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White Slavery and Servitude
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By Myranda Grecinger
The Columbian Exchange and the Atlantic Trade Route revolutionized the world. It is common knowledge that people were traded on those routes as slaves who were treated like property and commodities. What is not as well-known is the fact that many of those slaves were white. There is significant evidence to substantiate the claim that whites made up a sizeable percentage of all slaves traded In North America and Britain. Despite evidence to the contrary, mistaken beliefs persist that whites were imported only as indentured servants rather than slaves, that the life and treatment of a servant differs greatly from that of a slave, and that whites were rarely if ever subjected to such atrocities as black slaves were, the evidence, however, will tell a different story. The traditionally accepted version of the slave trade in accordance with the collective memory is wrong because the truth is that white people were frequently sold into slavery and the term indentured servitude was a merely a veiled attempt to package slavery under a more appealing title.
White servants became popular in Europe right around the time that the early Atlantic slave trade had begun. While one may consider the notion that since Europe is an entirely different continent its slavery filled roots should be of little consequence to Americans, this notion should be carefully reconsidered. Many early North American settlements were founded as British colonies and therefore, shared many English traditions, including those in slavery. North American colonies were significantly impacted by their British heritage and culture and thus, took no qualm with continuing to make use of slaves for service and production. Due to the fact that early access to African slaves was limited, quite often these slaves were in fact white. For Britain, white populations were easier to come by and slavery was simply not a matter of color or race, rather, it was a matter of displacing undesired populations, ensuring debts were fully paid and boosting production all of which were aimed at encouraging a strong economy.
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Early White Servants and Frequency Misconceptions
In the early 1600’s King James the first felt burdened by the Irish population and decided to do something about it. He began sanctioning trade ships that would round up Irish nationals and sell them, oceans away from their homelands (Akamatsu, 2010). It was not as though it were something that had never been done before, there was already a well-established practice of rounding up people of Irish decent and selling them into slavery. Irish family members, including children were often rounded up in groups and imprisoned, when a relative would come to retrieve them the guards would demand payment for the food the prisoners had eaten while imprisoned and if it could not be paid the prisoner would be sold into the slave markets (Akamatsu, 2010). There was very little consideration given to these white slaves, they were looked upon in the same manner as blacks. There was no indentured servitude agreement. They were not seen as white people, they were slaves, nothing more than pieces of equipment to be used until broken.
Due to the plethora of information available regarding black slaves and the much smaller amount available regarding white slaves, it may be easy to assume that white slaves were very rare. This sentiment, however, is far from the truth. The reality was that they came in significant numbers which grew exponentially due to the fact that children born to servants and slaves inherited their mothers’ status of bondage (Hening, 1823). Not only were children automatically subjected to their mother’s status, but white orphans could legally be sold into slavery in accordance with British law whether or not their mothers had been free (Boyer, 1977). While it is difficult to account for all whites who were at one time or another enslaved because it was not always the practice to note the color of the slave’s skin on documents, evidence suggests that for every dozen slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, at least one was white (David, 2004). In some areas a more precise number can be reached by researching ship manifests, to that end, it has been estimated that in seventeenth century Chesapeake there were as many as 90,000 white indentured servants, that equates to approximately three quarters of the population, a staggering amount (Guasco, 2013). Clearly the Atlantic slave trade should not be remembered as merely a black affair, however, the practice of doing so has been a long standing tradition, as has the false image of the indentured servant.
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Picking Apart the Myths and Misconceptions
Americans have long held a certain perception of what it meant to be classified as an Indentured Servant. There are many prevailing myths regarding the subject. It seems as though the general consensus among the misinformed is that in comparison with some other settlers and certainly in comparison with slaves, indentured servants may have been dealt a difficult hand, but in the end, through hard work and determination, they would receive their just rewards. In short, for a good hard working white Christian, it was supposedly a good deal. This premise rests on a mistaken belief in what an indentured servant would receive in his agreement. This misperception has been continually spewed even from scholarly resources. One author goes as far as to specify that “The indenture did not make the servant a slave because it was his labor rather than his person that was owned by his master” (Galenson, 1984). This was a completely incorrect assumption. Certainly the labor was what the master was purchasing, however, it is the fact that he or she had purchased this labor that caused the laborer to be prohibited from leaving against their master’s will and because it was the labor that was being purchased, the laborer was dehumanized, seen as a useful tool rather than a person which enabled them to be mistreated.
Often the entrance into indentured servitude occurred as a method of debt repayment, debt such as might occur when one required admittance to a ship which would take them to the so called “land of opportunity.” In this new land, to pay off his or her debt, the story goes that the debtor would put the indebted person or persons to work doing household chores or assisting him or her in running their businesses. In addition to passage to the new world, the indebted person, in working for just a few short years, would not only satisfy his or her debt with their debtor, but would also have learned new marketable trades or skills. He would then have earned his or her freedom, and would receive another form of payment such as a piece of land to work, a home or clothing, and other goods as well as money to begin their new lives. It sounds like a perfectly wonderful way for an impoverished individual to earn his or her ticket to the top. The problem is that this is nothing more than a fantasy, one that to some degree was successfully perpetrated at the time and continues to this day in popular conceptions of the slave trades in North America and Great Britain.
These perceptions must be picked apart and corrected. The truth of the matter is that the conditions and realities of indentured life were so far outside of the parameters of the myth that it is difficult to rectify the two in coherent thought. The majority of indentured servants enjoyed little to no freedom and many had no choice in the matter. For them this was not a marvelous way to start a new life full of possibilities and potential. It was the culmination of an unfortunate series of events that left them with few or no other options. Some of these unwilling immigrants were sent as a form of punishment for some real or imagined crime they had committed. For others they were the victims of attacks or raids and had been taken by force from their homelands. Still others were sold as a method of debt repayment and some just had the poor luck of being born into it. Not to mention those who were sold after being taken as war prisoners or who were deemed unnecessary to their own countries such as orphans. Whatever the reason for their positions, one thing is clear, few of them chose or wanted to be in it. Records of slave voyages from the time describe in clear terms just who these servants were and what was in store for them, one manifest even states that the people it was carrying were "servants to be disposed of" (Boyer, 1977). Clearly there was little if any concern for their future well-being.
Whether or not they had entered the market for indentured servants by choice, once in it, all freedom vanished. Servants were subjected to severe forms of punishment as Consequences for leaving without permission, accidentally breaking something not working fast enough or having relations with a free person even if the relations were not wanted by the servant (Roe, 2010). The punishments for severe crimes such as running away or injuring a free person could be as severe as death (Hening, 1823). Other punishment possibilities included added years to the servant’s sentence, beatings, forced depravation of such necessities as sleep, food or water and any combination of the same and no one would stop the masters of these servants from perpetrating such atrocities (Hening, 1823). As if all of this were not convincing enough of the truth of an indentured servant’s status, often, these servants were force to work off debts incurred while bonded. Masters could actually charge their indentured servants for necessities such as food and amenities such as education (Heavener, 1978). Rather than working their ways out of debt, white servants were all too often working their ways deeper in. This was especially likely to be the case if their service was bonded until their debts were paid rather than for a specific amount of time. Like those labeled as slaves, indentured servants could, at any time be sold to another person, and once a woman’s children reached a certain age, if she was still bonded, her children could be taken and sold away from her. In addition, indentured servants, like slaves, were often subjected to horrendous conditions on the ships which brought them to the new world and once there, things rarely got better. Interestingly only a small percentage of indentured servants worked in the homes of their masters, despite the myths, the majority worked the fields just as their slave counterparts and were forced to endure every bit as difficult circumstances (Independence Hall Association, 2013). In the end, less than forty percent ever lived to taste freedom once more and receive their promised rewards and those that did, often did not live long after (Independence Hall Association, 2013). Clearly there is little more if anything to dispute, the facts are evident. Servitude is slavery, plain and simply.
Indentured servants were held against their will, wrongfully imprisoned and confined. They were often bought and traded like property with little real chance of freedom. These people had few rights and were certainly not treated as citizens. There really is no argument, despite their contracts; they were slaves for all intents and purposes, their laws even equated them to such on documented occasions at the time. So in addition to those who were sold into slavery and were given the title of slave, there were also slaves with the more socially appealing title of indentured servant. While the title itself was most likely coined in an effort to draw distinctions between a servant who may at some point become free after serving a specified amount of time or completing a specific amount of work, and a person bonded to perpetual enslavement, the only purpose the title served in the end was to create confusion and whitewash the dark truth of white slavery taking place right alongside of black slavery.
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The Hows, the Whys, and the Role of the Revolution
One may begin to wonder when it was that the myths of an all-black slave population and in contrast, the well-off indentured servant began. Perhaps not surprisingly, chances are that it really began around the time of the American Revolutionary war. At the time the entire nation was wrestling with such struggles as freedom versus tyranny, in addition, racial tensions had begun to emerge to an alarming degree. The people had begun to stand up against what they felt were unjust circumstances in which their labors were being taken advantage of and their civil liberties trampled. In the face of fighting for such a cause it likely became difficult for people not to draw parallels between themselves and the plight of their slave populations, and certainly more so with those populations that more closely resembled themselves (U.S. Department of the interior, 2008). At the same time, black slaves had become more readily available and because laws had begun to tighten on white slaves and slaves of African descent were cheaper; it was not long before the market for white slaves and servants tumbled (Salinger, 1981). It was about the same time that evidence suggests that some patriots for the American cause began to view white slavery as a shameful hypocrisy and others began to question the entire institution of slavery (U.S. Department of the interior, 2008). The American Revolution against Britain had spurned an entirely different revolution with no one taking notice.
National and cultural mythology likely grew out of the inability to rectify incidents of white enslavement with the principals of freedom, liberty and justice fought for in the revolutionary war. The all but forgotten history of both America’s and Britain’s involvement in the extensive white slave trade has been ignored for centuries, perpetuated by a belief that grew out of a need to find some solace in the deeds of the past. White Americans could not handle committing to memory the hypocrisy that existed in having enslaved their own kind, so it became easier to tell the tragic story of how it happened to “those other people”. The revolutionary war brought the issue of slavery to the front lines and as Americans began to see slaves fighting for the same things they wanted, they were forced to face the potential error in some of the founding principles of their beloved new nation. For the most part, it was this very thing that brought a quite end to white slavery. This does not, however, explain why black slavery was able to continue for quite some time, or why the myth has been perpetuated for so long that made slavery into a black struggle for equality.
Around the time of the Revolutionary war a serious alteration of perceptions had begun to take place regarding the slave trade, perhaps now, the world is finally in a position to entertain another one. There is no value in enabling such myths to persist. The discovery of the United States by Christopher Columbus was once highly regarded as a factual telling of American history, but Americans have intently sought out and accepted the truth in that matter, and so they can with this one. Like the myth of Christopher Columbus, there has been no beneficial effect on society as a whole from the belief in this myth, in fact, quite the opposite. The United States of America has been engaged in a series of race wars since its early history and many of the beliefs that spur them stem from the notion that blacks and whites in America have had very different origins and histories, the problem is, the biggest differences stem from the myths. Black Americans have been made to feel inferior while whites have historically taken a role of superiority and all because of the myth that Blacks were brought here as slaves while whites came to rule over them. The oppression of Black Americans was able to flourish because the truth has been hidden. If the truth were widely known, such ammunition would be nonexistent since whites were often brought for the same reason as blacks and vice versa. Realistically it was right around the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that any sort of strong diversion between white indentured servants and black slaves even began to be practiced. It was at that time that indentured apprenticeships took the place of white slavery for orphans and impoverished individuals and families in some North American Settlements (New York State Legislature, 1801). Were the truth of early indentured servitude and white slavery distributed widely to the public, the knowledge would likely bare a significant impact on relations across so called racial divides.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
Despite centuries of hiding and ignoring the truth, evidence exists to prove that a significant number of slaves were white. There is simply no denying this fact. European cultures often utilized white populations as slaves and so therefore did the colonies they spurred. There was no silver lining for most of the slaves who were labeled with the term of indentured servant; it was just an early attempt for society to turn away from the truth, a truth that has been hidden for far too long. The American Revolution caused people to rethink the reality of their actions as far as enslaving their own kind and to some degree, enslaving any human being. It resulted in revolutionary thoughts which produced revolutionary actions that led to the end of white slavery and eventually all legal slavery. Clearly it is time for another revolution, or perhaps better stated, a revelation. The truth must be made known that the version of the slave trade as it has been remembered is wrong; slavery was not a just black struggle, it was a human struggle. White people as well as blacks were sold into slavery and placed in positions of indentured servitude, which provided anything but a good deal or a path to prosperity for most.
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Independence Hall Association (2013) Indentured Servants Excerpt from U.S. History: Pre- Columbian to the New Millennium, Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/us/5b.asp
Melissa A. Roe (2010) Differential Tolerances and Accepted Punishments for Disobedient Indentured Servants and Their Masters in Colonial Courts Retrieved from http://cliometrics.org/publications/indentured.htm
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U.S. Department of the Interior (2008) African Americans in the Revolutionary Period, Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html