To Hell or Barbados

Irish banishment painting.

By Emmett O'Connell, Contributor
April / May 2001

The ethnic cleansing of Ireland: Emmett O’Connell reviews Sean O’Callaghan’s book on the Irish whom Cromwell sent into slavery.


“These Irish, anciently called Anthropophagi (maneaters), have a tradition among them, that when the devil showed our Savior all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory he would not show him Ireland, but reserved it for himself…They are the very offal of men, dregs of mankind, reproach of Christendom, the bots that crawl on the beast’s tail…”

This extract, from a Puritan pamphlet published in the mid-1600s, expressed the contempt the English had for their Irish neighbors. It was hatred that made a hell for the Irish not only in Ireland, but in Barbados where 50,000 to 100,000 Irish were sold as slaves to English “gentlemen” for brute labor, breeding farms, whores and playthings for pervert planters.

The gruesome story of the fates that befell these men, women and children at the hands of a degenerate slave-owning class of English plantation owners is wonderfully recounted by Sean O’Callaghan in To Hell of Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland, a gem of a book which should be required reading in every school in Ireland.

O’Callaghan’s military background as an officer in the Irish Army, his later career as a journalist in Africa and his best-selling book, The Slave Trade (which has sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated into 13 languages) gave him the perfect background to write his latest and, unfortunately, last book; he died in August 2000, as the book was going to press.

To Hell or Barbados is set in the time of the Cromwellian holocaust, when the butcher of Drogheda and Wexford set about his final solution to Romanism in Ireland with an elaborate and ruthless determination to rid Ireland of the Irish.

First to go were the 34,000 to 40,000 Irish troops or “swordsmen” as the English called them, who had been captures and surrendered in the Cromwellian campaigns of the preceding three years.

Oliver Cromwell.

These prisoners were held in jails and camps throughout the country. Regarded as both a lingering threat and a burden by the English authorities, it was decided to let them go to any country of their choice except those at war with England: France, Spain, Austria and Poland.

There was no shortage of offers for their services on the Continent, and soon all had shipped out to various destinations. The sting, however, was that they had to go alone, thereby abandoning their wives and children to their fate in Ireland. Many, no doubt, left with the intention of returning at the first opportunity but few ever made it.

Next to go were the Irish nobility, gentry and leading proprietors, many of whom had taken no part in the Cromwellian war. Their lands were confiscated and given to the English planters who had financed and officered Cromwell’s army.

By the end of 1654, three-quarters of the Irish population had been uprooted and forced into the remaining fourth, and least-fertile part of the country, the province of Connacht, “Plant Ireland with Puritans. Root out the Papists and then secure it,” was King James I’s advice. It was a policy Cromwell adopted for his own.

On August 24, 1652, there was put into motion what O’Callaghan calls “the most thorough and ruthless transfer of the Irish people to overseas colonies ever undertaken by any English leader.”

“Man-catchers” were set upon the native Irish. Mounted and armed with long whips, they herded them into holding-pens set up outside towns and cities. They were branded with the initials of the ship that would take them to Barbados or Virginia, and attached together with ropes around their necks, forced to make the long march to the seaports in the south of Ireland. Their meagre food was barely enough to sustain life, and those who fell by the wayside, weak from hunger or disease, were left where they fell.

There was a special demand for young women, “marriageable and not past breeding,” who were eagerly sought after by the sugar planters who, to quote Henry Cromwell, “had only Negresses and maroon women to solace them.”

The trade in young women and children flourished and the man-catchers were paid £4 or £4.10 shillings for every young woman or child.

The historian Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet, in his book Ireland under English Rule, stated that 100,000 children, both orphans and those taken from their parents, were sold into slavery and sent to the West Indies, Virginia and New England “that they might thus lose their faith and all knowledge of their nationality, for in most instances even their names were changed.”

A reference in the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, London, notes that Sir John Clotsworthy was given a license by the English Board of Trade to ship 1,000 Irish children to Virginia alone. Only the absence of any English laborers saved the bare minimum of Irish to work the land as the “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Those sold into slavery were simply listed as “merchandise” and “ship cargo.” A 20 percent loss during shipment was considered acceptable, the dead were fed to the sharks.

Irish slaves were sold in Barbados for between £10 and £35 each. Allowing for the death rate, the profit for a 250 ton tightly packed ship would be almost £5,000. A handsome return for the God-fearing Puritan slave-traders.

In Barbados, Cromwell’s design was complete, the Irish were crushed beyond repair. Not one Irish slave ever returned. The first generation of Irish women, it was recorded, had to be beaten into submission. They were trained for service in breeding farms and bordellos as “white wenches” and were much in demand. Of the treatment of slaves on the plantations, William Dickson wrote: “The great body of slaves, the field people, are generally treated more like beasts of burden than like human creatures, since they cultivate the land with no assistance from cattle, and suffer every hardship which can be supposed to attend to oppressive toil, course and scanty fare, bad lodgings, want of covering in the wet season, and a degree of severity which frequently borders on, and too often amount to, inhumanity.”

One last remnant of the Irish and Scottish slaves shipped to Barbados 350 years ago remains today in the area of the island known as “Scotland.” There, some 300 to 400 “Scottish Johnnies” or “Red Legs” as they are known, eke out a subsistence living working small plots of land or by fishing. Dr. Eric Williams, former prime minister of Tobago and Trinidad, described them thus: “In the West Indies today, the poor whites survive in the Red Legs of Barbados, pallid, weak and depraved from inbreeding, strong rum, insufficient food and abstinence for manual labor.”

There is no “Top 100 Irish” in Barbados today. The bones of the 50,000 plus lie in the unhallowed ground of sugar cane fields and ditches. If they had one stroke of luck, it was that 300 years later Sean O’Callaghan was there to write their story. ♦

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