Posted by: irishhungercomm | July 23, 2011

Indentured Servants or Irish Slaves?

This is in response to a piece supplied by James Cavanaugh and examines the question of Irish people being used as Indentured Servants or were they actually slaves?  My own question would ask, was there any difference, in practical terms and treatment, etc., between Indentured Servants and Slaves in those times of history?

Michael Walshe

From Jim Gallagher on the subject of Irish Slavery

I have looked into this problem for a number of years – 1980’s and 1990’s. The question of  indentured servants vs. plain slaves was a the heart of my concern. Unfortunately, the American Conference of Irish Studies (ACIS), the organization comprised of academicians in this country, have done very little research on the topic and what little was done resulted in the 2 or 3 Professors claiming that “all” the Irish slaves were indentured servants. Also, a fellow named McGill , based in Virginia, wrote articles claiming that the Irish slaves were indentured servants.

A few others wrote, without the detail of James Cavanaugh, that indeed the Irish Slaves were slaves.  In all cases there were little or no references cited. This was a topic of concern for me when I was teaching Irish History and I found it difficult to find reliable sources of information to clarify the problem.  In fact, it was difficult to find sources, period. My interest was triggered by reports in several history books about the periods following the “Flight of the Earls” and the “Flight of the Wild Geese” when Irish women and children were being dragged from houses and off the streets and involuntarily shanghaied onto merchant vessels to be sold in the English owned Virginia tobacco plantations and the Caribbean sugar plantations.  These women and children were arbitrarily determined to be without visible means of support since their husbands had fled or were deported from Ireland.

During the time of my active search I found reference to an article in a Stamford, CT newspaper that read (not verbatim, as I had not seen the article for some time). “Irish men and women sold cheap.  Barque  “Darby”,  the ship was on its route from Ireland to the Caribbean to sell slaves in the outgoing stage of the voyage and return with molasses and rum on the incoming stage.  By the way, reportedly this practice was stopped when the greedy merchants indiscriminately started grabbing English women as well.

John Concannon (RIP) had unearthed some written material for me as well. I’ll have to go back to my file to see what material I have.  But, I know that I do not have anything as detailed as Cavanaugh’s article.  I do not know the man or where he is located but I plan to e-mail him to ask about reference material to substantiate his conclusions.  I really need that kind of information.

Jim Gallagher



  1. Margaret Wafer was born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1834. She became an indentured seamstress to a wealthy lady in America to gain passage. Margaret not only gained her freedom as an American citizen, but owned her own seamstress shop for the wealthy ladies.
    I know this because it is a part of my family history & has been passed down to me, not only from a second cousin I didn’t know I had, but my mother as well.

  2. My dad’s grandmother, Johanna (Hannah) C. Mullally was apparently an indentured servant. She was born around 1866 and came to the US at New York (possibly Castle Garden). She married Martin Watson Stryker. I have had no luck over the years finding information about her prior to coming to the US and if she fulfilled her duties as a servant once she arrived. Is there a database that I can check? Thank you, Susie Stryker Henry

  3. Sean O’Callahan wrote a book about it with extensive reference material. Seemingly there is paperwork in Barbados supporting this history. The sad part in the book says that the Curator says ‘At last’ in response to the fact that they were waiting for someone from Ireland to make inquiries about the history of Irish in Barbados and the papers were dust covered untouched for many, many years.
    Book Description
    Publication Date: December 31, 2001 | ISBN-10: 0863222870 | ISBN-13: 978-0863222870
    The previously untold story of over 50,000 Irish men, women and children who were transported to Barbados and Virginia. Sean O’Callaghan for the first time documents the history of these people: their transportation, the conditions in which they lived on plantations as slaves or servants, and their rebellions in Barbados. “”An illuminating insight into a neglected episode in Irish history, but its significance is much broader than that. Its main achievement is to situate the story of colonialism in Ireland in the much larger context of worldwide European imperialism. O’Callaghan’s description of seventeenth century Barbados is a powerful portrait of a society as brutal, corrupt and unjust as anything the twentieth century has to offer. Yet it is precisely societies like colonial Barbados and Virginia which lie at the root of our modern world. That is why To Hell or Barbados is such a valuable book.””–Irish World

  4. Insightful ..Thanks for sharing

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