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The price of a cup of sugar

December 31, 2011

We are all familiar with the story of the potato, late blight and the Irish diaspora but how many are aware of the transport of 50,000 Irish slaves to service the sugar plantations of Barbados. I must admit to having had a vague knowledge of the history and plight of the ‘redlegs of Barbados’, and was certainly not aware of the close links to sugarcane and imperialism. I did have some understanding of the impact of the introduction of sugar and sugar cane plantations to Latin America through Eduardo Galeano’s excellent Open Veins of Latin America and the oppression and exploitation it contributed to there but that included little, if anything on the ‘redlegs’ narrative. I certainly know more now, having stumbled across an article by Sheena Jolley in a recent issue of Geographical magazine which provided many useful additional leads. Rounded up by Cromwell’s armies, the ‘redlegs’ forebearers were sold into penury as indentured labourers and servants on the sugar plantations of Barbardos in the 1600s to satisfy the tastes and desires of an English aristocrate elite. Ten of those arriving in 1637 aboard Captain Joseph West’s ship which sailed from Kinsale were sold to the governor of Barbados for 450 pounds of sugar apiece. Barbados is certainly not  a place where a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. The poverty of the ‘redlegs’ continues to this day with the majority of descendents living in squalor, ill-health, marginalised with little or no access to land or basic services. But it is heartening to see that others have taken up their plight. Moondance Films have made a documentary recently broadcast on TG4 and Sean O’ Callaghan has written To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland a few years back. Of course it never stops there. Few are the injustices or atrocities that have not made their way into song. Here is Damien Dempsey’s take on it all.

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