Slavery in Colonial America

Have you ever wondered why the Congress of the United States has never authorized reparations to those whose ancestors were forced to come to America as slaves?  It is not because of incipient racism directed at blacks; it is sheer economics.  If reparations were authorized for the ancestors of slaves, nearly half of the Caucasian population of America would be owed money.

White slaves?

Yes, and it is America’s filthy little secret.  To populate the colonies of America, prior to 1700, hundreds of thousands of people from Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland were forced into slavery and shipped to the new colonies in the Americas.  In fact, prior to 1700 black slaves were a rarity in the American colonies.

You’ve been told the sanitized version of this story.  How the white people came here not as slaves, but as “indentured servants” who used servitude to pay their passage, completed their service and joined the ranks of other privileged whites as settlers in the new world.  There may have been some who did this, but they were a tiny minority.  The story of indentured servitude is the worst kind of disingenuous historical revisionism.  “Indentured Servants” were white slaves, shipped to the colonies and indentured, with few exceptions, for life.

Beginning in the 1500s, England and its colonies emptied its prisons, sending the people to the Americas to provide labor for the new colonies.  The sugar fields of Jamaica were populated by white slaves.  Nearly the whole of the state of Georgia was settled by white slaves.  Virginia, the Carolinas, and even New  England.  Historians estimate that nearly half of the people brought to America in the 1600s and 1700s came as indentured servants – slaves.

The most famous story of the white slave trade occurred in the town of Baltimore, on the coast of Ireland, in the year 1631.  Muslim pirates from Algiers, with armed troops of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, stormed ashore at the little harbor village of Baltimore. Two Algerian galleys landed in the dead of night, sacked the town and bore off into slavery mostly women and children: altogether fifty youngsters ‘even those in the cradle’ were abducted, along with thirty-four women and nearly two dozen men, principally the descendants of dissenting and peaceful Protestant settlers from Cornwall, Somerset and Devon.  They went to different fates as slaves, including slavery in America.

But white slaves presented three major problems for the landed gentry in the colonies.  First, white slaves had the annoying habit of simply leaving when they were tired of being slaves.  And when they left, it was almost impossible to tell them from the free men.  The second problem is that they were not very hardy.  Slaves taken from debtor’s prisons in the UK could not work as hard as the black African slaves, and died more quickly.  Third, the improving economy in England in the 1600s and early 1700s meant that there were fewer criminals, and fewer families in debtor’s prisons, who could be shipped to the colonies as slaves.

In 1662 Virginia passed a law adopting the principle of partus sequitur ventrum (called partus, for short), stating that any children of an enslaved or indentured mother would take her status and be born into slavery, regardless if the father were a freeborn Englishman.  Thus, the institution of white slavery and black slavery alike was carried from one generation to the next.

The state of Georgia, largely founded on white slave labor from English debtor’s prisons, tried in 1735 to outlaw slavery.  But by 1750, the state abandoned this stance when they were unable to garner enough slaves from English prisons due to the improving economic conditions in that country.  Elsewhere, people enslaved in the North typically worked as house servants, artisans, laborers and craftsmen, with the greater number in cities. The South depended on an agricultural economy, and it had a significantly higher number and proportion of slaves in the population, as its commodity crops were labor intensive.

By the 1700s, white slaves from England and its territories were largely replaced by black natives enslaved by their Muslim neighbors in Africa and transported to the colonies.

I did not come to this story through my own ancestors.  My forebears – Robert and William McClure, came to the colonies as free men.  I will claim no reparations.  I come to this story in two ways, the first of which is the shameful treatment of the Scots-Irish in America, which was every bit as brutal as the treatment of Africans.

And also by an incident in 2002 at the Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, VA.  It is a lovely old plantation house designed by William Thornton, architect of the first US Capital and the home of Washington grand-daughter Eleanor Custis.  It is known as “America’s First Family Home,” but what intrigued me was a census from the colonial days that listed among the assets of the plantation some17 “non-African slaves.”  When I asked the National Park Service employee if that meant that there were white slave, I was told that they were issued instructions not to talk about it.  She refused to answer any further questions, and when I came back through the common room later the census document was no longer on the wall.

I want to take nothing from the black people of America who were brought here as slaves.  Their treatment was brutal and shameful, but it is not my shame.  If anything, I can share a bit of their anger and angst.  But I would remind them that they were not the first, or the only, slaves in America.

 If we cannot be honest about history, we cannot be honest about ourselves.  Shame on those who would re-write history to advance their own political agendas.

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