While we hear countless tales of the woes that befell the black slaves that were brought to America, there is another group of people who were also enslaved in this new country, and indeed in Britain and the West Indies and who, in many respects, suffered more hardship than their black counterparts.
Their part in the history of slavery is little known, or perhaps more accurately, conveniently forgotten.
From the start of the 17th century to the early 19th century, between one half and two thirds of all the white colonists who came to the New World came as slaves.
They were owned as property, were accorded no rights and had no recourse to the law.
Laws relating to fugitive black slaves also applied to them.
Most books on white labour in early American history referrer to these people as “indentured servitude” or “bondservants.”
The reality, however, is that the conditions these people lived and worked under should more properly be termed as permanent slavery unto death.
The papers allowing the enslavement, termed indentures, were often forged by kidnappers and press-gangs.
The owner of the indentured worker had the right to increase the length of the term of indenture, in reality making it a life sentence, on the flimsiest of excuses.
Countless millions of Africans were sold into slavery by the Muslims.
The “indentured worker” had no say in the matter.
Although these people are not called “slaves” today, perhaps for political rather than historical reasons, people at the time had no qualms about using the word to describe these people.
In Thomas Burton’s Parliamentary Diary 1656-1659, in 1659 the English parliament debated the practice of selling Britons into slavery in the New World.
In the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies of 1701, there is a passage that tells 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.”
In the British West Indies, plantation slavery had begun as early as 1627.
In Barbados by the 1640’s there were an estimated 25,000 slaves; 21,700 of these slaves were white.
The word “kidnapping” itself comes from the expression “kid-nabbing”, which referred to the practice of abducting children to be sold in the British factories or into plantation slavery in America.
Another phrase that has its roots in white slavery is “spirited away” because white slavers that kidnapped fellow whites were called “spirits.”
The British newspaper, The Argosy, reported in 1893 that, “Few, but readers of old colonial state papers and records, are aware that between the years 1649 to 1690 a lively trade was carried on between England and the plantations, as the colonies were then called, [a trade] in political prisoners… they were sold at auction… for various terms of years, sometimes for life, as slaves.”
The situation of the white slaves in the New World echoed that of the conditions of workers in Britain during this period.
Their legal form of contracted indentured servitude was little better than common slavery.
British children were routinely taken from orphanages and workhouses to be put in factories for a lifetime of horrors.
They often worked 16-hour days of unceasing toil, without a break.
If they dared to fall asleep at their machines, they were whipped awake.
For committing crimes such as arriving late or talking during work, they were beaten with a “billy-roller,” an eight feet long by one and a half inch diameter iron bar.
The primitive machines in the factories mutilated thousands of children each year.
Often disabled for life by these accidents, they were simply turned out onto the street.
What must also be considered is that when these “free” workers didn’t have enough food to eat, they simply starved.
Their bosses didn’t care if they lived or died or about the conditions they lived in.
There was an endless supply of workers from the local area who could and would replace them.
Black slaves in America, however, were an investment for the slave owner.
He had paid for them so it was in his interests to insure that his investment was kept functional.
This meant that in terms of diet, health and shelter, black slaves in America were often better off than white “workers” in the north of America and actually far better off than workers in much of industrialised Europe.