Those that promote the meme of Irish perpetual hereditary chattel slavery use a variety of images entirely unrelated to indentured servitude to accompany their anti-history. Liam Hogan examined a selection of them.
1. Sale of a Slave Girl in Rome by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1884)
The most popular image to accompany the spurious “Irish: the Forgotten White Slaves” articles. It is cropped from a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. In this work, Gérôme imagined a scene in a Roman slave market… about two thousand years ago.
2. The “Redlegs” of Barbados (1908)
The “Irish slaves” meme has been embraced by racists and white nationalists. The meme below was shared by a Tea Party Leader in 2013. It accompanied her advice to African Americans to “move on” from slavery.
But this photograph is not from the U.S., nor does it depict “White Irish slaves.”
Historian Matthew C. Reilly has done extensive research on the “poor white” community of Barbados. This photo was taken in Barbados in 1908, none of those pictured have Irish surnames, and these families appear to have both African and European ancestry. Reilly writes about the “Photograph locally known as The ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados. Pictured are fishermen residents of Bath in the parish of St. John taken in 1908. Photo courtesy of Mr. Richard Goddard.” He continues:
“The photograph is widely known amongst island history buffs as well as those interested in family genealogy. On several occasions I encountered individuals who had traced their ancestry to one of the impoverished men pictured in the 1908 portrait of the “Redleg” fishermen. Until my conversation with Fred Watson… however, I had never heard it referred to as a “family photograph”. Represented are members of the Watson, Goddard, King, and Haynes families, surnames popular amongst the “Redleg” population for several generations and still present in St. John today. Fred was able to identify several of his father’s and mother’s brothers that were pictured in the photograph including his mother’s brother Simeon Goddard found on the lower left and his father’s brother Joe Watson found in center of the back row. The revelation that the photograph depicts an extended matrilineal kinship network was made more significant by the realization that phenotypes indicate that this network involved Afro-Barbadian as well as “poor white” genealogies.”
3. Photo of survivors of a Japanese POW camp during World War 2 (c. 1945)
4. Union Army soldier on his release from Andersonville Prison in May (1865)
Probably the most perverse co-option of all. Victims of the horror of the Confederate Andersonville prison appropriated by Neo-Confederates to support their racist meme. N.B. the Ferguson hashtag.
5. Child labourers on a Texan farm (1912)
This is another popular image. It is used here to promote an “Irish Slave Trade” movie idea.
This photo of child labourers was taken in 1912 by the great Lewis Hine. The children were working on H.M. Lane’s farm near Bells, Texas. Their father (and uncle for some of the children) was working the plough nearby. This photo is sometimes used on Stormfront when discussing “white slaves.”
6. The East India Company logo (c. 1600 – 1874)
The ongoing “we were slaves too!” appropriation of the Atlantic Slave Trade has led to this spectacular misfire.
The East India Company logo tattooed as an “Irish slave” branding. I asked this tattooist about the relevance of the tattoo. He referred me to an inactive (and since deleted) Facebook page named “We Were Irish and Slaves”. This Facebook page was the source and inspiration for the tattoo design. The featured branding irons (first and second images) are from the Wilberforce Museum. The third image, the one that the tattoo is based on, is a stamp of the East India Company, not a branding iron. It goes without saying that indentured servants were not branded like slaves on their arrival in the colonies.
7. Former Enslaved Children in New Orleans (c. 1864)
The comfort and ease at which some Irish and Irish-Americans appropriate the history of black chattel slavery is remarkable and disturbing. Guilty of the appropriation below is the “Ireland Long Held in Chains” Facebook page. They shared this photo of former “white” slave children in New Orleans and labelled it “Irish Slavery — Three Slaves”.
This piece of anti-slavery propaganda during the American Civil War was aimed at a Northern white audience. These enslaved children were “the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations.” The fact that many slave owners in Louisiana were of Irish descent only makes this appropriation more reprehensible. In my review of Irish surnames and slave-ownership I found that 159 different Irish surnames were represented among slave owners in Louisiana in 1850. These included Brady, Burke, Carroll, Connolly, Collins, Cullen, Crowley, Darcy, Devane, Hickey, Hogan, Keane, Lynch, Mahoney, McCormack, and Murphy. You can read about the history of these photographs in Mary Niall Mitchell’s article in the New York Times.
8. Group portrait of child labourers in Port Royal, South Carolina (1911)
This “white slavery” meme (which appropriates the Zong Massacre) uses one of Lewis Hine’s photographs. Its caption reads “Group portrait of young girls working as oyster shuckers at the canning company at Port Royal, SC, 1911. From left to right: Josie, six years old, Bertha, six years old, and Sophie, 10 years old.”
Here is the original photograph.
9. The HMS Owen Glendower, an anti-slave trade frigate (1808)
Irish Central decided to use a painting of the HMS Glendower to accompany their article about “forgotten white slaves”.
It states that this ship was used to bring “human cargo to South American[sic] and the Indies.” This article repeats the absurd claim that an “Irish slave trade” ended in 1839. But the HMS Glendower was not a slave ship. In fact it was used from 1821 to 1824 to suppress the slave trade.
10. The Putumayo Atrocities(c. 1913)
11. Timucua men cultivating a field and Timucua women planting corn or beans, Florida (c. 1560)
This image of the Timucua people planting their fields appears on some “Irish slaves” and “white slaves” blogs. The Neo-Confederate Save Your Heritage website frames it as “white slaves” working in South Carolina.
12. An illustration of Elizabeth Brownrigg, a torturer and murderer who was executed in England in 1767.
This “Irish slaves” meme uses an illustration of the infamous Elizabeth Brownrigg taken from The New Newgate Calendar, a sensationalist periodical which was published in England in the 1860s. The text of the meme is ridiculous; the values are apparently an invention, and it almost goes without saying that slaves were generally more expensive than servants because they were slaves. Lifetime ownership vs. 4–7 years indentures and slave-owners also claimed their children as their property. Although rare, in times of shortage (when labour demand/wages were high in Britain and thus migration unattractive) white servants’ contracts could be more expensive than slaves. It was a crime to murder a servant, but whipping was allowed as long as it was “moderate correction.” The claim that “African slaves were treated much better in Colonial America” is racist propaganda.
Here is the original image.
13. ‘Mulatto’ slave being whipped in an anti-slavery novel (1852)
This illustration is appropriated from the 19th century anti-slavery novel The White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive by Richard Hildreth. The protagonist being whipped is a ‘mulatto’ slave. His mother was enslaved and his father the enslaver.
14. Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co. (1910)
This is the newest version of the racist meme. It appeared online during Black History Month 2016 and has been shared 102,000 times so far.
The photo does not depict “Irish slaves”, but breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co., South Pittston, Pennsylvania. The original photograph was taken by Lewis Hine in January 1911. Hine was the principle investigative photographer for National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).
15. A promotional photograph for a performance of Dion Boucicault’s play “The Octoroon” in London (c. 1862)
This satirical image was intended to challenge the audience by reversing racial stereotypes and it was used to promote the play during it’s run at the Adelphi theatre in London. Dion Boucicault is one of Ireland’s most famous playwrights and The Octoroon was his anti-slavery production based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel The Quadroon.
16. Edwardian Servants, Byfield, Northamptonshire (c. 1896 – 1920)
Some of these websites take the term ‘indentured servants’ literally. They turned this image of two maids photographed in a house in Byfield, Northamptonshire, sometime between 1896 and 1920….
…and made it into a catastrophically awful “white slavery” meme.
17. The Damm family, Los Angeles, (1987)
The “Irish slaves” meme is also used to deny the existence of white privilege.
It is often accompanied by an image of the Damm family taken by the photographer Mary Ellen Mark in Los Angeles in 1987.
18. An advert for two runaway Irish servants
“Make a toast to all the Irish Slaves who died making America great.”
“It says indented servants?”
19. An image from a Human Trafficking website and a photograph of President Obama’s visit to Moneygall, Ireland
This meme was created by conservative artist JP Hawkins in 2o13.
The caption reads “Obama visits Ireland, but fails to point out that the Irish were 1st slaves! Why?” The background image is a stock image taken from the Shutter Stock website and is tagged ‘Domestic Violence’.
Liam Hogan is a librarian and historian, researching: Slavery – Memory – Power. Follow him on Twitter: @limerick1914