Whites Were the First Slaves in America
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 develope d into a fixe d sys-
tem e very b it as rigid and codified as negro slavery was t o become. I n fact, negro slavery was effi-
ciently established in colonial America because Black slaves were governed, organized and controlled
by the structures and o rganization that were fir st used to e nslave and control Whit es. 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 whi ch negro slavery was constructed. “…the imp ortant
structures, labor ideolo gies and so cial relat ions necessary for slavery already had been estab lished
within indentured servitude… white servitude… in man y ways came remarkably c lose to the ‘ideal
type’ of chattel slavery which later became associated with the African experience” (Hilary McD. Beck-
les, White Servitude, pp. 6-7 and 71). “The practice developed and t olerated in the kidnapping of
Whites laid the foundation for the ki dnapping of Negroes.” (Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro,
The official papers of the White slave trade ref er 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. Jer negan, Laboring and Depend-
ent 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 co nstituted instead a more benign bondage,
that of “servitude.”
Yet the terms servant and slave were often used intercha ngeably to refer to people whose st atus
was clearly that of permanent, lifetime enslave ment. “An Account of th e English Sugar Plantacons”
(sic) in the British Museum (Sto we 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 Nort h American colonie s in the 17th a nd 18th ce nturies and subsequently in the U nited
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 se rvant to des cribe a slave would have been very prevalent a mong a Bible-
literate people like colo nial Americans. In all English translations of t he Bible available at the time,
from Wycliffe’s to the 1 611 King James version, the word slave as it appeared in the original Biblical
languages was translated as servant. For example, the King James V ersion of Genesis 9:25 is ren-
dered: “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of serva nts shall he be.” The intended mea ning here is clearly
that of slave and there is litt le doubt that in th e mind of early Americ ans the word servant was syn-
onymous 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 serva nts: “…one notes that t he Compan y of Ro yal 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 r aces 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 t he 17th cen tury, the Negroes, even in the Sout h, were not nu-
merous… They came into a so ciety in which a large part of the (White) population was to some de-
gree unfree… The Negroes lack of f reedom 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 ap-
plied to white Englishmen… ln New England and New York too there had early been an intense desire
for cheap u nfree hands, for ‘bond slavery, villeinage or Ca ptivity,’ whether it be white, Negro o r In-
dian…” (Handlin, pp. 202-203, 204, 218).
“The early laws against runaways, against dru nkenness, against carrying arms or trading with out
permission had applied penalties as heavy as death to all servants, Negroes and Whites” (Handlin, p.
A survey of the various ad hoc codes and regulations devised in the 17 th 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 indentur ed female servants worked in the field
gangs alon gside the small but rapidly growing number of enslaved black women. In this for mative
stage of the Sugar Revolution, p lanters did not attempt to formulate a division of labor along racial
lines. White indentured servants… were not perceived by the ir masters as worthy of special treatment
in the labor regime.” (Beckles, Natural Rebels, p. 29).
“…whiteness and indep endence were not firmly connected. Nor was Blackness yet fully linked w ith
servitude.” (Roediger, p. 27).
The contemporary academic consensus on sla very in America represents history by retroactive fiat,
decreeing that conclusions about th e entire epo ch fit the characterizations of it s final stage, the 19th
century Southern plantation system. (4)
17th century colonial slavery and 19th century American slavery are not a seamless garment. Histo-
rians who pretend otherwise have to maintain several fallacies, the chief among these being th e sup-
position that when White “servants” constituted the majority of servile laborers in the colonial p eriod,
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 deba uched wenches, discour aged their use in elite planter households. Many pio-
neer planters preferred to employ Amerindian women in their household s… With the… establish ment
of an elitist social culture, there was a tenden cy to reject (White) indentured servants as domestics…
Black women… represe nted a more attractive option and, a s a result, were widely employed as do-
mestics in the second half of the 17th century. In 167 5 fo r exa mple, John Blake, who had re cently
arrived on the island (o f Barbados), informed his brother in Ireland that his white in dentured servant
was a ‘slut’ and he would like to be rid of her …(in favor of a ‘neger we nch’).” (Beckles, Natural Re-
bels, pp. 56-57).
In the 17th century White slaves w ere cheaper to acquire than Negroes and theref ore were often
mistreated to a greater extent.
Having paid a bigger price for the Negro, “the planters treated the bla ck better than they did their
‘Christian’ w hite servant. Even the Negroes recogni zed th is and did no t hesitate to show their con-
tempt for th ose white men who, they could see, were worse off than themselves…” (Bridenbaugh, p.
It was White slaves who built America from it s very beginnings and made up the overwhelming ma-
jority of stave-laborers in the colonies in the 17t h 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 fellin g trees, soil clearance, and general infrastructural de-
velopment, had been satisfied primarily by white indentured servants between 1627 and 1643.” (Beck-
les, Natural Rebels, p. 8).
The mercha nt class of early America was an equal opportunity enslaver and viewed with en thusi-
asm the bondage of all poor people within the ir grasp, including their own White kinsmen. The re was
a precedent for this in the English legal concept of villeinage, a form of medieval White slavery in Eng-
“…as late as 1669 those who thought of large-scale agriculture assumed it would be manned not by
Negroes but by servile Whites und er a cond ition of villei nage. John Locke’s con stitutions 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 dictionar y defines “bondage” as “being bound by or subjected to ext ernal contro l.” 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 blo ck and examined
like livestock exactly like Black slaves, with the exception t hat these W hites were enslaved by their
own race. White slaves “found themselves powerle ss 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 “pu t up for sale by the ship captain s or merchants…
Families were often sep arated under these cir cumstances when wives and offspri ng 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 ov er for purch ase at the point of entr y were taken into the b ack
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 a nd Faithfully, Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania,
1682-1800, p. 97). “…in dentured se rvants were sold at auction, sometimes after being strippe d na-
ked.” (Roediger, p. 30). “ We were… exposed to sale in public fairs as so many brute beasts.” (Ekirch,
“Contemporary accounts liken ed them to livestock auc tions. ‘(They) are brought in here,’ a pe rson
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 horse s do t hose 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 dro ves, under the cust ody of severe brutal drivers into the Back
Country to be disposed of as servants.” (Jernegan, p. 225).
Those Whites for whom no buyer co uld be found even after marketing them inland were returned to
the slavetra der to be sold for a p ittance. These Whites w ere officia lly 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…. ‘Th ey drive them through t he
country like a parcel of sheep unt il they can sell them to advantage,” wrote Whit e slave Joh n Har-
The Virginia Company arranged with the City of London to have 100 poo r White children “out of t he
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 labo r. The Privy Council of London authorized the Virginia Company to “imp rison,
punish and dispose of any of those children upon any disorder by them committed, as cau se shall re-
quire.” (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 or-
dered to sail from Carolina with a consignment of ti mber for sale in the West Indies. From there h e
was to set sail for London with a lo ad of sugar purchased with the profits from the sale of the timber.
In England he was to sell the suga r and fill hi s ship with fr om 200 to 300 White sl aves to be sold in
The notion of a “contract” and of the legal status of the White in “servitude” became a fiction as a re-
sult of the exigencies of the occasion. In 1623 George Sandys, the treasurer of Virginia, was for ced to
sell the on ly remaining eleven White slaves of his Company for lack of provisions t o support th em.
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 b y studying the disposition of
the estates of the wealt hy 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 conte mporary eyewitness to White slavery, in his 1657 A True and Exact History
tells of a White slave, a woman, who was being traded by h er master fo r 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 degr aded chattel— part of the personal estate of th e master and on a par with his far m ani-
The term “indentured servitude” therefore is nothing more than a propagandistic softening of the his-
toric 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 Wh ites who cou ld in fact be called “inden-
tured servants” accord ing to the m odern conception of the term, who worked under privileged condi-
tions of limited bondage for a specific period of time, primari ly as appre ntices. These lucky few were
given religio us instruct ion and could sue in a court of law. They were employed i n return for their
transportation to America and room and board during their period of service.
But certain historians pr etend that this apprent ice system-the privileged form of b ound labor—was
representative of the en tire experience of White bondage in America. In actuality, the indentured ap-
prentice system represented the co ndition of o nly a tiny segment of the Whites in bondage in earl y
“Strictly speaking, the t erm indented servant should apply only to tho se persons who had bo und
themselves voluntarily to service bu t it is ge nerally used for all classes of bond ser vants.” (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 bou nd labor. The more compre-
hensive colonial inst itution included all persons bound to labor for periods of years as determined ei-
ther by agreement or by law, both minors and a dults, and Indians and Negroes as well as whites” (p.
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 ar-
ranged for a negro servant named Asha to ser ve for twelve months, thenceforth t o be a free person.
(Bridenbaugh, pp. 120-121). Black indentured servants in the 18th ce ntury even had an “education
clause” in their contracts:
“…free negro boys bound out as apprentices were sometimes given t he benefit of an educational
clause in the indenture. Two such cases occur in the Princess Anne County Record s; 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 So uth Carolina cite “a free negro fello w named Jo hnny Holmes…
lately an indented servant with Nich olas Trott…” and “a negro man co mmonly called Jack Cutler— h e
is a free ne gro having faithfully ser ved out his time with me four ye ars 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 concer ning White slaves, “European
men and women could exercise choice both in decid ing whether to migrate to the colonies and in
choosing possible destinations.”
This is posit ively misleading. At the bare minimum, hundreds of thou sands of Wh ite slaves w ere
kidnapped off the streets and roads of Great Bri tain in the course of mo re 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, His-
tory 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 th e heralded “classic work” on the subject, Abbot Emerson Smith’s Colonists
in Bondage which is o ne long coverup of the e xtent of the kidnapping, the denial o f the existence of
White slavery and numerous other apologies for the establishment including a coverup of the deporta-
tion and enslavement of the Irish people. But the record proves otherwise. (For more on Abbot Emer-
son Smith’s errors cf. Warren B. Smith, White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina, p. ix).
“Cromwell’s conquest o f Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth centu ry made slaves as well as
subjects of t he Irish peo ple. Over a hundred tho usand men, women and children were seized by the
English troops and shipped to the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery…” (George Novack,
“Slavery in Colonial America,” America’s Revolutionary Heritage, p. 142).
On Sept. 11 , 1655 came the following decree from the Purit an Protectorate by Henry Cro mwell in
“Concerning the younge (Irish) women, although we must use force in takinge them up, yet it beinge
so much for their owne goode, and likely to be of soe great advantage to the publique, it is not in the
least doubted, that you may have s uch number of them as you thinke fitt to make u se uppon this ac-
count.” The “account” was enslavement and transportation to the colonies.
A week later Henry Cromwell ordered that 1,500 Irish boys aged 12 to 14 also be shipped into slav-
ery with the Irish girls in the steaming tropics of Jamaica and Barbados in circumstances which killed
off White adult slaves by the thousa nds due to the rigors of field work in that climate and the savag e
brutality of their overseers. In October the Council of approved the plan.
Altogether more than o ne hundred thousand Irish were shipped to the West Indies where they died
in slavery in horrible co nditions. Children weren’t the only victims. Even eighty year old Irish w omen
were deported to the West Indies a nd enslaved (D.M. R. Esson, The Curse of Cro mwell: A History of
the Ironside Conquest of Ireland, 1649-53, p. 176).
Irish religious leaders were herded into “internment camps throughout Ireland, and were then moved
progressively to the ports for shipment overseas like cattle .” (D.M. R. Esson, p. 159). By the time
Cromwell’s men had fini shed with th e Irish peop le, only one-sixth of the I rish population remained on
their lands. (Esson, p. 168).
Cromwell did not only e nslave Catholics. Poor White Protestants on the English m ainland fared no
better. In February, 165 6 he ordered his soldier s to find 1,200 poor English women for enslavement
and deportation to the colonies. In March he repeated the order but increased th e quota to “2,000
young women of Engla nd.” In the same year, Cromwell’s Council of State ordered all t he homeless
poor of Scotland, male and female, transported to Jamaica for enslavement (Eric Williams, p. 101).
Of course, Cromwell and the Puritan ruling class were not the only ones involved in the enslave-
ment of Whites. During the Restoration reign of King Charles II, the monarch with Catholic sympathiz-
ers who had been Cromwell’s arch-enemy, the king en slaved large groups of poor Presbyterians and
Scottish Covenanters and deported them to the plantations in turn.
Legislation sponsored by King Charles II in 1686 , intended to ensure the enslavement of Protestant
rebels in the Caribbean colonies, wa s so harsh t hat one observer noted, “The condit ion of these Re-
bels was by this Act ma de as bad, i f not worse than the Ne groes.” (Richard Hall, Acts Passed in the
Island of Barbados, p. 484).
“By far the largest number and certainly the most important group of white indentured servants were
the poor Protestants from Europe.” (Warren B. Smith, p. 44).
Legal Basis and Definitions
In the late 16th century the English parliament empowered magistrates to enslave t he British p oor,
“beyond the seas.” In 1615 James I gave similar authorization. The operation was formalized with the
passage of the Transportation Act of 1718, the preamble of which declared “…that its purpose was
both to deter criminals and to supply the colonies with labor. Since ‘in many of His Majesty’s co lonies
and plantations in America there is a great want of servants…” (A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colo-
nies, p. 25).
One of the earliest advocates of the enslavement of indigent Whites for labor in Nova Britannia was
the Elizabethan preacher and geographer Richard Hakluyt, who advised the Crown that poor Whites
should be “condemned for certain years in the western parts” (of the New World) where the y would
“be raised again, and do their country good service’ by performing such useful chor es as felling tim-
ber, mining precious minerals and raising su gar cane.” (Richard Haklu yt, A Discourse Conce rning
Western Planting [Deanne edition], p. 37; A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 7).
Hakluyt was among the first to label the new British poor, “ criminals” and to urge the ir utilization as
slave laborers in America, a process which would later beco me known u nder the euphemism, “t rans-
portation.” (A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethans and America, p. 46).
Confronted with the labor shortage typical in early America, the colony of New York petitioned for
White slaves from Engl and in 1693. The Quak ers of Philadelphia also sought them. (Sha w, p p. 32-
There were four catego ries of statu s for White people in colonial America: White f reemen, White
freemen wh o owned property, White apprentices (als o called “indentured servants,” “redemptioners”
and “free-willers”) and White slaves.
The attempt by Abbot Emerson Smi th, Galenson and many others to deny the existence and brutal
treatment of White slaves by pretending they were mostly just “indentured servants” learning a trade,
regulated according to venerable, medieval Guild traditions of apprenticeship, runs completely counter
to the documentary record.
“…the planters did not conceive of their (White) servants socially and emotionally as integral parts of
the family o r household, but instea d viewed th em as an a lien commo dity… Havin g abandoned the
moral responsibility aspect of pre-capitalist ideology, masters enforced an often violent social domina-
tion of (White) servants by the manipulation of oppressive legal codes.. . transform(ing)… indent ured
servitude, with its pre-in dustrial, mo ral, paternalistic superst ructure, into a market system of brutal
servitude… maintained by the systematic applicati on of legally sanctioned force and violence.” (Beck-
les, White Servitude, pp. xiv and 5).
Informal British and colonial cu stom validated the kidnap ping of wor king-class B ritish Wh ites and
their enslavement in th e colon ies u nder such euphemisms as “Servitude accord ing to the Custom,”
which upheld the force of “verbal contracts” wh ich shipmasters and pre ss-gangs claimed existed be-
tween them and the wretched Whites they kidnapped off the streets of England and sold into colonial
These justifications for White slavery arose in law determined by penal codes. In other words, White
slavery was permitted and perpetuated on the claim that all who were th us enslaved were crimin als.
No proof for this claim was needed because the fact of one’s enslavement “prove d” the fact of one’s
“criminality.” The history of White slavery in the New World can be fou nd within th e history of the en-
forcement of the penal codes in Britain and America.
The “convicts,” once in America, “…encountere d widespread exploitatio n. Tobacco planters… f elt
few qualms about putting freeborn Englishmen to hard labor or, if need be, shacklin g them in chains.
Neither the status of co nvicts as se rvants nor t heir living conditions w ere altogether different fro m
those of slaves, and opportunities for achieving a settled so cial life were arguably worse.” (Ekirch, pp.
“Punctilious’ gentlemen ‘disdain that Englishmen should be slaves on English land,’ a correspondent
in the Gentleman’s Magazine pointed out, ‘and r ather choose America for the theatr e of our shame.”
(Ekirch, p. 21).
The claim of the aristocracy that these “convicts” were mainly dangerous criminals a nd felons guilty
of heinous crimes, was largely a function of t he propaganda that attended the enterprise o f White
slavery in the early Ame rican era: “…the great b ulk of offenses were co mmitted, not by professional
thieves, but by the needy poor…” due to what one witness, t he clergyman Francis Hare, described as
“the extreme misery and poverty great numbers are reduced to.” (Ekirch, p. 13).
Slaves were made of poor White “criminals” who had poache d a deer, st olen a loaf o f bread or had
been convicted of destr oying shrubbery in an aristocrat’s garden. In 1 655 four teenagers were
whipped through the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, burned behind the ears and “barbadosed” into
slavery in the colonie s for interrup ting a minister, James Scott, while he was pr eaching in church.
(Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, volume 5).
Under British law in the 17th and 18th centuries, “felonies” punishable by death included stealing or
vandalizing gates, fruits, canal-banks and hop-binds. Other capital crimes included breaking down the
head of a fish-pond, ‘whereby fish may be lost,’ cutting down trees in an avenue or garden, sending
threatening letters, se lling cotton with forged st amps and committing “sacrilege.” (S haw, pp. 26-27).
Crimes punishable by transportatio n into slave labor in A merica inclu ded: stealin g ore from lead
mines, fishing in enclosed ponds, bigamy, and solemnizing a marriage in secret (Shaw, p. 27).5
A “felon” wa s a pregnan t, starving w oman who stole a bowl of soup ; a 12 year old boy who had
picked someone’s pocket, or a young father like Thomas Atwood with a wife, child and mother to sup-
port, sentenced to slavery in America because he had stolen a sheep to satisfy the “cries of his family
for bread at a time when he had it not to give them” (Ekirch, pp. 27-28, 50, 67).
They would be separate d from their parents, ch ildren or sp ouse and “tr ansported” to the colonies,
often for life.
Catherine Davis, a pregnant seamstress, was convicted in a London court of stealing seven yards of
lace. She was separated from her husband, sen tenced to slavery and placed aboar d the convict ship
Forward. She gave birth on board. Her baby was dead within two weeks, its moth er bound for Mary-
land. (Ekirch, p. 111).
Awaiting a slave ship in a Cambridge, England jail, the “con vict” Mary F eatherstone, charged with
theft, gave birth to a baby bo y. He was taken from her and she was transported to slavery in His Maj-
esty’s Plantations in America. (Ekirch, p. 8).
5 Unfortunately there tended to be one law for the rich and another for the poor. Eldon’s confession in the House
of Lords in 1827 that as a boy he had been a ‘great poacher’ was greeted with laughter. Working class English
children were transported into slavery for ste aling apples from a tree, a “crim e” which “was committed a lmost
daily by most of the high-born youths of the country” without fear of punishment. (Shaw, p. 163).
“Laboring men often suf fered abusive treatment in the colonies, but tran sported felons made espe-
cially easy prey. Marked with the stamp of infamy… ‘Worse than negroes,’ in fact, was the verdict of a
Jamaican governor… many convicts were already vi ewed in much the same way a s slaves… convict
servants… t oiled under debased co nditions not altogether different fro m black sla very… So me ob-
servers, in fact, held tha t convicts suffered harsher treatme nt… ‘Like ho rses you mu st slave, and like
galley-slaves will you be used” (Ekirch, pp. 140, 151, 156, 160).
The “convict” label was so ubiquitous that it prompted Samuel Johnson’s remark on Americans: “Sir,
they are a race of convicts, and ought to be content with anything we allow them short of hanging.”
But even an exclusive fo cus on the indentured servant or “apprentice” class cannot conceal the fact
of White slavery because very often the distinctions between the two blurred:
“Large companies did not deal solely in convicts. Some participated in the indentured servant trade,
so that servants and convicts were at times transported on the same ships… Eddis claimed that plant-
ers ‘too generally conceive an opinion that the di fference is merely nominal between the indented ser-
vant and th e convicted felon’… anot her believed that they (indentured servants) ‘are obliged to serve
like slaves or convicts, and are on the same f ooting’… such observations do affor d tantalizing evi-
dence that some (White) servants were gradually becoming associated, in the public mind, with con-
victs, and, further, that many convicts were already viewed in much the same way as slaves.” (Ekirch,
pp. 75 and 156).
Through a process of subterfuge and entrap ment, White apprentice s were regu larly transfo rmed
into White slaves, as we shall see.
White slaves were owned not only by individual aristocrats and rich planters but by the colonial gov-
ernment itself or its go vernor. White slaves in cluded not ju st paupers but such “wi cked villaine s” as
“vagrants, beggars, disorderly and o ther dissolute persons” as well as White childr en from the coun-
ties and towns of Britain who were stolen from t heir parents though no Harriet Beecher Stowe rose to
prominence in chronicling the anguish and hardship of these enslaved White children.
White Political Prisoners Sold into Slavery
A large number of the White slaves arriving in America described as “ convicts” were actually politi-
cal prisoners. Of the Scottish troop s captured at the battle of Worcester more than 600 hundred were
shipped to Virginia as slaves in 1651. The rebels of 1666 were sent as slaves to the colonies as were
the Monmouth rebels of 1 685 and the Jacobites of the rising of 1715.
“It is now commonl y accepted that the African slave trade could not h ave operated for over three
centuries without the active participation of some African states and political leaders. The human mer-
chandise was obtained largely as a result of political conflicts between neighboring states and tribes.
“Less well known are the ways in which… (Whit e slave labo rers were obtained)… fr om the British
Isles for the West Indies plantations in the seventeenth century. The English state ruthlessly rounded
up victims of politica l conflict and pr isoners of w ar at places like Dunbar , Worcester, Salisbury and,
during territorial expansionism, in Ir eland, for sale to West Indian merchants. In this respect English
governments and African politica l leaders were respondin g to the same market forces.” (Beckles,
White Servitude, p. 52).
The Crown put tens of t housands of political dissidents in slavery, some being shipped to New Eng-
land while others were deported to the plantatio ns of the West Indies a nd worked t o death in the is-
land’s boiler houses, mills and sugar cane fields. Cromwell sold the Whit e survivors of the massacre
at Drogheda to slave-traders in the Barbados “and thereafter it became his fixed policy to ‘barbadoes’
his opponents” (Eric Williams, p. 101).
By 1655, half of the total White population of Barbados consisted of political pr isoners sold into
slavery (Jill Sheppard, The ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados, p.18).
Establishment historians claim that only Blacks were slav es because Whites were released afte r a
term of seven or ten yea rs of servitude. But the history of the enslavement of Britain’s politica l prison-