Private Investigations Hong Kong Wilsons reports on White Slavery
Investigating White Slavery 1755 0 2015
In April 1775, two days after the American War of Independence began, a notice appeared in the Virginia Gazette offering rewards for the return of 10 runaways. Two were "Negro slaves", but the other eight were white servants, including Thomas Pearce, a 20-year-old Bristol joiner, and William Webster, a middle-aged Scottish brick-maker. Whether they were ever found remains a mystery; almost nothing is known about them but their names. But their irate master was to become very famous indeed, for the man pursuing his absconding servants was called George Washington
Pearce and Webster were indentured servants, the kind of people often ignored in patriotic accounts of colonial America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tens of thousands of men, women and children lived as ill-paid, ill-treated chattels, bound in servitude to their colonial masters. It is a sobering illustration of human gullibility that, in return for vague promises of a better life, men would sign away their lives for 10 years or more. Once in the New World, they were effectively items of property to be treated as their masters saw fit. Brutal corporal punishment was ubiquitous: every Virginia settlement had its own whipping post. One man was publicly scourged for four days with his ears nailed to the post. He had been flirting with a servant girl.
Briskly written by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, a pair of television documentary producers, White Cargo is harrowing reading. For while thousands of servants signed up for the colonies of their own will, thousands more were shipped across by force. We associate transportation with Australia but, by the time of independence, perhaps one in 100 Americans was a convict. English officials were open in their determination to send the "scum" of their booming cities to the colonies. During the Georgian era they exiled 1,000 prisoners across the Atlantic every year.
Some of these people were hardened criminals, but not all. Hundreds of girls sent over in the 1620s were probably child prostitutes dragged off the London streets. James I ordered that 100 "rowdy youths" from Newmarket be shipped across to Virginia; in fact, they were just exuberant local lads whose horseplay had annoyed the king. ost shocking of all, thousands of poor London children were rounded up by the constables and thrown on to the nearest ship. Urchins as young as five were shipped to America, where they spent most of their lives in backbreaking service. Few lived long enough to reach adulthood. And yet this horrifying enterprise had some impressive advocates. "It shall sweep your streets, and wash your doors, from idle persons, and the children of idle persons," declared the poet John Donne. Yet although Jordan and Walsh present their material in a breezy fashion, this is an unsatisfying book. For one thing, the narrative feels very disjointed, not least because chapters of six pages or fewer are too short for a work of this kind. There are some splendid anecdotes, but they never knit into a coherent story or argument. It is telling that the book ends with a perfunctory two-paragraph conclusion that vaguely wonders whether the "present-day American psyche" owes something to "the harsh conditions of those early settlements", but doesn't really provide an answer.
A more serious problem is the whole business of slavery. The book is subtitled and marketed as the "forgotten history of Britain's white slaves in America". Yet as the authors admit, indentured servants were not slaves. It is true that they were dreadfully treated; indeed, Barbados planters often treated their slaves better than their servants, because the former were so vital to their economic success. The authors are right to remind us that African slavery was one form of bondage among many, rather than a unique and unprecedented condition.
All the same, it was almost always much better to be a European servant than an African slave. Not only were servants transported in better conditions, they could also hope to be free men, if they survived their term of service. Above all, they were white, which meant that they were automatically different from the West African slaves. As the servants would have pointed out, the racial codes of the American colonies were a lot more than window-dressing. Calling them slaves might be a marketing ploy, but it stretches the meaning of slavery beyond breaking point.
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