It’s always been odd to me, seeing how the history of American slavery makes some of my fellow white people uncomfortable. You can see their discomfort in the various ways folks try to minimize the significance of slavery. Sometimes, it’s enough to put slavery in the past, to grant that it was an horrible crime, but to imagine that crime taking place so far in the remote past and so completely resolved with the official end of slavery in that remote past as to be completely free of any political implications today. It’s a bit like the gambit, folks often play with the history of Indian-white relations – all the horrors of the past can be acknowledged, at least in the abstract, so long as you can contain their significance within the history books (and preferably kept well away from any of the more recent chapters). At other times, folks seem to come up with more elaborate schemes to pare down the topic of slavery until it fits into their personal comfort zones.
When I was in college, this kind of pop-racism generally took the form of an argument that Africans started slavery. They did it too, maybe even first, so the argument would go, and of course there was (and is) an element of truth to these claims, but it’s a truth poorly served by its rhetorical packaging. It would be fair to say that slavery existed in Africa (as it did Europe, and indeed most of the world) prior to the founding of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Just how much those prior-forms of slavery explain the booming industry that would come is another question. All too often I used to hear people pushing this narrative and think they wanted far too much from the point than it would bear. What they wanted was a kind of absolution, a story that diminished the responsibility of Euro-American peoples for the tragedy of the slave trade. At the very least, they wanted to share the blame with some other groups.
And I always wondered why some of these people seemed to feel personally implicated in the matter? What do you get out of this, I would find myself asking? How does it help you if this story goes to the discredit of someone else’s ancestors? The answer, I think, is (predictably enough) racism. For those who see the world through the lens of race, the disgrace of their ancestors is a disgrace to them personally, and a case against the moral character of their own kind is a direct personal attack. I think this is also the key to common refrains about ‘white guilt’ and ‘liberal guilt’. I’ve never seen liberal politics as an expression of personal shame, but I do think some of our critics are incapable of seeing liberal politics in any other terms. Such people cannot right the wrongs of the past or work to overcome inequalities in the present; they must instead demolish their own consciousness of those wrongs and rationalize any inequalities they see in the present. It’s the just world hypothesis at work in a racist mind.
In recent years, the pop-racist response to the history of American slavery seems to have evolved a bit. The latest trend seems to be countering stories about the enslavement of Africans with those about the enslavement of Irish men and women, but I should say the trend isn’t even that focused. Time and again you can see people show up with stories about Irish slavery in response to contemporary concerns about African-Americans. Write a blog post or tweet a quick message about police abuse of African-Americans in the present-day and somebody may well just show up to tell you about the history of Irish slavery. It’s as if the prospect of Irish slavery isn’t just a stock answer to any questions about the enslavement of Africans; some folks find it useful as an answer to questions about literally any injustice experienced by African-Americans today. Once again, there is a grain of truth to the narrative, and once again, those producing it clearly want more from the story than the facts of the matter will furnish them.
What proponents of the Irish slavery narratives are talking about is the practice of sending Irish men and women to the Americas under terms imposing temporary servitude upon them. Most of these were indentured servants who agreed to a term of service in exchange for passage, but at least some were prisoners whose terms of service were imposed upon them as a means of punishment.
Okay, so we know all this.
There was a time when perfectly liberal college professors were happy to spell out the horrible conditions of indentured servitude, along with the abuse of Irish in this and other contexts. I used to work with a professor who made quite a point to ensure students learned just how terribly indentured servants could be treated. None of this was part of a racist agenda, and none of it was leveraged against the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Far from fielding a rationale for minimizing the horrors of that slave trade, this was like the opening chapter of a long sequence on the horrors of the full slave trade that would come. Acknowledging both horrors (and many others) used to work just fine.
But that was then, this is now.
What is new? On the surface, what is new here is the use of the word ‘slavery’ to describe what was done to the Irish, but here as always the devil resides in the details. No, I am not linking to any of this literature, but proponents of the Irish slave narrative have worked hard to embellish every embelishible point; inflating numbers, adding stories about the defilement of white women forced to breed with African men, and of course complaining that liberals have hidden the trials of the Irish while pushing the trans-Atlantic narrative in order to keep African-Americans at the forefront of identity politics. With support from racist corners of the internet, some maintain the Irish story is greater in all respects. Who would deny it? Only a liberal, right?
Okay, I deny it.
More importantly, so do vast majority of historians doing work on the subject. Scholars have questioned many of the details put forward in the Irish slave narrative, but the central theme seems to be this, that at its heart, the Irish story really is a story about indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was by no means a benign institution, but it simply isn’t comparable to the chattel slavery associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Most simply would not use the term ‘slavery’ at all to describe indentured servitude, even when it is imposed as a criminal sanction. And of course a good deal of the push-back of these narratives consists of efforts to unmask the clearly racist agendas of key proponents. This isn’t just a mistake, it’s a mistake a lot of committed white racists want people to make.
…which leaves me feeling all somehow.
I’m happy as Hell to see the comparison between indentured servitude and the trans-Atlantic slave trade shredded, and then shredded again. What does somewhat concern me is the equation of ‘slavery’ with the specific form of chattel slavery that took place in the trans-Atlantic trade. Simply put, we do commonly use the word ‘slavery’ in contexts that do not compare in the numbers or the horrors of that specific history. History books often speak of slaves in ancient civilizations many of which fell into that status through financial ruin, or debt. The literature on Indian-white relations is full of stories of ‘slaves’ captured and trade about through raiding practices, and of course the Spanish systems of the encomienda were never described as slavery. When in 1850 California passed a law enabling others to press California Natives into forced labor, that law was actually written up as if it were meant to protect those very Natives. And of course the system of debt peonage found in the post-war south (among many other places) could in practice pass for slavery.
Hell, that was often the point!
…to say nothing of the use of prison systems for purposes of reducing free blacks to forced laborers under the pretext of punishment for crimes, real or imagined.
The subject of slavery has always been broader than the specific history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We should not allow malicious people to equate every instance of forced labor with the scale of atrocity behind that trade, but neither should we restrict our own use of the word ‘slavery’ to that very trade. Abusive labor practices shade easily into forced labor, and once that threshold is crossed, real atrocities become much easier.
What specifically doesn’t work about Irish slave narratives is the direct comparison with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It doesn’t match the scale of atrocity in that trade, either in numbers, or in the quality of treatment for the majority of those involved. This doesn’t mean that indentured servants, Irish or otherwise, were treated well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people captures or pressed into forced labor in other times and places shouldn’t be a concern. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t let people use the suffering of their own ancestors as a means of diverting attention from that of others.