Irish roots in the Caribbean

Montserrat: Known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, it the only country outside Ireland where March 17 is a public holiday.

The Irish has been a huge presence and influence in the Caribbean, claims a recent blog at Scientific American.

In Jamaica, the influence can be found in place names such as Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. There is also a surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough.

So how did the Irish wind up in the Caribbean?

Krystal D’Costa of Scientific American writes that after the Battle of Kinsale, the Irish clan system was abolished and around 30,000 prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and United States.

“The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record-keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.”

This would become a common practice after the Proclamation of 1625.

Celebrations in Monserrat during the St. Patrick's Day festival.

Celebrations in Monserrat during the St. Patrick’s Day festival.

“In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.”

The Irish were a more desirable “slave stock” than Africans, who had to be “caught,” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit. Because they were “cheaper” the Irish would often suffer harsher punishments from their plantation masters.

It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers. D’Costa says that “while most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to a single island giving rise to the identifications we know today as Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, and British Caribbean,” the Irish presence in the Caribbean became firmly established and can be found on practically all of the Caribbean islands.

In the United States, it’s St. Patrick’s Day. This Irish national holiday celebrates Saint Patrick who is—potentially—the most recognizable of Irish saints, known for championing Irish Christianity (and using a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity). The observance of St. Patrick’s Day has also been viewed as a one day break from the abstinence of the Lenten season. While it still has religious undertones, for a vast majority of people, it’s a day for merry-making—jovial gatherings and free-flowing alcohol are characteristics of celebrations in the United States. Everyone is supposedly a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but there is more truth to this saying than most recognize. It’s not merely a loophole allowing for the uninhibited consumption of Guinness. The Irish have traveled to all corners of the world, and like other immigrant groups, wherever they have stayed they have left a mark.

With its distinct culture, people, and linguistic markers, the Caribbean might be the last place you would think to look for the Irish. But much in the same way the spirit of the Dutch is alive and well in New York City in street and place names, so too do the Irish have a presence in places such as Montserrat, Jamaica, St. Kitts, and elsewhere throughout the British Caribbean. In Jamaica alone one will find Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. Not to mention the surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough. How did the Irish wind up in the Caribbean, so far from their emerald island? The surnames above may not carry the prestige of a New York Astor or a Schermerhorn, but they tell of a history that is no less important.

Following the Battle of Kinsdale, the Irish clan system was largely abolished and the English seized most of the land of Ulster. The 30,000-something prisoners of war were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States.

The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River In South America in 1612. It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612, because the English, who were noted for their meticulous record keeping, simply did not keep track of things Irish, whether it be goods or people, unless such was being shipped to England.

The Proclamation of 1625 would make this a common practice. Irish political prisoners would be routinely packed up and sold off as laborers:

In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves, which records show was a cause of concern to the English planters.

The Irish were desirable “slave stock” because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit, whereas traders needed to pay to have Africans “caught,” minimizing their profit margins. And because they were cheaper in this sense, the Irish often suffered harsher punishments from their plantation masters. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 80,000 Irish were sold as laborers, contributing to a massive population reduction in Ireland. In 1652, Ireland’s population was 616,000, down from 1,466,000 in 1641. Of course, this change was not solely due to to the slave trade—famine, wars, and disease certainly played a role.

Nonetheless, the Irish presence in the Caribbean had been firmly established. While most European settlers on the islands confined themselves to a single island giving rise to the identifications we know today as Hispanic Caribbean, French Caribbean, and British Caribbean, the Irish looked for opportunities and found homes wherever circumstances took them. They’re found on practically all of the Caribbean islands and in the circum-Caribbean zone.

The Caribbean is unique in this way. Its role in the colonial power struggle has brought together people from many different backgrounds, resulting in a cultural mixing not truly seen elsewhere. In Trinidad, for example, the combination of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and others has created blended cultural artifacts in the forms of food, festivals, music, religion, and clothing. Intermarriage between groups has strengthened these blended artifacts giving them a particular authority in these areas. Trinidadians, being enthusiastic rum connoisseurs have taken to Guinness, that popular Irish brew, and created their own version of the Guinness Float (Guinness and ice cream: Guinness mixed with carnation milk—I can vouch that it’s really quite good.

So in the middle of the parades and happy hours today, if you can spare a moment, think about the ways we are all connected via histories and relationships that may not be so apparent at first glance. And go ahead and enjoy the holiday however you choose to mark it—after all, we are all a little Irish.

And if you’re interested in reading more about the Irish diaspora, there’s a great list of resources that you can check out. I would also recommend—in the name of social science—that is you can claim a connection to Ireland, that you register with the Irish Diaspora project.

Referenced:

  • Chinea, Jorge L (2007). Ireland and the Caribbean. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 5 (3), 143-144. [document]
  • Rodgers, Nini (2007). The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5 (3), 145-156.

Ireland and the Caribbean

By Jorge L. Chinea

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