Why do some people think that acknowledging the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own? That in order to validate their suffering, they must deny the suffering of others?
Was the African slave trade a blight on the face of humanity? Was the African slave trade a horror that none of us can truly comprehend? Is there anyone at all who will argue that the answer is anything but a most emphatic yes?
Since that is so, why isn’t the Irish slave trade similarly acknowledged as even existing, let alone acknowledged as that same blight, that same horror? Why are the white slaves taken in Africa not likewise acknowledged as existing?
Why is acknowledging European slavery in Africa a threat to the memory of black slavery?
I’m not talking about racism, discrimination, civil rights issues. I’m not talking about comparing the suffering as if one can be found to be more worthy of notice.
I’m talking about slavery. Real slavery.
When the population of Ireland was cut by nearly two thirds within a single decade (1641 to 1652), with an estimated 300,000 Irish slaves shipped to the New World to work for English masters and another 500,000 killed outright, that is a reality of history. They were every bit as much slaves as the Africans brought to the Americas.
During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.
And don’t kid yourself. These were not indentured servants who labored for some years and then were set free. They were slaves. Every bit as much as the Africans were slaves. They were slaves who were sent to the Americas to labor and die by the master’s hand, to be seen as property and chattel, not people.
In time, the English thought of a better way to use these [Irish] women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.
Is it true that many descendents of slaves today have lighter complexions because their ancestors were raped by white masters? Undeniably. However, it is just as true that many are the descendents of slaves both white and black, that their lighter complexion is from an African slave father and an Irish slave mother, rather than a slave master. And the descendents of those slaves are as much descendents of their Irish mothers as they were of their African fathers.
When the Barbary pirates captured white slaves from Europe and took them back to Africa, they were every bit as much slaves as the Africans brought to the Americas, suffering under brutal conditions.
By extension, for the 250 years between 1530 and 1780, the figure could easily have been as high as 1,250,000 – this is only just over a tenth of the Africans taken as slaves to the Americas from 1500 to 1800, but a considerable figure nevertheless. White slaves in Barbary were generally from impoverished families, and had almost as little hope of buying back their freedom as the Africans taken to the Americas: most would end their days as slaves in North Africa, dying of starvation, disease, or maltreatment.
As per the above quote, the number was smaller than the African trade, but does that justify forgetting them? Does that justify pretending that there were no White slaves in Africa, taken by Africans? Does that justify pretending that there were no white slaves in the Americas?
Ignoring this piece of history does nothing to correct the injustices today. Ignoring this piece of history does nothing to ease the suffering of those who continue to suffer, so what is the goal of such willful ignorance?
The suffering of those today is not validated through denial of others suffering. It is validated through the suffering itself. Those feelings are their own validation, they need nothing more than that. To attempt to use ignorance of history as a validation for feelings can only serve to diminish that validation when history is illuminated.
There is no data, no statistic, no historical fact that can diminish the horror of the Africa slave trade. Why, then, is data and historical fact so quickly brushed under the carpet as if to acknowledge that the suffering in slavery was not one-sided somehow detracts from the suffering of Africans?
My ancestors were Irish. My people, too, suffered slavery, both at the hands of the English and at times the hands of the Africans. I won’t pretend that I have forgotten this history, and I won’t stay quiet when someone else tries to ignore it.
That does not mean I am pretending to understand the current discrimination that happens today. The Irish have been integrated into society in a way that blacks have not. They became “normalized” whereas blacks have not.
I learned about the African slave trade in school. But I never learned about the Irish slave trade. I never learned about the white slaves in Africa. These things were quietly ignored.
This has nothing to do with justifying racism. It has nothing to do with detracting from African suffering. It has nothing to do with telling someone to ‘get over it.’
I am not asking for anything beyond the simple acceptance of facts. I am not asking for pity, or sympathy, or empathy. I am not asking for anger, or guilt, or any emotion at all.
It has everything to do with acknowledging the reality of history. We can’t learn from history when we refuse to accept the whole of it. And accepting the whole of history in no way diminishes any one part of it. Tragedies are tragedies, there is little chance of having any major tragedy of history watered down through the knowledge of others.