|‘The starving agricultural labourers of southern England are worse off than American negroes.’ William Cobbett, 1836.||
They Were White and They Were Slaves
The Untold History of the Enslavement of Whites in Early America
Michael A. Hoffman
2. Mainly America
White slaves were actually owned by negroes and Indians in the South to such an extent that the Virginia Assembly passed the following law in 1670: “It is enacted that noe negro or Indian though baptized and enjoyned their owne ffreedome shall be capable of any such purchase of christians.” (Statutes of the Virginia Assembly, Vol. 2, pp. 280-81.)
Negroes also owned other negroes in America (Charleston County Probate Court Records, 1754-1758, p. 406).
While Whites languished in chains Blacks were free men in Virginia throughout the 17th century (Willie Lee Rose, A Documentary History of Slavery in North America, p. 15; John Henderson Russell, Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865, p.23; Bruce Levine, et al., Who Built America?, vol. I, p. 52).
In 1717, it was proposed that a qualification for election to the South Carolina Assembly was to be “the ownership of one white man.” (Journals of the Commons House of Assembly of the Province of South Carolina: 1692-1775, volume 5, pp. 294-295.)
Negroes voted in the Carolina counties of Berkeley and Craven in 1706 “and their votes were taken.” (Levine, p. 63.)
Try to envision the 19th century scene: yeoman southern Whites, sick and destitute, watching their children dying while enduring the spectacle of negroes from the jungles of Africa healthy and well-fed thanks to the ministrations of their fabulously wealthy White owners who cared little or nothing for the local “White trash.”
In the course of an 1855 journey up the Alabama River on the steamboat Fashion, Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park, observed bales of cotton being thrown from a considerable height into a cargo ship’s hold. The men tossing the bales somewhat recklessly into the hold were negroes, the men in the hold were Irish. Olmsted inquired about this to a mate on the ship. “‘Oh,’ said the mate, ‘the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.’” (Frederic Law Olmsted, A Journey to the Seaboard Slave States, pp. 100-101; G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labor, p. 27.)
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From 1609 until the early 1800s, between one-half and two thirds of all the White colonists who came to the New World came as slaves. Of the passengers on the Mayflower, twelve were White slaves (John Van der Zee, Bound Over, p. 93). White slaves cleared the forests, drained the swamps, built the roads. They worked and died in greater numbers than anyone else.
“The practice developed and tolerated in the kidnapping of Whites laid the foundation for the kidnapping of Negroes.” (Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro, p. 103.)
The official papers of the White slave trade refer to adult White slaves as “freight” and White child slaves were termed “half-freight.” Like any other commodity on the shipping inventories, White human beings were seen strictly in terms of market economics by merchants.
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In the 17th century White slaves were cheaper to acquire than Negroes and therefore were often mistreated to a greater extent.
Having paid a bigger price for the Negro, “the planters treated the black better than they did their ‘Christian’ white servant. Even the Negroes recognized this and did not hesitate to show their contempt for those white men who, they could see, were worse off than themselves.” (Bridenbaugh, p. 118.)
It was White slaves who built America from its very beginnings and made up the overwhelming majority of stave-laborers in the colonies in the 17th century. Negro slaves seldom had to do the kind of virtually lethal work the White slaves of America did in the formative years of settlement. “The frontier demands for heavy manual labor, such as felling trees, soil clearance, and general infrastructural development, had been satisfied primarily by white indentured servants between 1627 and 1643.” (Beckles, Natural Rebels, p. 8.)
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Hundreds of thousands of Whites in colonial America were owned outright by their masters and died in slavery. They had no control over their own lives and were auctioned on the block and examined like livestock exactly like Black slaves, with the exception that these Whites were enslaved by their own race. White slaves “found themselves powerless as individuals, without honor or respect and driven into commodity production not by any inner sense of moral duty but by the outer stimulus of the whip.“ (Beckles, White Servitude, p. 5.)
Upon arrival in America, White slaves were “put up for sale by the ship captains or merchants... Families were often separated under these circumstances when wives and offspring were auctioned off to the highest bidder.” (Foster R. Dulles, Labor in America: A History, p. 7.)
“Eleanor Bradbury, sold with her three sons to a Maryland owner, was separated from her husband, who was bought by a man in Pennsylvania.” (Van der Zee, p. 165.)
White people who were passed over for purchase at the point of entry were taken into the back country by “soul drivers” who herded them along “like cattle to a Smithfield market” and then put them up for auction at public fairs. “Prospective buyers felt their muscles, checked their teeth... like cattle.” (Sharon Salinger, To Serve Well and Faithfully, Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800, p. 97.) “Indentured servants were sold at auction, sometimes after being stripped naked.” (Roediger, p. 30.) “We were... exposed to sale in public fairs as so many brute beasts.” (Ekirch, p. 129.)
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The Virginia Company arranged with the City of London to have 100 poor White children “out of the swarms that swarme in the place” sent to Virginia in 1619 for sale to the wealthy planters of the colony to be used as slave labor. The Privy Council of London authorized the Virginia Company to “imprison, punish and dispose of any of those children upon any disorder by them committed, as cause shall require.”
The trade in White slaves was a natural one for English merchants who imported sugar and tobacco from the colonies. Whites kidnapped in Britain could be exchanged directly for this produce. The trade in White slaves was basically a return haul operation.
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At the bare minimum, hundreds of thousands of White slaves were kidnapped off the streets and roads of Great Britain in the course of more than one hundred and fifty years and sold to captains of slaveships in London known as “White Guineamen.”
Ten thousand Whites were kidnapped from England in the year 1670 alone (Edward Channing, History of the United States, vol. 2, p. 369). The very word “kidnapper” was first coined in Britain in the 1600s to describe those who captured and sold White children into slavery (“kid-nabbers”).
White slaves were punished with merciless whippings and beatings. The records of Middlesex County, Virginia relate how a slavemaster confessed “that he hath most uncivilly and inhumanly beaten a (White) female with great knotted whipcord – so that the poor servant is a lamentable spectacle to behold.”
“Whippings were commonplace... as were iron collars and chains.” (Ekirch, p. 150.)
A case in the county from 1655 relates how a White slave was “fastened by a lock with a chain to it” by his master and tied to a shop door and “whipped till he was very bloody.” The beating and whipping of White slaves resulted in so many being beaten to death that in 1662 the Virginia Assembly passed a law prohibiting the private burial of White slaves because such burial helped to conceal their murders and encouraged further atrocities against other White slaves.
A grievously ill White slave was forced by his master to dig his own grave, since there was little likelihood that the master would obtain any more labor from him. The White slave’s owner “made him sick and languishing as he was, dig his own grave, in which he was laid a few days afterwards, the others being too busy to dig it, having their hands full in attending to the tobacco.” (Jaspar Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter, Journal of a Voyage to New York and a Tour of Several American Colonies, 1679-1680.)
In New England, Nicholas Weekes and his wife deliberately cut off the toes of their White slave who subsequently died. Marmaduke Pierce in Massachusetts severely beat a White slave boy with a rod and finally beat him to death. Pierce was not punished for the murder. In 1655 in the Plymouth Colony a master named Mr. Latham, starved his 14-year-old White slave boy, beat him and left him to die outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. The dead boy’s body showed the markings of repeated beatings and his hands and feet were frozen solid.
Colonial records are full of the deaths by beating, starvation and exposure of White slaves in addition to tragic accounts such as the one of the New Jersey White slave boy who drowned himself rather than continue to face the unmerciful beatings of his master (American Weekly Mercury, Sept. 2-9, 1731).
Henry Smith beat to death an elderly White slave and raped two of his female White slaves in Virginia. John Dandy beat to death his White slave boy whose black and blue body was found floating down a creek in Maryland. Pope Alvey beat his White slave girl Alice Sanford to death in 1663. She was reported to have been “beaten to a Jelly.” Joseph Fincher beat his White slave Jeffery Haggman to death in 1664.
John Grammer ordered his plantation overseer to beat his White slave 100 times with a cat-o’-ninetails. The White slave died of his wounds. The overseer, rather than expressing regret at the death he inflicted stated, “I could have given him ten times more.” There are thousands of cases in the colonial archives of inhuman mistreatment, cruelty, beatings and the entire litany of Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrors administered to hapless White slaves.
In Australia, White slave Joseph Mansbury had been whipped repeatedly to such an extent that his back appeared, “quite bare of flesh, and his collar bones were exposed looking very much like two ivory, polished horns. It was with difficulty that we could find another place to flog him. Tony [Chandler, the overseer] suggested to me that we had better do it on the soles of his feet next time.” (Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 115.) Hughes describes the fate of White slaves as one of “prolonged and hideous torture.”
One overseer in Australia whose specialty was whipping White slaves would say while applying his whip on their backs, “Another half pound mate, off the beggar’s ribs.” The overseer’s face and clothes were described as having the appearance of “a mincemeat chopper, being covered in flesh from the victim’s body.” (Hughes, p. 115.)
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Nor should it be concluded that because some trials were held for those masters who murdered their White slaves that this reflected a higher justice than that given to Black slaves. In thousands of cases of homicide against poor Whites there were no trials whatsoever – murdered White slaves were hurriedly buried by their masters so that the resulting decomposition would prohibit any enquiry into the cause of their deaths. Others just “disappeared” or died from “accidents” or committed “suicide.” Many of the high number of so-called “suicides” of White slaves took place under suspicious circumstances, but in every single case the slavemaster was found innocent of any crime. (For acquittals of masters in Virginia or instances of failure to prosecute them for the murder of White slaves, see Virginia General Court Minutes, VMH, XIX, 388.)
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A White orphan boy was kidnapped in Virginia and enslaved under the guise of “teaching him a trade.” The boy was able to have the Rappahannock County Court take notice of his slavery: “An orphan complained on July 2, 1685 that he was held in a severe and hard servitude illegally and that he was taken by one Major Hawkins ‘under pretense of giving him learning.’ The case came before the court on August 2, but the justices decided that he must continue in the service of his present master.” (Jernegan, pp. 159-160.)
“They possessed one right – to complain to the planter-magistrates concerning excessively violent abuse. But this right, which by custom was also available to black slaves in some societies, had little or no mitigating effect on the overall nature of their treatment on the estates.” (Beckles, White Servitude, p. 5. For information on Blacks allowed to accuse White slavemasters in court and who were freed from slavery as a result of hearings before White judges, see the Minutes of Council of March 10, 1654 in the Lucas manuscripts, reel 1, f. 92, Bridgetown Public Library, Barbados.)
O Dear Father... I am sure you’ll pity your distressed daughter. What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive.
Let it suffice that I am one of the unhappy number toiling day and night, and very often in the horse’s druggery, with only the comfort of hearing me called, ‘You, bitch, you did not do half enough.’
Then I am tied up and whipped to that degree that you’d not serve an animal. I have scarce any thing but Indian corn and salt to eat and that even begrudged. Nay, many negroes are better used...
After slaving after Master’s pleasure, what rest we can get is to wrap ourselves up in a blanket and lay upon the ground. This is the deplorable condition your poor Betty endures.
From a letter by White slave Elizabeth Sprigs in Maryland to her father John Sprigs in London, September 22, 1756. (High Court of the Admiralty, London, Public Record Office.)
Michael A. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, Independent History & Research Co., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 1992, 137pp.