Fact check: First slaves in North American colonies were not “100 white children from Ireland”

Shared thousands of times on Facebook, a meme showing a black-and-white photograph of three white children in ragged clothing claims that “the first slaves imported into the American colonies were 100 White children in 1619, four months before the arrival of the first shipment of Black slaves.” This claim is false.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of the posts can be found here , here , and here .

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights organization that tracks hate and extremist groups (  ), the myth of the “Irish slaves” has been a favorite meme of the far-right for the past few years (  here  ). Described by the SPLC as historical “revisionism,” the narrative “has attracted Neo-Nazis, White Nationalists, Neo-Confederates, and even Holocaust deniers, while racist trolls have deployed the myth to attack the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Interviewed by the SPLC, Liam Hogan, an Irish librarian and independent scholar, has written extensively on these memes since he first saw one in 2013 ( ).

The image in the social media posts, taken by Lewis W. Hine, is titled “Young Oyster Shuckers” and has the following caption: “Group portrait of young girls working as oyster shuckers at the canning company at Port Royal, SC, 1911. From left to right: Josie, six years old, Bertha, six years old, and Sophie, 10 years old.” The photo was taken over four decades after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the U.S. (here ).

The claim that the first slaves to arrive in the American colonies were white children is false. The Africans who were taken to the colony of Virginia in 1619 had been captured in Angola (  here  ). In the summer of 1619, two English ships attacked a Portuguese ship carrying 350 African captives, taking 50-60 Africans with them to Virginia. The first British ship arrived with 20 enslaved Africans, making them the first to arrive in the American colonies and inspiring the New York Times’ 1619 Project ( here , here  ).

A timeline of Virginia records provided by the Library of Congress does not mention the arrival of a shipment of “100 White children” from Ireland at any point between 1600 and 1743 (here).

It is true that Irish people were among the hundreds of thousands of indentured servants who came to North America between the 17th and 19th centuries (  here , here  ). Indentured servitude describes a system of labor by which a servant worked for four to seven years in exchange for passage to and food and shelter in the New World (  here ). Historian Alan Taylor explained that many of these indentured servants prior to 1620 “were forcibly transported either as unwanted orphans or as criminals punished for vagrancy and petty theft,” while after 1620 most were “technically volunteers” (  here ).

The life of an indentured servant was hard (  here ). Servants received severe punishments, and contracts could be extended for breaking a law like running away, or becoming pregnant. But although the system was harsh, it can’t be equated with the brutal system of racialized chattel slavery that came to dominate the American agricultural economy by the turn of the 18th century. Though some of the first enslaved Africans were initially treated similarly to indentured servants, slave laws passed in Massachusetts in 1641 and in Virginia in 1661 stripped blacks of any freedom they had been previously given.

Slavery in British North America and eventually the United States was not only a permanent condition, but a hereditary one passed down from mother to child (  here , here  ). Considered chattel, enslaved people were bought, sold, and treated as property (  here  ). This was not the case with indentured servitude, which declined in the second half of the 17th century as colonists made the full transition to African slave labor (  hereherehere  ) Provided by the Library of Congress, collections of primary sources on American slavery can be found here .


False. The first slaves to arrive in British North America in 1619 were not “100 white children,” but 20 African captives. Although the Irish were among the indentured servants who arrived in the colonies, indentured servitude and chattel slavery were two very different systems.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts   here .