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Cromwell's "ethnic cleansing"

Oliver Cromwell StatueFollowing the Confederation wars and Irish Rebellion of 1641, Oliver Cromwell set sail for Ireland from Milford Haven in 1649. His mission was to revenge the massacres of 1641 and to bring Ireland firmly under English rule. His forces numbered about 20,000 troops and the slaughter and

devastation they wreaked on towns such as Drogheda, Wexford, Waterford and Limerick are well documented. In the 10 years or so after 1641, the Irish population was reduced from 1.6 million to 1.1 million with the killing or expulsion of over half a million people.


His campaigns left the standing armies of Ireland soundly defeated and their remaining forces of about 35,000 - 40,000 men were considered by the British parliament to be too large to imprison. This was mostly based on the cost of maintaining such a large prisoner population. The decision was made therefore to allow the imprisoned Irish troops to leave the country and join the armies of any nation that was not at war with England. Therefore, large groups of soldiers set sail for Europe, some to the armies of the Netherlands and Poland, some to France, Spain and Austria. In general they were warmly recieved, having a strong reputation for being fierce and disciplined fighter. Henry IV of France had declared that "no nation produced better troops than the Irish" and declared Hugh O'Neill, who had defended Clonmel against Cromwell's armies, to be "the third soldier of his age".

Following the expulsion of the Irish armies, Cromwell began his massive campaign of land clearances, forcibly transporting almost three quarters of the population from Ulster, Leinster and Munster to the fourth and poorest province of Connaught in the west. Few were spared from these great land clearances and all classes of society who hadn't already fled the county, were forcibly evicted and allocated land in the poorer parts of Connaught. As one might imagine, the clearances were forcibly resisted by Irish landlords, soldiers who had refused to leave the country and those who had secretly returned from France and Spain.

Cromwell's response to this resistance was equally brutal. A proclamation in 1652, gave the Commissioners of Ireland the power to transport to the Carribean any person of any status in Ireland to that they considered to be a threat to the English Commonwealth. This included those landlords who had resisted transplanting to Connaught, Irish soldiers who had resisted the transplantations or those soldiers who had refused to leave the country for armies in Europe. Also, the expulsion of the armies of Ireland had left a very large number of women and children, wives and families of the expelled soldiers, in a destitute state, transplanted to Connaught and with no land or means to support themselves.

An order was passed stating that "Irish women as being too numberous now and therefore exposed to prostitution, be sold to merchants and transported to Virgnia, New England or other countries where they may support themselves by their labour".

These too were transported, meaning that women and children made up a large proportion of those sent to the West Indies. This numbered 50,000 in the 4 years following the Proclamation alone and may have numbered as many as 100,000 in total.

Agents patrolled the countryside, known as "man-catchers", rounding up those targetted for transportation to the colonies. They were armed, armed, travelled on horseback and carried large whips to herd people like cattle to the ports where they were shackled and branded before being shipped via the slave port of Bristol.

The agents received a fee of £4 for every person caught and transported and the trade was lucrative. The slave shippers in Bristol and Liverpool favoured the export of the Irish over their trade from Western Africa, although the Irish were more expensive than the £3 per head they paid for African slaves, the journey time was shorter and therefore, more profitable. Merchants in Bristol were therefore quick to petition Cromwell for a license to participate in this trade.

On arrival in Barbados, Antigua and Montserrat, the Irish were put to work on sugar plantations, working long days in poor conditions, subject to disease, malnourishment and terrible beatings as well death from hurricanes and other local conditions. Many accounts of the time describe how Irish slaves were treated as badly or worse than their African counterparts. There are accounts of several Irish rebellions on Barbados and Antiqua or joint rebellions between Irish and African slaves. A writer of the time described how the plantation workers were treated more like "beasts of burden than human creatures.

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