Saturday, November 2, 2019

Review: the Caribbean Irish by Miki Garcia

48541222Synopsis: The Caribbean Irish explores the little known fact that the Irish were amongst the earliest settlers in the Caribbean. They became colonisers, planters and merchants living in the British West Indies between 1620 and 1800 but the majority of them arrived as indentured servants. This book explores their lives and poses the question, were they really slaves? As African slaves started arriving en masse and taking over servants' tasks, the role of the Irish gradually diminished. But the legacy of the Caribbean Irish still lives on. 

This, for me, was a fascinating read as much of what I have read in the past relating to Irish history has been focused on the country itself. It was no news to me that a great many Irish left their homeland following war and the Famine, whether voluntarily or not - my own family arrived in Australia in less than auspicious circumstances. And it is only lately, in this last decade, that I have begun specifically exploring the full extent of the reach of Irish migration to Spain, South America, and now the Caribbean - places, except for Spain, that I was unfamiliar with. So, in addition to the recently read Paisanos: The Forgotten Irish Who Changed the Face of Latin America by Tim Fanning, I will add this tome by Miki Garcia, as a must read.

Garcia begins the story of the Irish in the Caribbean from the 17th Century, when Ireland like England was under the Cromwellian thrall following the Royalist defeat in the English Civil War. She refers to Ireland as " ... a prisoner of geography .." and for all intents and purposes, this is where it all began - with Irish prisoners, whether of war or circumstance. In an effort to clear out the prisons of the destitute, the political and criminal elements, the workhouses, transportation seemed the solution. Under the Act of Settlement of Ireland 1652, what could only be described as ethnic cleansing began in earnest. Transportation agents were employed to ensure that quotas were met and the means in which they succeeded was often overlooked - children were kidnapped, men were press-ganged, women were lied to, promises were made, people with no visible means of support, including widows and wives of serving soldiers, were swept up and shipped off. Some paid their way while others opted to work off the costs (a bit like today's human trafficking schemes). There are no actual numbers to quantify how many people ended up in the Caribbean - there were no official records kept by the less than scrupulous transportation agents; many people were misidentified (labelled English rather than Irish - or vice versa) - AND, to top it all off, this wasn't just an English thing - the Dutch, the French and the Spanish were all involved in the shipment of Irish to the Caribbean!

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So where does this leave us now - firstly with those that came voluntarily - soldiers, explorers, adventurers, government officials and their families, traders and merchants. All of these folk needed servants - and here is where the bulk of the Irish come into it - as "indentured servants" - refer above as to how they arrived, though many in government considered it "... a measure beneficial to Ireland ..."

For the most part, Garcia enlightens us about the system of the indentured servant. Upon arriving, many Irish were "sold" as servants for a specific period - usually seven years. They were treated not much better than actual slaves but more on this later. Families were often separated, they were still the victims of humiliation and discrimination, the subjects of anti-Irish laws which also restricted their travel; they were the subjects of vigorous scrutiny with the government always fearing some sort of rebellion. After their period of employment was over, these servants were freed and they were usually paid in goods (their lives equivalent to pounds of tobacco, sugar or cotton). There was no guarantee of employment afterwards (only if you were skilled labour), and often they were then farmed out again (as indentured servants) to other colonies.

Garcia talks about the main industries in the Caribbean - tobacco, sugar and cotton, and on which islands they were prevalent. And this is an important component of the Irish history in the Caribbean as the introduction of slaves from Africa changed things for them on a considerable scale.

The production of sugar coincided with an increase in the African slave trade but it was not the starting point as this was already in existence across the Caribbean (though not to the extent as is commonly thought). As a result of this increase, the need for Irish servants decreased; their treatment and punishments worsened as slaves were considered to be a more valuable commodity - retained for the duration of their life rather than for a set period of employment - so no effort was spared to make the lives of the Irish any easier - their standard of living decreased to the point where I guess many might have wondered whether the grass was actually greener.
So, across how many islands in the Caribbean were the Irish spread - Garcia gives us a summary so that we don't have to do the leg-work ourselves - and it turns out to be quite a lot!

But back to the main topic - how the Irish slave myth was made. And it all boils down to terminology. The Irish in the Caribbean were not there as slaves. They arrived under the heading of one of four groups: willing and volunteers; involuntary; child labour; enforced (ie: prisoners). The last three groups were "sold" on arrival, though could not freely specify the length of their contract, whilst the last group were considered servants for life - without indenture. Observance of their treatment could be construed by some as giving rise to the myth of slavery. Garcia explains the terminology for us: an indentured servant was contracted for a period of years and then were given their freedom. A slave was the personal property of another - for life - and by default, so too were their descendants. The slave codes of the late 1600s were set up to differentiate between the two.

As a side note, the slave trade in the Caribbean ended in 1834. Large scale migration ended c.1841, and though the Irish were still encouraged to migrate, numbers were much smaller.

For me, this was a valuable insight into the Irish diaspora as well as the history of the British West Indies. As this was not really my field of expertise, I had no idea that Europeans supplanted the native Amerindian populations; that the Irish were transported in their hundreds of thousands (willingly or not) before the introduction of African slaves; and that once there, there was frequent cross migration between the islands and the Amazon basin.

Garcia's narrative style makes it easy to follow this tangled web, At times it feels as if you are sitting across from her having a conversation. It is easy, after reading this, to understand how the Irish slave myth arose and it is a topic well worth exploring further. Garcia's book will start you on your journey.

so in the words of the Beach Boys' song, Kokomo
Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take ya,
Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego, baby why don't we go, Jamaica .....

further reading:
To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland by Sean O'Callaghan
White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America by Don Jordan, Michael Walsh
If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730 by Donald H. Akenson
Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865 by N. Rodgers
How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev
To Shed a Tear: A Story of Irish Slavery in the British West Indies by Lawrence R. Kelleher

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