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The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview 

By Nini Rodgers



The Eastern Caribbean
(Sarah Gearty, History Ireland, May/June 2007)

Tudor and Cromwellian conquest meant that Ireland was full of dispossessed or depleted Catholic gentry struggling somehow to preserve their social standing. The irony of the Irish as ‘colonised and coloniser’ is intellectually disturbing to readers in a later generation; it was not so to the actual participants. Needy Catholic gentry, landless swordsmen, particularly from the provinces of Connacht and Munster, might look west to recoup their losses. The earliest surviving Irish emigrant letter from the New World comes from the Blake brothers on Barbados and Montserrat, conventionally carrying messages home to Galway of the good living to be made in a new land. The details about the sugar plantation and the slave labour force which produced this satisfaction are surprising to the twenty-first century reader (Oliver 1909, I: 52-4).

Island Exploitation/Irish Servitude

While gentry and merchants (Catholic and Protestant) set out for the Caribbean to become planters, the majority of Irish arriving there in the seventeenth century came as bonded labour. These servants, who continue to haunt Irish memory as ‘white slaves’ and ‘political transportees’, arrived in Barbados and Jamaica as well as in the Leewards. Barbados (rather than the more disturbed Leewards) emerged as the Stuarts’ most valuable Caribbean colony, first producing tobacco, then in the 1640s switching to sugar.

In a headlong search for labour, the sugar planters bought up indentures (four to seven year contracts) for white servants and imported enslaved Africans. By the 1650s their preference for slaves, whom they would own for life, had clearly emerged. In their eagerness for profit the planters created a society which often frightened them, for both servants and slaves were numerous and discontented. In 1647 there was a servant revolt in Barbados, it ringleaders were hanged, but no particular part was imputed to the Irish.

The establishment of a protectorate in Ireland and the appointment of Daniel Searle, the first Cromwellian governor, aroused official fear of Irish servants as rebellious, and capable of making common cause with slaves. This accusation would be revived again at times of political uncertainty in 1685 (James II’s accession) and 1692 (William III’s establishment on the throne). On all three occasions, slaves were hanged and Irishmen acquitted (Beckles 1990:515-521). In 1660, Barbadian legal codes laid down a clear colour line. Africans and Native Americans were to serve for life, white men for the period of their indenture. Bonded servants were not slaves, but for those harassed by an uncaring master or overseer, subjected to unremunerated work under a hot sun and dying before their indenture was completed, the difference must have seemed academic.

How many white servants (bonded and free) reached Barbados in the seventeenth century and what proportion of these were Irish, it is impossible too say. Over fifty percent seems a distinct possibility. In 1667 Governor Willoughby was worried because he believed that more than half of the four-thousand-strong Barbadian militia was Irish (Ibid: 508-9). It seems possible that there were more Irish servants on Barbados than on Montserrat.

So why have they made so little mark on an island described as ‘as English as Cheltenham’ and where the surviving records produce far fewer Irish names than the Leewards or Jamaica? One answer may be that intensive sugar cultivation, raising the price of land, drove out servants who had served their indentures. A Barbadian historian calculated that in the years immediately following 1660, ten thousand settlers, mostly servants, frustrated by their inability to gain access to land, left the island, half of them bound for Jamaica, the other half for mainland America, the Leewards, Windwards and Surinam (Chandler 1946:114).

However, for a Caribbean island Barbados does possess an unusual number of poor whites, a distinctive group dubbed ‘Red Legs’ or ‘Red Shanks’ by nineteenth-century commentators. This group is said to be descended from Cromwell’s transported Scots or perhaps English from Monmouth’s rebellion. Recent research argues that the Red Shanks are the result of the large intake of servants in the seventeenth century. If they are carriers of Irish genes, perhaps they lack Irish surnames because female servants were more likely to remain on the island and marry there than their male counterparts (Sheppard 1977:25; Rodgers 2007: 338).

The question of how many Irish transportees reached the West Indies is just as difficult to compute. Most Irish soldiers leaving as a result of the wars in the 1640s and 1650s went or were deported to continental Europe. Possibly more Scots soldiers were deported to the New World than Irish. It seems probable that most transportation from Ireland took place after the establishment of the protectorate, when the Tudor law allowing the transportation of vagrants was applied to Ireland. In the 1650s the disturbed state of the country provided a rich source of vagrants, and of course it was easy for the authorities to designate anyone thought politically dangerous within this category. After the conquest of Jamaica in 1655, Henry Cromwell offered to help populate the island by sending off one thousand young women, a move for their own good ‘although we must use force in taking them up’. A similar number of boys aged from twelve to fourteen could also be provided. Whether or not this deportation took place remains uncertain. Its funding proved elusive (Thurloe 1742, 4: 23).

From Labour Oppression to Economic Opportunity

Recruits for the Jamaican campaign were raised in Barbados. Given the expedition’s need for soldiers and the confused state of affairs on the island, it is possible that some transportees actually escaped into the Cromwellian army that conquered Jamaica. Push and pull factors of the various types mentioned so far led the Irish to Jamaica. In 1685 James II found Irish Catholic smallholders ready to cast their votes for colonial assemblymen who supported royal policy.

In 1731 Governor Robert Hunter declared that the ‘servants and lower rank of people in Jamaica chiefly consisted of Irish Papists’ who had been ‘pouring in upon us in such sholes as they have done of late years’ (Beckles 1990:520). This remark was made at the end of a decade in which 72,689 enslaved Africans had been ferried in, while the white population stood at just above 7000 (Richardson 1998, 2: 459). The same pattern existed in Montserrat. Between 1678 (the year of the first census) and 1775 the number of Irish on the island never reached more than 2,000.

In 1678 the majority of these Irish people may have been servants, bonded and free, but by 1729 they had disappeared either by dying, emigrating elsewhere or becoming smallholders. Some of these obviously lived not by farming but by renting out their slaves. Garret Fahy had sixteen slaves, four horses and one cultivated acre. Anthony Bodkin, described as a planter, had thirteen slaves and no land at all. John Conner, labourer, had two slaves, a man and a woman. By the first decade of the eighteenth century, Montserrat’s slave population stood at 3,570: by 1729 it was up to 6,063, and as of 1775 had climbed to 9,834 (Sheridan 1974:182). The ‘almost Irish colony’ had thus achieved a Caribbean demographic norm.

The accession of William III produced colonial assemblies in the English islands which enacted versions of the penal laws so that Catholics now found it more difficult than before to hold public office. However, unlike in Ireland, no attempt was made to restrict their ability to buy or bequeath land. Britain’s triumph in the War of the Spanish Succession (1713) removed the French from Saint Christopher, which the British, pleased with their exclusive ownership, now affectionately renamed Saint Kitts.

Greater political stability in the region made for economic development. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Creole Irish planter community on Montserrat achieved striking wealth. Leading families, Skerrets, Galways, Kirwins and Farrells, began to buy property in Saint Kitts. Fortunes were made by a combination of trading and sugar planting. Activating contacts in Bristol and Cork, they imported slaves and provisions, the two most desired commodities in the West Indies. Contacts with Guadeloupe and Martinique, the French islands, eager for barrelled and salted Irish beef to feed their slaves, and illegal imports of cheap British-imported slaves, provided an expanding market.

Also convenient for Montserratians, indeed visible from the cane fields of Saint Kitts, was Dutch Saint Eustatia, famed as ‘the golden rock’ for its smuggling activities. The most remarkable fortunes in inter-island trading were made by the Tuites and the Ryans sailing to the Virgins, where the Danes had recently acquired Saint Croix. On Montserrat at the start of his career, Nicholas Tuite had one hundred acres and forty-one slaves. On Saint Croix by 1760, he owned seven plantations and had an interest in fourteen others (Ibid.:444-5; Fenning 1962: 76). Orla Power’s article in this journal provides an analysis of the activities of these Irish planters on Saint Croix.

Some ten percent of the property owners in Jamaica in 1670 were Irish. In 1685 when James II ascended the throne, he found the support of this group useful in promoting his policy of strengthening Catholicism and royal power by encouraging the exercise of freedom of religion within his dominions. The triumph of William III reversed this situation, but in 1729 some twenty percent of the colonial assemblymen possessed Irish names.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodgers, Nini, 'The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 145-156. Available online (, accessed .


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