The enslavement of Whites extended throughout the American colonies and White slave labor was a crucial factor in the economic development of the colonies. Gradually it developed into a fixed system every bit as rigid and codified as negro slavery was to become. In fact, negro slavery was efficiently established in colonial America because Black slaves were governed, organized and controlled by the structures and organization that were first used to enslave and control Whites. Black slaves were “late corners fitted into a system already developed.” (Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South, pp. 25-26).
White slavery was the historic base upon which negro slavery was constructed. “…the important structures, labor ideologies and social relations necessary for slavery already had been established within indentured servitude… white servitude… in many ways came remarkably close to the ‘ideal type’ of chattel slavery which later became associated with the African experience” (Hilary McD. Beckles, White Servitude, pp. 6-7 and 71). “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. The American colonies prospered through the use of White slaves which Virginia planter John Pory delcared in 1619 were “our principall wealth.”
“The white servant, a semi-slave, was more important in the 17th century than even the negro slave, in respect to both numbers and economic significance.” (Marcus W. Jernegan, Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, p. 45).
Where mainstream history books or films touch on White slavery it is referred to with the deceptively mild-sounding title of “indentured servitude,” the implication being that the enslavement of Whites was not as terrible or all-encompassing as negro “slavery” but constituted instead a more benign bondage, that of “servitude.”
Yet the terms servant and slave were often used interchangeably to refer to people whose status was clearly that of permanent, lifetime enslavement. “An Account of the English Sugar Plantacons” (sic) in the British Museum (Stowe manuscript) written circa 1660-1685, refers to Black and White slaves as “servants”: “…the Colonyes were plentifully supllied with Negro and Christian servants which are the nerves and sinews of a plantacon…” (Christian was a euphemism for White).
“In the North American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries and subsequently in the United States, servant was the usual designation for a slave” (Compact Edition of the Oxford English Diction- ary, p. 2,739).
The use of the word servant to describe a slave would have been very prevalent among a Bible-literate people like colonial Americans. In all English translations of the Bible available at the time, from Wycliffe’s to the 1611 King James version, the word slave as it appeared in the original Biblical languages was translated as servant. For example, the King James Version of Genesis 9:25 is rendered: “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be.” The intended meaning here is clearly that of slave and there is little doubt that in the mind of early Americans the word servant was synonymous with slave (cf. Genesis 9:25 in the New International Version Bible).
In original documents of the White merchants who transported negroes from Africa the Blacks were called servants: “…one notes that the Company of Royal Adventurers referred to their cargo as ‘Negers,’ ‘Negro-Servants,’ ‘Servants… from Africa…” (Handlin, p. 205).
The documentary record debunks the propaganda that slavery was strictly a racist operation, part of a conspiracy of White supremacy, because: 1. Whites as well as Blacks were enslaved. 2. In the 17th century slaves of both races were called servants. 3. The colonial merchants of 17th century America had no qualms about enslaving their own White kindred.
Oscar Handlin: “Through the first three-quarters of the 17th century, the Negroes, even in the South, were not numerous… They came into a society in which a large part of the (White) population was to some degree unfree… The Negroes lack of freedom was not unusual. These (Black) newcomers, like so many others, were accepted, bought and held, as kinds of servants…
“It was in this sense that Negro servants were sometimes called slaves… For that matter, it also applied to white Englishmen… ln New England and New York too there had early been an intense desire for cheap unfree hands, for ‘bond slavery, villeinage or Captivity,’ whether it be white, Negro or Indian…” (Handlin, pp. 202-203, 204, 218).
“The early laws against runaways, against drunkenness, against carrying arms or trading without permission had applied penalties as heavy as death to all servants, Negroes and Whites” (Handlin, p. 214).
A survey of the various ad hoc codes and regulations devised in the 17th century for the governing of those in bondage reveals no special category for Black slaves. (Hening, vol. 1, pp. 226, 258, 540).
“During Ligon’s time in Barbados (1647-1650), white indentured female servants worked in the field gangs alongside the small but rapidly growing number of enslaved black women. In this formative stage of the Sugar Revolution, planters did not attempt to formulate a division of labor along racial lines. White indentured servants… were not perceived by their masters as worthy of special treatment in the labor regime.” (Beckles, Natural Rebels, p. 29).
“…whiteness and independence were not firmly connected. Nor was Blackness yet fully linked with servitude.” (Roediger, p. 27).
The contemporary academic consensus on slavery in America represents history by retroactive fiat, decreeing that conclusions about the entire epoch fit the characterizations of its final stage, the 19th century Southern plantation system. (4)
17th century colonial slavery and 19th century American slavery are not a seamless garment. Historians who pretend otherwise have to maintain several fallacies, the chief among these being the supposition that when White “servants” constituted the majority of servile laborers in the colonial period, they worked in privileged or even luxurious conditions which were forbidden to Blacks.
In truth, White slaves were often restricted to doing the dirty, backbreaking field work while Blacks and even Indians were taken into the plantation mansion houses to work as domestics:
“Contemporaries were aware that the popular stereotyping of (White) female indentured servants as whores, sluts and debauched wenches, discouraged their use in elite planter households. Many pioneer planters preferred to employ Amerindian women in their households… With the… establishment of an elitist social culture, there was a tendency to reject (White) indentured servants as domestics… Black women… represented a more attractive option and, as a result, were widely employed as domestics in the second half of the 17th century. In 1675 for example, John Blake, who had recently arrived on the island (of Barbados), informed his brother in Ireland that his white indentured servant was a ‘slut’ and he would like to be rid of her …(in favor of a ‘neger wench’).” (Beckles, Natural Rebels, pp. 56-57).
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 slave-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).
The merchant class of early America was an equal opportunity enslaver and viewed with enthusiasm the bondage of all poor people within their grasp, including their own White kinsmen. There was a precedent for this in the English legal concept of villeinage, a form of medieval White slavery in England.
“…as late as 1669 those who thought of large-scale agriculture assumed it would be manned not by Negroes but by servile Whites under a condition of villeinage. John Locke’s constitutions for South Carolina envisaged an hereditary group of servile ‘leetmmen’; and Lord Shaftsbury’s signory on Locke Island in 1674 actually attempted to put the scheme into practice.” (Handlin, p. 207).
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines servitude as “slavery or bondage of any kind.” The dictionary defines “bondage” as “being bound by or subjected to external control.” It defines “slavery” as “ownership of a person or persons by another or others.”
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).
“Contemporary accounts likened them to livestock auctions. ‘(They) are brought in here,’ a person noted, ‘and sold in the same manner as horses or cows in our market or fair. (William) Green recalled: ‘They search us there as the dealers in horses do those animals in this country, by looking at our teeth, viewing our limbs…” (William Green, Sufferings of William Green, p. 6 and Ekirch, p. 123).
“They are frequently hurried in droves, under the custody of severe brutal drivers into the Back Country to be disposed of as servants.” (Jernegan, p. 225).
Those Whites for whom no buyer could be found even after marketing them inland were returned to the slavetrader to be sold for a pittance. These Whites were officially referred to as “refuse” and “lumps”: “Unloading large numbers wholesale, called ‘lumping,’ was generally a last resort that yielded smaller rewards.” White slaver James Cheston wrote to his partners, ‘The servants go off slower than I expected… I shall try them a few days longer in the retail way and then lump the remainder.
“Large-scale purchasers generally retailed servants farther inland…. ‘They drive them through the country like a parcel of sheep until they can sell them to advantage,” wrote White slave John Harrower.
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.” (Emphasis supplied).
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.
The operations of Captain Henry Brayne were typical. In November of 1670, Capt. Brayne was ordered to sail from Carolina with a consignment of timber for sale in the West Indies. From there he was to set sail for London with a load of sugar purchased with the profits from the sale of the timber. In England he was to sell the sugar and fill his ship with from 200 to 300 White slaves to be sold in Carolina.
The notion of a “contract” and of the legal status of the White in “servitude” became a fiction as a result of the exigencies of the occasion. In 1623 George Sandys, the treasurer of Virginia, was forced to sell the only remaining eleven White slaves of his Company for lack of provisions to support them. Seven of these White people were sold for 150 pounds of tobacco.
The slave-status of Whites held in colonial bondage can also be seen by studying the disposition of the estates of the wealthy Whites. Whites in bondage were rated as inventories and disposed of by will and by deed along with the rest of the property. They were bought, sold, bartered, gambled away, mortgaged, weighed on scales like farm animals and taxed as property.
Richard Ligon, a contemporary eyewitness to White slavery, in his 1657 A True and Exact History tells of a White slave, a woman, who was being traded by her master for a pig. Both the pig and the White woman were weighed on a scale. “The price was set for a groat a pound for the hog’s flesh and six pence for the woman’s flesh…” (p. 59).
In general, Whites were not treated with the relative dignity the term “indentured servants” connotes, but as degraded chattel— part of the personal estate of the master and on a par with his farm animals. The term “indentured servitude” therefore is nothing more than a propagandistic softening of the historic experience of enslaved White people in order to make a false distinction between their sufferings and those of negro slaves.
This is not to deny the existence of a fortunate class of Whites who could in fact be called “indentured servants” according to the modern conception of the term, who worked under privileged conditions of limited bondage for a specific period of time, primarily as apprentices. These lucky few were given religious instruction and could sue in a court of law. They were employed in return for their transportation to America and room and board during their period of service.
But certain historians pretend that this apprentice system the privileged form of bound labor—was representative of the entire experience of White bondage in America. In actuality, the indentured apprentice system represented the condition of only a tiny segment of the Whites in bondage in early America.
“Strictly speaking, the term indented servant should apply only to those persons who had bound themselves voluntarily to service but it is generally used for all classes of bond servants.” (Oliver P. Chitwood, A History of Colonial America, p. 341).
Richard B. Morris in Government and Labor in Early America notes that, “In the colonies, however, apprenticeship was merely a highly specialized and favored form of bound labor. The more comprehensive colonial institution included all persons bound to labor for periods of years as determined either by agreement or by law, both minors and adults, and Indians and Negroes as well as whites” (p. 310).
In a reversal of our contemporary ideas about White “indenture” and Black “slavery,” many Blacks in colonial America were often temporary bondsmen freed after a period of time. Peter Hancock arranged for a negro servant named Asha to serve for twelve months, thenceforth to be a free person. (Bridenbaugh, pp. 120-121). Black indentured servants in the 18th century even had an “education clause” in their contracts:
“…free negro boys bound out as apprentices were sometimes given the benefit of an educational clause in the indenture. Two such cases occur in the Princess Anne County Records; one in 1719, to learn the trade of tanner, the master to ‘teach him to read,’ and the other, in 1727, to learn the trade of gunsmith, the master to teach him ‘to read the Bible distinctly.” (Jernegan, p. 162).
Newspaper and court records in South Carolina cite “a free negro fellow named Johnny Holmes… lately an indented servant with Nicholas Trott…” and “a negro man commonly called Jack Cutler— he is a free negro having faithfully served out his time with me four years according to the contract agreed upon…” (Warren B. Smith, p. 106).
David W. Galenson is the author of an Orwellian suppression of the horrors and conditions of White slavery entitled White Servitude in Colonial America. He states concerning White slaves, “European men and women could exercise choice both in deciding whether to migrate to the colonies and in choosing possible destinations.”
This is positively misleading. 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”).
Another whitewash is the heralded “classic work” on the subject, Abbot Emerson Smith’s Colonists in Bondage which is one long coverup of the extent of the kidnapping, the denial of the existence of White slavery and numerous other apologies for the establishment including a coverup of the deportation and enslavement of the Irish people. But the record proves otherwise. (For more on Abbot Emerson Smith’s errors cf. Warren B. Smith, White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina, p. ix).