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 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, approximately 50,000 men and women were rounded up by soldiers, shipped to Bristol, and "sold" (ie: placed into indentured servitude, be they willing or otherwise). Some were Scottish, some were English, but between 8,000 and 12,000 men 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, they were taken across the stormy Atlantic to work on the sugar cane plantations, with circa 8,000 arriving into Barbados and the rest bound for other British colonies like Montserrat.
Over the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries, many more Catholic Irish made their way to Barbados as indentured servants so that by 1667, the Irish constituted over 50% of the Barbadian planters 4000-strong militia.
Indentured servitude in the West Indies was nobody’s idea of fun, but it was not chattel slavery. Stephen Mullen points out some of the differences
“…indentured servants were always regarded as human beings whilst enslaved persons were viewed as sub-human chattel listed in plantation inventories next to cattle with names such as Fido, Caeser and Jumper. They were treated as beasts of burden to be bought and sold and worked to death on sugar plantations. Mutilation as a punishment was permitted, as was murder by hanging, slow burning and starvation in gibbets. Furthermore, indentured servants worked for set period (usually eight years) and, in theory at least, there was an end to their servitude. By contrast, the Uterine law meant the offspring of slaves were born into the status of their mother, thus thirling successive generations for life to plantations and owners and perpetuating the cycle of racial hierarchy .”
The new-comers quickly became known as the ‘red-legs’, a nod to the hot Caribbean sun which burned their fair Irish legs.[ii] However, indentured services 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 1655, 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, and the O'Briens of whom the 2nd Earl of Inchiquin was the first Governor of Jamaica.[iii]
Liam Hogan, The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies
Richard Dunn, in his Sugar & Slaves; The Rise of the Planter Class in the British West Indies (N.C. Univ. Press, 1972).
Stephen Mullen, Scots & Caribbean Slavery - Victims & Profiteers (6 March 2014) , also uses the word “sold” to refer to indentured servitude. At no place does Dunn, or any other scholar, refer to any Europeans being enslaved.
Mathew C Reilly, At the Margins of the Plantation: Alternative Modernities and an Archaeology of the "Poor Whites" of Barbados, Syracuse University, PhD, 8-2014.
[i] Patrick J. Corish and Don Akenson both concluded that the amount deported was between 8,000 and 12,000 at an absolute maximum. This estimation is based on census records on the islands, allowing for a high mortality rate, pre-existing Irish settlers/servants, and concurrent voluntary emigration. With thanks to Liam Horgan.
[ii] 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.’
[iii] 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.
With thanks to Peter Foynes.