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Irish slaves in Jamaica

Irish Slave ChainsIn the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell succeeded in capturing the island of Jamaica from the Spanish and was keen to colonise it and put it to work for England. It was a much larger island than any other previously colonised in the Caribbean and required a new approach to populate it and make it viable. The initial plan was to offer freedom to indentured Irish slaves on the island of Barbados and elsewhere or to take more rebellious Irish slaves and transport them to Jamaica where they would be offered their freedom and 30 acres of land to work.

Cromwell also launched appeals within England and the Americas for planters to come to the new colony of Jamaica. This met with little success and so Cromwell increased his drive to liberate and offer land to indentured servants in Barbados. The policy met with resistance from the plantation owners of Barbados as one would expect. They quickly complained about being short of labour to work their sugar crops. Therefore, many plantation owners moved along with their slaves to Jamaica also and were granted land there. The requirement for labour could still not be met and so Cromwell again turned to his "man-catchers" in Ireland and ordered them to round up and transport several thousand women and "as many young men as could be lifted out of Ireland" to work on the plantations as slaves as had occurred in Barbados. There was also a request for 2000 children to be taken and transported to the colony to put them to work. There also seemed to be a plan as Henry Cromwell write to "make them English-men, I meane rather, Christaines". There was a belief at the time among Puritans that Roman Catholics were not in fact Christians. Conditions on Jamaica for Irish labourers were very poor. They worked long hours in searing heat and many died and were buried in the sugar fields in which they toiled. The death of slave in these conditions was rarely reported and so the fate of many remains unrecorded. There were severe punishments for those who attempted to escape. First offenders were whipped savagely and a year added to their term of servitude. Repeated escape attempts were punished with hangings. Slaves who struck salve owners or plantation owners were burned alive in a gruesome manner. A visitor to Jamaica in 1687 reports that "they are nailed to the ground with crooked sticks on every limb and then applying the fires by degrees from the feet, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their pains are extravagant".

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