Black Lunney’s


For several years, I have been aware of the fact that there are a few Lunney’s with African ancestry living in the southern United States and in the Caribbean.  Uncomfortable that I might discover some involvement with slavery by colonial members of our clan, I put off digging into the matter.  But curiosity overcame fear of the unknown, so I did some digging.  What I uncovered was more of a shock than what I had feared.  "Black" Lunney’s apparently originated from islands in the Caribbean, and are likely the descendants of both Irish and African slaves…descendants of white Lunney’s who may have been sold into slavery in Ireland, shipped to Caribbean islands, and then mated with African slaves there.  



The following extract, if accurate, gives some of the  history and scale of the white slave trade in Ireland:

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English privateers captured 300 African negroes, sold them as slaves, and initiated the English slave trade in the "New World". Slavery was, of course, an old commerce dating back to earliest history. Julius Caesar enslaved over a million people from defeated Celtic and Germanic tribes in Gaul and shipped them to Rome, the principal source of his vast wealth.  By the 16th century, Arabs were the most active slavers, capturing many peoples, not just Africans, and selling them to slave ship owners.  Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish ships were intially the most active in the trade, supplying slaves to the early Spanish colonies in the America’s.  


After the Battle of Kinsale in Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, the English were faced with the problem of some 30,000 Irish military prisoners, which they solved by creating an official policy of "banishment".  Banishment, however, did not solve the problem entirely.  Banished soldiers were not allowed to take their wives and children with them.  The result was a growing population of homeless women and children, who became a "public nuisance",  so King James II authorized the selling of these Irish as slaves to planters and settlers in the New World colonies.   The first Irish slaves were sold to a settlement on the Amazon River in South America in 1612.  It would probably be more accurate to say that the first “recorded” sale of Irish slaves was in 1612.


Almost as soon as settlers landed in America, English privateers showed up with a ship load of slaves to sell. The first cargo of African slaves brought to Virginia arrived at Jamestown in 1619.  The early demand was greatest in the Spanish-occupied areas of Central and South America, but the settlement of North America moved steadily ahead, and the demand for slave labor there grew rapidly.


The Proclamation of 1625 ordered that Irish political prisoners be transported overseas and sold as laborers to English planters, who were then settling the islands of the West Indies, officially establishing a policy that was to continue for two centuries.  In 1629, a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the majority of slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies.  By 1637, a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.  Although African negroes were better suited to work in the semi-tropical climates of the Caribbean, they were very expensive to purchase, while the Irish were "free for the plucking", so to speak.   But there were not enough political prisoners to supply the demand, so any petty infraction in Ireland became an offence that carried a sentence of enslavement and transport.  Slaver gangs combed the Irish countryside to kidnap enough people to fill-out their quotas.  It is not surprising that Ireland became the largest source of stock for the English slave trade.


The Confederation War broke out in Ireland in 1641, as the Irish attempted to overthrow the English, something that seemed to happen at least once every generation.  In the 12-year period, during and following the Confederation revolt from 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed and 300,000 were sold as slaves by the English, and the indigenous Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to only 616,000. But even worse was yet to come.


In 1649, Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland, attacked Drogheda and slaughtered some 30,000 Irish living in the city.  Cromwell reported: “I do not think 30 of their whole number escaped with their lives. Those that did are in safe custody in the Barbados.”  A few months later, in 1650, 25,000 Irish were sold to planters on the island of St. Kitts.  During the 1650’s decade of Cromwell’s reign of terror, over 100,000 Irish children, usually from 10 to 14 years old, were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.  In fact, more Irish were sold as slaves to the American colonies from 1651 to 1660 than the total existing “free” population of the Americas.  But all did not go smoothly with Cromwell’s "relocation" plan, when Irish slaves revolted in Barbados in 1649.  Their bloody revolt failed and they were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads were put on pikes, prominently displayed around Bridgetown as a warning to others. Cromwell then fought two quick wars against the Dutch in 1651, and thereafter monopolized the slave trade. Four years later, he seized Jamaica from Spain, which then became the center of the English slave trade in the Caribbean.


On 14 August 1652, Cromwell began an ethnic cleansing of Northern Ireland, ordering that the Irish were to be transported overseas, starting with 12,000 Irish prisoners sold to Barbados. The infamous “Connaught or Hell” proclamation was issued on May 1, 1654, when all Irish were ordered to be removed from their lands in Ulster,  and be relocated west of the Shannon, or be transported to the West Indies.  With no place to go and stay alive, the Irish were slow to respond to this proclamation.  This delay was an embarrassing problem for Cromwell, as he had financed his Irish expeditions through business investors, who were promised Irish estates as dividends, and his soldiers were promised freehold land in exchange for their services.  To speed up the relocation process, a reinforcing law was passed on June 26, 1657 stating: “Those who fail to transplant themselves into Connaught or Co. Clare within six months… Shall be attained of high treason… are to be sent into America or some other parts beyond the seas… those banished who return are to suffer the pains of death as felons by virtue of this act, without benefit of Clergy.”


Although it was not a crime to kill any Irish, and soldiers were often encouraged to do so, the slave trade proved too profitable to permit the continued wholesale slaughter of the Irish.  Privateers and chartered shippers sent slaver gangs out with quotas to fill.  As they scoured the Irish countryside, these gangs kidnapped a number of English too. On March 25, 1659, a petition of 72 Englishmen was received in London, claiming they were illegally “now in slavery in the Barbados”’. The petition also claimed that "7,000-8,000 Scots taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester in 1651 were sold to the British plantations in the New World,” and that “200 Frenchmen had been kidnapped, concealed and sold in Barbados for 900 pounds of cotton each."


Subsequently, some 52,000 Irish, mostly women and sturdy boys and girls, were sold to Barbados and Virginia.  Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also taken prisoners and ordered transported and sold as slaves.  In 1656, Cromwell’s Council of State ordered that 1000 Irish girls and 1000 Irish boys be rounded up and taken to Jamaica to be sold as slaves to English planters. As horrendous as these numbers sound, it may reflect only a portion of the evil program, as much of the slaving activity was not recorded.  


There were no tears shed amongst the Irish when Cromwell died in 1660.  The Irish welcomed the restoration of the monarchy when Charles II was crowned, but it proved a short-lived welcome.  After reviewing the profitability of the slave trade, King Charles II chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers in 1662, which later became the Royal African Company. The Royal Family, including Charles II, the Queen Dowager and the Duke of York then contracted to supply at least 3000 slaves annually to their chartered company. They far exceeded their quotas. There are records of Irish sold as slaves in 1664 to the French on St. Bartholomew.   English ships, which often made a stop in Ireland en route to the Americas, would take on a cargo of Irish slaves. Few people today realize that from 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans.


There has been a lot of "whitewashing" of the Irish slave trade, partly by not mentioning it, and partly by labeling slaves as "indentured servants". There were indeed “indentureds”, including English, French, Spanish and even a few Irish.  But there is a great difference between slaves and indentureds.  Indentures bind two or more parties in mutual obligations.  Servant indentures were agreements between an individual and a shipper in which the individual agreed to sell his services for a period of time in exchange for passage, and during his service, he would receive proper housing, food, clothing, and usually a piece of land at the end of the term of service. It is believed that some of the Irish that went to the Amazon settlement after the Battle of Kinsale, and up to 1612, were exiled military who went voluntarily, probably as “indentureds” to Spanish or Portuguese shippers. However, from 1625 onward, the Irish were sold, pure and simple as slaves. There were no indenture agreements, no protection, no choice. They were captured and turned over to shippers to be sold for their profit.  The profits were great, generally 900 pounds of cotton for a single slave.


Although Africans and Irish were housed together, and were the property of their planter owners, the Africans often received better treatment than did the Irish.  In the British West Indies, planters routinely tortured white slaves for any infraction.  Owners would hang Irish slaves by their hands and then set their hands or feet afire as a means of punishment.  To end this barbarity, Colonel William Brayne wrote to English authorities in 1656 urging the importation of African negro slaves on the grounds that, "as the planters would have to pay much more for them, they would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of  the Irish"…many of whom, he charged, were killed by overwork and cruel treatment.  African negroes cost generally about 20 to 50 pounds Sterling, compared to only about 5 pounds Sterling for the Irish.  Africans were also more durable in the hot climate, and caused fewer problems.


Irish prisoners were commonly enslaved for a fixed term of service or sentance, so theoretically they would eventually become free.  In practice, many of the slavers sold the Irish as prisoners of servitude for periods of 7 to 10 years.  Fortunately, some of the Irish were literate, often more so than the plantation owners, and consequently some were used as house servants, account keepers, scribes and teachers rather than field slaves.  But any infraction was dealt with the same severity, whether African or Irish, field worker or domestic servant. Floggings were common, and if a planter beat an Irish slave to death, it was not a crime, only a financial loss, and a lesser loss than killing a more expensive African slave.  Parliament eventually passed the Act to Regulate Slaves on British Plantations in 1667, designating authorized punishments to include whippings and brandings for slave offenses against a Christian.


The planters began breeding their slaves to create a permanently enslaved population.  Children of slaves were automatically slaves, and although an Irish slave might become free, her children born as slaves could not.   Planters bred Irish women with African men to produce slaves who had lighter skin and brought a higher price.  The practice became so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed “forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale.”  The legislation was not the result of any moral consideration, but rather because the practice was undercutting the profits of the Royal African Company.  From 1680 to 1688 alone, the Royal African Company sent 249 shiploads of slaves to the Indies and American Colonies.


I am stunned…I previously knew nothing about this apparently enormous white slave trade in Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries…yet another fact of Irish history omitted from textbooks.



1 Comment

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One response to “Black Lunney’s

  1. Sinead

    I read a book to Hell or Barbados which uncovers the ethnic cleansing of Ireland during the time of the Slave trade, a must read for any person interested in that part of our history, written by Sean O\’ Callaghan, very good read.

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