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Race and History Forum

The Irish Indies

Extract From: http://www.iol.ie/~irishrts/Montserrat.html

Of all the areas settled by seventeenth-century Irish exiles, the Caribbean was the one they came closest to making their own. Here, the Irish were not confined to the English islands. Irish exile communities in Spain sent priests, soldiers and administrators to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. From France, Irish merchants, missionaries and planters went to Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Domingue - modern Haiti. Even today, visitors to the Dutch island of Aruba can find three pages of Kellys in the telephone directory. No one, including the Kellys themselves, knows how they ended up there.

While individual Irishmen might rise to prominence in the French and Spanish Caribbean, the British West Indies - Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands - attracted Irish men and women in significant numbers. Many did not come voluntarily. In Irish history and folklore, some of these sunny islands evoke dark memories.Between 1650 and 1660, Oliver Cromwell's government used the West Indies as a dumping ground and penal colony. The victims of Cromwellian transportation ranged from political and military prisoners to anyone who might burden the public purse: orphans, widows and the unemployed. Although numerous English and Scottish subjects were deported, the harsh and often vindictive treatment of Irish exiles in Barbados has left a bitter historical residue.
Deportation was only one part of the story. Irish men and women had been freely emigrating to the West Indies for at least a quarter century before the Cromwellian cruelties. As indentured servants, they contracted to work for a period, usually four or five years, in return for free passage and the promise of land or cash at the end of their term.
Although the promises often went unfulfilled, the rumour that St Kitts paid 10 in 'freedom dues' proved irresistible. By the 1630s, boatloads of servants regularly left Cork ports for the West Indies. 'Here', an English recruiting agent wrote from Kinsale in August 1636, 'all are inclined for St Christophers'. Women, he added, were 'readier to go than the men'.

In 1643, Fr Mathew O'Hartegan, an Irish Jesuit then stationed in Paris, reported that he had received a petition from 20,000 Irish exiles in St Kitts and nearby islands. Fr Aubrey Gwynn, a twentieth century Jesuit historian and expert on the West Indies, concluded in his 1929 study that 6,000 - with roughly 3,000 on St Kitts - was a more realistic estimate. Even the lower figure, wrote Fr Gwynn, showed that 'the emigration of Irish Catholics to the West Indies had already attained large numbers before ever Cromwell began his policy of forced deportation'.

By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Montserrat had become the most Irish island in the West Indies. A 1678 census shows a vibrant community of almost 1,900 Irish men, women and children. Family names suggest that most came from County Cork, with smaller contingents from Clare, Donegal, Galway, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath and Wexford.
Numerically larger Irish colonies had already existed on other English islands. In 1669, for example, 8,000 Irish were reported in Barbados. Jamaica, captured from Spain in 1655, also attracted large numbers of Irish. But nowhere else did the Irish constitute a verifiable majority of the population. Even on Barbados, 8,000 Irish would have constituted fewer than four out of every ten whites, and one seventh of the island's total 1673 population.

On Montserrat, seven of every 10 whites were Irish. Comparable 1678 census figures for the other Leeward Islands were: 26 per cent Irish on Antigua; 22 per cent on Nevis; and 10 per cent on St Christopher. With Montserrat's slaves added in, the Irish still made up more than half of that Island's population.

The Montserrat Irish were, to an unprecedented extent, ruled by Irishmen: at least six of the island's seventeenth-century governors were Irish. The census was commissioned by Sir William Stapleton of Thurlesbegg, County Tipperary, a former governor of Montserrat and then governor of the Leeward islands.

The reasons why Montserrat became so Irish are still debated by historians. Among the factors suggested are over-population in nearby islands, ethnic prejudices, political disputes, and even linguistic differences. From an early date, it seems clear, English authorities looked on remote Montserrat as a safety valve to diffuse tensions among their West Indian subject.


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