The Viking Slave Trade
By Clare Downham
History Ireland,Vol. 17:3 (May/June 2009)
Introduction: The popularity of the ‘Sea Stallion of Glendalough’ as a media item and visitor attraction indicates a fairly popular perception of vikings in Ireland’s past. They can be perceived as swashbuckling adventurers, craftsmen and traders who launched a medieval version of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. These views flourish alongside an older view of vikings as bloodthirsty heathens, hell bent on plunder and destruction.
The practise of slavery by vikings in Ireland can similarly be interpreted in two ways; it was a trade already well established in medieval Ireland and Britain in which Scandinavian entrepreneurs played no worse a role, or it can be argued that there was something strikingly abhorrent about the scale and nature of the vikings’ acquisition and sale of human cargo. We have a rich body of evidence for Viking slavery in Ireland which can be brought into this debate.
Slavery was a feature of Irish society long before the vikings arrived. St Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a captive, and slave raiding across the Irish Sea is attested (in both directions) at the time when Roman power collapsed in Britain. However there no evidence of large-scale slave raiding in Ireland in the century prior to the vikings’ first recorded raids. Slaves were, nevertheless, obtained by other means; as prisoners of war, or in lieu of debts that could not be paid. In addition parents occasionally sold their children or gave themselves into slavery as a desperate measure during times of famine.
When vikings came to attack the coasts of Ireland, people, along with ecclesiastical metalwork and cattle, were portable goods which might be transported off in ships. ‘The Annals of Ulster’ record under the year 821 that Howth (Co. Dublin) was raided and ‘a great booty of women was carried away’. Viking-leaders also came to appreciate that they could obtain a quick and sizeable profit by ransoming high status captives back to their communities or families. From the 830s a number of high profile figures were seized (usually kings or bishops) who were later released (presumably for a fee) or who were ‘killed at the ships’ of the vikings – maybe because hostage negotiations failed or because the captives chose to put up a fight.
A remarkable account of one individual’s travail at the hands of the vikings can be found in the ‘Life of Saint Findan’. This account was written survives from the late ninth century. It tells how Findan (a man of noble stock from Leinster) was sent to ransom his sister who had been taken by vikings. Things went badly and Findan was himself captured although some of the vikings argued that it was wrong to seize negotiators and he was soon freed. Findan nevertheless was taken by vikings on another occasion and taken to the Orkney Islands where he eventually escaped and made his way to the Continent. A curious feature of the account is that Findan’s second capture was aided by an Irish conspirator. Political alliances between vikings and Irish are recorded in annals from the 840s. In the tenth and eleventh centuries we hear of Irish kings gathering captives as the booty of war, presumably, so that they too could profit from the burgeoning slave markets established in Ireland’s major ports.