Cromwell and the ‘Irish Slave’ meme are derailing attempts to combat racism online


THE murder of George Floyd has given rise to a movement or ‘moment’, to steal a Starmerist term, that has humbled mighty institutions and laid low figures once deemed fit for public adoration. 

Oxford University’s statue to Cecil Rhodes, the master patron of colonial endeavours, and Bristol-based slavery magnate Edward Colston being the most high-profile ‘losers’.

Sustaining this historical reckoning has been a wider reflection on Britain development as a global power, bringing all the inhuman drivers of that rise to the surface.

This revisiting has not been restricted to solely ‘black history’ but other historically oppressed racial and minority groups as well

READ MORE: Oliver Cromwell’s legacy should not be spared in Britain’s cultural reckoning

Oliver Cromwell’s pride of place in British history, for instance, has been questioned by Redaction Politics and others over his bloodthirsty conduct in Ireland. 

Second and third-generation Irish in the UK face none of the systematic discriminations that have brought thousands onto the streets in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

Their ancestors, however, would find tales of wrongful deportation and brutalisation at the hands of the police all too akin to their experience living under the British Empire.

Anti-Catholic penal laws made the majority of the Irish population de jure second class citizens from the Cromwellian era until finally gaining complete emancipation in 1829.

The heavy restrictions including being banned from formal education denied voting rights and barred from marrying into privileged Anglo-protestant society.

This overt discrimination and segregational society these laws maintained gave rise to the old adage the ‘Irish are the blacks of Europe.’  

Indeed, Cromwell had Irish prisoners of war shipped to Barbados in the 1640s and such actions saw thousands sent to the Caribbean against their will throughout the 17th Century.

This particular fact among Cromwell’s litany of cruelties has been latched onto by white nationalist seeking to underplay the colossal crimes inherent in the Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans.

The ‘Irish slave’ meme has reemerged like Colston from Bristol harbour as far-right social media accounts scramble to confront the popular anti-racist movement building around the BLM slogan. 

This narrative rests on wilful ignorance over the difference between indentured servitude, of which the Irish were bound, and the racialised chattel slavery imposed on imported Africans and their descendants. 

As well as archival sources providing ample evidence of Irish slave traders and plantation owners.

Independent scholars and academics have fervently debunked this false-equivalence online. 

One Irish historian, Liam Hogan has collected hundreds of examples of the racist memes on Twitter and on Facebook, including one which was shared nearly 100,000 times in just over a week.  

Failure to hold an open conversation around Cromwell, his legacy and public commemoration has allowed slavery apologists to hijack a sad chapter in Irish history.

So whichever way Cromwell’s statue falls, let it be on the side of an open and honest reckoning with the past and not a dangerous distortion of it.

Featured Image: Stuart Caie @Flickr

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