The descendants of Irish people sold into slavery in the 1600s live in a close-knit community beset by poverty and ill health.
During the winter of 1636, a ship bearing a consignment of 61 men and women destined to be slaves on the plantations of Barbados slipped quietly out of Kinsale Harbor on Ireland’s rugged southern coast. By the time Captain Joseph West’s ship arrived in the Caribbean in January 1637, eight of the 61 had died. The remainder were sold, including ten to the governor of Barbados, for 450 pounds of sugar apiece. Captain West was instructed to return to London to sell the sugar and then proceed to Kinsale to procure another cargo of Irish slaves. That first small trickle soon became a human flood.
It was a lucrative business. An Irish white slave could be sold in Barbados for between £10 and £35.
In all, more than 50,000 Irish were transported from Ireland to Barbados (more were sent to other islands in the West Indies), many of them prisoners captured by Oliver Cromwell during the wars in Ireland and Scotland and following the Monmouth Rebellion. The slaves became known as Redlegs, almost certainly a reference to the sunburn they picked up in the hot tropical sun.
By the mid-1700s most were free, their places taken by Africans. However, minute books from the island show that no more than a fifth of those who were freed became farmers, owners, or artisans. The remainder formed a wretched, poor and isolated community. In 1689, the governor of Barbados, Colonel James Kendall, described the Redlegs as being “dominated over and used like dogs.” He suggested to the local assembly that the emancipated slaves be given two acres (0.8 hectares) of land, as was their due, but the assembly contemptuously turned down the request.
Today, the few hundred remaining Redlegs in Barbados, also known as the Baccra, a name they were given as they were only allowed to sit in the back row at church, stand out as anomalies in a predominantly black population, struggling for survival in a society that has no niche for them, looked down upon by both blacks and better-off whites.
There is a strong sense of community among the Redlegs. “If I need to eat, I go next door, and if they need to eat, they come to me,” 86-year-old Eustace Norris, who spent 30 years working in a factory in England before returning to Barbados, told me. And they are an insular community.
Despite having lived in Barbados for a number of years, I had only glimpsed these conspicuously poor, bare-footed individuals hauling coconuts up the hill in the New Castle district of Saint John Parish on the east coast of Barbados.
In order to get to know them better, I spent time with them in 2000 and again in 2008 and 2014. They were initially suspicious of me, but the fact that I had worked in the area helped to break the ice. And as one of them exclaimed, “Ah, that makes you Bajan.”
The Redlegs have retained a racial pride and a degree of aloofness from their black neighbors, mostly marrying within their own community. They do not know much about Ireland except that some of their ancestors came from there. Though one man I met, Wilson Norris, is passionate about Irish music and has a collection of CDs, these people are poor and their main concentration is on survival, not the past.
Ill health, inadequate housing, little ownership of land to produce their own food, and a lack of job opportunities have locked the community into a poverty trap that has hardly improved in the last century. Poor diet and a lack of dental care have left most of the older generation with either bad teeth or no teeth at all, and young people who don’t realize that this is preventable. Illnesses and premature deaths caused by blood diseases such as haemophilia (probably as a result of inbreeding) and diabetes have had a devastating effect on the community.
When I first visited Erlene Downie in 2000, she had been living alone for 33 years, following the death of her husband from leukemia. Her home had neither electricity nor running water, which she had to carry from a standpipe. Once a week, she boiled some water on a fire outside so that she could wash. To earn money, she collected coconuts, splitting them with a pick-axe and supplying the husks to a local nursery for orchid cultivation.
In 2008, I found Erlene, then 78 years old, still smiling, but living in even worse conditions. She had moved onto a plot beside her daughter’s house, where she lived in a wooden shack, again without running water, proper sanitation, or electricity. To make matters worse, she was sharing the tiny space with a nephew and her youngest son, who is a haemophiliac.
In 2000, I visited 78-year-old bachelor Chris Watson, who spent his whole life as a fisherman. The tropical sun had taken its toll on his fair skin, and his face was half destroyed by skin cancer left untreated for too long. Although he was living in appalling conditions, lying on a dirty mattress in a room bare of any other furniture, his wooden house was perched high on a hill with a breath-taking view of the wild Atlantic coast. I learned that Chris died soon after my visit.
I also spent time with Wilson and Louise Yearwood in 2000. They were living comfortably in a small, government-supplied wooden house. However, Wilson was unable to work as a result of operations for an ulcerated stomach and a hernia, and there was little money for basic necessities. I was glad to see them both again in 2008, but it was a great shock to discover that a house built for two was now housing their daughter, her boyfriend, and three small children. The young family shared the front room with a section partitioned for an adult bed. Wilson and Louise now used the kitchen as their main room with a section partitioned off for their bed. The toilet and very basic shower facility were in corrugated sheds in the back yard. An outside sink was used for washing clothes.
Returning With Music
In December 2014, I arrived in Barbados hoping that some had found a way out of poverty since my previous visits. People had grown older and the two amputees suffering from diabetes that I had photographed had died. Children had grown up and more children had been born. Eric Bailey had saved enough money from his previous job working on the roads to buy his own fishing boat. His brother Terence works in construction and has also built up a pack of Akita dogs through his own breeding plan. Each dog is vaccinated and in beautiful condition, but he says he cannot command the going price for them because of where he lives.
Erlene Downie is now 84 years old. She lives in a small wooden structure next to the homes of two of her daughters Ann and Hazel. Ann, who worked in Bridgetown for many years, including 13 years for Cave Sheppard, a large department store in town, proudly showed me a photograph of her granddaughter’s graduation – the first from the community to go to university, she is now studying for her master’s in law.
Ann’s husband Herbert is of mixed race, and of late there has been much more integration with the black population and there are many more mixed-race children. As attitudes towards matters of color, race, and class begin to change, those who don’t join the white middle class via better educational and job opportunities will, via mixed marriages, become absorbed into the black majority.
There was little change in circumstances from previous visits, but I was still welcomed with warm smiles and generous hugs. Though they liked my photographs, and I felt privileged that they allowed me in to their homes, I wanted to do more for these people I have come to know and respect. The opportunity came when I met musician Willie Kerr, an old friend, who for many years played with the very successful Merrymen band. Willie, who now lives and works in Barbados, helps to raise funds for disadvantaged and homeless in Bridgetown through The Love Day Project, an organization founded five years ago by musician Terry “Mexican” Arthur, a member of the band Square! (The exclamation point is part of the band’s name.)
Before and during Christmas that year, volunteers from Love Day set up tables, chairs, and food in Queens Park in Bridgetown and offered people breakfast, new clothes, haircuts, blood pressure checks, diabetes checks, and AIDS checks.
I suggested to Willie that they do something similar for the Irish descendants on the other side of the island. A plan was made and Willie, Terry, and fellow musician Lawrence Lorenzo Gittens duly turned up in St. Martin’s Bay armed with musical instruments, hampers, and Christmas gifts.
It was an important gesture that showed respect and appreciation for a forgotten people, and I was glad to have been able to share their story with others on the island, and elsewhere, and bring them back in the fold of the Irish diaspora.
Sheena Jolley is one of Ireland’s celebrated wildlife photographers. In 2013 she was IPPA Winner Best Wildlife Portfolio. In 2009 and 2015 she was a finalist in the BBC Wildlife photographer of the Year Competition. She has had many solo exhibitions of her work but now concentrates on exhibiting in her own gallery in Schull, County Cork, as well as through her website. For more of Sheena Jolley’s work, visit www.sheenajolleyphotography.com.