Na Redlegs - The Invisible Irish in Barbados

This article was written by Sheena Jolley and published by The Irish Times on 19 December 2009.

AN ESTIMATED 50,000 “white slaves” were transported from Ireland to Barbados between 1652 and 1657. 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. 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.

To-day, most Red Legs lose their teeth prematurely 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.

Erlene Downie 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.  first met Erlene’s great nephew Eric Bailey in 2000 as a rather 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.

In 2000 Wilson and Louise Yearwood 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 NOW 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. 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.

Article was written by Sheena Jolley and published by the The Irish Times, Weekend Review, Saturday December 19 2009


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