The Irish Precedent:

The Perfecting of the System and Enslaving the Alien

by Charshee C. L. McIntyre

Despite the fact that English legislation granted certain rights, privileges,and opportunities to all men and placed some severe restrictions on theinstitution of slavery and/or aspects of the slave trade, they evolved newlegislation and reinterpretation of old laws and practices over the newlegislation and reinterpretation of old laws and practices over the years toperfect subjugation practices on the Irish in Ireland in centuries precedingtheir invasion of America. Later as colonists, the English transplanted thoseways and imposed them on the indigenous Americans and imported Africans. And,finally they developed the racial pattern of modern slavery which involved aprocess of African Americans' regression to the singularly enslaved caste.

The early colonists retained parts of English law and revised other parts.They continued many English patterns and adapted them to the new world. Theyintroduced plantation economics. Sugar production proved untenable in thenorthern eliminate, so in the earliest years, they chose tobacco, rice, cotton,and corn. When they settled in the 17th century, they began a great shippingindustry and rum trade alongside their slave markets. They imported Scottishand Irish prisoners to provide the needed labor (Verlinden 17-25).

The usage of Irish by the English predated the development of these colonies.In fact, the English relied of the experiences of colonizing Ireland andadjusted their Tudor approach to the conditions in America (Liggio 112). Ofthe Virginia Company at Jamestown, more than forty members had an interest inIrish conquest and the colonization by Englishmen of Ireland. In fact, many ofthe "incorporators and `adventurers' of the original Virginia conpany had anactive interest in Irish plantations" such as Lord de la Warr, once a militaryofficer who became Governor of Virginia; or Lord George Carew, first LordJustice for Ireland, who became a council member of the Virginia Company; orArthur Chichester, first captain, then Lord Deputy and Earl of Belfast, whobecame very "active in the Virginia Project" (Jones [1944] 60-61; [1945]548-551).

In conquering the Irish, the English claimed that they brought a slavery thatwas preferable to the freedom the Irish had previously held under barbarouscustoms. Later, the English used the same justifications to commit genocide onthe Native Americans, to destroy their culture, and to enslave Africanseverywhere. As pastoral people, the Irish presented a culture unadaptable toEnglish feudalism. Cattle represented the Irish's principal economic activity.They also fished and raised oats and barley grains for their food and theiranimals' feed and for distilled spirits to produce whiskey. The English haddeveloped their land-use system to wheat and vine growing, to beer and winedrinking.

The English system, "anchored in primogeniture [first son inherits all]"required orderly villages with gentry holding lands. They allowed holdingswhich yielded rents and imposed crown dues for government expenses. Theflexible pastoral society of the Irish upset this English land system. TheIrish lived in individual homes and large family farms; others moved seasonallywith their herds. Neither pattern supported the town and village pattern ofthe English. Since they could not control the people or impose feudalloadlordism on them, the English considered the Irish to be "primitive andsavage."

The diets of the two people also differed significantly and caused friction.The English found the Irish mainstays of dairy products and meat disquietingcompared to the British bread-eating fare. The Irish diet permitted mobilityand aided them in resisting domination by the English. Edmund Spenser, the16th century poet and secretary to the Deputy of Ireland, complained that "thiskeeping of cows is of itself a very idle life and fit nursery for a thief." Hethought this way because the pastoral Irish would not perform intensiveagricultural labor. They considered it totally contrary to their traditions,customs and experiences. The English characterized this refusal as examples oflaziness, criminality and sin. They called the Irish idlers, a people whonaturally abhor manual arts and vital trades. When the English seized thecattle for taxes, the Irish would refuse to pay and frequently would liberatethe cattle. The Irish considered cattle raiding a kind of sport, and theEnglish viewed it as stealing, a crime fit for capital punishment.


To the English, Irish customs of marriage and mating proved as irksome asthe importance of cattle. The Irish practiced several forms of union whicheither party could dissolve under none too rigid conditions. The English oftencharged the Irish with incest for marrying along lines prohibited by Englishtribal law. The English took exception to polygamy, concubinage, andprobationary marriage which an Irish man or woman for the price of a few cowsor less could dissolve. This practice under feudal law interfered with legalheirs and totally disrupted primogeniture (Liggio 23-25; Quinn [1966] 8).

The rigidity of the English outlook perceived any variations of lifestyle ashostile and threatening. The Irish lifestyle offered much pleasanter rewardsto the masses than Anglo-Norman feudalism. Consequently, English settlers sentto Ireland often became absorbed in Irish ways; and the English enacted legalrestrictions banning Irish dress, language, trade, or marriage with Irish, orkeeping Irish lawsayers of poets. The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366cover all these restrictions and more (Lyden 289).

The English confiscated Irish land, granting it to English gentry who parceledit out among English colonists as they later did in America and in Africa. TheNovember 6, 1571 letter patent to Sir Thomas Smith, an entrepreneur involved inmany commercial ventures in the Virginia Colony, East India Company, SomersIsland, and Ireland, included rules denying privileges to Irish similar tolater Slave Codes. It read as follows:

Every Irishman shall be forbidden to wear English apparel or weapon upon painof death. That no Irishman, born of Irish race and brought up Irish, shallpurchase land, bear office, be chosen of any jury, or admitted witness on anyreal or personal action, nor be bound apprentice to any science or art. ... AllIrishmen especially native in that country, which commonly be called Churl thatwill plow the ground and bear no kind of weapon nor armor shall be gentlyentertained and for their plowing and labor shall be well regarded with greatprovision (Quinn [1945] 548-551).

These restrictive legislations proved so ineffective against the Irish thatEnglish officials repeatedly reenacted them in an attempt to defend the lastsectors of English culture. The English attempt to destroy the Irish'scultural life by forcing hard work and English landlords on the "wild" rathercarefree Irish patterns failed to make significant inroads. Therefore, theEnglish changed from establishing settlements in key local areas to a massiveattack on the entire Irish nation. "At its most extreme, it called for theclearing of the Irish out of Ireland and their replacement by Englishmen"(Quinn [1958] 23-25).

The English considered all Irish who resisted their civilizing efforts as"rude, beastly and ignorant." As early as 1552, Thomas More, the humanist andstatesman, had defined the Irish as "wild...beast" who had no knowledge of Godor etiquette. Later, Sir Henry Didney, the English Lord Deputy of Ireland,described the Irish as prone to Criminality. He wrote:

There never was peoples that lived in more misery than they do nor as itshould be seen of worse minds, for matrimony among them is no more regardedthan conjunction between reasonable beasts. Perjury, jobbery and murdercounted allowable. I cannot find that they make any conscience of sin and Idoubt whether they christen their children or no; for neither find I placeswhere it should be done, nor any person able to instruct them in the rule of aChristian (Jones 449-452).

Irish who willingly adapted to English ways moved into the dominant pattern,but those who refused to adapt received many types of punishment. The Englishsimply destroyed many. They imprisoned and/or deported others. Forced to livealien existences, those departed to the colonies (if they survived) eventuallyadapted to the colonial lifestyle. Pitted against the Native American andAfrican, the Irish import became a portion of all the European immigrants; andas the new American culture developed, their assimilation took hold (Liggio28,30).

Transplanting the System from the Irish to the Native American: TheEnglish leaned heavily on this Irish experience in their treatment of theNative Americans. Basically, because the English could not accept eitherpeoples' laws, customs, or mores, they labeled both the Irish and the NativeAmericans savages. Experience led them to approach Virginia and New Englandwith natural presuppositions generated by Tudor conquests in Ireland.Accustomed to their perception of "wildness" in the first instance, the Englishexpected and looked for it in the second. A pattern of perceiving NorthAmerican indigenous groups' practices as similar to those of the Irishevolved.

Writers described North Carolina Algonkians by saying they killed fish "withpoles made sharp at one end, by shooting into the fish after the manner asIrishmen cast darts" (Quinn[1966] 8). The author of Mourt's Relationbelieved that the leggings of the New England Native Americans resembled Irishtrousers; and in New England Canaan, Thomas Merton wrote that the"natives of New England are accustomed to build...houses much like the WildIrish" (Jones [1945] 453-454).

The Native American coming into contact with the English settlers represents aparticularly distressing story beginning with Jamestown, Virginia. This firstcolony was settled amidst Powhatan's powerful nation. The Algonkians numbered8,000 to 9,000 strong. In addition, within about 60 miles of the settlement,some 5,000 others resided, including 1,500 warriors. Nine years after settlingand two years preceding Powhatan's death, the colony's White populationincluded no more that 350 men, women and children. Unimpressed by the slowrate of growth, the great Algonkian chief, Powhatan, saw the settlement asinconsequential. The English, however, viewed the mighty Powhatan and hispeople as a formidable challenge, similar to what they had previously met withthe Irish.

With Native American accommodation uppermost in their minds, the Englishconcerned themselves with plans for the conversion of these indigenous peopleto English way. Quite naturally, Powhatan and his group's belief in Algonkianvalues and lifestyles conflicted with the settlers' acculturation program. Warensued. Ralph Lane, a colonist in Raleigh's first settlement, recorded theopen contempt the local "indians" had for Christianity. "The Indiansbegan...flatly to say, that our Lord God was not God, since he suffered vs (us)to sustain much hunger and also to be killed of the Repanoaks." A genericterm, "Repanoaks," was what the Native Americans called all of the differentindigenous people's nations in that area.

Some of the colonists' action clearly demonstrated the English attitude towardNative American culture, especially the widespread practice of imprisoning the"Indian priest." The missionaries converted very small numbers to Christianitydespite the strenuous efforts toward that end. One conversion practiceinvolved putting the children up in English homes and forcing Christianinstruction upon them. Powhatan and his people recognized this indoctrinationof the children as cultural genocide for coming generations of their nation.

After Powhatan's death, the English attempted the creation of an integratedcommunity. The cultures clashed. To Europeans, Native Americans wore skinsfor clothing, lived in strange looking houses, lacked ships or guns, armedthemselves with hatchets, and prepared themselves for war by painting theirbodies (Claven 41-54). Native Americans "Had nothing which reckoned fiches,before the English went among them, except Peak, Roenoke, and such like triflesmade out of Cunk Shells..." (Morgan 51).

Colonial writers depicted Native Americans as people who tended to escape,resist work discipline, display evidence of extreme "idleness, rebelliousnessor simply die." These writers' conjured this perception because what theWestern world deemed work--crop tending, child-rearing, house building, and soforth--native American women did. The men hunted, fished, and made war or satin councils making decisions. Houses represented shelter not status; thechief's being just like the others. Native American culture rejectedconspicuous consumption or storing treasures. They valued leisure time and aminimum of worldly goods (Jennings 63).

European couldn't understand the gynocratic nature of the Native Americancultures which revered and respected women. Yes, the women did much more thantheir European counterparts because unlike the latter, Native American womenowned the crops, the houses, and controlled the children. Instead ofimprisoning, caning, strapping, starving or verbally abusing children, NativeAmericans didn't practice parental brutality.

[Native Americans] refrained from physical of psychological abuse of children.They did not believe that children are born in sin, are congenitallypredisposed to evil or that a good parent who wished the child to gainsalvation, achieve success, or earn the respect of her or his fellows can behelped to those ends by physical or emotional torture (Allen 15).

The men inherited whatever power they could from their mothers' lineage. Thecouncils' decisions might be made by the men but had to be brought to thematrons to be approved. If not approved, the men had to go back and returnwith better decisions.

Native Americans bathed frequently and couldn't understand the Europeans'repulsion to washing, nor the sexual rigidity, the repressed humor, theoverabundance of clothing, the denigration of self in front of authorityfigures, the greediness, stinginess and unwillingness to share, and the lack ofrespect for women as equals and in some instances of greater value than men.Above all, the colonists' inability to understand that different peoplepracticed various lifestyles befuddled the Native Americans who acceptedcultural diversity as a reality of life )Allen 13-26).

Notoriously proud, the Native Americans rejected the integrated communityideas; and being better woodsmen than the English, the Native Americans simplyran away and were nearly impossible to track down. The English, therefore,pretended to be seeking peaceful relations and convinced the Native Americansto settle and plant their corn wherever they chose. Just before harvest time,the English would attack, kill as many as possible, and burn the corn. WhenNative Americans retaliated, the colonists called the actions massacres (Craven73, Jennings 164). Some 4,270 settlers from England came to the Virginiacolony. About 2,000 died in three years. Reports blamed the "massacres" forthe deaths (Morgan 99-101).

Eventually, the 17th century laws of most colonies doomed most NativeAmericans to perpetual slavery of lengthy indentured servitude. The GeneralCourt of Hartford, Connecticut in 1650, recognized the lawfulness of "Indianslavery ." Rhode Island enslaved them "for debt, captivity, for rearing, forprotecting or to perform covenant." In 1676, Massachusetts' regulationsstated:

This courte sees cause to prohibit all and every person or persons within ourjurisdiction or elsewhere to buy any of the Indian children or any of those ourcaptive salvages (sic) that were taken and became our lawful prisoners with theIndians, without special leave and liking and approbation of the government ofthis jurisdiction (Hurd 256).

Pennsylvania held similarly that "indian slaves of servants shall be forfeitedto government" set free of disposed of according to governor or council's willif an owner imported the Native American into the colony, as long as the Indianwas not a deserter.

During the 18th century, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania,Connecticut, and Massachusetts considered "Indian and other slaves...badcharacters" because their procreation and existence tended to discourageEuropean servants from coming into the colonies. These colonies enactedlegislation prohibiting Native American importation without the individualsengaged in the process putting up security for the importees (Hurdpassim). The 1705 free trade acts sentenced most Native Americans toindentured servitude in lieu of slavery, but this ruling was not handed downuntil 1793, long after many of them had been destroyed in slavery (Caterall II:100).

Some Native Americans adapted to the English-Europeans lifestyle, and fortheir reward, lost any cultural identity with their ancestral heritage. Mostof the indigenous groups, however, suffered genocide, others, internal andexternal migrations, patterns of perpetual bondage, and eventually thereservations which exist today.

Importing Poor Whites from Europe--Adjusting the System: Afterdisposing of many of the Native Americans through wars, harsh labor, and newdiseases, which in turn left insufficient numbers to fill the slave labor pool,the Europeans turned to their homelands; and "poor" Whites served as thenatural successors. The White servants fell into several categories:indentured servants, redemptioners, convict labor (slaves). The transportationof these poor Whites also followed mercantilist rationale. The poorrepresented for England's double commodity, in the avoidance of people (there)and in making use of them (here)" (E. Williams 211-219).

England always had a class of people on the level of slaves villains in feudaltimes, stolen Africans under Elizabeth and the House of Tudors, or Caucasianchildren in her mines and mills. Some authorities claim 10,000 children werekidnapped from Europe (G. Williams 120; Jordan 48-52). White servitude provedcommon. England met her colonies' extraordinary demand for labor throughcolonization of many convicts, women sold for wives (sometimes kidnapped), theindentured servants, and the redemptioners. "From various publications of theday, there were accounts of many instances in which persons feloniouslykidnapped were sold into the West Indies or the Americas for a term of years,or as slaves for life."

Generally, though, Whites ended up as servants. But acts existed in thecolonies which reduced the immigrants to slavery. White women marrying slavesended up in bondage in Maryland fro 1663 to 1677. Debt satisfaction inConnecticut in the 17th century required servitude (Hurd 219,220,261).Punishment for certain types of sales, particularly by Quakers, ended up inslavery. Europe viewed crime and slavery as interrelated. Convicts wereslaves and vice versa. Therefore, the condemnation of convicts to slaverymerely served as lateral status transference (Sellin 61, 83; Hurd 218, 219).

Isolated instances of Whites in slavery and not just as servants occurredthroughout the colonial period. In 1641, Massachusetts convicted WilliamAndrews, an indentured servant, for assaulting his master. Andrews receivedthe punishment of enslavement. For theft and housebreaking, John Hasslewoodand Giles Player received similar sentences. As late as 1790, Connecticut solda White man into slavery to Barbados for "notorious stealing, breaking up androbbery of mills and living in a renegade manner in the wilderness" (Greene19n; Shurtleff 246; Sternier 23). New Jersey legislation of 1754 stated thefollowing:

any White servant, servants, slave or slaves, which shall be brought beforethe mayor and so forth by their masters of other inhabitants of the borough forany misdemeanor or rude or disorderly behavior may be committed to theworkhouse to hard labor to receive correction not exceeding thirty lashes (Hurd229).

This act clearly indicates White slavery.

But even though White persons might have been reduced to slavery, "the legalcondition of a White bondsman was essentially different from that of chattelslaves in its origin and duration. The Whites slaves' legal condition restedaltogether on the law of national origin and in the case that the personalityof the slave was recognized during its existence, and that it was limited to aspecific time." The differences. notwithstanding, the recognition under lawfor their special protection and seeing them as legal persons rather than aschattel slaves as in the case of African and Native American slaves, the Whiteslaves' and servants' general conditions and disabilities under coloniallegislation appeared to be nearly as oppressive as the African and NativeAmerican bondsmen's (Hurd 229, 285).

African Imports--A Practical Solution--Maintaining the System: At theend of the 17th century, the emphasis on England's national economy shiftedfrom acquiring natural resources (precious metals) to developing industrialareas. The need for a large cheap labor force at home impinged on thecontinual deportation of the poor Whites. The mercantilists argued for theretention of the mass population at home and for the extension of slaveprocurement. Thus, the West African coast offered the practical solution. Inaddition Europeans saw Africans as hardier more productive agriculturalworkers, particularly in the tropical zones, than either the European or NativeAmerican (E. Williams 14-16; R. Williams passim; Davidson 84-86; Rodney80-81).

The African presented a particularly unique problem for the English. InEuropean terms, it could be claimed that the Africans high civilized state morethan adequately prepared them for the exploitation they received from Europe'sChristian invaders. Culturally diversified, Africans originated fromagricultural and pastoral communities. They existed in a both/and reality,allowing a perception of the world in other than European either/orbifurcation. Unlike the Europeans' need to exclude everyone different fromthem, the Africans' pattern involved including all people. This patternprovided Africans with a unique adaptability to change. Accustomed to hardwork, taxes, ruling elite, sophisticated trading, political and socialstratification, Africans had experienced feudalistic rigidity, had come from atradition of organic village communities, had functioned in a atmosphere ofmobility and learning, and proved to be the most suitable workers for thecolonists' needs (Wheathersford 90). The agriculturalists, experienced withhoe cropping, knew how to use hand tools and easily learned necessary jobs forcane culture and other staple crops (Dunn 72-73).

Africans also incorporated their societal norms: bride wealth, polygamy,serial partnerships, unrepressed sexual practices, a reciprocity principlewhich required communal sharing and collective responsibility, as well as apresumption that every individual is entitled by birth to the basic needs ofsurvival--food, clothing and shelter. Social mobility existed even for slaves;and the slavery in African societies must always be defined as non-chattel, asdomestic slavery. African slaves first and foremost remained human beings(Welch 140-141). Unfortunately, the Africans' experience, adaptability, andhumaneness failed to be matched by any European reciprocal acceptance.

The first Africans in Virginian 1618 or 1619 were taken in exchange for food,given to relieve the hunger of famished sailors. These Africans becamepublicly owned servants of the colony because they were bought with publicprovisions. They served the governor who took 11 of the 23. Other officers ofplanters associated with the administration of the colony took the rest. These"first" Africans entered the world which later became the United States asindentured servants. Since the European indentured servants belonged toprivate individuals and companies, this first generation of Africans could becalled civil servants in Virginia entering the system one step up from thelowest level of White servants (E, Williams 119; Craven 78-79). The initialdistinction to be made, however, is not that Whites originally occupied a lowerrung on the social ladder but rather that the first generations of Africans inthe colonies were not slaves.

Between 1619 and 1623, the Virginia population increased to 1275 with 23Blacks. The Africans fared better physically than the Europeans. Not oneAfrican died in the first three years; whereas, from hard work and probablymalaria, the European deathrate reached a level of two out three in the firstyear. By 1624 the first detailed census listed 23 Blacks in Virginia. There11 men, 10 women, and 2 children. They equaled 2% of the population which bythen included 487 White and indentured servants and 608 free White men andwomen. Either 157 Whites died or ran off, perhaps to the nearest Powhatancommunity (Craven 77-78).

We must also recognize that the free Black population began with "pure"Africans and not with the "Mulatto" offspring of African, European or NativeAmerican mixtures. In Virginia and New York, these first generations Blacksjoined an existing labor system unrelated to pigmentation. Lerone Bennett, Jr.describes the times:

Side by side in the fields, planting, weeding, suckering or cuttingtobacco...or in the barn preparing the leaf for market, using axes to cleartrees from forest of opening up new ground, slaves of all three races wordedtogether. They celebrated the same holidays and received more or less the sameprivileges to work their own little plots of land growing vegetables. Theyoccupied the same world. They recognized their mutual oppressors (2; Ballagh4).

The system the settlers formalized incorporated tri-racial servitude, primacyof private property, and semblances of representative democracy. Black, White,and Red, men and women, received similar treatment, sold in the same way bycaptains or agents of captains of ships. The focus in the community on class,religion, and nationality relegated race to an inconsequential position.

The general terms for identifying the different groups fell under thefollowing headings: English, Irish, Indian for Native Americans. Thedesignations appeared to be establishing English and non-English categories,emphasizing nationality rather than race. The fundamental stratificationreflected class orientations between master and servant not color betweenBlack, Red, and White (Handlin 6-10)

Throughout the 17th century, a very close association between indenturedservants and slaves existed. Historian James Hugo Johnston described theattitudes as follows:

in those colonies where the number of Negro slaves were comparatively few whenthe master's only interest in his indentured servant was in the profits of hislabor, many masters must have been little concerned to prevent intermixture ofthe...races (Johnston 6-10).

Other noted historians over the years have tried to explain away theinterracial patterns of the early colonial times by attributing degrading anddemeaning profiles to White women. In the 19th century, Phillip A Bruce, aneconomic historian, echoed Edward Long, the Jamaican longtime resident and 18thcentury social theoretician. Both referred to any women found or known to beinvolved with a Black man as the lowest of sorts. This sexism/racismconnection can be seen when we realize that the consideration of charactertraits of White men cohabiting with Black women, slave or free, rarely surfacedas cause for defamation.

Some writers suggested that the White servants forced to work alongside theBlacks and/or slaves became debased and were considered "disorderly persons."This interpretation overlooks the fact that the degraded loathsome statusoccupied buy White convicts and other lower class members of Europe departed tothe colonies existed prior to the arrival of the Africans (Smith 168).Apparently, colonial authorities considered European criminality and what theycalled African "paganism" equal sins, so they forced the Blacks intoassociation with these degraded Whites. Looking at the situation this wayleads one to the logical conclusion that debased Whites pulled the foreignAfricans down to the lowest level of society, not the other way.

Conclusion--The Process of Regression, Dehumanization. The process forfurthering the debasing of Africans in America over the years evolved throughsocial estrangement, legal differences, and political disagreement andstruggle. Intermarriages of cohabitation between the races became illegal.Perpetual servitude precluded assigning the same punishment for the same crimeto Blacks and Whites. For instance, White servants could have years addedtheir indentures. Blacks' lifelong servitude could not be extended and,instead, received brutal beatings or some other bodily penalty. Slave lawsenacted in Virginia and Maryland by mid-17th century reintroduced manyproscriptions the English had levied on the Irish one century before (Hurdpassim).

Possibly, the Irish and Native American's inability to adapt to themercantilistic trust of the times necessitated changing their way of life.But, African people incorporated fairly fluid arrangements with hard work andindustry, and one could become just as great a capitalist in the African as inthe European community. But, the English could not accept the attendingculture along with the work force, so they stripped the Africans of theirtraditions.

The English always intended to make their colonial world Anglo-Saxon, and anycultural alternatives implied terrifying negations. The presumptions ofcultural superiority, the assumptions of God's chosen people which justifiedtheir civilizing the world and proselytizing in the name of one "true" God andreaping the attendant economic benefits, all would have been negated by theiracknowledging alternative worldviews. So the English/Europeans embarked on aprocess of dehumanizing the African to justify the racialistic chattel slavesystem they developed in the western hemisphere; and the process of regressionbecame part of that dehumanization.

(This excerpt is Chapter II from the book Criminalizing A Race: Free BlacksDuring Slavery)

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Charshee C. L. McIntyre is Professor Emeritus at the StateUniversity of New York at Old Westbury. She is a former president of theAfrican Heritage Studies Association. Her many writings and lecturescover African, Native American, Free Black, Women , African Spirituality, andMusic.

Works Cited

  • Allen, Paula Gunn, "Who Is Your Mother: Red Roots of WhiteFeminism," The Graywolf Annual Five: Multicultural Litercy. eds. RickSimonson and Scott Walker. St. Paul MN: Graywolf Press, 1988.