talking points on racism and slavery to gain currency. In the UK, the far right British National Party (BNP) and the National Front have pushed the ‘white slaves’ equivalence for years, and now that the Brexit referendum has brought UKIP and the Tory party much deeper into the nationalist camp these views have come closer to power.
In March two ex-candidates of the UKIP party picketed the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and accused it of being an “indoctrination camp” that pushed “anti-English racism” by confronting Liverpool’s considerable role in the slave trade (around 1.5 million enslaved Africans were transported to America in ships departing from Liverpool).
The idea that acknowledging Britain’s involvement in slavery leads to “anti-English racism” is one strongly promoted on the Britain First website, a far-right political party formed by ex-members of the BNP. They argue that there was nothing special about the transatlantic slave trade and that many Europeans were far worse off than African slaves.
“Between one half and two thirds of all the white colonists who came to the New World came as slaves”, Britain First reports, and “in terms of diet, health and shelter, black slaves in America were often better off than white ‘workers’ in the north of America and actually far better off than workers in much of industrialised Europe”. They conclude by stating:
“It is only white children who are systematically stripped of their dignity and self-worth and made to loathe their history and their people. Only white children are publicly humiliated in such a way … The British people today bear no responsibility, either collectively or individually, for slavery. We should feel no guilt and we have nothing to apologise for. The only people who are owed an apology is the generation of white schoolchildren who have been deliberately taught to hate themselves and their people by sick and twisted individuals in pursuit of an equally sick and twisted ideology.”
The aim of such propaganda is not merely to avoid accountability, but to erase the unique racial aspect of transatlantic slavery and its legacies by reducing the slave trade to another example in history of coerced labour. This emphasis on white victimhood and imposed national guilt is why the meme is also promoted by far-right Islamophobic groups in Europe, such as Knights Templar International, and why the ethno-nationalist Front National in France resisted efforts to legally recognise the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity.
Meanwhile in the United States this particular piece of white supremacist propaganda has featured on many white nationalist, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic platforms. In June 2010 around 50 members of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement protested at the Mexican consulate in Las Vegas. After being confronted by “black patrons”, the protesters asserted they were allies, stressing a “Jewish involvement of the slave trade as well as the Irish slave situation in suppressed American history”. Neo-Confederates used similar arguments to “defend” the state-sponsored display of the pro-slavery Confederate flag in the wake of Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack in Charleston.
Those sharing ‘Irish slaves’ memes use them as proof that black protests against police brutality are not only without basis, but that the unrest confirms protesters’ racial inferiority.
Among those who push this propaganda is the libertarian conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars. They support the Trump campaign and have previously hosted him on their show. As Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. regularly retweet InfoWars articles, it’s important to note that InfoWars have pushed the ‘Irish slaves’ historical negationism since 2012 and have used it to mock calls for reparations for both slavery and the Wilmington massacre of 1898. InfoWars bolster their argument by claiming that the victims of the 1781 Zong Massacre (which they don’t mention by name) were “Irish slaves” and not Africans. The InfoWars author of this distortion was retweeted by Trump Sr. and Jr. twice in the last seven days.
Pitting ‘Irish slaves’ against Black Lives Matter
Closest to presidential power is the alt-right Breitbart. Its executive chairperson Stephen Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager late in the campaign and the Trumps share Breitbart articles on a regular basis. Breitbart recently used the reductionist fallacy of “there are more slaves today than ever” – an argument which draws on the rhetoric of ‘modern-day slavery’ rather than that of ‘Irish slaves’, but which is similarly deployed to dodge historical responsibility. It is used to directly undermine Black Lives Matter and the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s report to the UN Council on Human Rights, which recommended that the US begin reparatory justice for the current and historical treatment of African Americans.
These distortions have the effect of removing history itself as a determinant, paving the way for bogus claims that structural and historic racism plays no role in terms of socioeconomics, mass incarceration and police brutality in the United States. This made the news in 2013 when a Tea Party leader in New Mexico tweeted a meme which stated “Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the US” and asked, “when is the last time you heard an Irishman bitching and moaning about how the world owes them a living?. This view is popular among Trump supporters and I’ve lost track of how many of their Facebook pages use ‘Irish slaves’ memes to delegitimise the African American experience while simultaneously promoting this up-by-the-bootstraps myth.
This also bubbled to the surface of the Trump movement in September when a campaign chair in Ohio stated on camera that “if you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault.” Within days a Republican congressman, Robert Pittenger, articulated the same ideology on the BBC, i.e. work ethic alone leads to success in the US and that racism is not a factor. Pittenger then projected a black pathology by asserting that African Americans “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”
Just days before this, a Texan Republican party delegate and employee of Donald Trump Inc. shared an ahistorical ‘Irish slaves’ blog post on Facebook and added “next time someone wants to bring up slavery...bring up the race that received the worst treatment and was priced the cheapest.” The insinuation is that the Irish experienced the same enslavement and discrimination as Africans in the US but overcame it due to racial superiority. Back in March 2016, Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle articulated this prejudice on air when she stated that “...the Irish got over it. They don't run around going "Irish Lives Matter."'
Enough of this "Because I'm black" bullshit. You attack someone with a gun. You get shot. The Irish were slaves... http://t.co/BbZeFgVY78— T.J. Kennedy (@TaylorKennedy) November 26, 2014
This mainstream rhetoric isn’t so different from that of the far-right. Last year the white nationalist American Freedom Party, which paid for robocalls in support of Donald Trump’s bid for presidency, hosted the editor of The Barnes Review (an anti-semitic, white supremacist, Nazi sympathising and Holocaust denying journal) on its radio station to discuss the Ferguson protests and Black Lives Matter. They condemned the media for “giving a forum to disgruntled blacks who are having a hard time admitting that one’s life is what one makes of it.” In their own words they discuss “several historical events that deny this narrative” claiming that “the Irish were the first slaves brought to the New World – not the Africans. But somehow, the Irish overcame this and thrived in America.”
Heirs to a tradition
The mainstream adoption of this racist propaganda, and its ongoing use as a rhetorical weapon to silence black people, is arguably the most significant case of historical negationism of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies on record. However the tendency is not new. While the vitriol apparent in its present manifestation is striking, it is but the latest incarnation of a paradigm that spans centuries.
Regardless of Europeans were free labourers, indentured servants, convicts, apprentices, political prisoners, free migrants, impressed sailors or soldiers, child labourers or the destitute, a white commentator has at one point or another over the past 200 years claimed that they had it ‘worse’ than enslaved Africans and their descendants in the New World.
This is even present in writings of successful slave traders, who knew exactly what horrors they were inflicting upon their cargo. Hugh Crow, born in 1765 and captain of at least seven slave trading voyages out of Liverpool over nine years, believed for instance that chattel slavery benefitted to its African victims. In defence of the trade he wrote that “were slavery to be my lot, I would rather be a black slave in the West Indies, than a white one at home; for there is no comparison between the comforts of one and those of the other” (Memoirs of Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool, p. 176).
Using Irish and other ‘white suffering’ to deflect criticism of American slavery even made it as far as the White House.
Comparisons between white Europeans and chattel slaves were also used as rhetorical props, either to forward unrelated political projects or to defend the slave system itself. Theobald Wolfe Tone, an Irish republican revolutionary leader, favourably compared the lot of Africans to that of “Irish slaves” in his 1792 address to the Grand Jury of the City and County of Londonderry. Pointing out what he believed was a double standard in the British response to the political demands of Irish Catholics and those of slave trade abolitionists, he said “the friends of Africans meet the applause of all mankind; the friends of the more miserable Irish slaves have drawn down upon themselves the heavy censure and anathema of the Grand Jury…”
Proponents of slavery also used the trope of Irish suffering to defend their position. Over forty years later, William Drayton published a pro-slavery tract in 1836 entitled ‘The South Vindicated from the Treason and Fanaticism of the Northern Abolitionists’. This was two years after the British government abolished chattel slavery in their colonies in the Caribbean and was a response to British and Irish abolitionists who had now turned their attention to the slaveholders in the United States. Drayton claimed that American slaves were "better supplied than the free labourers of most parts of Europe" and that in terms of food, clothing and fuel "the advantage is greatly on the side of the American negro." Admonishing British philanthropy, he asked "why does it not turn to the oppressed and starving people of Ireland whose condition is so much worse than our slaves"; portrayed slavery a beneficial programme which understood that “without force [the black man] will revert to his savage primitive character”; and even argued that the enslaved "are the happiest portion of our society...the negro is happier here than on the shores of his own degraded, savage, and most unhappy country."
Using Irish and other ‘white suffering’ to deflect criticism of American slavery even made it as far as the White House when, in 1853, the then first lady Julia Gardiner Tyler responded to the anti-slavery Stafford House Address by saying "the negro of the South lives sumptuously in comparison with the 100,000 of the white population of London” and by asking listeners to “spare from the well-fed negroes of these states one drop of your superabounding sympathy" for post-famine Ireland. The New York Observer later published Tyler’s address, however when doing so they literally removed every reference to "negro slavery" and replaced it with "white slavery."
Undoing the damage
The ‘Irish slaves’ meme and its variants are embedded within a long tradition of racist counterattacks to black liberation movements. Settler colonialism used all social and political power structures to deny racial justice, including violence, science, philosophy, politics, religion, economics, history, law and propaganda. The widespread historical dilution of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies via the vehicle of ahistorical ‘Irish slaves’ memes and articles merely continues this ugly history. As long as stories of ‘white suffering’ are used to create wilful blindness to the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade they will do damage.
A common myth exists that the perpetrators of hate crimes usually belong to extreme groups. In truth members of these groups only make up a small percentage of all identifiable hate crime offenders. If a considerable proportion of the white population in the US and Europe subscribe to this ahistorical reductionist narrative then increased racial tension, racial discord and societal polarisation is inevitable. This outcome is the strategic aim of fascists and white nationalists, and their projects are – intentionally or unintentionally – abetted by the hundreds of thousands of knee-jerk social media sharers who pass on these memes.
Historians and educators face a considerable challenge as students and the wider public introduce the meme during classes, lectures, demonstrations and even at sites of American slavery. We must be careful in how we respond. The term slavery is at the root of the issue. It is a general term with many definitions and interpretations ascribed to it, yet claims to a ‘neutral’ rendering – as some of these memes argue ‘slavery is slavery’ – are indefensible against the inescapable backdrops of history, slavery’s legacy, and racism. We must use different terms to describe different contexts, as none of these terms – slavery, servitude, impressed, forced, etc. – will ever be situation-neutral.
When a mid-seventeenth century Irish poet, Éamon an Dúna, wrote of his comrades being shipped as slaves to the English plantations in America he did not mean that it was the same as racialised perpetual hereditary chattel slavery. That falsehood is of a more recent vintage. He was denouncing an illegitimate use of power, deportations, forced labour. So while it’s easy to spot those that draw a false equivalence in support of their racism, more difficult is the relative comparison which often, due to a lack of knowledge rather than ill-intent, becomes an absolute equivalence. No less important is the relative diminishing of the exploitation of servants that can occur when correcting disinformation. In other words, as much as we must fight against the ascription of chattel slavery to the Irish in America, we must also confront and illuminate servants’ suffering without trivialising it with quips of ‘not as bad as…’ The historical evidence demands that this too must be resisted.
Still confused about the reality of 'Irish slaves'?
Check out Liam Hogan's original article: ‘Irish slaves’: the convenient myth
The conflation of indentured servitude with chattel slavery in the ‘Irish slaves’ narrative whitewashes history in the service of Irish nationalist and white supremacist causes. Its resurgence in the wake of Ferguson reflects many Americans’ denial of the entrenched racism still prevalent in their society.