White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, by Don Jordan, Michael Walsh
The ‘lost slaves’ of history brought to the fore by two distinguished journalists. A truly fascinating read.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Urchins were swept up from London’s streets to labor in the tobacco fields, where life expectancy was no more than two years. Brothels were raided to provide “breeders” for Virginia. Hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock.
Drawing on letters crying for help, diaries, and court and government archives, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh demonstrate that the brutalities usually associated with black slavery alone were perpetrated on whites throughout British rule. The trade ended with American independence, but the British still tried to sell convicts in their former colonies, which prompted one of the most audacious plots in Anglo-American history.
This is a saga of exploration and cruelty spanning 170 years that has been submerged under the overwhelming memory of black slavery. White Cargo brings the brutal, uncomfortable story to the surface.
Review by Gerry Burnie
Yes, I know, today is St. Patrick’s Day: a day when we celebrate an Irish saint who was born in Rome, who wore blue (not green), and who didn’t really drive all the snakes out of Ireland because there weren’t any to begin with. However, green beer and silliness aside, the history of Ireland and its people has been (unfortunately) far from celebratory, and Don Jordan and Michael Walsh (two distinguished journalists) have brought yet another dark chapter to light in their extensively-researched book, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America [NYU Press, March 8, 2008].
I first became aware of “white slavery” when I was reviewing The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport, and in it she cited the case of two Irish lads (11 and perhaps 14) who were kidnapped from their beds and brought to Massachusetts as indentured “servants.” They were sold to a magistrate to work on his estate, and some years later they appealed to the court (on which their master sat) for relief from their servitude. They lost.
Thereafter, I mentioned this case to several people who were utterly shocked that such a thing could happen.
But happen it did, and in great numbers. It began when James I sold 30,000 prisoners to the American colonies as slaves, and in 1625 he proclaimed that Irish political prisoners were to be transported to the West Indies. Therefore, by the mid 1600s Irish slaves amounted to 70% of the population of Montserrat. Moreover, in the early days of slavery in the New England colonies, the majority of slaves were actually white.
Ireland was the main source. In the decade following the failed Irish Rebellion of 1641, it is estimated that 300,000 Irish rebels were sold as slaves, and thereafter 100,000 children between the ages of 10 to 14 were taken from their parents, 52,000 (mostly women and children) were sold, and 32,000 men and boys went to the highest bidder in slave market from the West Indies, to Virginia and New England.
The African slave trade was just beginning during this period, and African slaves were therefore more expensive, i.e. £50 sterling (compared to £5 sterling), and so white slaves were often treated more harshly than the other. Moreover, it was quite legal for Blacks and Indians to own white slaves. In fact, the practice became so prevalent that the Virginia Assembly passed a law prohibiting it, i.e. “It is enacted that noe negro or Indian though baptized and enjoyned their owne freedome shall be capable of any such purchase of christians…” ~ Statutes of the Virginia Assembly, Vol. 2, pp. 280-81.
This is a fascinating read with enough research to make it reliable, but written in a journalist’s easy-to-read fashion. Highly recommended. Five bees.
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