White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, New York University Press, 2007, 320 pp., $18.95 (soft cover)
African slavery is said to be our country’s original sin, and whites will probably be reminded of this for it as long as any are left in America. We hear from time to time about white indentured servants, but are warned not to think of them as suffering from anything like slavery, which was a unique form of degradation reserved for blacks.
British journalists Don Jordan and Michael Walsh argue convincingly in White Cargo that “indentured servant” is much too mild a term for a condition that was often no different from that of a slave. White “servants” were property: bought and sold, included in wills, whipped when recalcitrant, raped at will, and in many cases worked to death. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh call this “forgotten history,” and even suggest why it is forgotten: “It invites uproar to describe as slaves any of these hapless whites” because it is “thought to detract from the enormity of black suffering.” White Cargo is well-researched, engagingly written, and brilliantly illuminates a corner of American history neither whites nor blacks care to explore.
Peopling a continent
Indenture was a system under which a man or woman could gain passage to the colonies in exchange for a set period as a servant. The most common period was seven years, but it could be as long as eleven or as short as three. The world “indenture” comes from the Latin indentere, which means to cut with the teeth. The labor contract was written on parchment and then torn jaggedly down the middle, with master and servant each to keep half. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh estimate that hundreds of thousands of Britons went to America and the Caribbean under some form of indenture.
People who engaged themselves voluntarily were called “free-willers,” but a great many were coerced. Convicts, rebels, beggars, prostitutes, and unwanted Scots or Irishmen could be rounded up and banished to hard labor in the colonies for as long as 14 years, while an unknown number of young people were simply kidnapped and sold. It was a labor system that arose because tobacco planters in America and cane growers in the Caribbean so badly needed cheap workers. Tobacco could be highly profitable but required so much labor that a century after white bondsmen first began to toil over it, Thomas Jefferson was still calling it “a culture productive of infinite wretchedness.”
The authors of this book estimate that what amounted to white slaves accounted for perhaps two thirds of the British who left for the colonies between 1620 and 1775 but write that from the earliest days of the republic Americans have had “difficulty reconciling themselves to the true nature of their antecedents.” The authors add that “tens of millions of white Americans are descended from such chattels,” but unlike some of the oldest families in Australia who boast of their convict ancestors, Americans refuse to acknowledge their miserable antecedents.
And miserable they were. Passage to America meant being packed for weeks into a dark, mephitic, pitching hold. Once a ship reached the New World, it might sail up and down the coast looking for the best markets. Buyers examined the merchandise just as they would horses, and made prospects walk or jump to be sure they were sound.
Lucky servants found kind masters who needed domestic help; unlucky ones worked under the lash in the fields. There were local variations in how servants were treated, with masters generally harsher in the South than in New England, but physical punishment was taken for granted everywhere. Masters could lay on stripes themselves or take their property to the town whipping post for the authorities to discipline. Serious crimes, such as violence against a master, could be punished with death or the loss of one or both ears. There are many accounts of servants dying after being “corrected” with hundreds of lashes.
Many masters simply worked their servants to death or turned them out to starve if they got sick or were disabled. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh write that in 2003, archeologists in Annapolis, Maryland, unearthed the skeleton of a teen-aged white boy who had died during the 1660s. He had herniated disks and showed other signs of terrible labor, and was found under a heap of household garbage. He was probably an indentured servant who had been worked to death and then thrown on a trash heap.
Servants often ran away, and early newspapers published ads offering rewards for their capture. Many runaways were identified by scars on their backs. For absconders the law usually provided for whipping and an extension of the terms of service. In the early 17th century, one day might be added for every day absent, but by the 18th century, the penalty might be ten additional days of service for each day absent, or an extra year in exchange for a few weeks.
Servants could not marry without the consent of their masters, and a woman who became pregnant owed two extra years of service to make up for the cost of the child. This was true even if the master was the father, and the child was bound to service until age 21 or 24, depending on location and time period. Servants were property and could be sold and resold, and by 1623 they appear in wills. Colonies sometimes passed laws to protect servants, but they were rarely enforced.
In England at this time, it was common to whip servants, but masters could not easily get away with whipping a servant to death as happened in the colonies. Servants were usually engaged for a term of just one year, and could not be sold.
What made free men bind themselves to such harsh service? Life for the lower classes was grim in England, and agents often lied about life in America. In 1623, one undeceived servant wrote to his father in England of his cruel treatment and begged to be redeemed from bondage, adding that he “would not care to lose any limb to be in England again.”
Other servants may have understood how hard their lot would be for seven years but hoped for new lives at the end of their terms. Passage to the New World was beyond the reach of any but the rich, and a period of service seemed a fair price for a new beginning. Unlike convicts, a free-willer’s indenture almost always promised “freedom dues” at the end of the term. This was usually a guarantee of land and clothing, but sometimes was nothing more than a vague promise of a settlement in accordance with the “custom of the country.” Some servants were properly compensated, but many got title to worthless scrub or to land in Indian territory that was not safe to farm.
It is impossible to know the fates of each of the hundreds of thousands indentured servants who came to America, but some records are more or less complete. For example, of the 1,200 servants who came to Jamestown in 1619, 800 died the first year. At the end of that year there were 700 people in the colony, and during the next three years 3,570 people, most of them servants, arrived, making a total of 4,270 people. By 1623–just four years later–only 900 were still alive. It is recorded that 347 settlers were killed by Indians, which means 3,000 died of other causes. Death rates were high for everyone, but we can be sure that they were higher for servants than for masters.
The authors of this book cite a more exhaustive study of colonial indenture that concludes that only one in ten servants ever became “decently prosperous,” and that another one in ten became artisans who could lead an independent life. The other eight in ten either died in service, went back to England, or ended up as white trash, no better than when they left England.
The indenture system continued through the Revolutionary period and beyond. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh note that in 1775 there were as many or more notices for white as black runaways. Among those who offered rewards for the return of a white bondsman that year was a prosperous Virginia planter named George Washington.
Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh explain that in addition to free-willers, the British forcibly transported tens of thousands of beggars, prostitutes, criminals and other undesirables. They note that from the beginning, Europeans saw the New World as a dumping ground but also believed deportation was a way to populate colonies. In 1497, Ferdinand and Isabella offered to pardon convicts if they would sail on Columbus’ third voyage.
The authors point out that in the 17th century, European cities were overrun with beggars and criminals. Whenever a major war ended, demobilization would flood towns with robbers and pickpockets, and the British quickly decided to send this refuse to America. In 1615–just eight years after the founding of Jamestown–the Privy Council decreed that convicts could be transported to the colonies. The measure was originally dressed up in humanitarian language about giving criminals a new start in the New World, but a law just four years later dropped all pretence, specifying that deported convicts be “constrained to toil in such heavy and painful works as such servitude shall be a greater terror than death itself.”
Mr. Jordon and Mr. Walsh estimate that 50,000 to 70,000 convicts ended up in America during the colonial period, and perhaps 1,000 a year were being transported in the years leading up to the Revolution. British authorities were happy to clean out their jails, but traffickers were even happier because of the profits to be made from the trade in convicts. They brought a better price than free-willers because they might have terms as long as 14 years, depending on the crime, and on top of the sales price there was usually a per capita payment from city authorities happy to be shot of criminals. One merchant in the 1770s noted that commerce in white convicts was twice as profitable as commerce in blacks. The only unhappiness seems to have been reserved for the convicts: Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh estimate that half were dead after seven years of service.
In 1618 the London authorities began rounding up undesirables who were not even criminals: beggar children between the ages of eight and 16. This was urban renewal that paid for itself because the children, like convicts, brought a good price from American planters. Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh note, however, that “of the first 300 children shipped between 1619 and 1622, only twelve were still alive in 1624.” At least one is known to have died after she was subjected to 500 strokes for skipping work. Over the years, towns all over England gathered up young beggars judged to be a “burden,” and sold them in the colonies.
Political prisoners were another source of cash. The English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 produced thousands of prisoners on both sides. Some were hanged, but many were shipped as slaves to the colonies. Cromwell sold thousands of enemies into exile. He hated Catholics, and in a period when it was “no more a sin to kill an Irishman than a dog or any other brute,” he started what amounted to an ethnic cleansing policy for the Irish, which continued for 100 years. The Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685 yielded an estimated 800 white slaves after his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 provided a good crop of Scots for the trade. As always, there was no lack of traffickers and ship captains, since labor fetched such attractive prices in America and the Caribbean.
Throughout this period, when other supplies of labor ran low, enterprising businessmen simply kidnapped people, with the first snatches recorded in 1618. Kidnappers, known as “spirits” because they spirited people away, often paid off the authorities and worked almost openly. In 1670, Parliament made kidnapping a capital offense, but most spirits rarely got more than a small fine. Some even viewed them as a crude sort of public servant. A horse thief could expect to hang, but constables took a kinder view of men who took idlers, prostitutes, and beggars off the streets. Of course, any young person, even the well born, could be spirited, and the authors note that by the mid-1660s young people were in a chronic but low level of panic, especially near the coast.
Stevenson’s Kidnapped is only the most famous novel about the menace. Daniel Defoe wrote about it, and Raphael Sabatini’s swashbuckling Captain Blood is the story of an Irishman mistakenly identified as one of Monmouth’s rebels and transported to Barbados.
Most kidnap victims were never heard of again, though a very few survived, returned to England, and confronted their captors. According to White Cargo, they rarely got satisfaction in court. For more than 100 years, to arrange a kidnapping was an almost foolproof way to eliminate a young enemy or rival.
The Caribbean was a worse destination than America. Barbados, for example, was essentially a penal colony and attracted practically no free-willers. This was because all the good land was settled early, and there was nowhere for freed bondsmen to go. Planters who bought “his majesty’s seven-year passengers,” as convicts were called, fully expected to work them to death. Not all went quietly. There were white slave revolts on Barbados, St. Christopher, and Montserrat.
Trafficking in whites did not go entirely unopposed. Captain John Smith, who had seen the practice himself at Jamestown, wrote in 1624 that commerce in people was “sufficient to bring a well-settled Common-wealth to misery, much more Virginia.” Francis Bacon was one of the few to oppose transportation of convicts.
Americans appear to have welcomed free-willers, but drew the line at convicts. Benjamin Franklin called transportation “the most cruel insult offered by one people to another.” In the 1750s, he wrote that for every convict, the Americans should send back a rattle snake, and even then the British would get a bargain: “The rattlesnake gives warning before he attempts his mischief; which the convict does not.” Convict ships often arrived carrying typhoid and other plagues, but the Crown would not let the colonies quarantine the sick. Amazingly, even the men on what were essentially death ships usually seem to have found buyers. The colonies never succeeded in keeping out prison ships until they went into open rebellion against Britain.
During the war, no free-willers came over either, but as soon as the ink was dry on the Treaty of Paris, ships again showed up at American ports stuffed with indentured whites. There was still such a demand that King George III thought he could smuggle in convicts disguised as free-willers. Most such false cargoes were found out and turned away, but at least two ship loads are known to have been landed. Buyers must have known what they were getting but were as happy as ever to with cheap labor.
Unlike black slavery, white bondage never prompted an abolition movement. The trade continued until about 1820, and stopped only because it no longer made economic sense. Better ships meant cheaper passage, so fewer people needed to mortgage themselves. At the same time, ethnic self-help groups had arisen, which offered loans to immigrants.
Slaves or servants?
How do white bondsmen fit into American concepts of servitude that have been shaped almost exclusively by black slavery? Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh recognize that whites were not property for life, but insist that Daniel Defoe was right to say that white servants were “more properly called slaves.” Many never lived out their terms, during which they were as much the miserable subjects of whimsy, lust, and the lash as any black slave.
The authors of White Cargo think that the black monopoly on victimization has pushed white servants into undeserved obscurity. About the first boatload of press-ganged child beggars sold in Jamestown they write: “While the fate of those youngsters rounded up from the streets of London has been largely forgotten, history would take a keen interest in the destiny of a group of men and women who arrived a few months after the first shipment of children in 1619.”
These are, of course, the “20 negars” famously observed by planter John Rolfe, who are said to be British America’s first black slaves. The authors point out, however, that these 20 were treated just like white servants, put to seven year terms, after which they received “freedom dues.” Nor did this group mark the beginning of a rush of blacks to Virginia. By mid-century, of the 11,000 settlers in the colony only 300 were black. Their treatment was essentially no different from that of white bondsmen.
Blacks gradually did sink to a status lower than whites, and a man who was almost certainly one of the 20 original “negars” helped push them in that direction. A full-blooded African from Angola, he took the English name of Anthony Johnson. After his term of service he prospered mightily, accumulating more than 1,000 acres and a score of servants both black and white. He found fault with one of his blacks, John Casor, and in 1650, after a lengthy lawsuit, persuaded a court to make the man a servant for life. Casor, then, was one of the first blacks condemned to slavery as we know it. It was only in 1671 that Virginia made all blacks coming into the country slaves for life.
Such slaves brought a higher price than indentured servants because their term of service was longer. This system of pricing was established, however, only after mortality rates declined. It made no sense to pay more for a life-time black than for a seven-year white if both were likely to be dead in five years.
The greater value of life-time slaves meant that masters often used them sparingly. Given a choice between a white who was to be let go in a year or two and a black who was expected to serve for decades, it always made sense to give the most dangerous, exhausting work to whites. One Briton on Barbados wrote to Cromwell urging him to bring more life-time black slaves to the island because expendable whites were being worked to death.
Shortly before the War Between the States, the designer of New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead, discovered the same priorities during a trip through the South. He found that it was invariably Irish navvies who were hired to drain swamps and dig irrigation ditches–work that malaria and intestinal disease made extremely dangerous. When Olmstead asked why slaves did not do this drudgery, he was told, “It’s dangerous work and a negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a negro dies it is a considerable loss you know.”
No different today
There are two things that most strike the reader of White Cargo. The first is how cruel the past seems to us, whatever the race of victim or perpetrator. Hardly anyone seems to have objected to the brutal subjugation of inferiors. The origins of race slavery therefore seem to lie as much in general ruthlessness as they do in white supremacy.
The second is how powerful remains the lure of cheap labor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, planters put profits ahead of the obvious harm they did their country by hiring criminals and taking men from prison transports known to be hives of disease. The 20th- and 21st-century versions of those planters likewise put profits ahead of the obvious damage done by unassimilable foreigners.
The times may not be as cruel, but we are paying a far higher price for the labor of Mexicans than did our colonial ancestors for the labor of their white slaves.