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Brief History of White Slavery

Updated on October 14, 2015

White Slave Children, New Orleans

They Were White and they Were Slaves: The Untold History of Whites in Early America and Industrial Britain,” is the title of a book written by Michael A. Hoffman II. In it he relates the oft overlooked harrowing tale of white slavery. But, it’s true, when the subject of slavery is mentioned one tends to think of black servitude. It was a terrible thing and a disgraceful period in our nation’s history. Nevertheless, slavery was a fact endured by whites and blacks as well as other races. In fact, the word slave originally referred to whites of Eastern European descent...the "Slavs."

However, white slavery in America is almost always called temporary "indentured servitude" which seems to marginalize the institution and put it in a softer, more acceptable light. Yes, there were whites who spent 4 to 7 years working off a debt, but they were just a fraction of those who were worked to death on Virginia plantations. Nearly all white slaves in the early 1600s sent to Britain's sugar colonies in the West Indies died the first year. The death toll numbered in the thousands.

There are some who may disagree, but according to Hoffman’s research, about half of the number coming to the American colonies, were white slaves…and also the first. Nine-tenths of white slaves had no contract of indenture. They, like their black counterparts, were slaves for life and any children born to them also became slaves. Whites too, were auctioned on the block. Likewise, there are many who choose to believe the Holocaust never happened despite mountains of hard evidence it did.

There were even white slave revolts. Perhaps the best known was in Virginia in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon. An army of white slaves joined Bacon against the House of Burgesses and the Governor. They burned down the city of Jamestown. By January 1677 all had been captured or killed.

Many may find it surprising to learn the British colonial government enlisted blacks into their colonial militia during the 1700s as police for the express purpose of quelling white slave uprisings.

After the American Revolution British slavers began, concentrating on Australia as well as America. The "convicts" transported to America under The 1723 Waltham Act, also known as the Black Act, was passed by the English Parliament in response to poaching by several groups known as The Blacks. They were so named because of their custom of blackening their faces to disguise their identity. These “criminals” were often sold into slavery.

Any serious student of Colonial America, according to Hoffman, will find white slavery was at least proportionate to black slavery up until the 18th century when “indentured servitude” became more extensive. But even then there was kidnapping of white skinned peoples into slavery as well as convict slavery.

As an example, a noted New York architect visiting in Alabama watched with interest as black slaves tossed bales of hay into the hold of a cargo ship. The men in the hold were Irish. This piqued the architect’s interest and he questioned a crewmember about the arrangement. The crewman explained blacks were far more valuable to risk injury in the hold.

It’s a well known fact before British slavers raided Africa's western coast to buy or abduct black slaves they were selling their own poor working class people and kidnapped children into slavery. The word kidnapped is derived from kid-nabbed, which means abducting white children for the purpose of enslavement.

In fact, the stealing of children became so frequent around Aberdeen, England; parents feared bringing their children into town. Local merchants hired gangs to roam the streets on the lookout for suitable boys. Once captured, they were imprisoned in barns to await shipment. However, it really wasn’t necessary to steal children as child slavery was more or less sanctioned by the state.

Many came from the British Isles. The English government thought it was a good solution for ridding the streets of the massive numbers of poverty stricken and homeless. Poor families were ordered to turn over one of their children or one would be chosen for them. Even after English Parliament outlawed black slavery in the 1800s, young white orphan boys were still being forced up chimneys to clean them. Sometimes they were injured or killed when weak masonry collapsed on them.

Whites transported to the colonies were kept chained below deck for nine to twelve weeks at a time. Usually the human cargo numbered about three hundred, but often greedy shipmasters packed as many as six hundred into their already cramped quarters. It was not uncommon for half of their number to perish from diseases caused by unsanitary conditions before they reached their destination. Bodies of the dead were casually tossed overboard. Some historians hold the death rate for whites actually exceeded that of black slaves.

As one can see, slavery wasn’t exclusive to blacks. But one rarely finds the subject of white slavery chronicled, although during the Industrial Revolution in Britain and America, much of the labor was provided by oppressed, white children as young as six up until 1920. They were forced to work sixteen hour days and sometimes were severely injured by machines. The wounded and crippled were dismissed without the slightest compensation. Tardiness or sleeping on the job was rewarded with beatings. Yet, even today our educational system teaches our country was built on the backs of black slaves, Mexicans and Chinese.

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    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 5 years ago

      Slavery, as you wrote, is an atrocity. And with some study, it's apparent slavery was common everywhere in the world for thousands of years. The Old Testament as a history book recounts the slavery of the Hebrews. It's been an interesting study. Yet most disturbing is the fact there is still slavery today.

    • JY3502 profile image
      Author

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Yes, but that's for another hub.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There were many slaves in the world, including Chinese children working on textiles and such. I believe there are still Middle Eastern children doing the same in this day.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 4 weeks ago from Port Elizabeth

      I have never heard about this before. That's what happens when people no longer no the difference between right and wrong. Their greed is all that matters.

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