Is it true?: If we’re talking about slavery as it was practiced on Africans in the United States—that is, hereditary chattel slavery—then the answer is a clear no. As historian and public librarian Liam Hogan writes in a paper titled “The Myth of ‘Irish Slaves’ in the Colonies,” “Persons from Ireland have been held in various forms of human bondage throughout history, but they have never been chattel slaves in the West Indies.” Nor is there any evidence of Irish chattel slavery in the North American colonies. There were a large number of Irish indentured servants, and there were cases in which Irish men and women were sentenced to indentured servitude in the “new world” and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic. But even involuntary laborers had more autonomy than enslaved Africans, and the large majority of Irish indentured servants came here voluntarily.
Which raises a question: Where did the myth of Irish slavery come from? A few places. The term “white slaves” emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, first as a derogatory term for Irish laborers—equating their social position to that of slaves—later as political rhetoric in Ireland itself, and later still as Southern pro-slavery propaganda against an industrialized North. More recently, Hogan notes, several sources have conflated indentured servitude with chattel slavery in order to argue for a particular Irish disadvantage in the Americas, when compared to other white immigrant groups. Hogan cites several writers—Sean O’Callaghan in To Hell or Barbados and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh in White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America—who exaggerate poor treatment of Irish indentured servants and intentionally conflate their status with African slaves. Neither of the authors “bother to inform the reader, in a coherent manner, what the differences are between chattel slavery and indentured servitude or forced labor,” writes Hogan.