Irish in the Caribbean: Servants, Labourers, Landlords

The seventeenth century saw thousands of Irish men and women start new lives in the Caribbean. Many of them were driven across the Atlantic by the arrival of thousands of Protestant settlers in their homeland; others were deported for their role in the Irish uprising of 1641. Yet if these emigrants believed they were leaving religious intolerance behind them on the shores of western Europe, they were to be sorely disappointed.
As Kristen Block and Jenny Shaw reveal in “Subjects Without an Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean” Past and Present, no 210,OUP (Oxford University Press historical journal), Irish settlers often found that in the New World, as in the Old, “their Catholic identities prevented equitable relationship with English or Dutch Protestant partners”.
Serving under Protestant officials in England’s Caribbean colonies, such as Barbados, many Irish Catholics were subject to harsh working conditions and prevented from practising their religion. In response some sought salvation in the Caribbean colonies of Catholic Spain – and within a few years a wave of Irish “asylum seekers” were arriving in Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Veracruz. However, Spain saw its role as that of partner – not protector – of Irish Catholics and, according to Block and Shaw, viewed those who had not undergone the Inquisition to be of a lower grade of religious purity.
That didn’t stop some Irish settlers using any means available to gain Spanish patronage. One such was Richard Hackett, who chartered a boat from Barbados to the island of Hispaniola in 1642, claiming refuge for its passengers from English oppression. Another was ‘Don Juan Morfa’, an Irish spy who worked for the Spanish and gained their acceptance partly due to his religious beliefs but also his prowess on the battlefield.
Later in the seventeenth century, growing tensions between England and Spain persuaded English officials that they needed to co-operate with Irish colonists to prevent them siding with the Spanish. As the slave trade moved up a gear, Irish workers were needed to oversee the thousands of Africans arriving in the Caribbean.
When in 1685, the Catholic James II and VII ascended to the throne, colonial Catholics seized the opportunity to practise their religion more openly. But, following the Glorious Revolution, which brought the Protestant William of Orange to power, Catholics were once more seen as rebels and traitors by English colonists. Uprisings and arrests inevitably followed.
According to Block and Shaw, those areas dominated by Irish populations did eventually enjoy religious tolerance. And, although it was harder for Irish Catholics to gain land and status than for Irish Protestants, the rapid growth of the slave trade helped provide “easier avenues for upward mobility”. Some Irish colonists even achieved prosperity – though, when they did, it was chiefly within the empires of Britain’s continental rivals.
Renowned for his paintings with extraordinary attention to detail and life like characterisations, a work by French artist Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1815-1892) shows Irish being sent into exile in 1655. ‘Prescription de Jeunes Irlandaises Catholique’ in Lyon, France, and other Irish works by the painter are listed amongst his great historical legacy.
Servants, Labourers, Landlords
It is likely that at least one Irishman, possibly Guillermo Ires, described in Spanish records as a native of Galway, was a crew member on a voyage of exploration to the West Indies before 1500. By the sixteenth century several Irishmen are documented on the Spanish Caribbean. In 1525 Achilles Holden, an Irish priest, was teaching at Santo Domingo. In 1587 Darby Glavin and Dennis Carroll, Irish sailors in the service of British explorer and writer, Walter Raleigh (1554-1618), deserted in Puerto Rico from a colony bound for Roanoke Island; Glavin survived and served from 1595 as a solder in Spanish Florida.
During subsequent centuries Irish adventurers, missionaries and soldiers played prominent roles in the Spanish, French, Dutch and Danish West Indies. In 1794 Alejandro O’Reilly from Co. Meath, an officer in the service of Spain, recommended Irish emigration to Cuba as a tonic for that island’s sluggish economy, and in 1765 he reorganised Puerto Rico’s defences in collaboration with his compatriot Colonel Thomas O’Daly, chief engineer in San Juan. At the same time Nicholas Tuite, born into an Irish family in Montserrat, became a leading planter in St. Croix, then a Danish colony, importing Irish overseers to manage his seven estates and Irish Dominicans to minister to his staff.
Whether arriving as voluntary or involuntary immigrants, most Caribbean Irish settled in the English West Indies; the Leeward Islands, Barbados, and Jamaica. Both planters and indentured servants of Irish origin were involved from an early date in the mother colony of St. Christopher, colonised by England, 1624-5, in uneasy partnership with the French. Religious tensions regularly boiled over as Irish Catholics encountered a hostile pre-Commonwealth Diaspora of Puritan planters and merchants. Between 1628 and 1633 the other Leeward Islands – Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat – were colonised from overcrowded St. Christopher. A report by missionaries in 1637 estimated a total of 3,000 Irish people in the Leeward Islands.
On rugged and remote Monserrat, Anthony Briskett from Co. Wexford was the first of six Irish born officials who ruled a predominantly Catholic population of Irish servants, traders and tobacco planters. By 1678 seven out of ten resident Montserrat whites – 1,869 men, women and children – were Irish.
Barbados, colonised by England in 1627, is synonymous in Irish memory with Transportation and the slave-like servitude endured by many Irish prisoners of war and their dependants after the Rebellion of 1641. While transportation to the Americas did not begin or end with Cromwell’s rule, contemporary accounts from the peak years of Commonwealth transportation, 1652-7, show that kidnapping was used to supply labour-hungry planters with Irish servants.
Contemporary accounts confirm that Jamaica, captured by the English from the Spanish in 1655, attracted large numbers of Irish people with promises of generous land grants and religious tolerance. Here, as in Antigua and Montserrat, a minority made a successful transition from servant to slave-owning planter. Their descendants, often intermarried with English families, gradually abandoned the Caribbean for lives of opulence as absentee landlords in London, Philadelphia, or (in Nicholas Tuite’s case) Copenhagen. Others turned to subsistence agriculture, living quiet lives in isolated Caribbean back country.
One poor white community, the ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados’s windward coast, is believed to descend from English, Irish and Scots servants. Untypically, these whites clung stubbornly to their racial identity even as the abolition of slavery, in 1834, transformed them into second-class citizens of the black-majority island. In Montserrat and Jamaica, in contrast, historians believe that many of the Irish people who remained were absorbed, through intermarriage, into dominant Afro-Caribbean populations.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to The Encyclopaedia of Ireland and BBC History magazine, July 2011, as sources for this text. It follows articles by the author on the lives and achievements of the Irish at home and abroad from the historical and contemporary literature.