Inspired by Don Jordan & Michael Walsh’s White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, ISBN 9781845961930.
This post will focus on the TAST (trans-Atlantic slave trade) but not on the enslaved Africans. Rather, I’ll focus on the enslaved Europeans. It’s not news that ‘whites’ enslaved each other, but rarely is that point dwelt on. I aim to correct that.
I’m going to do separate posts on each chapter, simply because they’re too long and interesting to summarise in one. Conveniently, the book summarises itself in the introduction so I’ll base this first post on that:
It should first be made clear that those ‘whites’ were ENSLAVED. Nowadays there’s an argument that they weren’t slaves as slaves were in lifelong servitude; these were servants contracted (indentured) to serve for a limited time then given freedom & rights. This claim isn’t new; it dates directly from that era and was as justificatory as it is now. But even in theory that argument was bollocks, never mind in practice – especially since the vast majority of them had their servitude periods extended indefinitely at their masters’ whim AND most of them died before the end of their period. Even the tiny minority who outlived their service rarely gained freedom or land rights, living as dirt-poor as they were back in England. While it’s true that from the mid-1700s to 1800s “servant” was understood to mean ‘white’ chattels while “slave”/”Negro” meant ‘black’ ones, masters saw their status as identical, even after lifelong enslavement of Africans was enforced.
Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731) said indentured servants are “more properly called slaves”, hence this post’s title.
In short, both in theory & in practice indentured servant = servant = serf = chattel = slave.
A bit of historical context also helps make sense of the whole TAST:
- It was conjured up by England, the basis of which was laid in the 1570s.
- It was a continuation of the old serfdom system, which had supposedly ended in the European Renaissance.
- Virginia & Maryland were where the first and most successful colonies were established.
- Though making money off of other people’s backs was an integral purpose of the colonies, since they expected to find cities of gold* like the Spanish & Portuguese did in south America, the main reason for slave labour was to rid England of its “surplus” people – the “poor & lawless”.
* It never happened. Eventually they wised up and looked to crops to line their pockets.
- After more colonists came, the north American mainland became the main site for expanding the British Empire in conjunction with personal profiteering. The Caribbean islands, on the other hand, were mainly just for personal profiteering.
Though figures are inexact, it’s known hundreds of thousands of ‘whites’ were transported and enslaved. Many of them went by force, but from 1620-1775 the majority went voluntarily and were called free-willers. They thought they were selling just their labour temporarily, but found they were selling their human rights. They were duped into thinking they’d have land, money & renown at the end, only to find they were as bad off as back home or more so.
IF they survived overwork, infirmity, punishments (one girl reportedly received 500 lashes from the whip and was beaten to death!), diseases (many of which were unique to English slaves), the voyages themselves*, malnutrition, overexposure to sun, and attacks from native Americans fed up of their lands being invaded.
Yes, Brits and other ‘white’ slaves were packed into ships in this exact same manner. Needless to say hygiene was piss-poor, illnesses ran rampant and most didn’t make it to land alive.
From the 16th to early 17th centuries, ‘white’ people were the main labour force of the new American colonies. Even after Africans became the predominant slaves, Europeans were still used left, right and centre throughout the entire TAST period. They were worked and punished, rebelled, ran away & fought alongside the ‘black’ slaves.
The very first slaves were NOT Irish as you may think, though the English did harbour a special hatred of Irish since Anglo-Norman days. It’s true the English saw them as fundamentally inferior and enslaved many of them. They even committed genocide and tried to totally replace them (thanks in large part to Oliver Cromwell).
But that was much later.
The first TAST slaves were English! AND most of them were kidnapped children!
Kidnapping children for this purpose eventually became so common that kidnappers (known as Spirits, hence the phrase spirited away) made a business out of it. They hung around at nearby ports weaving their way into the crowded streets targeting pretty much any lone child they found.
Those children were often beggars, pickpockets and other kinds of street urchins. Some of them were sent by their parents conned into thinking they’d have a better life. However, most were taken without the parents’ knowledge or consent. The work was so torturous and the climate so intolerable to their city-bred bodies most died in the first year! Some were so young, back in 1661 a man was shipping 4 “Irish boys” and his wife said they were so little he should’ve sent them in cradles! Remember Britain only banned child labour in the late 1800s!
In the late 1700s adults (predominantly convicts and petty criminals) were sent as a way to empty England’s overcrowded gaols (prisons) and get rid of the criminals. At first the law didn’t know or care where to chuck them but soon enough settled on the Americas. In other words, before Australia America used to be a dumping ground for England’s human refuse!
Such refuse weren’t always criminals however. They also included many religious & political dissidents (everyone who wasn’t Protestant or didn’t like the current monarch), prostitutes, beggars, and just the down-on-their-luck.
Then came the Irish, during Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing policy and for at least a century afterward. They were pretty much all taken against their will.
Throughout the entire era Africans were stolen for the same purpose of course. However, the disgusting abusive treatment inflicted on our ancestors was practised and perfected on the ‘white’ slaves first. The slavers ultimately didn’t give a flying fuck who their chattels were, as long as they didn’t have to do shit for themselves. Contrary to the popular American creation myth, American freedoms were gained only after LONG centuries of wanton punishments & enslavement of the poor majority.
Just like today, there were many who denied or belittled this ‘white’ slave trade. Back in the Renaissance Shakespeare’s favourite historian Raphael Holinshed, for example, claimed England had no slaves anymore and any slave who set foot on English soil became immediately free! Maybe that’s why those marked for servanthood were sent away from England, to keep that myth going?
Tens of millions of Euro-Americans today are descendants of those slaves. How many claim them, the way we’re always expected to? How many go out of their way to acknowledge them?