Saint Patrick & the Slave Trade

Read any biography of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and you’ll find that he was born in the late 4th century somewhere on the island of Britain. Patrick was kidnapped while still in his teens, and sold as a slave in Ireland. Some histories place the blame on Irish pirates, while others blame the Romans who had conquered the island centuries earlier. Whoever was responsible, for six years Patrick was a slave, and then he escaped back to Britain.

Twelve years after his escape, having studied at a monastery and being ordained, Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle as a bishop and missionary. After twenty years, he left behind an organized church under the authority of the See of Armagh, and an island that was nearly completely converted to Catholicism.

Little did Patrick know that, over a thousand years later, those conversions would be the justification for a new era of slavery.

By the sixteenth century, Ireland had long been under the control of England. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1533 and established the Church of England, he dissolved and destroyed the monasteries throughout Great Britain. And where previous kings had taken the title of Lord of Ireland, Henry declared himself their King. But his influence was largely confined to an area surrounding Dublin and Drogheda, known as The Pale.

It was Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who extended English authority throughout the Emerald Isle. At that time, any practice of the Catholic religion was considered both heresy and felony, and hundreds of Irish Catholics were hung or imprisoned every year thereafter.

Holding all those Irish Catholics prisoner became a costly affair for the Crown. And there was another problem — lack of labor in the British possessions in the New World. Killing two birds with one stone, in 1625 King James II of England officially ordered Irish political prisoners to be sold as slaves in the new world. From 1641 to 1652, 300,000 Irish men, women and children were sold as slaves. And that was just the beginning.

Irish slaves were “transported” on British slave ships to the British West Indies and the Colonies. They were packed in as closely as possible, because either the ship owner or the prisoners themselves had to pay for the voyage. Thousands died from lack of food and air, communicable diseases, and scurvy. Historical records show that in at least one case, live slaves were thrown overboard when food stores got low. It’s interesting to note that British ships would not sail at night, so the number of casualties increased accordingly, with some estimates going as high as 1 in every 3 passengers.

Many historians estimate, at the time of the American Revolution, up to one-half of the non-native population of the new United States of America were Irish slaves. English records reveal that, for over a hundred years, at least 1,000 “convicts” were sent each year to the American colonies, and about half went to Virginia, to work or be sold there. Yet in 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Irish slaves:

“were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America. It was at a late period of their history that the practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of its commencement. But I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves & their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants.”

Following in the trail of Jefferson’s paradox, US history books usually refer to the Irish slaves as “indentured servants”, meaning that the period of servitude was limited to the time required to pay off their debts. In truth, many of the Irish were sentenced to 7 – 20 years of slavery. But how do you convince your owner that your freedom has been earned when the sentencing body is 3,000 miles and two months of travel away?

Most of the Irish slaves died before they were ever freed.

After the American Revolution, the colonies no longer accepted “indentured servants” from Ireland; so began a new era of transportation to Australia that lasted until 1839.

My acknowledgement and thanks to the following resources:
The Daily Kos
Irish Genealogy toolkit

5 thoughts on “Saint Patrick & the Slave Trade

    • Thanks for visiting, Millie.

      I’m constantly amazed at the stuff we didn’t learn in school about our own history. Seemed it was more important to memorize dates and battles than to find out just what made us a country.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. As I understood it, indentured labourers, whether Irish or English, had one big disadvantage for the owners – if they escaped and went off into the West, in a society with little policing and huge distances, they’d often get away with it and make new lives for themselves while the planters were short of labour. Black slaves were preferable for one simple reason: provided hardly any were allowed to become free, any Black person turning up somewhere strange was obviously an escaped slave and could be captured. A new Irishman in a frontier settlement? No problem.


  2. Hi, Simon, thanks for visiting.

    I’m afraid your argument is out of sync with the timing of Irish slavery in America. At the time of the American Revolution, there was no “Wild West” as we refer to it today. Very little of the country beyond the colonies was settled, and those settlements were usually Army outposts (or in the immediate vicinity of one). The branding of Irish slaves was a common practice and most of them were easily identified. Of course, one could take one’s chances in Native American lands; as far as I know, no one came back to tell that story, so we don’t know what the outcomes, if any, were.

    Black slaves were preferred after awhile, but historians have found evidence that this was considered a “humanitarian” (!) solution; since Black slaves cost 5 to 10 times as much as Irish slaves, they were therefore more of an investment and less likely to be beaten or starved to death. (Please let’s not get started on the so-called “economic advantages” of slavery.)

    Additionally, not all African-Americans who migrated to the West in the 19th century were slaves, many were from the designated “Free States”. Added to that is the fact that most of the West was somewhat independent of the US — most were territories with their own governments — and many were just as insular then as the South was. So the identification of slaves was not quite as cut-and-dried as it might seem, and freedom not all that easy to attain.

    For a look at both Black and Irish slavery practices in North America, the resources listed in my article are quite compelling.


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