‘Anomalies in the Colony’: Irish Catholics and the Codification of Racial Slavery

The first labourers in the early English West Indies were overwhelmingly white European indentured servants, mostly from the British Isles, with a small population of Indian and African slaves. Servants constituted the most important form of labour up to 1660s, when the ‘prohibitively high’ price of African slaves fell and they became a more attractive source of labour. Initially, labourers constituted a single category, regardless of race or religion, and were largely defined as economic assets. However, over time the greater presence of African slaves on the islands began to influence the ways in which English planters defined difference, particularly between servants and slaves, and led to the codification of racial slavery. The necessary inclusion of the Irish in statute as ‘Christian servants’ and ‘white servants’ in order to classify racial slavery, in particular, challenged English ideas about Irish servants as an ethnoreligious group. However, the similarities between roles of African slaves and Irish servants during this period troubled English definitions of difference and made their categorisation of Irish servants problematic. The English acknowledged that they shared a race and religion, though not denomination, with Irish Catholics, but they continued to express their preference for English and Scottish servants and sought to prevent any future Irish migration to the West Indies.

Spooning soup from a common pot

Irish servants worked and lived alongside African slaves. Jenny Shaw argues that the English treatment of Irish servants fostered ‘bonds of sympathy’ between them. Shaw paints the scene: Irish and Africans ‘spooning from a common pot’ and ‘sharing a blanket’. Irish and African collusion in a number of rebellions provides evidence for the relationship. In November 1655, Richard Goodall and John Jones reported that ‘there are several Irish servants and Negroes out in rebellion in ye Thicketts and thereabouts’ in Barbados. In fact, they were so often grouped together in reports of rebellion that, even when there is no evidence of Irish involvement in slave revolts, they are suspected to have taken part in the insurrection. The association of Irish Catholics with rebellion was, of course, not new or endemic to the West Indies — it related to long-held English ideas about the Irish. However, the association of Irish servants and African slaves did challenge English perceptions about the two groups.

Shaw highlights the problematic nature of the relationship for English planters, underlining that it ‘troubled any straightforward social and racial divisions of labour’. This problem was exacerbated by the exclusion of the Irish from the ‘elite functions’ of the plantation, such as militia duty. Irish servants were not trusted and were thus confined to work the fields in gangs along with African slaves. The similarities in roles did not go unrecognised by English planters and observers. John Scott made the following observation during a visit to Barbados in 1667:

For first they are not above seaven hundred & sixty considerable Proprietors ; and not above 800 effective men, of wch twoe thirds are of noe interest or reputation, and of little innate Courage, being poore men, that are just permitted to live, a very great part Irish, derided by the Negroes and branded wth  the Epithite of white slaves

Scott’s singling out of the Irish as the ‘white slaves’ of the plantation indicates that English observers were recognising the similarities in labour roles between the two. The use of the word slave is particularly significant. Field work had become so associated with slaves that by the eighteenth century it was it was referred to as ‘nigger work’. Therefore, Scott’s use of the word serves to directly link the roles of Irish servants and African slaves in the eyes of the English observer. Moreover, Scott’s use of the word ‘branded’ may have been deliberate, referencing the practice of branding a runaway slave with the letter ‘R’ on his or her face, or the punishment of slaves through burning the face with a hot iron. The latter suggests that Scott is, again, recognising the similarities between the labour roles of the two groups, while the former associates Irish servants’ similarity in labour roles with African slaves with the humiliation of branding. As this source shows, there was often not a clear distinction between the roles of slaves and servants in the eyes of English observers, which troubled English officials because this difference needed to be codified in order to form a united white minority to control the African population.

Christian Servants

The codification of racial slavery required criteria for the difference between African slaves and European servants. In modern historiography, the concept of freedom is seen as the crucial difference between the two. Although not all servants outlived their indentures, and many had to re-indenture themselves to avoid starvation, indentured servants possessed the prospect of freedom, while slaves did not. Seventeenth century ideas about freedom differed from our modern conception; Edward B. Rugemer argues that freedom was intrinsically linked to civility, and that anyone ‘who served another, regardless of their complexion, or gender, were not worthy of a master’s civility.’ Slaves and servants, at least in the earlier portion of the seventeenth century, were therefore perceived in much the same way; as unfree labourers. They were both defined in statute as the property of their master and could be bought and sold. However, as the number of African slaves labouring on Caribbean plantations increased, planters worried about becoming a white minority. The solution was to find a way to define, in code, the difference between slaves and servants, in order to present the latter as a unified group that could neutralise the threat of slave revolt. One such way of classifying servants was under the category ‘Christian’, in which Irish servants were included. This development was particularly important as a signifier of changes in English perceptions of the Irish because they were often described as ‘anti-Christian’ in Protestant propaganda leaflets concerning Irish affairs. English perceptions of difference between themselves and Irish Catholics had been partially eroded, necessitated by the changing demographic of West Indian plantations during this period.

John Scott’s account is instructive of the English propensity to frame difference as a matter of religion: ‘Christians, English, Scotch and Irish at worke in the parching sun wth out shirt, shoe or stocking, wch theire Negroes have been at work at their respective trades’. Scott makes a clear distinction between those who are Christians, inclusive of Irish servants, and African slaves. Similarly, Richard Ligon, another seventeenth-century observer, splits ‘servants’ as a group into those who are Christians and those who are slaves: ‘Eight months of the year, the weather is very hot, yet not so scalding, but that servants, both Christians, and slaves, labour and travell tenne hours in a day.’ By slaves he presumably means African slaves as he refers later to ‘Christian servants, or Negre slaves’. The fact that the Irish were included in a group along with other European servants indicates that the presence of African slaves had changed English perceptions about the Irish in particular. Where they had often been defined largely according to their ‘popish’ religion in English documents concerning Irish affairs and had been referred to as anti-Christian in Protestant literature, they were seen as part of a homogenous group that included English and Scottish Protestants in the West Indies. The polarization of the two groups that is present in English documents relating to the Irish in Ireland is largely absent in sources on the Irish in the West Indies.

White servants

As well as defining servants as ‘Christian’, they could also be grouped together as ‘white servants’. The concept of whiteness was a relatively new one on seventeenth-century plantations and was largely a product of the codification of racial slavery. The construction of the idea of ‘white servants’ as a group can be dated back to the 1640s. The influx of African slaves not only brought attention to the idea of racial difference in the eyes of English elites, but provoked a ‘paranoic fear’ among planters that they would become a racial minority. As a result, a number of measures were implemented in order to maintain the subjugation of African slaves. One such measure, implemented in Barbados, was the requirement for any slave who must travel off his master’s plantation to be accompanied by a ‘white man’. Similarly, in Jamaica, an act was enforced which required masters to possess one ‘white man servant’ for every five African slaves or face incurring a fine. The Irish were included in this category of ‘white servants,’ but were still considered undesirable to many English planters, so much so that they made repeated calls to block further Irish immigration to the islands.

In light of the racial codification of slavery, Scott’s use of the term ‘white slaves’ gains a new dimension. On one hand, the Irish had metaphorically ‘become white’ through the codification of racial slavery, but on the other, they were still relegated to the lowest forms of labour. Shaw argues that Scott was drawing similarities between the position of slaves and Irish servants through the use of the word ‘slave’ while his inclusion of the word ‘white’ acknowledged racial difference, therefore ‘cementing the space’ between the two groups. The Irish were paradoxically part of the ‘white population’ but served a different economic purpose to their Scottish and English counterparts. Their work was not ‘white work’ it was considered ‘nigger work’ through its association with black labour. Though the Irish undeniably enjoyed some of the benefits of being ‘white servants’, such as lighter punishments and greater rights enshrined in law, they were still so closely bonded with slaves that they could not be considered equals to other white servants in English eyes.

Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton argue that the need to create a separation between white servants and African slaves effectively nullified English perceptions of difference between Irish and other white servants. Similarly, Kristen Block and Jenny Shaw describe the Irish as being ‘absorbed into the developing racial hierarchy’ and becoming ‘privileged members of the white community’. However, the Irish, despite their newly acquired whiteness, were still considered undesirable to English planters. While Morgan and Rushton admit that the Irish were hardly integrated into plantation society in the same way as other servants, the idea that any perception of difference on the part of English planters was ‘overridden’ by the need for ‘white solidarity’ is not supported by seventeenth-century sources. A letter written by the Governor of Barbados in 1667 to the Privy Council pleads with officials to send Scottish nationals to address the white labour shortage on the islands while stipulating that they must ‘prevent any excess of Irish in the future’. Extracts from the records of the Royal Africa Company also contain complaints from English planters about the lack of Scottish and English servants, and lamenting ‘Irish servants wee find them of small value; our whole dependence therefore is upon Negros.’ Likewise, in 1699 the Assembly of Antigua decried the presence of Irish Catholics on the island, stating that the importation of any more Irish ‘may in time Prove of very evill consequence’ and that a previous act encouraging the ‘settlement of the Island with white people’ should exclude the Irish.  Rejection of the Irish shows that ideas of difference were persistent. The Irish may have been thought white, but they were not the right kind of white.

From the 1640s onwards, as the population of African slaves increased, white settlers were at risk of becoming a racial minority. The Irish were affected by these changes. Their complexion made them potential allies against slave insurrection, but in reality they forged stronger bonds with African slaves. Collusion with slaves in rebellion challenged English attempts to create a racial dichotomy, while their participation in the violence reinforced already-established stereotypes about Irish perfidy. Irish servants continually defied English categorisation; they were Christians, but not the right kind of Christians because they followed the ‘popish’ religion. They were white, but they were second class whites whose roles had more in common with African slaves than other white servants. They remained undesirable as settlers to English planters despite the pressing issue of a shortage of white labourers. Attempts to block the migration of Irish Catholics also makes their inclusion in these broad categories by English elites less meaningful, because they were seeking to reduce the proportion of Irish servants that made up the ‘white’ and ‘Christian’ labour force. English officials had acknowledged that they shared certain characteristics with the Irish, but were not willing to share the plantation space with them, as a result, Irish migration to the Caribbean declined. Those Irish who remained occupied an uneasy space as ‘anomalies in the colony’.

Written by Enya Holland


Beckles, Hilary McD. “A Riotous and Unruly Lot’ Irish Indentured Servants and Freemen in the English West Indies, 1644-1713,” The William and Mary Quarterly 47 (1990)

Beckles, Hilary McD. “Plantation Production and White “Proto-Slavery”: White Indentured Servants and the Colonisation of the English West Indies, 1624-1645” The Americas 41 (1985)

Gwynn, Aubrey. “Documents Relating to the Irish in the West Indies” Analecta Hibernica 4 (1932)

Keagy, Thomas J. “The Poor Whites of Barbados” Revista de Historia de América 73 (1972)

Ligon, Richard. A true & exact history of the island of Barbados illustrated with a mapp of the island, as also the principall trees and plants there, set forth in their dueproportions and shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales : together with the ingenio that makes the sugar, with the plots of the severallhouses, roomes, and other places that are used in the whole processe of sugar-making … / by Richard Ligon, Gent (London: Printed for Humphrey Mosely, 1657) 27.

Morgan, Gwenda and Peter Rushton, Banishment in the Early Atlantic World: Convicts, Rebels and Slaves. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Nicholson, Bradley J. “Legal Borrowing and the Origins of Slave Law in the British Colonies”, The American Journal of Legal History 38 (1994)

Rugemer, Edward B.  “The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century,” The William and Mary Quarterly 70 (2013)

Shaw, Jenny. Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean: Irish, Africans, and the Construction of Difference. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013.