The Untold Story of White Slavery in America



by Alex

White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, New York University Press, 2008.

I picked up White Cargo from an estate sale a couple months ago. I noted it in my post titled “Conspiracy Library”. I actually sat down and read it. White Cargo discusses white slavery of the time period from Britain’s first settlement in Jamestown during the early 17th century to America’s war with Britain during the late 18th century. The focus is mainly on Virginia and Maryland, where that form of slavery was the most pervasive.

Though what we were taught in school about the harsh treatment of black slaves was largely true, what was not mentioned were the many whites who were subject to the same treatment as well. This was totally omitted from our textbooks. White slaves (mainly British and Irish) were crammed on ships during transports, were auctioned off upon arrival, were subject to constant beatings and whipping while on the plantations, were malnourished, had few rights, and had their children taken away. Does this not sound similar to what we were taught about black slavery? Euphemistically white slavery was referred to as `indentured servitude’. Indentured servitude was in fact slavery. Many never lived to see freedom as they died either of disease or exhaustion before their time was up.

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 (p15).

What I was taught in school as I remembered was that indentured servitude was an affordable way for immigrants to buy their way to “the land of the free” when they didn’t have the funds to pay for their voyage. This was a complete distortion from reality. Freedom for the commoner was not the intention of the colonizers. A creation myth has flourished in which early American settlers are portrayed as free men and women who created a democratic and egalitarian society more or less from scratch. (p16)

The indentured servant system evolved into slavery because of the economic goals of early colonists: it was designed not so much to help would be migrants get to America and the Caribbean as to provide a cheap and compliant workforce for the cash-crop industry. Once this was established, to keep the workforce in check it became necessary to create legal sanctions that included violence and physical restraint- This is what led to slavery: first for whites, then for blacks (p15).

America was built on the labor of these unfree men, black and white. Millions of European Americans were descended from these slaves without knowing it. The servants who worked the American plantations were largely criminals (many for petty crime), POWs, the Catholics, the hated Irish, and kidnapped youngsters. Shipping these people to America and the Caribbean were a way to rid English Society of some of these outcasts. England looked to America as a dumping ground.

Conditions on the vessels to transport the servants were deplorable with many crammed in as little space as possible. The average berth given was just 18 inches wide – though still larger than that for African carrying ships (p222). Journeys sometimes lasted over four weeks as storms often veered ships off course. Diseases, often contagious, were common and mortality rates were as high as 40 percent. Sailors were paid relatively high wages because of the dangers involved. Mutiny was common.

Punishment for trafficking slavery was light, usually being just a small fine. Little was done about it as many in England viewed servants as criminals and lazy bastards. Reverend Hugh Jones, a professor at William and Mary during the 1720s & 30s: The servants and inferior sort of people, who have either been sent over to Virginia, or have transported themselves thither, have been, and are, the poorest, idlest, and worst of mankind, the refuse of Great Britain and Ireland, and the outcast of the people (p259). Many government officials profited from the trade.

Treatment of servants differed greatly in England compared to America. Servitude in England normally lasted one year with no possibility of an extension. Servants there tend to be treated as members of the household and not as commodity. Servants could not be sold or auctioned off and killing a servant was punishable (p110).

Preying on the Children

The plantation owners were especially attracted to young servants – even those as early as ten years of age because they thought their bodies would acclimate to the heat better than adults. However, of the 300 children shipped between 1619-1622, only 12 were still alive by 1624 (p85).

Youngsters were also easier to persuade. Many parents became horrified to find out they fate of their children. In Britain, there was so much consternation that it was usual to think that if a child went missing, they were probably being shipped off to America.

The Treatment of Men as Things

Little regard were given to servants as actual people. Sixteen years after the founding of Jamestown, servants began to show up in documents as assets. Genealogical sources showed servants appearing in plantation owner’s wills along with material objects and farm animals (p109):

Will of Elizabeth Causley, Virginia, 26 November 1635: ‘I Elizabeth Causley of Accawmack being left and appointed sole and absolute executrix of my right dear and well beloved husband Henry Causley late deceased do hereby give bequeath and make over unto my Children Agnes and Francis my plantation with all my servants, goods and moneys whatsoever.’

Will of Abraham Coombs, St Mary’s County, Maryland, 26 December 1684: ‘I give and bequeath to my dear & loving wife all my servants, being two boys and one woman servant together with all my stock of hogs.’ Inventory of the estate of Thomas Carter, 9 September 1673,

Inventory of the estate of Thomas Carter, 9 September 1673, Isle of Wight County, Virginia: ‘5 horses, 3 mares, 42 head of cattle, 22 head of WW» whim; hill (debts 5500 lbs, 1 set joiner’s tools worth 409 lbs Rabin); as of Christopher Hollyman – 800 lbs tob, 1 bill of Mr. Cobbs – 35 lbs tob, 2 feather beds and 2 flock beds, 4 servants – 2 whereof to serve 3’years apiece, one five years, and one four years. 102 ozs. of Pewter, 2 pistols, 3 Iron pots.’

In 1758 a London weaver observed a sale of convict servants in Williamsburg: They all was set in row, near 100 men and women and the planter come down the country to buy . . . I never see such parcels of poor wretches in my life some almost naked and what had clothes was as black as chimney sweeps, and almost starved by the ill-usage of their passage by the captain, for they are used no better than many negro slaves and sold in the same manner as horses or cows in our market or fair.

The convicts were, in a real sense, perishable goods. If a woman couldn’t stand up to the work or was diseased, the £8 or £10 spent on buying her was wasted. With men costing £13 and upwards, the buyer was even keener on ensuring they were sound. Those undergoing inspections or witnessing others being inspected usually drew the same parallel. Convict servant 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 to see if they are sound and fit for their labour. (p252)

Few Found Freedom

Few indentured servants lived to find freedom and fewer owned any sort of property. A study showed that of the 5000 servants who landed in America between 1670-1680, just 241 eventually became landowners (p 124).

Beatings, whippings, and starvation was common. Rape was common against female servants. Work was extremely grueling. Runaways were so pervasive and problematic that in 1639 Maryland treated running away as a capital offense. For each day the servant was away, two days were added to their bid. Eventually this was increased to four, then six, and then 10. If a planter got a servant pregnant, it would be the servant who got into trouble and would have time added. If the servant and owner ended up in court, the outcome would almost always favor the owners. The supposed seven year indentured contract usually ended up being a lot longer. Planters and officials nearly always found loopholes to keep the servants on the job as long as possible.

The Racism Myth

There is the myth of persistent racism against blacks, at least during the early days of slavery. During the early days, whites and blacks often worked the fields side-by-side. They often attempted to run away together. In the beginning, blacks were indentured just like the whites. Some blacks who survived at the end of their contracts even became plantation owners themselves and owned slaves.

On racism, according to African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr (p170):

Not only in Virginia but also in New England and New York, the first Blacks were integrated into a forced labor system that had little or nothing to do with skin color. That came later. But in the interim, a fateful 40-year period of primary  importance in the history of America, Black men and women worked side by side with the first generation of Whites, cultivating tobacco, clearing the land, and building roads and houses.

And according to the African American historian Audrey Smedley (p 170):

‘Early references to blacks reveal little clear evidence of general or widespread social antipathy on account of their colour.’

`Records show a fairly high incidence of co-operation among black and white servants and unified resistance to harsh masters.’

There were even indications that whites were treated worse than black servants because there were limits to the amount of time whites were indentured and they made sure they could get the most out of them while blacks were usually indentured for life. Racism would however become more pervasive as laws gradually became stacked against blacks.

The Changing of the Tide

Initially the vast majority of the plantation workforce were white. For the first decades under American colonization, blacks made up only a small fraction of the total enslaved population. Early 17th century estimates put whites at a 20 to 1 ratio to blacks. However, as time passed, things started to change. By the end of the 17th century, whites were down to roughly five-eighths of the newcomers.

Racism gradually became institutionalized. During the mid-seventeenth century colonies began passing laws legalizing lifetime enslavement for blacks. Laws also were passed barring blacks from owning white slaves. In 1671 Virginia passed laws making all non-Christian arrivals slavery for life – again this usually meant Africans. The rights and privileges of black servants were disappearing, while those of whites were increasing. Blacks who previously could own property were no longer able to do so.


The indentured-servitude system eventually died because it was becoming uneconomical. Advances in harvesting technology and improving efficiency in overseas transportation made the use of slave labor less profitable.

Though the history of white slavery has been swept under the rug, this essay was not to whitewash African slavery, which was harsh and brutal in it’s own light.

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  1. Very interesting. Will look out for this. Bronte

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