Not a Black and/or White Issue

It’s another of history’s dirty little secrets. While black slavery in this country is well documented, there is little said about its white counterpart. If mentioned at all, white slavery usually masquerades under the broad labels of “indentured servitude” and the “convict trade.” (The word “slave” originally referred to the Slavs of Eastern Europe who were in bondage off and on for centuries.) Gypsies and the Chinese were also victims of forced labor in this country, and the rarely acknowledged enslavement of California’s Mission Indians by the Spanish padres was the subject of my book, Communion of Sinners. Our historians’ biased insistence on ignoring this ugly reality deserves to be rectified.

These white slave children from New Orleans were taken to New York where they found freedom and new clothes. They were the happy exception.

These white slave children from New Orleans were taken to New York where they found freedom and new clothes. They were the happy exception.

In the 1600s, before the British looked to Africa for human cargo, untold thousands of the so-called “surplus poor” were snatched by press gangs from the streets of England, Ireland and Scotland for the sole purpose of enslavement in the colonies. Men shanghaied from the bars and alleys of London were forced into naval service where they endured a deprived existence at sea that included lashings for minor infractions. Even more tragic were the children. Indeed, the word “kidnapper,” first recorded in 1678, derives from “kid” and “napper,” an obsolete word for “thief,” and usually meant English children stolen for slavery. In his fierce pursuit of ethnic-cleansing, Oliver Cromwell captured hundreds of Irish and Scots from 1649 to 1655 and sent them to be worked to death on the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Census records show that the forced labor of whites in early seventeenth century America was far more prevalent than that of blacks, and that the word “servant” was often code for “slave.”

An advertisement for the sale of white slaves in Virginia.

Advertising the sale of white slaves, from the Virginia Gazette, March 28, 1771.

My American ancestors arrived in Virginia in the 1630s, and there was always talk that one may have been an indentured servant who sought to trade famine and poverty by contracting for free passage to the New World. After only a few years’ work as a plantation house servant, he paid off his debt and took his rightful place in society. Such a fortunate destiny was not always the case. Most indentured servants were poor, illiterate folk deceived by recruiters in England describing a land of milk and honey. These unsuspecting souls signed ironclad contracts and arrived in America to find themselves virtually enslaved. Shocked to learn they could be punished and/or sold at their master’s whim, and with no legal recourse, many ran off only to be caught and returned. (While we consider him the benevolent father of our country, George Washington pursued his indentured runaways.) The unluckiest found themselves, and sometimes their children as well, trapped in a system they never escaped.  Those dispatched to Virginia fared far better than those sent to Britain’s Caribbean colonies where some 80% did not survive a full year on the sugar plantations. It was a hideous fate shared with their black kinsmen who, by 1700, began replacing white slaves and bringing an end to indentured servitude.

More and more books are confronting a previously taboo subject.

One of many new books confronting an inexplicably taboo subject.

With slavery, there’s always plenty of shame and blame to go around. I am by no means suggesting that white slavery approached the horror or extent of black bondage, only that the heinous practice is color blind and that in this country’s early days, whites, blacks and Indians enslaved their own people and others as well. It’s as grievous sin of omission to believe slavery was only a black tragedy as it is to think the Holocaust applied only to 6 million Jews, when another 2.5 million Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, political and religious dissidents and the disabled were also murdered by the Nazis. All silenced victims deserve a voice, and as painful as it may be to listen, we cannot understand or make peace with them until they’re heard. African-American author and historian Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote,  “When someone removes the cataracts of whiteness from our eyes, and when we look with unclouded vision on the bloody shadows of the American past, we will recognize for the first time that the Afro-American who was so often second in freedom was also the second in slavery.” High time we followed his advice.

Note: White slavery is featured in my book, Still Time, due for publication next week.


  1. Karen Derderian
    Nov 18, 2014

    Another forgotten and murdered tribe: The Armenians who lost 1.5 million in 1915 and hundreds of thousands prior to that from 1894-1896! Just another “dirty little secret”.

  2. Liz
    Nov 18, 2014

    Another excellent piece, Michael. Bondage is color blind. It occurs when some one (or a group) believes s/he is superior and deserves to hold sway over someone else to do her/his bidding. Like rape, it is about power; it sees the slave/rapee as ‘other’ and literally beneath concern as another human being. Those who are unable to put themselves in the place of others or to view other humans as equals are desperate to feel the rush of superiority they get from putting others ‘in their place’ and teaching them to obey.

    Yes, man’s inhumanity to man is alive and well, no matter what color skin is on the outside…

  3. Scott
    Nov 18, 2014

    Do you think that writers in this country could still be considered, “indentured slaves?” Curious to ponder, since the advent of self-publishing via the Internet.

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