Africans were enslaved for life ever since Bacon’s rebellion. Despite colour-based slavery being well in place, and despite the new legal distinction between slaves and servants, Defoe still referred to ‘whites’ as slaves in his writings. Similarly, larger colonies weren’t averse to taking more ‘whites’.
Why? They understood slavery existed in different forms, and legal names didn’t change shit. Hence the name of this post series. England’s Customs Surveyor in Annapolis, William Eddis, believed they were worse off than ‘blacks’ because they were temporary slaves. This meant planters didn’t have to take too much care of them, and the majority were still dying well within the initial 7-year service period anyway!
(on a point of interest, in 1773 the government kept records of emigrants because it feared running out of people)
If anyone is interested to see personal accounts and records of some of these emigrants, please read chapter 17 (pp. 233-246) of White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America.
The Virginia Gazette on 23rd December 1769 contained extracts of a letter stating that “Two thirds of the inhabitants [of Boston], white or black, are now actually slaves.” Even as America was struggling to gain independence from England (culminating in the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83) it still received exiled Brits daily and enslaved them. Yes, DAILY. They used to come in drips & drabs here and there. Now they were flooding into New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Charleston – at least 900 in the last quarter of English rule! These included “His Majesty’s Seven Year Passengers,” a bunch of convicts sentenced to one of 3 sentences:
- 7 years service on the plantations,
- 14 years service on the plantations,
- lifelong service on the plantations.
In fact, a merchant in the early 1770s reckoned ‘white’ slaves were more profitable than ‘black’ ones!
This had begun back in 1718, triggered by the War of Spanish Succession of 1714. Thousands of jobless soldiers returned to an already crime-riddled country and the gaols were filled to bursting point. Both merchants and colonies refused to take them until 1717. The English parliament passed another Act to “deter criminals and supply the colonies with servile labour.”
Effectively judges now took control of colonies’ markets. Cooperative merchants were given property rights for the victims they took, and subsidised up to £5 per person who reached America. Jonathan Foreward secured the most lucrative contract for London and Home County convicts. He was one of the guys in the Triangular Trade, selling English goods to west Africa in exchange for slaves, paid in sugar & tobacco), accepted a £3 subsidy at first until he got experienced enough to charge £5.
For about 15 years now Ireland had been using the 7yr/14yr/life sentence in place of the death penalty for stealing property of less than 20 shillings (including 1 cow or sheep, for example). This saw thousands more Irish chucked onto the colonies. On 23rd April 1718 the first English people to be sentenced in this manner were 15 females and 13 males, all guilty of minor property crimes. Weirdly, contracts were drawn up to compel the ships to take them no matter how old, sick or disabled they were.
IF felons were rich enough, they were allowed to buy their freedom as long as they didn’t try to return home. Needless to say this was rare. Because of the no-subsidies-for-dead rule, a few ships installed ventilators in their hulls & ordered passengers to wash. Nevertheless in the early 1700s a third of passengers died form typhoid, smallpox, dysentery and/or cold.
And of course ships were constantly at risk of mutiny!
Some of the captains became famous for their sadism. Barnet Bond, for example, got sued for murder so he kept leaving his passengers to die of thirst (even with plenty of drinkable water on board, not to mention the whole fucking ocean around them!) while he stole their belongings!
And exactly as Africans, these slaves were inspected on arrival to ensure they were healthy enough to work.
However, many colonies on the mainland didn’t give a fuck what English law said. They didn’t want to take any more convicts, they were too rowdy. Maryland took charge of trying to sabotage the law by making all felon buyers lodge a good-behaviour bond of £100 per felon. Virginia burgesses ordered captains to give a £100 security deposit per felon and their buyers to pay a £10 bond for good behaviour as well! The Privy Council got wind of it and stopped them in 2 months flat. Didn’t matter; England kept sending and planters kept buying – especially in Chesapeake! Because of the subsidy, convicts worked out much cheaper in the long run. They were a third of the price of Africans and could serve at least twice as long as free-willers.
Soon the number of English convicts sent over plummeted, presumably because the prisons were empty enough. Solution: send Scottish & Irish convicts instead!
Back in 1600s, England’s motivation in Ireland was to replace Catholics (i.e. native Irish) with Protestants (i.e. English & Scottish). Now in the 1700s their motivation was to punish and wreak poverty. Irish rulers also gave away its convicts and free-willers – about 15,000 between 1718-75 alone.
Fake propaganda papers were written up by planters encouraging even more to come! They offered employment as teachers with a good wage and low price for land. Needless to say, as people were so poor and desperate they came.
Captain Charles Ridgley’s servants constantly tried to complain about him in court. Throughout the FIFTY YEARS of their whining, only 1 case ever ruled in their favour! Worse, each failed complaint was punished with someone being listed as a runaway and ordered to do extra time!
Just in case anyone’s under any illusion, religion had a lot to do with all of this. One reason England gave for shipping off its unwanted was to save/redeem their souls. Many used this line, including Humphrey Gilbert, James I, John Donne and many others. And this wasn’t just personal interpretation of the gospels. The Bible itself gives explicit permission (see featured image).
In 1749, the Virginian burgesses made it so that even if a convict had (survived and) finished his service period he wasn’t allowed to vote! Slaves who weren’t convicts got off relatively better: for those without indentures their maximum service was 5 years. But in the next decade they extended the old rules on disobedience:
ONE YEAR’S EXTRA SERVICE PER OFFENCE!
Some people have tried to argue that Southern planters were harsher because their slaves were predominantly convicts. What they fail to account for is the Northerners were just as bad, and worse toward Irish. Irish tended to become runaways and often fled in groups (including with their ‘black’ lovers and ‘grey’ children). This made them fairly easy to spot until they reached huge crowded areas like Boston and New York.
Also in the 1750s Benjamin Franklin made himself the head of opposition to the convict trade, claiming rattlesnakes are safer than them. At least a rattlesnake warns you when it’s about to attack. Not to mention another feature the convicts brought, which was especially noticed in the next decade: disease! New cases of yellow fever, smallpox, typhoid et al. were flooding the colonies! Maryland and other colonies demanded England to stop sending them and to quarantine them off. The homeland didn’t listen. British convict slaves became so profitable that in 1772 the government ended the subsidy system.
The only reason shipments stopped at all was the War of Independence, when it broke out properly in April 1775 in Arlington and Concorde. So did the USA stop taking convicts?
But it wasn’t completely their fault anymore…