Saturday, 24 November 2012

White Slavery in the English Colonies

I am probably straying into the territory of my fellow hoyden, Kim Murphy, but I recently had cause to research the plight of "white slaves" in England's colonies in the seventeenth century.

In the horrendous history of black slavery in the Americas, the existence of something in the order of 300,000  Englishmen who, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, were sent as "indentured servants", transported convicts or prisoners of war to toil in the tobacco fields, sugar or cotton plantations is largely forgotten.

The book "White Cargo" by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, opens with the story of the discovery of the skeleton of a boy of 16 in what had been the cellar of a 17th century house. He had been buried in a hole under a pile of household waste. Forensic examination showed he had died of tuberculosis around 1660 but worse his skull showed evidence of a mouth infection and herniated discs and other injuries to his back bore evidence of a short life of hard toil. When he had died he had been of so little account, he had simply been tossed into the garbage.

The failure to find gold in the new land in the early seventeenth century, led English authorities to look for another form of wealth, tobacco, but tobacco needed people to tend it and to find cheap labour the landowners turned their eyes back to England and the people that society considered "surplus" - the homeless, the destitute and the criminal.

They began with children. Some were sent by their impoverished parents in the promise of a better life (in a sad evocation of what was to come in the 1950s with the expatriation of children from the slums of Liverpool).  Others were urchins, rounded up off the streets of London and forcibly deported them to Virginia. There they were sold to planters who worked them to death, often within a year. The fate of the young man mentioned above?

The next group of people were the sweepings of England's gaols. Between 50,000 - 70,000 convicts were transported to Virginia, Maryland, Barbados and the other possessions in the years before 1776*. These included political prisoners such as royalists or religious persecutees such as Quakers. Prostitutes were rounded up and sent as "breeders".

Following the battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) thousands of Scottish prisoners of war were sent to labour in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Some survived and having earned their freedom did quite well in the new lands but for many it was a death sentence. (see my novel THE KING'S MAN)

Irish women and children being loaded on to ships
Then there were the Irish. During the seventeenth century, a systematic "ethnic cleansing" campaign was waged against the Irish and under Cromwell, unknown numbers of Catholic men, women and children were transported to the colonies.

And when labour began to run short, the authorities turned to kidnap. Innocent young men were duped or just forcibly coerced on the ships bound for the colonies. Kidnappers were reputedly paid 2 pounds by the planter's agents for strong, fit young men and if this reminds you of R.L. Stevenson's novel "Kidnapped", then you are right. It is the basis for that plot. It is also the basis of the Steeleye Span song that I have included below.

An indenture
Finally there were those who went of their own "free will". Some 300,000 people willingly signed "indentures" agreeing to sell their labour for a period of time in return for passage to the new world, and a new life. The reality was they sold themselves and they were treated as chattels and legal sanctions were brought in that allowed violence (whippings and brandings) and restraint to be employed to keep the indentured servants in check. They could be bought and sold and disposed of by will. What began with the white slaves then flowed on in increasingly harsher terms for the black. Even contemporary writers such as Defoe recognized the plight of the indentured servant describing them as "more properly called slaves". The difference is that the period of indenture theoretically had an end point, for the black slave it didn't. The reality was that most indentured servants emerged at the end of their time just as landless and impoverished as they would have been if they had stayed in England.

The plight of the indentured servant is illustrated in the life and death of Thomas Hellier. In 1677, Thomas Hellier of Whitchurch, in Dorset  an educated young man of 28 in somewhat dire straits, signed up as an indentured servant and sailed to Virginia. There he was delivered first to a planter called Connor who then sold him to Cuthbert Williamson of the ominously named "Hard Labour Plantation". Although he was promised a role as tutor to Williamson's sons, Hellier was put to work in the tobacco fields. Not only was he subject to the hard labour in the fields but also the continual haranguing of Williamson's wife. Hellier ran away, was recaptured and his period of indenture extended. With his hair clipped to mark him as a runaway he was put back to work, subject to even more abuse from Mrs. Williamson than before.

One May morning in 1678, Hellier rose, dressed in his best clothe and taking an axe and a knife murdered Williamson and his wife, and a servant. After a few weeks on the run he was captured and sentenced to hang. On his gallows he gave a moving speech against the tyranny of the plantation owners. After he was dead,  his body was hung in a gibbet at Windmill Point on the James River as a warning to indentured servants not to defy their masters.

This song by Steeleye Span, "Gone to America", exemplifies the plight of the young men who just "disappeared" and those they left behind...

For further reading I commend the book WHITE CARGO mentioned above.

*I found this a fascinating post to research because it made the link in my mind with the transportation of convicts to Australia, After the American War of Independence, the transportation of convicts shifted to Australia and in 1788 the First Fleet arrived with its cargo of prisoners. For those transported for "seven years" it may as well have been a life sentence. Few would ever return to England.  My own great+ grandmother was transported in 1798 for stealing. She arrived as a young girl of 17 in a colony that was only 10 years old. The women were lined up like cattle for selection as "servants", although one can imagine the reality of their fates, particularly if you were young and pretty. Fortunately for Mary Hyde, she was taken on by a young man who loved her and looked after her, before his untimely death only a  few years later...but that's a story for another day.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post, Alison. It's tragic how badly one man or woman can treat another being.

Alison Stuart said...

Some of the stories I read Ella, were just terrible and, sadly, repeated over and over again in the history of the black slave trade, particularly around the treatment of women.

Kim Murphy said...

Stray away, Alison! Great post. In reality, most of the early black arrivals were indentured servants as well. It wasn't until the latter part of the century where they tended to become slaves for life.

Alison Stuart said...

That's really interesting, Kim.

If people are interested Anita Davison did a Hoydens blog sometime ago about black servants in England in the seventeenth century and you also did a blog about the first Africans in Virginia
Three complimentary blogs!

Patricia O'Sullivan said...

Great post. It is important for people to understand that prior to the 18th century (and even beyond in some cases) slavery was not exclusive to Africans. See my post on Colonial American Slavery here: