Relegated to the pages of history as indentured servants, America’s white slaves garner at most a footnote, if they are mentioned at all, in the history of early America.
Etymology of the word “slave”
The terms “slave” and “slavery” have their origins in the name of the people who were captured by Charlemagne in such numbers that their name for themselves, which meant “to hear about” or “famous”, became what their position in society came to be called. The Slavs, or Slavic people lived in Russia, Poland, and other parts of Europe. They were Caucasian.
Indentured Servitude or Slavery
Before America was even an independent nation, slavery or indentured servitude, was common. It started with whites, in Europe, poor people with oppressive bills, or who just wanted a new life but could not afford passage, would sell themselves into “indentured” servitude, or in other words a contract that for a sum of money or passage to the new world they would become their servants for a length of time to those who paid for them.
The standard contract was for a 4-7 year period of servitude, at the end of which they would be freed. It was commonly understood that it included the proviso that the freed servant be gifted a small piece of land so they could fend for them self and not become a burden on society.
That’s what the history books taught us in school.
What they do not tell us is that scenario is rarely what happened. Very few of the indentured servants were ever released from their “contracts”. As many as 90% of those indentured were never freed. Many were worked to death. Agreements to keep husbands and wives, or families together were not honored, with family members being sold off, including children born during the indenture.
Have you ever wondered where the term “white trash” comes from? This is a colonial term that referred to those indentured servants lucky enough to be freed and given a piece of land. Unfortunately this land was usually completely barren land incapable of being farmed or used for much of anything. Trash-land. These whites had to scrape by and toil day in and day out to scratch out a living. Those better off often referred to them or complained about them, as white trash.
African slaves were hard to come by in the colonies since most were being sold by slavers to the West Indies. So what was brought were white slaves. The Scots, the Irish, even British whites were sold into slavery in America. Thomas Burton, a member of Parliament who kept a famous diary of the proceedings, recorded a debate about the white slave trade and the selling of British whites into slavery, it was being argued that the slavery of whites “threatened the liberties of all Englishmen.”
People would be kidnapped right off the public streets. Shopkeepers receiving money for pointing out those who had no connections, or the ability to defend themselves from kidnapping.
Indeed, shortly thereafter, slave raiding by ship became so bad that people fled the coastal areas of Europe lest they be kidnapped and sold into slavery. As many as one and a quarter million white European Christians were kidnapped by slavers and sold into slavery.
In the Statutes at Large of Virginia, vol. 1 pp. 174, 198, 200, 243 & 306, the law saw no difference between Africans in bondage from white Europeans in bondage.
As African slaves became more available, the value of white slaves plummeted. Indeed, as arduous as the “middle passage” was, it was just as arduous, or more so, for the white slaves. White slaves were considered to be of such low value that they were restricted to the holds for the entire voyage. Merchantmen records tell us that whole shipments of Irish sometimes perished in the crowded condition in the holds. African mortality rates ran about 20%, while the mortality rates for Irish “Paddies” ran as high as 25% overall. Sometimes hundreds of bodies would be chucked overboard into the ocean.
Ulrich B. Phillips in Life and Labor in the Old South, tells us that white slavery was “crucial to the development of Negro slave systems.” That it was the fact that a system had been developed for buying, selling, controlling, etc., of white slaves being already in place, that made the introduction of African slaves so much easier. A ready-made slave system, all that was needed was to plug the new slaves into it.
It was at this time that African slaves became so popular that Congressman David Wilmot authored the Wilmot Proviso to keep black slaves out of the American West, he did so, he said, to preserve that vast expanse of territory for white slaves, “the sons of toil, my own race and color.”
The Partus Rule
The Partus Rule was an English Common Law that held that a child’s status was bestowed on him through the father’s lineage. Sometimes informally referred to as the One-Drop rule. The law determined that only livestock passed status down through the mother. This of course allowed the myriad sexual abuses of owners upon their slaves without worry about any children produced, it was possible to see households that included both free white children and slave white children that looked alike.
The above image, from Harper’s Magazine, of recently freed slaves illustrates quite succinctly that slaves came in all colors.
Northern ministers record (because it was shocking) of preaching to congregations which included slaves who had white skin, red hair, and blue eyes.
Advertisements searching for runaway slaves listed descriptions such as; white, quite white, lily skin, brown hair with hazel eyes, looks like a white man.
Trials were held were men who looked completely white sued for their freedom on the grounds that they were white. Most were sent back condemned as slaves for having a mulatto mother somewhere in their lineage.
The narrative of William W. Brown records seeing a girl on a slave ship, noticeable not because of her beauty, but because of her straight blond hair, white skin, and blue eyes. And she was a slave.
Activists in the North made sure it was made known that slavery had no prejudice against color. As a matter of fact, because it had reached the point where one could not tell if someone was a slave simply by appearance, the kidnapping of white children to be sold for profit as children of mulattoes, ran rampant. Northern opinion was becoming aware that slavery wasn’t just a southern black issue.
We have an accounting of a slave auction from a New England doctor of the time, Charles G. Parsons who wrote –
“We saw a handbill in the bar-room in which forty-four female slaves were advertised for sale. Stepping out into the street, we found those girls sitting on the sidewalks. At the farther end of the row was a very beautiful girl, apparently perfectly white, and neatly dressed. The moment Mr. C. looked at her, he exclaimed, What do you think that white girl is sitting there with those Negroes for?’ “
“I presume she is a slave, sir,” said I.
“That can’t be!” replied Mr. C.,– “just look at her! Why I never saw a prettier girl in my life.”
Now Mr. C. had heard that likely quadroons are held as slaves and sold in the market; but he had never believed that a young lady, so entirely American, so elegant in form and feature, so intellectual in appearance, with pure blue eyes, and the perfect red and white Caucasian complexion, was in the same degraded condition as the African girl….he was unprepared to believe it, when I said to him, “she is a slave, sir!”…Still incredulous, Mr. C. stepped up to the drover and asked, “Is that white girl a slave, sir?”
“That’s not a white girl; she is a n*gger, sir,’ replied the drover…”
You will notice the term “quadroon”, similar terms such as quintroon and octoroon. A quadroon was a person with one-fourth black ancestry. In other words, three white grandparents and one black. It also referred to someone with a Mulatto parent with either a black or white parent.
People from States that did not have slavery, but were subject to runaway slave laws, used the fact that so many slaves were indistinguishable from free whites that many were arrested and sent to prison for aiding runaway slaves, as reasons for the movement against slavery.
The Chicago Tribune in 1856 published a story titled “The White Slave” which detailed the story of a slave girl who had escaped from Missouri and fled to Illinois where she was taken in by a German couple, believing she was white. The couple were arrested, one escaped, the other was imprisoned. The Chicago Tribune said about the events – “You see the legitimate, the unavoidable fruits of the slave system in our sister state…Do you wish to incur for yourselves or your friends in the Territory the punishment of five years imprisonment in the Penitentiary, for the extraordinary crime of being unable to distinguish between a white free woman and a white slave?”
Slavery was becoming a real threat to the populations of the North. White partus slaves, were white, all traits of African ancestry had vanished over the course of generations. Even so, the census did not record them as white. It was politically beneficial to include whites as slaves, since the three-fifths compromise gave the South a full 50% more representation in Congress than they would have been entitled to if one had only counted free whites.
Rediscovering Slave History
It is not my intent to attempt to erase anyone’s history, nor is it my intent to discount or downplay the suffering and bondage that African descended slaves endured. They suffered greatly. The tragedy of slavery is not something to be proud of. But it is a fact that it has been a part of almost every nation, every kingdom, every empire, that the Earth has known. The tragedy that white slaves suffered in bondage has been “white-washed” out of the modern history books by people with an agenda, obsessed with pushing only one aspect of history. All of this was readily available knowledge until the late 1800’s, and then ever so slowly it was erased from the textbooks. And so we have forgotten.
The working class whites of America owes no one any kind of reparations. The legacy left to all of us, not just one race but all of us, black and white, is one of bondage, suffering, and humiliation.
A good first step would be to set aside the stereotyped misinformation that is fostered in classrooms around the nation. It is just as likely that it was a white skinned back that felt the touch of a whip, red hair and blue eyes that suffered the attentions of an amorous master, or endured working conditions and treatment that led to death, as any other color.
No one race was alone in suffering bondage during the last four centuries.
It’s time that the history of those who have been forgotten is restored.
Lest we forget.