Thursday, 16 July 2009

White slaves in America

From the introductory chapter to Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America (New York University Press, New York, 2008):

In the summer of 2003, archaeologists excavated a seventeenth century site outside Annapolis, Maryland, and discovered the skeleton of a teenage boy. Examination showed the boy to have died sometime in the 1660s. He was about sixteen years old and had tuberculosis. His skull showed evidence of a fearful mouth infection, and herniated discs and other injuries to his back were synonymous with years of hard toil.

The youth was neither African nor Native American. He was northern European, probably English. His remains were found in what had been the cellar of a seventeenth-century house, in a hole under a pile of household waste. It was as if the boy was of so little account that after he died he was thrown out with the rubbish.

Forensic anthropologists believe the youth was probably an indentured servant – the deceptively mild label commonly used to describe hundreds of thousands of men, women and children shipped from Britain to America and the Caribbean in the 150 years before the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Most of these servants paid their passage to the Americas by selling the rights to their labour for a number of years. Others were forcibly exiled and sold in the colonies as servants for up to fourteen years. Many were effectively enslaved.

While the Spanish slaughtered in America for gold, the English in America had to plant for their wealth. Failing to find the expected mineral riches along the eastern seaboard, they turned to farming, hoping to make gold from tobacco. They needed a compliant, subservient, preferably free labour force and since the indigenous peoples of America were difficult to enslave they turned to their own homeland to provide. They imported Britons deemed to be ‘surplus’ people – the rootless, the unemployed, the criminal and the dissident – and held them in the Americas in various forms of bondage for anything from three years to life.

This book tells the story of these victims of empire. They were all supposed to gain their freedom eventually. For many, it didn’t work out that way. In the early decades, half of them died in bondage. This book tracks the evolution of the system in which tens of thousands of whites were held as chattels, marketed like cattle, punished brutally and in some cases literally worked to death. For decades, this underclass was treated just as savagely as black slaves and, indeed, toiled, suffered and rebelled alongside them. Eventually, a racial wedge was thrust between white and black,
leaving blacks officially enslaved and whites apparently upgraded but in reality just as enslaved as they were before. According to contemporaries, some whites were treated with less humanity than the blacks working alongside them.

Among the first to be sent were children. Some were dispatched by impoverished parents seeking a better life for them. But others were forcibly deported. In 1618, the authorities in London began to sweep up hundreds of troublesome urchins from the slums and, ignoring protests from the children and their families, shipped them to Virginia. England’s richest man was behind this mass expulsion. It was presented as an act of charity: the ‘starving children’ were to be given a new start as apprentices in America. In fact, they were sold to planters to work in the fields and half of them were dead within a year. Shipments of children continued from England and then from Ireland for decades. Many of these migrants were little more than toddlers. In 1661, the wife of a man who imported four ‘Irish boys’ into Maryland as servants wondered why her husband had not brought ‘some cradles to have rocked them in’ as they were ‘so little’.

A second group of forced migrants from the mother country were those, such as vagrants and petty criminals, whom England’s rulers wished to be rid of. The legal ground was prepared for their relocation by a highwayman turned Lord Chief Justice who argued for England’s gaols to be emptied in America. Thanks to men like him, 50,000 to 70,000 convicts (or maybe more) were transported to Virginia, Maryland, Barbados and England’s other American possessions before 1776. All manner of others considered undesirable by the British Crown were also dispatched across the Atlantic to be sold into servitude. They ranged from beggars to prostitutes, Quakers to Cavaliers.

A third group were the Irish. For centuries, Ireland had been something of a special case in English colonial history. From the Anglo-Normans onwards, the Irish were dehumanised, described as savages, so making their murder and displacement appear all the more justified. The colonisation of Ireland provided experience and drive for experiments further afield, not to mention large numbers of workers, coerced, transported or persuaded. Under Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic-cleansing policy in Ireland, unknown numbers of Catholic men, women and children were forcibly transported to the colonies. And it did not end with Cromwell; for at least another hundred years, forced transportation continued as a fact of life in Ireland.

The other unwilling participants in the colonial labour force were the kidnapped. Astounding numbers are reported to have been snatched from the streets and countryside by gangs of kidnappers or ‘spirits’ working to satisfy the colonial hunger for labour. Based at every sizeable port in the British Isles, spirits conned or coerced the unwary onto ships bound for America. London’s most active kidnap gang discussed their targets at a daily meeting in St Paul’s Cathedral. They were reportedly paid £2 by planters’ agents for every athletic-looking young man they brought aboard. According to a contemporary who campaigned against the black slave trade, kidnappers were snatching an average of around 10,000 whites a year – doubtless an exaggeration but one that indicates a problem serious enough to create its own grip on the popular mind.

Along with the vast numbers ejected from Britain and forced to slave in the colonies were the still greater multitudes who went of their own free will: those who became indentured servants in the Americas in return for free passage and perhaps the promise of a plot of land. Between 1620 and 1775, these volunteer servants, some 300,000, accounted for two out of three migrants from the British Isles.4 Typically, these ‘free-willers’, as they came to be called, were the poor and the hopeful who agreed to sacrifice their personal liberty for a period of years in the eventual hope of a better life. On arrival, they found that they had the status of chattels, objects of personal property, with few effective rights. But there was no going back. They were stuck like the tar on the keels of the ships that brought them. Some, of course, were bought by humane, even generous, masters and survived their years of bondage quite happily to emerge from servitude to build a prosperous future. But some of the most abused servants were from among the freewillers.

It invites uproar to describe as slaves any of these hapless whites who were abused, beaten and sometimes killed by their masters or their masters’ overseers. To do so is thought to detract from the enormity of black suffering after racial slavery developed. However, black slavery emerged out of white servitude and was based upon it. As the African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr has observed:

When someone removes the cataracts of whiteness from our eyes, and when we look with unclouded vision on the bloody shadows of the American past, we will recognize for the first time that the Afro-American, who was so often second in freedom, was also second in slavery.

It has been argued that white servants could not have been truly enslaved because there was generally a time limit to their enforced labour, whereas black slavery was for life. However, slavery is not defined by time but by the experience of its subject. To be the chattel of another, to be required by law to give absolute obedience in everything and to be subject to whippings, brandings and chaining for any show of defiance, to be these things, as were many whites, was to be enslaved. Daniel Defoe, writing in the early 1700s, described indentured servants as ‘more properly called slaves’. Taking his cue, we should call a slave a slave.

The Oxford Dictionary defines as slaves persons who are the legal property of another or others and bound to absolute obedience: in short, ‘human chattels’. By this definition white servants were the first slaves in America and it is upon their labour, and later that of African-American slaves, that the nation was initially built. Today, tens of millions of white Americans are descended from such chattels. It is a shame that few in America claim these largely forgotten men and women of the early frontier as their own.

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