On February 28, 2022, Michael Bailey presented his dissertation on colonization and Irish diaspora in the Atlantic world, also touching on the lasting impacts on slavery and political economy in the regions.
Bailey began by explaining his findings and research in the first two chapters of his dissertation. He uncovered the origins of Irish diaspora as a consequence of the English colonization of Ireland, in addition to the impact of religion and Bourbon rule in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
“As of yet, however, there has not been a historical study of this diaspora that is truly transatlantic, or that advances the historical argument,” Bailey explained.
His third chapter focused on slave plantations in Cuba and how the transatlantic slave trade transformed Cuba into a plantation economy, generating excessive amounts of wealth and bolstering its trade relations. While the Spanish didn’t have much involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, Spain’s harsh policies towards Irish immigrants fueled Ireland's impact on the Cuban economy.
“Irish access to the world of British slaving enabled Irish slavers to translate this access to Cuba, and therefore making early geographically unrecognized contributions to Cuba’s transformation into a slavery and sugar plantation economy over the course of the 18th century,” Bailey articulated.
Irish diaspora in Spain caused much of this transition towards plantation economy in Cuba, but Jesuit influence also made contributions. One of the figures mentioned in this chapter was Thomas Butler, who was appointed to lead a Jesuit school in Havana and was one of the largest slave owners on the island. Rather than drawing on experiences in the British Atlantic, his actions were rooted in Jesuit transnational experiences with slavery.
Another notable Irishman with influence in Spain and Cuba was Alejandro O’Reilly, who was tasked by the Spanish King to oversee the retaking of Havana and tour the island for the crown. This ultimately lead to the Spanish empire’s embracement of slavery, settler colonialism, and capitalism.
Professor Guy Beiner, a history professor sitting in on the seminar, spoke about the importance of studying genealogies of these people when doing this kind of research.
“We see them as Irish, definitely their names show they’re Irish, and they have these genealogies that demonstrate they’re Irish, and they use these genealogies to become Spaniards,” Beiner elaborated. “These are people who’ve reinvented themselves as Spanish.”
Due to the Irish diaspora in Spain during this time, the meaning of what it is to be Irish has changed. The way these people self-identified, and how Irish they actually are after assuming a new identity is all up for interpretation, with very few primary sources to reference.
The history is very vague, and there have not been many studies in this field. Bailey’s thesis made relatively bold claims, and Beiner attempted to put those claims into the big picture.
“They’re translating the system which is being developed by the English for plantation slavery to the Spanish world, and they bring it over to America as well,” Beiner explained. “So you’ve got the history of slavery demonstrating a massive contribution to these Irish deviances.”
Bailey’s dissertation goes in depth on this previously undiscovered history of Irish diaspora and how it connects to the broader historical argument about the political economy and slavery during the 18th century.