JOPLIN, Mo. —
Occasionally you will pick up a book that shatters a lot of your preconceived ideas about history.
“White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America,” by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, is one of those books. I’ve read a lot of nonfiction historical books, but not many that had me as engrossed and as moved as this one.
Having read quite a bit about English and American history, I knew a bit about indentured servants in America, but I hadn’t realized just how long the practice existed or how widespread and horrible it actually was.
The first slaves sold in America weren’t black, but were actually white and English. A shipment consisting of 100 children, ranging in ages 8 to 16 years old and gathered up from mainly the streets of London, was sent to America in 1619, roughly four months before the first shipment of black slaves arrived.
Indentured servants were people who sold themselves as a means of paying off debts, or to get to the New World. Using them also was as a means of clearing “undesirables” off the streets and punishing and transporting convicts.
The practice was supposed to consist of a few years of servitude followed by a chance for a new life in the New World. But the indentured slaves were often beaten, starved, assaulted and worked to death, often serving years past their original agreed-upon time.
White and black slaves served side by side, with often few differences in treatment, until the use of black slaves who were owned for life picked up. Because the white slaves had a limited serving time (if they were lucky) they were often worked into the ground, with little to eat and no health care, because it didn’t pay to keep a slave healthy if you only had them for a few years.
White slaves outnumbered black slaves for years and years in America, with the slaves coming from England, Ireland and Scotland. It proved to be a highly profitable business for those involved, with transporters even resorting to kidnapping people to fill cargo holds with those who would later be forced to work the tobacco fields.
There were court cases of people who admitted to having kidnapped close to 100 people, and the fines were paltry for being found guilty. The government even used indenturing as a means of emptying Ireland and Scotland of pesky rebels.
One of the things I found interesting is that the transports from England stopped after the outbreak of the American Revolution and picked up for a short time after the end of the war. The English government sent a few shipments with the dregs of their prisons, and used subterfuge to hide the fact that the servants being sold were, in fact, convicts from England.
The ploy was endorsed by King George III with delighted support of any chance to dump the unwanted from England onto the rebellious Americans. But this practice was quickly halted once discovered. With America no longer available as a dumping ground, the English turned to Australia as a solution.
With thousands of people shipped to America as a means of clearing streets and prisons, many of us with early American ancestors might want to consider the fact that those ancestors could have been sent here as a way of avoiding a death sentence.
I am shocked that this history of early America was never taught in any of my classes. This was an eye-opening read, and one that I won’t soon forget.
Danya Walker is the assistant circulation supervisor at the Joplin Public Library.