'Yella hair, speckled face and day feet brick red is fo' dat we does call dem de Redlegs'
(Folk song, 1974)
During the winter of 1636, a ship bearing a consignment of 61 men and women slipped quietly out of Kinsale in County Cork on Ireland's rugged south coast. Destined to be indentured servants on the plantations of Barbados, they were the forebears of a forgotten people who still live on the island.
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 indentured servants, and that first small trickle soon became a human flood. It was a lucrative business. An Irish white slave cost about 5 [pounds sterling] and could be sold in Barbados for between 10 [pounds sterling] and 35 [pounds sterling]. It was an age of intolerance and bigotry against the Irish, and the white Irish slaves were regarded as savages and their religion as unchristian.
In all, more than 50,000 'white slaves' had been transported from Ireland to Barbados by the time the trade ended in 1657, many of them prisoners captured by Oliver Cromwell during the wars in Ireland and Scotland and following the Monmouth Rebellion. The white slaves became known as Redlegs, almost certainly a reference to the sunburn they picked up in the hot tropical sun. It's thought that it was first applied to the kilt-wearing Scots, but the term, along with a number of similar variants, was used at the time for Irish soldiers of the sort transported to Barbados.
By 1680, most were free. Indentured servants were on their way out, their places taken by Africans. However, minute books from the island show that no more than a fifth of the indentured servants who were freed became farmers, owners or artisans. There's no record of what happened to the other 80 per cent, but it's likely that the majority emigrated.
Those who remained formed a wretched, poor and isolated community that was accepted by neither the rich plantation owners nor subsequently by the other black slaves. 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 freed servants be given two acres (0.8 hectares) of land, as was their due, but the assembly contemptuously turned down the request.
It seems incongruous that behind the facade of a lush, green, idyllic rural setting on the east coast of Barbados lives a small, very poor, white population, the descendants of these same indentured servants and slaves. Today, the few hundred remaining Redlegs 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 the blacks and better-off whites.
Despite having lived in Barbados for a number of years, I had never met any of the Redlegs, but had glimpsed these conspicuously poor, bare-footed individuals hauling coconuts up the hill in the New Castle district of Saint John parish. None of my well-off Bajan friends had ever visited them, although a few had occasionally employed those who ventured into Bridgetown or worked on sugar plantations.
In order to get to know and understand the Redlegs, I spent time with them in 2000 and again in 2008. They were initially suspicious of me, but the fact that I had worked in the area helped to break the ice. As one Redleg exclaimed: 'Ah, that makes you Bajan. …