To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland

'When those earlier Wild Geese had fled, in 1652, the Cromwellian whores had taken the women and children and sailed them down the Shannon and the Lee to the Barbadoes. In their tens of thousands they had turned black under the sun — cooked in a Barbadoes bastible; or dead, their bodies blacker, or rebellious, their Irish bodies red from the whips... There were Die-hards among those that remained, 'No Surrender' men, gunmen, who were to become Raparees, and rove the hills, and raid the settling conquerors, and sleep, and be cold and hungry under the trees...'
( from Sean O'Faoilean 'King of the Beggars'.)

King James 1

Between 1652 and 1659 over 50,000 Irish men, women and children were transported from Ireland to the West Indies, and to Virginia in the U.S. While much has been written of the coffin ships that ferried their human cargo to America and Canada very little is recorded or known of those who were shipped to the West Indies. As with other such schemes the reason for their deportation was made clear by King James 1 of England: 'Root out the Papists and fill it [Ireland] with Protestants' he declared.

Earlier, Lord Ormonde, lieutenant general of the English in Ireland at the time, was ordered 'to burn, spoil, waste, consume, destroy and demolish all the places, towns and houses,' where the rebel Irish are to be found. No one, not even children, were to be spared. A book written in 1675: 'The Moderate Cavalier, or the Soldiers Description of Ireland, A Book fit for all Protestant Houses in Ireland.' contains this chilling verse:

'Brave Sir Charles Coote I honour;
Who in his father's steps so trod
As to the rebels was the scourge or rod
Of the Almighty. He by good advice
Did kill the nits, that they might not grow to lice.'

Sligo's Sir John Temple and the Irish
Pamphlets published during the English Civil War (1642-1651), and a book written by Sir John Temple (forbear of Lord Palmerston of Classiebawn Castle, Co. Sligo) fuelled the loathing of the English for the Irish. An extract is sufficent to show the virulence of the hatred that the Puritans had for the Irish people:
'These Irish, anciently called Anthropophagi (maneaters) have a tradition among them, that when the devil showed our Saviour all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory he would not show him Ireland, but reserved it for himself... they are the very offal of men, dregs of mankind, reproach of Christendom, the bots that crawl on the beast's tail... Cursed is he that holdeth back his sword from blood; yea, cursed be he that maketh not his sword drunk with Irish blood.'

It was against this background that, " in 1636, a ship sailed out of Kinsale bound for Barbados. Its cargo? Sixty-one Irish people destined to join thousands of others as slaves and indentured servants."
So writes photographer Sheena Jolley  who met their descendents, known as the 'Red Legs', who still live there today. She has given SligoHeritage permission to print her article which appeared recently in the Irish Times. A documentary based on her research has also being aired on TG4:

"Having succeeded in recruiting Irish men to die in the services of France, Spain, Poland and Italy, Cromwell turned his attention to others – men and women press-ganged by soldiers, taken to Cork and shipped to Bristol where they were sold as slaves and transported to Barbados.
This included the landlords who refused to transplant and whose properties had been confiscated by Cromwellian settlers, men who refused to join foreign armies, children from hospitals and workhouses and many prisoners. It was a lucrative business.

The Irish in Barbados Now
Today, behind the facade of a lush green, rural setting, the descendents of those transported still remain – a poor, white population of around 400 known as the Red Legs. During visits in 2000 and 2008 I found a proud and friendly people. But behind their freckled faces was a sadness. It seems that time has not erased the effects of ill treatment and degradation. Their ancestors would have been branded, lashed by planters, mortgaged, sold, gambled or given as debts. They became a wretched, isolated and suppressed community.
History relates that the Red Legs were an ambitionless and lazy group. But, marred by class distinction, afflicted by cruelty, malnutrition, the difficulty of labouring under a strong sun, high susceptibility to and dire effects of infections and diseases, it’s said that it was difficult for members of this community to have any self-respect, let alone have the energy or inclination to work.
Today, most Red Legs have bad or no teeth due to poor diet and lack of dental care. Illnesses and premature deaths due to haemophilia and diabetes have left men blind and without limbs. They are no longer plagued by the old diseases of hookworm, typhoid, and cholera, but school absenteeism, poor health, the ill effects of inter-family marriage, large families, little ownership of land and lack of job opportunities have locked those remaining on the island into a poverty trap. Even today the Red Legs still stand out as anomalies and are hard pressed for survival in a society that has no niche for them.

Wilson and Louise Yearwood live in a small timber house with their daughter, her boyfrind and children (below) Photo: Sheena Jolley

No running water or electricity
Erlene Downie (pic below) left school at the age of 14 when her father died of leukaemia to help raise 11 younger siblings. When we first met in 2000, she had been living alone for 33 years after her husband also died of the disease. She had neither electricity nor running water and fetched water from a standpipe. To earn money she collected coconuts, splitting them with a pickaxe and supplying the husks to a nursery for growing orchids. In 2008, Erlene was living in even worse conditions, in a wooden hut, and still without running water, proper sanitation or electricity. She was sharing this tiny space with a nephew and the youngest of her five children.

The Yearwood family Photo: Sheena Jolley
Eric Bailey with grandaunt Erlene Downie. Eric had ambitions to be a cabinet-maker. Now he works as a labourer on the roads. Photo: Sheena Jolley

! first met Erlene’s great nephew Eric Bailey in 2000 as arather sad and wistful 17-year-old with ambitions of becoming a cabinet-maker. When we met again, he was labouring on the roads. His younger brother Terrence was looking after the ducks, rabbits and pigs.

John Farnum has not worked for many years having had a leg amputated as a result of diabetes and is now virtually blind. He had owned four fishing boats but says he felt his black workers “try to lower the white man” and “decided to sell”. His family makes a scanty livelihood by cultivating small patches of earth growing bananas, yam, potatoes and breadfruit. His stepson Jeffrey helps work the land and spread bagasse, a by-product of sugarcane, used to feed hens.

Irish Slaves, now Red Legs
In 2000 Wilson and Louise Yearwood (pic above left) were living comfortably in a small government-supplied timber house. Wilson was unable to work due to an ulcerated stomach and a hernia. On my return visit, they were sharing their house with their daughter, her boyfriend and three small children. The young family shared the front room.
Wilson and Louise use the kitchen as their main room, with a section partitioned off for their bed. The toilet facilities are in corrugated sheds in the back yard. Still they smiled and welcomed me into their home. Louise excitedly told me that she had recently seen the whole island for the first time as, at the age of 65, she now qualifies for free bus transport.
The Red Legs have retained an ethnic pride, mostly marrying within their own community. There is now more integration with the black population and faint beginnings of new attitudes towards colour, race and class. Peter Simmons, in a report for the ministry of education in Barbados, suggested that a solution to the poverty and stigma of being a Red Leg is better education and intermarriage with the middle class blacks. He wrote: “Born with a brown skin and armed with a basic education, these children shall never know what it really means to be a Red Leg.”
These photographs, as well as illustrating the obvious current poverty, should show the courage, humour, and dignity of the Red Leg community in spite of their hardships. I experienced a special kindness, warmth and generosity that was demonstrated, even though they have little to give.
They illustrate a society hampered by psychological problems as well as physical circumstances forcing them into a position from which they cannot yet escape.

To Hell or Barbados: 400 Years Later
It is sobering to realise that the descendants of the first Irish slaves remain prisoners, almost 400 years later, albeit now of circumstance. History has been unkind to these people; poverty is, to quote George Bernard Shaw, “the greatest of evils and worst of crimes”. At first glance, it would appear that the Red Legs of Barbados are locked into a hopeless situation, but greater opportunities and encouragement and better education combined with an optimistic hope for a better future could see them experience a very different future."

Erlene Downey left school at 14, she lives without electricity or running water. Photo Sheena Jolley

Further reading:

Prendergast, John P.: Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland
O'Callaghan, Sean: To Hell or Barbados
Sheena Jolley's website:

Emigration to Canada:

This comment from an American correspondent (Oct.2013):
"In June 2010 my wife and I visited Barbados for a weeks holiday. One of my reasons for going besides spending family time was to see what information existed on the redlegs. I contacted via email a travel company there that claimed to specialize in historical tours and indicated my interest in the Irish slave influx of the 17th cent. I never received an answer. While there I made some inquiries regarding the redleg population and received very little information. I was told that most lived in a specific district and that they were a generally a poor lot."



website copyright Joe McGowan 2005. design: mangiare