By Turtle Bunbury
Some years ago I was watching an interview with Rita Marley about her years with her reggae singing husband Bob. At one point she turned to the camera and said, ‘Sometime Bob say to me he wanna move to London and I say, whaddaya wanna move there for, like?’, talking in an accent straight from the rebel heart of Cork City.
Flabbergasted, I began to research. I soon discovered there are indeed strong Irish roots to the accent. It transpired that the Irish had been arriving in the Caribbean - as slaves - since at least 1636 when a ship with 61 Irish left Kinsale; all were destined to become indentured servants or slaves on the tobacco, cotton and primarily sugar plantations of Barbados.
Quarter of a century later, Cromwell arrived in Ireland and destroyed the rebel Irish Confederacy. Following the massacre of the rebel garrison at Drogheda, he reputedly declared it to be "the righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands with so much innocent blood."
Cromwell’s Puritan Republican regime now had control of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And for those who opposed the regime, transportation to the colonies became a very real prospect. Between 1652 and 1657, an estimated 50,000 men and women were rounded up by soldiers, shipped to Bristol, sold as slaves and branded with the name of the slave ship they would voyage on. The majority of these would appear to have been Irish, arrested in the wake of the conquest of Ireland and initially imprisoned in a series of holding pens in ports along the south coast of Ireland, as well as Belfast. From Bristol, these slaves were taken across the stormy Atlantic to work on the sugar cane plantations of Barbados.
The new-comers quickly became known as the ‘red-legs’, a nod to the hot Caribbean sun which burned their fair Irish legs.[i] However, white slavery went out of vogue during the late 17th century with most plantation bosses reasoning that it made no sense to pay idle Redlegs when industrious African slaves would work for free.
No longer required on the plantations, the directionless Redlegs veered ever closer to destitution, malnourished, uneducated, uninspired, often addicted to alcohol and riddled with hookworm, typhoid, and cholera.
In the mid-19th century, attempts were made to relocate at least some of them to other islands such as St. Vincent (where many descendents now live in the Dorsetshire Hill district), as well as Grenada and Bequia.
Even in the 21st century, the 400 or so surviving Redlegs in Barbados are characterized by poverty, freckles, bad (or missing) teeth, haemophilia and diabetes, as well as addiction to crack and alcohol. Not everyone was cursed. Sir Kyffin Simpson, believed to be the richest man in Barbados is of Redleg stock. The Grammy-award winning R&B icon Rihanna is the granddaughter of a Redleg. Her real name is Robin Fenty, her father is Ronald Fenty and, like Rita Marley, she had a Cork twang to her accent.
As for Jamaican connection, well, in 1855, the island was captured from the Spanish by Admiral Penn and General Venables, ostensibly under orders from Oliver Cromwell’s government in London. It was a consolation prize for their failure to take Santo Domingo in Hispaniola. Jamaica subsequently became a key destination for Irish convicts for the remainder of the 17th and much of the 18th century. Many of the sugar plantations were owned by Irish families such as the Brownes of Westport, whose ranks included the Marquis of Sligo, Governor of Jamaica at the time slavery was abolished.[ii]
[i] As well as being called ‘Redlegs’, they were also know as "Redshanks", "Poor whites", "Poor Backra", "Backra Johnny", "Ecky-Becky", "Poor whites from below the hill", "Edey white mice" or "Beck-e Neck" (Baked-neck).
‘Redlegs’ may also have been a nickname used for Irish soldiers, or mercenaries, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Edmund Spenser used the phrase ‘red-shankes’ to refer to Scottish Picts or Highlanders in his 1596 treatise on ‘A View of the Present State of Ireland.’
[ii] Rob Mullally has described Jamaica’s Irish connections in depth in his article on his website 'The Wild Geese' where, on a quick map walk, he noted Irish Town and Dublin Castle in the cool hills of St. Andrew; Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine; Athenry and Bangor Ridge in Portland; Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary; Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas; Ulster Spring in Trelawny, and Hibernia in Christiana. And that was before he travelled on Leinster Road, Leitrim Road, Longford Road, Killarney Avenue, Sackville Road and Kinsale Avenue all in Kingston and St. Andrew.