Treating debunked pseudo-history and personal attacks as legitimate criticism of historical research is bad enough on the letters page of a widely-read history magazine. Publishing articles based on spurious sources is worse. In my last post, I discussed History Ireland‘s publication of Mike McCormack’s letter attacking Liam Hogan for exposing the myth of Irish slavery. While Hogan was McCormack’s target, however, the article that ostensibly provoked the letter was a piece by another historian, John Donoghue, entitled “The Curse of Cromwell: revisiting the Irish slavery debate” (History Ireland 25:4 [July/August 2017], pp.24-28). Ironically, Donoghue, unlike Hogan, defends the idea of Irish slavery. But he does so in part through an academic argument about Cromwellian policy in 1650s Ireland apparently based on the examination of seventeenth-century sources. At key points, his claims are as dubious as McCormack’s. But the plausibility their scholarly presentation confers makes their publication, if anything, more harmful.
Donoghue argues for the historical reality of Irish slavery in two ways. First, he downplays distinctions between indentured servitude for a fixed term (the standard means by which English, Irish, and Scottish labor was brought to the Caribbean plantations) and the permanent, heritable, and racialized enslavement of African people and their descendants, arguing on the basis of contemporary comment that Irish servants were treated in much the same way as enslaved Africans. These sources are well known to historians of slavery in the Atlantic world; I will not pursue them here.
Second, Donoghue asserts (p.27) that officials in Oliver Cromwell’s regime “envisioned enslaving Irish and ‘negroes’ in parallel fashion”, a claim he relates to the scale of indentured servitude in the English Caribbean during the 1650s. He singles out one Cromwellian in particular: William Petty (1623-1687). Trained as a physician, Petty moved to Ireland in the wake of Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the island in 1649-52. In the mid-1650s, he facilitated Cromwell’s expropriation of Irish Catholic land by conducting a survey and mapping of the island called the “Down Survey”. After the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Petty — a substantial landowner in Ireland thanks to his survey — wrote a series of works on Irish and English economy and policy that have earned him the status of a pioneer economist.
Donoghue’s account muddles the details and chronology of Petty’s career in such a way as to make works written for Stuart eyes in the 1670s and 1680s into evidence of Cromwellian aims in the 1650s. He asserts (p.26) that the Down Survey was designed “to assess the future value of expropriated Irish land and labour” (it wasn’t), and that Petty’s later book The Political Anatomy of Ireland (written c.1671, printed 1691) simply “analysed” the survey’s “findings” (it didn’t). This is, at the very least, sloppy. Petty wrote his works for specific purposes and audiences and in response to specific events. In 1654 he was a young physician from an artisanal family, on the make in a conquered country. In 1671 he was a substantial landowner with court connections and a knighthood, trying to defend and exploit vast Irish estates and to influence royal policy. There is no basis whatever for treating Petty’s ideas in 1671 as evidence of Cromwell’s in 1654.
Having tied Petty’s later economic work to Cromwellian Ireland, Donoghue presents his evidence that Petty (and therefore Cromwell) sought to enslave the Irish. The quotation Donoghue gives — quoted as if it comes from The Political Anatomy — in fact splices passages from two different works of Petty’s, taking each wildly out of context. Here is the quotation as Donoghue presents it, on pp.26-27 of his piece. Note the ellipsis:
You value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as slaves and negroes are usually rated, viz, at about 15 one with another; men being sold for 25, children for 5… why should not insolvent thieves be punished with slavery rather than death. So as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it.
Donoghue uses this to argue that Petty’s work in Ireland “led him to conclude that, rather than destroying the Irish, English interests in the colonies would be best served by enslaving them like ‘negroes’”. And this, he writes, “proves that some very powerful members of the Cromwellian regime envisioned enslaving Irish and ‘negroes’ in parallel fashion.” Even if The Political Anatomy could speak for Cromwell, Donoghue’s claims here rest on spurious evidence.
The first part of Donoghue’s quotation (before the ellipsis) is taken from p.21 of The Political Anatomy of Ireland (London, 1691). It occurs in the course of Petty’s attempt to calculate the cost of war in Ireland during 1641-52 in monetary terms. Here is the passage as it appears in the 1691 edition. Portions omitted by Donoghue are in bold:
The value of people, Men, Women, and Children in England, some have computed to be about 70 l. per Head, one with another. But if you value the people who have been destroyed in Ireland as Slaves and Negroes are usually rated, viz., at about 15 l. one with another; Men being sold for 25 l., Children for 5 l; the value of people lost will be about 10,335,000[.]
Petty is estimating the cost of Irish lives lost in 1641-52, using the price of enslaved Africans as a basis. He is not suggesting that the Irish be enslaved.
The second part of Donoghue’s quotation (after the ellipsis) comes from Petty’s Treatise of Taxes and Contributions (London, 1662). The passage it comes from discusses the advantages of enslaving rather than executing criminals – English ones. Here it is as it appears in the 1662 edition (at p.49). Parts omitted by Donoghue are bolded:
Why should not insolvent Thieves be rather punished with slavery then death? so as being slaves they may be forced to as much labour, and as cheap fare, as nature will endure, and thereby become as two men added to the Commonwealth, and not as one taken away from it; for if England be under-peopled (suppose by half), I say that next to the bringing in of as many more as now are, is the making these that are, to do double the work which now they do; that is, to make some slaves; but of this elsewhere.
In short, neither part of Donoghue’s ostensible proof of Petty’s (and, by extension, Cromwell’s) intent to enslave the Irish relates to any such idea. The first part estimates the cost of Irish lives lost between 1641 and 1652; the second does not concern the Irish, or colonial plantation, at all. Neither comes from the 1650s.
I do not know how Donoghue came to present a composite quotation as legitimate historical evidence. I do not know whether he did so deliberately or through negligence. But the sources in question are widely accessible in print and online. And Donoghue has used the same spurious quotation more than once before, notably in his book Fire under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2013), where it appears on p.260 in the midst of a similar account of Petty. If these were innocent mistakes — or just one mistake, reused — that still suggests a failure to consult works cited as evidence for significant and contentious historical claims. Grounding claims about the past in an assessment of the sources is a basic part of historical practice.
But Donoghue’s motives are irrelevant to the larger issue. However it came about, what we have now is a tendentious account of the past, based on a source that does not (as quoted) exist, weaved together from real sources that have nothing to do with the claims being made. The error has long since been made made known to the magazine. The real sources of Petty’s purported argument for enslaving the Irish have been demonstrated. But the article and the quotation stand, with no hint of correction, retraction, or editorial comment forthcoming. Like the myth of Irish slavery itself, the value of spurious sources has been left to be disputed in the letters page — fodder for an equally spurious “debate”.
It should go without saying — though it evidently can’t — that historians can and do differ over the questions they care about and the methods they prefer, as well as over the selection and interpretation of sources. They therefore differ, too, over the “facts” of history: not just which events, people, or processes mattered most (or should matter most to us today), but also over what they were and how they were related — that is, over what the past was like, how it worked, what it meant, and what really happened. Naive invocations of “the facts” in opposition to new interpretations of the past are usually just that: naive. They overlook the human work, the series of inevitable and contestable choices, and the layers of more or less tacit constraints that go into constituting any set of claims as “facts” in the first place.
Still, recognizing that a variety of scholars pursuing a variety of approaches produces a variety of histories does not mean that anything goes. It is telling, if also ironic, that History Ireland published Donoghue’s piece under the rubric of “myth-busting”: as a category, this implies a distinction between views of the past based in the scholarly practices historians avow and beliefs not so grounded. At a time when the quality of public discourse about history and much else is degraded by fantasies and half-truths, and the capacity of experts to present and defend their research is under ever greater assault, allegiance to this distinction brings obligations. It obliges us to distinguish ranting and abuse from criticism grounded in knowledge of sources and methods. It obliges us to distinguish real from spurious evidence. It obliges us to substantiate our claims and to own and address our errors. It obliges us to promote real debate for the sake of advancing knowledge — not to debase our knowledge for the sake of debate.
 Full disclosure: I wrote a book about him. See Ted McCormick, William Petty and the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic (Oxford University Press, 2009).