Republican News · Thursday 20 February 1997

[An Phoblacht]

Island paradise recalls Irish slavery

Monument to commemorate Cromwell's Irish victims in the Caribbean

St. Kitts is one of those places holidaymakers dream about; beautiful unspoiled beaches on both the Caribbean and Atlantic sides of the island, luxury accommodation with all the amenities, tropical beauty preserved from overdevelopment by the strictest environmental laws in the Caribbean.

It is a place where the most physically fit can test their mettle on a night dive or the more sedentary nature lovers among us can relax while reveling at the sight of migrating whales frolicking in the narrow one mile channel separating St. Kitts from sister island Nevis. History lovers can visit the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton on Nevis and tourists from around the world have marveled at the massive Brimstone Hill Fortress. This 18th century series of fortifications and buildings are certainly among the most impressive and historically significant structures in all of the West Indies.

However, there is a bit of history of the island which until recently has gone overlooked by virtually all visitors. That is the history of the Irish who suffered during Cromwell's reign in the mid 1600's. St. Kitts was at the time the jewel of England's possessions in the New World as its shipping hub and largest sugar producer. Today several former sugar plantations have been renovated into exceptional resort properties such as Rawlins Plantation. Yet the 25,000 Irish men and women shipped in bondage as slaves by Cromwell to St. Kitts worked on these sugar plantations long before five star meals and Pina Coladas were being served. Never before exposed to tropical heat, sun, and insects after being torn from whatever was left of their families after Cromwell's army ravaged the country, the Irish faced misery as slave labourers.

English shipping of Irish slaves to the New World earlier in the 1600s has been documented in many works. In 1612 Irish people were sent to the Amazon River settlements. An English Proclamation of the year 1625 urges banishment overseas of dangerous rogues (Irish political prisoners). Ireland was already a prime source of supply for servants and by 1637 on Montserrat the Irish heavily outnumbered the English colonists; 69% of all white people on the island were Irish.

By 1650 during Cromwell's unfathomable reign of terror in Ireland the numbers of Irish sent into slavery were unlike anything previously experienced. Remember that in 1641 Ireland had a population of 1,466,000 and by 1652 the population was down to only 616,000. According to Sir William. Petty, ``850,000 were wasted by the sword, plague, famine, banishment during the Confederation War 1641-1652.'' By the end of the war estimates vary from 80,000 to 130,000 of Irish men, women and children captured for sale as slaves to labour in England's expanding empire. The English were quite proud of these accomplishments as can be noted in Prendergast, ``Thurloe's State Papers'' (published in London in 1742), ``It was a measure beneficial to Ireland, which was thus relieved of a population that might trouble the planters; it was a benefit to the people removed, who might thus be made English and Christian, a great benefit to the West Indies sugar planters, who desired men and boys for their bondsmen, and the women and Irish girls to solace them''. Under James I, Cromwell burned the Irish forests to prevent people hiding from banishment as well as clearing the countryside for pasture land to feed cattle for English beef.

Emmet asserted, ``Over 100,000 young children who were orphans or had been taken from their Catholic parents, were sent abroad into slavery in the West Indies, Virginia, and New England, that they might lose their faith and all knowledge of their nationality, for in most instances even their names were changed.'' Many of the 25,000 Irish slaves on St. Kitts died from tropical heat, disease, or overwork. Any Irish caught trying to escape was branded FT for Fugitive Traitor on their forehead. Other slaves were whipped, hung by their hands and set on fire, or beaten over the head until bloody for anything the English considered provocation. Over 150 Irish slaves were caught practicing Catholicism and were shipped to the tiny uninhabitable Crab Island where they were left to die of starvation. Of the Irish who managed to stay alive under these drastic conditions and their descendants, many were eventually shipped from the West Indies sugar plantation to the new English settlements in South Carolina.

It is this moving story that compelled the current Minister of St. Kitts, G. A. Dwyer Astaphan, to meet with Tom Culhane of Union, New Jersey and discuss his proposal to erect a suitable monument on the island in memory of the Irish slaves. By respectfully honouring their memory near the site where the Irish were unloaded and put up for sale it is hoped the souls of those departed will be forever remembered and this dark period of Irish history not be allowed to pass from the consciousness of people today and into the future.

Minister Astaphan, eager to proceed and duly commemorate the saga of Irish slavery, recently introduced legislation before the St. Kitts Parliament to grant a suitable parcel of land for the monument. Culhane envisions a base of Connemara marble with a bronze statue, possibly a foundation, surrounded by four plaques representing the provinces of Ireland, and four sets of steps around the base representing the 32 counties. It is hoped that $250,000 can be raised to cover all costs in this non-profit venture. Culhane feels the Irish around the world have been given a rare opportunity by Minister Astaphan; another country is now willing to help us tell the story of our shared Irish history. Tourists from around the world will view this monument for generations to come. Artists are invited to submit early renditions of a sculpture subject to final approval based on a committee including St. Kitts residents formed to select the winning design. Donors, corporate or private, interested in seeing the project move ahead quickly are invited to contact Tom Culhane at 954 Stuyvesant Ave., Union, NJ 07083. Phone 001 908 964-2772.

Perhaps it takes a small island nation with hospitable people to welcome a new idea such as The St Kitts Irish Slavery Monument.

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