Blacks, Irish, American Indians

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 8 14:22:47 PDT 1998

(From Theodore W. Allen's "The Invention of the White Race" Vol. 1, pp. 32-36)

The assault upon the tribal affinities, customs, laws and institutions of the Africans, the American Indians and the Irish by English/British and Anglo-American colonialism reduced all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population. This is the hallmark of racial oppression in its colonial origins, and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts.


Of the bond-laborers who escaped to become leaders of maroon settlements before 1700, four had been kings in Africa. Toussaint L'Ouverture was the son of an African chieftain, as was his general, Henri Christophe, a subsequent ruler of Haiti, who died in 1820 It is notable that the names of these representatives of African chieftaincy have endured only because the) successfully revolted and threw off the social death of racial oppression that the European colonizers intended for them. One "Moorish chief," Abdul Rahamah, was sold into bondage in Mississippi early in the nineteenth century. Abou Bekir Sadliki endured thirty years of bondage in Jamaica before being freed from post-Emancipation "apprenticeship" in Jamaica. The daughter of an "Ebo" (Ibo?) king and her daughter Christiana Gibbons living in Philadelphia in 1833, having been freed from chattel bondage earlier by their Georgia mistress. We can never know how many more cans were stripped of all vestiges of the social distinction they had known in their homelands by a social order predicated upon "the subordination of the class to every free white person," however base.

In taking note of the plight of Africans shipped as bond-laborers to Anglo-American plantations and deprived of their very names, Adam Smith in 1759 touched the essence of the matter of racial oppression. "Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind," he wrote, "than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of Europe." A century later the United Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional principle that any "white" man, however degraded, was the social superior of any African-American, however cultured and independent in means.

This hallmark of racial oppression in the United States was no less tragically even after the abolition of chattel bond-servitude. In 1867, the newly freed African-Americans bespoke the tragic indignation of generations yet to virtuous aspirations of our children must be continually checked by the knowledge that no matter how upright their conduct, they will be looked less worthy of respect than the lowest wretch on earth who wears a white skin.


A delegation of the Cherokee nation went to Washington to appeal first me Court and then to President Andrew Jackson to halt the treaty-breaking "Indian Removal" policy, designed to drive them from their ancestral homes. The delegation included men who were not only chosen chiefs of their tribe but had succeeded in farming and commerce to become "Cherokee planter-merchants." Their appeals were rebuffed; President Jackson was well pleased with the decision of the Supreme Court denying the Cherokees legitimacy as an independent tribal entity in relation to the United States.

This was a culmination, as well as a beginning. Proposals made over a two decades by church groups and by the Secretary of War for the on of the Indians by intermarriage had been rejected. At the same independent tribal rights of the Indians were challenged by United States "frontier" aggression. As a consequence of this rejection on the one hand and the disallowance of tribal self-existence on the other, the individual Indian, or whatever degree of social distinction, was increasingly exposed to personal degradation by any "white" person. In 1823, the Cherokee John Ridge (son of Major Ridge), a man of considerable wealth, supplied out of his own experience this scornful definition of racial oppression of the Indian:

"An frowned upon by the meanest peasant, and the scum of the earth are considered sacred in comparison to the son of nature. If an Indian is educated in the sciences, has a good knowledge of the classics, astronomy, mathematics, moral and natural philosophy, and his conduct equally modest and polite, yet he is an Indian, and the most stupid and illiterate white man will disdain and triumph over this worthy individual. It is disgusting to enter the house of a white man and be stared at full face in inquisitive ignorance."


>From early in the thirteenth century until their power entered a
two-and-a-half-century eclipse in 1315, the English dealt with the contradictions between English law and Irish tribal Brehon law by refusing to recognize the latter, at the same time denying the Irish admittance to the writs and rights of English law.

In 1277, high Irish churchmen, having secured support among powerful tribal chieftains, submitted a petition to the English king Edward I, offering to pay him 8,000 marks in gold over a five-year period for the general enfranchisement of free Irishmen under English law. The king was not himself unwilling to make this grant of English law. But he thought he ought to get more money for it, and so the Irish three years later raised the offer to 10,000 marks.

What was being asked was not the revolutionary reconstitution of society but merely the abandonment of a "racial" distinction among freemen ruled by English law in Ireland. In the end the king left the decision to the Anglo-Norman magnates of Ireland, and they declined to give their assent. Referring to a replay of this issue which occurred some years later, Sir John Davies concluded, "The great [English] Lordes of Ireland had informed the king that the Irishry might not be naturalized, without damage and prejudice either to themselves, or to the Crowne."

Irish resentment and anger found full voice in the wake of the Scots invasion effected in 1315 at the invitation of some Irish tribes. In 1317, Irish chieftains led by Donal O'Neill, king of Tyrone, joined in a Remonstrance to John XXII, Pope to both English and Irish. In that manifesto the Irish charged that the kings of England and the Anglo-Norman "middle nation" had practiced genocide against the Irish, "enacting for the extermination of our race most pernicious laws." The manifesto presented a four-count indictment: (1) Any Englishman could bring an Irishman into court on complaint or charge, but "every Irishman, except prelates, is refused all recourse to the law by the vet) fact [of being Irish]"; (2) "When ... some Englishman kills an Irishman... no punishment or correction is inflicted;" (3) Irish widows of English men were denied their proper portion of inheritance; and (4) Irish men were denied the right to bequeath property.

Whatever exactly the remonstrants meant by their word "race," their grievances, like those of the African-Americans and the American Indians I have cited, bore the hallmark of racial oppression. From the Petition of 1277 to the Remonstrance of 1317, it was specifically the legal status of the free Irish men, rather than the unfree, which was at issue.

"The really peculiar feature about the situation in Ireland is that the free Irishman who had not been admitted to English law was, as far as the royal courts were concerned, in much the same position as the betagh [the Irish laborer bound to the land]."


In each of these historical instances, a society organized on the basis of the segmentation of land and other natural resources under private, heritable titles, and having a corresponding set of laws and customs, acting the direction of its ruling class brings under its colonial authority people societies organized on principles of collective, tribal tenure of land and other al resources, and having their respective corresponding sets of laws and us. "In each of these confrontations of incompatible principles, the colonizing power institutes a system of rule of a special character: designed to disregard and delegitimate the hierarchical social--tribal, kinship--distinctions previously existing among the people brought under colonial rule. The members of the subjugated group, stripped of their tribal and kinship identity are rendered institutionally naked to their enemies, completely deprived of the shield of social identity and the corresponding self-protective of the tribal and kinship associations that were formerly theirs. Although are to be made slaves of the colonizing power, the object is social death subjugated group as a whole, whether individually and in groups they are forcibly torn from their home country to serve abroad among strangers, or are made strangers in their own native land. They are "desocialized by the brutal rupture of the relations which characterize the social person," the kinship and even the unit family relationships that constituted their identity. They are to be allowed only one social tie, that which attache[s] them unilaterally to" the colonizing power.

Once the conquest is complete, the "clash of cultures" takes on the flesh-blood form of a host of colonists with newly acquired property claims. These interests, and their concomitant social and legal attributes, once more the subject people from admittance to the common law of the colonizing power, although tribal and kinship--group law and custom have been overthrown.

The social death of the subjugated people is followed by social resurrection new forms from which they take up the task of overthrowing racial oppression. In some cases, the ruling power is able to maintain its dominance by co-opting a stratum of the subject population into the system of social control. In thus officially establishing a social distinction among the oppressed, the colonial power transforms its system of social control from racial on to national oppression. In the nineteenth century, the Haitian nation represented the failure of this colonial policy of co-optation; British policy in the West Indies, and the policy of Union with Britain and catholic Emancipation in Ireland, represented its success. On the other hand, in continental Anglo-America and in the Union of South Africa, the colonial power succeeded in stabilizing its rule on the foundation of racial oppression.

Louis Proyect (

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