Red Legs in Barbados

Sat, Jan 17, 2009, 00:00

MAGAN'S WORLD:Manchán Magan's tales of a travel addict

IWAS DELIGHTED that Caroline Walsh focused on the plight of Ireland’s lost tribe, the Red Legs, in her article a couple of weeks ago on Barbados. This group, made up of the descendants of 50,000 Irish men and women who were sold into the white slave trade between 1652 and 1659, have been largely ignored, apart from in Seán O’Callaghan’s wonderful To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland, published almost 20 years ago.

They were innocent Irish people who were rounded up from across the country by teams of Oliver Cromwell’s “man-catchers”, bound in chains and shipped to Barbados to work on sugar plantations.

Their descendants are still there today – some of them in absolute poverty – isolated, unassimilated and uneducated. It is about time we acknowledge them, our beleaguered kinsmen, innocent victims first of British injustice, then of landlord cruelty and now of our lack of interest.

I’ve wanted to go out and visit them for a long time, and perhaps make a documentary about them, but I was warned off by O’Callaghan’s stories of outsiders being driven away with hoes and pitchforks from the isolated, rundown settlements in which they live.

Thankfully, a braver group, Moondance Films, has made a documentary, which will be aired on TG4 soon. I’ll be intrigued to find out what it learned. So little known is about the Red Legs. Like any oppressed people, they were too focused on survival to have had the luxury of documenting their history. Their connection with Ireland was cut off many centuries ago; their surnames were taken from them and they were forbidden to practise their faith. Perhaps all that remains is their red hair, freckles and blue eyes.

Most accounts refer to their arrogance and alcoholism. One describes them as “lazy, worthless drunks of unworthy Irish/Scots origin, who have neither ambition nor intelligence, yet are white and proud. They believe they are a cursed people.”

Of course, some Red Leg families thrived when they were eventually emancipated, in 1834, when slavery was abolished. Illustrious island families such as the Mayers

and Goddards proudly trace their lineage back to slave ancestry, but most tend to be poorer than the black population. They farm smallholdings of sugar cane on the arid eastern coast of the island or live in Bridgetown, the capital, drinking in local grog shops or running white brothels for middle-class blacks.

I must stress that all of this is based mostly on rumour and on research done 20 years ago. We will know the truth only when TG4’s documentary is aired.

In the meantime what we know is that Cromwell decreed that troublemakers – the poor, the hungry, clergy and Catholic landlords who refused to move to Connacht – be sent to Barbados. They were herded south into holding pens in Cork and Waterford, then crammed into African slave ships in chains. One in five died en route; those who survived were scrubbed in readiness for the slave mart. The women – nuns, soldiers’ wives, Catholic gentry and teenagers – were stripped and checked for virginity. Good breeders were sold to studs, to make future slaves and brothel girls. The men were checked for muscle tone and strength of teeth, then branded with their owners’ initials.

Ironically, the Irish are now returning to Barbados, the elite of Ireland’s post-boom aristocracy – Desmond, Magnier, Smurfit, O’Reilly – converting old plantations into luxury resorts. Who knows how many of our ancestors were whipped to death right on the sites of these new pleasure palaces?