History, Travel

Who are the Black Irish?

Fun fact; did you know the Barbadian singer and fashion icon Rihanna has Irish ancestry?

Indeed, through her father, the ‘Work’ singer has what Bajan’s call ‘Redleg’ genes. Many of the Redlegs’ ancestors were forcibly transported by Oliver Cromwell consequent to his Conquest of Ireland. Others had originally arrived on the shores of Barbados in the early 17th century as “indentured servants”. History books will tell a different tale of these ”indentured servants” but luckily I have stumbled upon an informative article (with picture evidence) of today’s Bajan Redlegs.

Rihanna and her father Ronald Fenty


Written by Irish photographer Sheena Jolley – “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.”
“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.”

Danny Fenty
Danny Fenty as described by Sheena- “He is related to the singer Rianna whose immediate family originated from the same district.”


Sheena continues to explain – “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.”

Erlene Downie and Betty Fenty
Erlene Downie (left) and Betty Fenty, who is the great aunt of singer Rihanna.


By the 18th century, the Irish slaves became less common as they were now paid. African slaves were trained in all necessary trades, so there was no demand for paid white labour. The Redlegs, in turn, were unwilling to work alongside the freed slave population on the plantations. Therefore, most tried to emigrate to other British colonies whenever the opportunity arose, which reduced the white population to a small minority; and most of the white population that chose to stay eked out, at best, a subsistence living.

As Sheena describes in her post “George Highland Hickson with his breadfruit tree.”

The Redleg descendants of indentured servants today are extremely poor, almost all living in shacks in the countryside. Many Redlegs reside in St. John’s Parish. For the small Redleg community still living on Barbados, most live a poorer standard of life than the black population, relying on farming or running small shops and brothels that serve the wealthier black population.

Music and a Helping Hand
Erlene Downie being helped back to her own house by daughters Hazel (on left) and Ann (on right) and serenaded by Willie Kerr of The Merrymen band so well known in Barbados for years.”

Oliver Cromwell is highly controversial among historians for his brutality in Ireland. But it is argued he is to blame for the worst atrocities committed in Ireland, such as mass evictions, killings and deportation of over 50,000 men, women and children as prisoners of war and indentured servants to Bermuda and Barbados. Some even say he is to blame for the famine and the plague which resulted after the wars which came as a result of the Cromwellian conquest.

One thing is for sure though…the Irish too were once slaves; The forgotten slaves.



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