There is this notion floating around on the web that there were “white slaves” in America – or anywhere for that matter. This is crazy, right? I mean, surely this has to be an embellishment.
Well, no… it’s not crazy at all. Similar to how “white” is not a race, but instead a color comprised of several different races; slavery in America was not localized to only Africans. It was shared with Celts such as the Irish and Scottish. It would be absurd to think anything different, especially in light of the historical proof. In fact, slavery wasn’t localized to only “whites” and Africans either.
Every European nation that colonized North America utilized Indian slaves for construction, plantations and mining on the North American continent but more frequently in their outposts in the Caribbean and in the metropoles of Europe.
Too many get hung on terms and verbiage of that time, and I understand that this may come as a shock for many; but it shouldn’t. It’s the only logical conclusion. As I have stated many times; every color engaged in the practice of slavery to a substantial degree; both as slave and slave owner. The history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, and from ancient times to the present day. So why is this a hard concept to grasp? Ironically enough, a big part of it is racism. And I have a feeling it has a lot to do with our contorted education.
There are some educated racists who are at least aware of some of these facts. However, they are also quick to suggest that these Celts were merely “indentured servants” and that eventually, they revolted; demanding their freedom; which they were evidently just handed, and they were suddenly whisked into full acceptance of “white society” as equals. If anything is absurd, this idea would be it.
Let’s get technical for a moment. A slave is a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them. But in the context of this post, we are talking about the abuse element. So the first thing we have to understand is that the term “slavery” applies to any person who is bought and sold, chained and abused; and forced to do anything against their will. This is regardless of whether it was for a decade or even a lifetime.
But as even the New York Times has stated, many early settlers who were considered indentured servants were not servants at all. They died long before their indenture ended or found that no court would back them when their owners failed to deliver on promises. And many never achieved freedom or the American dream they were seeking. I’ll get into treatment in a little bit, but what would any thinking person call this?
And in regard to their supposed rebellion; it is true that some tried to rebel. This has been documented. In fact according to a book by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, called “White Cargo” – a book about the Irish and Scottish people, sent to the colonies against their will, for the purpose of forced labor during the 17th and 18th centuries – “Whenever they rebelled or even disobeyed an order, they were punished in the harshest ways. Slave owners would hang their human property by their hands and set their hands or feet on fire as one form of punishment. They were burned alive and had their heads placed on pikes in the marketplace as a warning to other captives.”
For clarification and before we really start, it should be noted that in the early centuries AD the Scottish were also sometimes known as Irish. This is a detail that can become confusing from time to time. Nobody cared enough to differentiate it back then. This practiced continued for some time, even in America. According to James Leyburn’s The Scotch Irish: A Social History (1962), the Scots-Irish at first usually referred to themselves simply as Irish, without the qualifier “Scotch” or “Scots”, and this continued up until the Great Migration. So I will try to write this in a way that navigates this point.
So let’s dig into some history! Much of what follows comes from numerous different sources. Several of these listings can be found as sources in several different books. The thing to remember is that much of what is known about this time is based on scattered sources including legislative notes, trade transactions, journals of slavers, and semi-documented conversations; which makes it difficult to account for the entire history. In other words; this may only scratch the surface. This can be hard for some people to grasp considering we live in a society where everything is document and on record.
The Slavery of “Whites” actually goes back some time. It has been said for instance, that Scotch-Irish have been slaves longer than any other race in the history of the world. We are not going to cover all of that here. Instead, we are going to shed some light on a few things that most obviously never heard about in school in regard to white slaves in the Americas.
The Proclamation of 1625 by James II, made it official policy that all Irish political prisoners be transported to the West Indies and sold to English planters. Now, you can call them whatever you want, but the truth of the matter is that in just a short period of time, Irish slaves were the majority of slaves in the English colonies. This was because the Crown of the time hated Celts and because the smallest infraction of the Crown’s law would land a Celt in chains.
By the 1630’s, Ireland was the primary source of slaves in the English slave trade. By 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves. Even Scientific American has questioned why the Irish have such a strong presence in places such as Montserrat, Jamaica, St. Kitts, etc. They mention how “in Jamaica alone one will find Irish Town and Dublin Castle in St. Andrew, Clonmel and Kildare in St. Mary, and Belfast and Middleton in St. Thomas. Not to mention the surplus of Irish last names including Collins, Murphy, Madden, Mulling, McCarthy and McDonnough.” Of course, this is simply because of the multiple thousands of Celts that were shipped off and sold as laborers to the colonies of the Caribbean and the United States.
And things ended up pretty rough for some Celts, because there were not enough slaves to supply the demand. Soon, when petty infractions weren’t enough, slaver gangs were reported to have sought out undesirables to kidnap and fill their quotas. Between 1641 and 1652 alone, the population of the Irish fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. That’s because roughly 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. But that’s over 50% of their entire people. And considering that many Irish were simply worked to death, wouldn’t this be some kind of genocide?
But it wasn’t just in Ireland. The Crown hated Scots as well. For example, the judges of Edinburgh Scotland during the years 1662-1665 ordered the enslavement and shipment of Celts there to the colonies as well. These were basically anyone left that the British upper class did not like. (Register for the Privy Council of Scotland, third series, vol. 1, p 181, vol. 2, p 101).
Now, I could probably rest my case on what has been provided thus far. However, in my reading I have come across several interesting accounts that are related and probably worthy of share. And while I have not sourced all of these myself, I have seen some of the following noted in several books by some reputable authors and researchers and currently have no reason to doubt it. So I will provide them as found and comment along the way.
In the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series; America and West Indies of 1701, we read of a protest over the “encouragement to the spiriting away of Englishmen without their consent and selling them for slaves, which hath been a practice very frequent and known by the name of kidnapping.” (Emphasis added). In the British West Indies, plantation slavery was instituted as early as 1627. In Barbados by the 1640s there were an estimated 25,000 slaves, of whom 21,700 were White. (“Some Observations on the Island of Barbados,” Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series). It is worth noting that while White slaves were worked to death in Barbados, there were Caribbean Indians brought from Guiana to help propagate native foodstuffs who were well-treated and received as free persons by the wealthy planters.
Actually quite a few Celtic slaves were sent to Barbados. So many that evidently the term “barbadosed” began to be used to describe the Celts that were captured. I have found this reference a few times. It seems to be approached as a big joke.
Of the fact that the wealth of Barbados was founded on the backs of White slave labor there can be no doubt. White slave laborers from Britain and Ireland were the mainstay of the sugar colony. Until the mid-1640’s, there were few Blacks in Barbados because of their expense. George Downing wrote to John Winthrop, the colonial governor of Massachusetts in 1645, that planters who wanted to make a fortune in the British West Indies must procure “servants out of England” if they wanted to succeed. (Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, pp. 125-126).
But there is that “servants” word again, right? It’s confusing, I know. But aside from what I provided you earlier, let’s also go ahead and throw in the idea that perhaps “…white indentured servants were employed and treated, incidentally, exactly like slaves… “(Morley Ayearst, The British West Indies, p. 19). Beaten, whipped, burned, killed, and never seeing freedom.
Lewis Cecil Gray’s History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 vol.1 pp 316, 318 records Sir George Sandys’ 1618 plan for Virginia, referring to bound whites assigned to the treasurer’s office. “To belong to said office forever. The service of whites bound to Berkeley Hundred was deemed perpetual.”
This stuff goes on and on and on. I found another account in Marcellus Rivers and Oxenbridge Foyle, England’s Slaves 1659 (Rivers, M., & Foyle, O. (1659). England’s slavery: Or Barbados merchandize. London.) containing a statement that was evidently smuggled out of the New World and later published in London. It references white people who were evidently indentured servants but didn’t consider themselves as indentured servants. Instead, they called themselves “England’s Slaves” and “England’s merchandise.” Of course this also mentioned how some Englishmen were accidentally kidnapped and sold into slavery because the slaver gangs became a little overzealous to make their quotas.
Colonial Office, Public Records Office, London 1667, no. 170 records that “even Blacks referred to the White forced laborers in the colonies as “white slaves.” Pages 343 through 346 of Historical Sketch of the Persecutions Suffered by the Catholics of Ireland by; Patrick F. Moran refers to the transportation of the Irish to the colonies as the “slave-trade.”
Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South explains that white enslavement was crucial to the development of the Negro slave system. The system set up for the white slaves governed, organized and controlled the system for the black slaves. Black slaves were “late comers fitted into a system already developed.” Pp 25-26. John Pory declared in 1619, “white slaves are our principle wealth.”
People from the British Isles were kidnapped, put in chains and crammed into ships that transported hundreds of them at a time. Their destination was Virginia Boston, New York, Barbados and the West Indies. The white slaves were treated the same or worse than the black slave. The white slave did not fetch a good price at the auction blocks. Bridenbaugh wrote in his accounting on page 118, that 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.
Regardless, slavery was something the Scots have endured and survived for a thousand years. Well, actually much longer than that if you factor in their ancestors. If you do that then the Scots, Alba and Pics were enslaved for a couple thousand years because there is record of that going back as far as the first century BC. In fact, for good measure, let me share this:
Varro, a Roman philosopher stated in his agricultural manuscripts that white slaves were only things with a voice or instrumenti vocali. Julius Caesar enslaves as many as one million whites from Gaul. (William D Phillips, Jr. SLAVERY FROM ROMAN TIMES TO EARLY TRANSATLANTIC TRADE, p. 18).
For clarity, Gaul was a region of Western Europe that was inhabited by Celtic tribes. And of course, this all doesn’t even get into the idea of the “White Slavery” that still goes on today; things like forced prostitution. But that’s a different story I suppose. Regardless, as you can hopefully see, of course there was white slavery throughout the Americas and in the colonies. Just like there was red slavery and black slavery as well. Just as there were black, white, and red slave owners. As I stated at the beginning of this; every color engaged in the practice of slavery to a substantial degree; both as slave and slave owner. The history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, and from ancient times to the present day.
Now, understand that is not meant to be some comparison over which races had it worse in regard to slavery. I am merely pointing out that the many different races are not so different after all. If we aim to unite, then let’s be honest. We are never going to end racism if we do not face some simple truths. No one is immune from the hardships. Above and beyond even that, I haven’t touched on the substantial amount of racism and discrimination the Celts had to endure – slave or not. Even in America. From the beginning, they were treated in the American colonies just as bad as they were across the pond and for a very long time afterwards. As a result, they were forced to move to the hills and the back-country as a community, which is why you have heavily Irish or Scottish towns even to this today. It was the only choice they eventually had to escape the high levels of discrimination. Just look at some of the depictions in the picture at the top.
Remember, if you can see the sun set on the South side, chances are you that can see the sun set on the North side too. We just to need to embrace it and stop being so silly about things none of us can do anything about. And while we can’t change the past, we can sure learn from it.