White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America

White Cargo:The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America 

By Don Jordan and Michael Walsh 

New York University Press

320 pp

White Cargo, a meticulously researched narrative, proves slavery in America was much more than a matter of racism and was instead rooted in greed, corruption, power and economics. The existence of indentured servants in pre-colonial America has been recorded in historical annals. For a person to enter into a contract to be an indentured servant for a precise span of time to pay for one’s passage to America often appeared to be an earnest pursuit. What is not always apparent is the evidence of the untold numbers of men, women and children who were forcibly made slaves, albeit white slaves. 

Some white slaves were duped into becoming indentured servants, but most were kidnapped, literally picked up from the streets of England and Ireland, corralled into makeshift jails, then shoved onto less than seaworthy ships bound for the New World. 

The British landed gentry who inhabited the early American colonies and Caribbean islands were in dire need of cheap labor. These wealthy landowners were sanctioned by both the English royalty and its powerful parliamentary hierarchy, a large network of rich and titled Lords. Major money was to be had in the New World by growing cash crops: tobacco, sugar, and cotton. But to grow these crops, cheap labor had to come from somewhere. 

While criminals and the low-life from the streets of London were sentenced to hard labor in the New World, the pre-colonial labor force also included men, women and children, all innocent of any wrongdoing, who were captured and forced into slavery. Their only crime happened to be that they were stained with the sin of poverty. Those captured were able bodied men, women and children among the English and Irish working class and poor.  

Kidnappers known as Spirits literally spirited people away. Kidnapping was not a mere shadow trade, but a flourishing business, operating out in the open, comprising a complex infrastructure of jobs that included strong arms, office and record keepers, jailers, and the crew members of ships. One spirit was supposed to have made St. Paul’s cathedral the headquarters for a kidnapping operation before it perished in the great fire of 1666. Tearful anecdotes abound of mothers and fathers searching for their missing children who were kidnapped, never to be seen or heard from again. In many instances, the innocent died at sea before they even reached the New World. Death came as a result of famine, disease, and cruel neglect—the kidnapped were starved, chained and bound together and lashed by the whip. 

If the unlucky and the damned made it to the New World, few survived and even fewer were given their freedom or title to the lands that had been promised to them. In a study of the 5,000 indentured servants entering pre-colonial America from 1670 to 1680, fewer than 1,300 proved their rights to freedom, and their rights to own the lands that had been promised to them. Of the initial 5,000, one in four died while still in bondage. Of the 1,300 who proved their entitlement, 900 sold their land immediately because they couldn’t afford the fees for surveying it. (The wealthy landowners made certain the cost of surveyance was kept high.) Of the 5,000, only 241 ever became landowners.

Under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the transportation of the Irish as White Cargo began in the late 1640s, reaching a peak in about 1653. The Puritans who now ruled Ireland had one goal: the total subjugation of Ireland by destroying its people and planting, in their stead, Protestant stock from England and Scotland. Irish hordes faced mass destruction by starvation, or banishment across the Atlantic to the early American colonies and the West Indies. A total of 50,000 Irish were  transported to North America or the Caribbean. Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, the Italian Roman Catholic archbishop, said that the Irish transported to the West Indies were “held like slaves under a cruel lash.”

A pervasive fear of kidnapping dogged the English underclasses, and the Irish of all classes; poor and titled landowners alike—all of the Irish were deemed the enemy of the English by Oliver Cromwell. Kidnapping is even depicted in the popular fiction of Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. In Daniel Defoe’s novel Colonel Jack, the protagonist is kidnapped and spirited to colonial Virginia. 

By 1645 laws were passed to control spiriting but they did not put a hamper on the slave industry. In 1670, the English Parliament made kidnapping punishable by death but kidnappers continued to thrive. The laws existed on the books but were not well implemented, or in most instances the laws were not implemented at all. The theft of a horse drew much stiffer penalties than did the theft of a person. The kidnapper of human beings was fined but the horse thief was hanged.

In 1619 the Africans appear to have been indentured servants, no different from the English servants. In the rush to have enough labor to tend cash crops, race was not a primary consideration. Black mixed with white in the labor pool and would continue to do so well into the Eighteenth Century. The two groups were equally despised by the wealthy landowners and saw themselves as sharing the same unlucky fate. 

By the Mid-seventeenth Century, the practice of slavery in America was no more predisposed to enslave people of color than it was to enslave white people. Anthony Johnson, a successful planter who was black, owned both black and white slaves. He called his Northampton county plantation Angola. Johnson became embroiled in a legal battle with one of his black servants, John Casor, who demanded to be freed. Casor went to court and instead of being freed he was decreed as a slave for life. This was one of the first cases that expanded indenture to a life sentence of slavery. 

John Casor’s case led the way for many other cases to be decided in favor of lifelong black enslavement. In 1640,  John Punch is the first recorded case of the lifetime enslavement of an African American. Punch's case marked the beginning of the legal codification of race-based slavery in Virginia. Massachusetts led the way for legalizing slavery. Other states soon followed suit.

Until the early 1700s, white indentured servants were treated the same as black slaves, but the practice changed once the wave of new law surged, increasing lifelong enslavement for blacks. One law after another elevated the status of European whites and downgraded the Africans and Native Americans, who lost judicial rights, property rights, electoral rights and family rights. The notion of a white race was promoted, which can be clearly be construed as early white supremacy.

White servants, who had suffered from the same loss of freedom and cruel treatment as blacks, were now taught that they belonged to a superior people. And economically speaking, it was more cost effective for wealthy landowners to invest in black labor who were slaves for life than to buy white indentured servants who could, presumably, eventually be freed from captivity. In the final analysis of White Cargo, there is the realization that there are as many forms of slavery as there are colors of skin. It’s high time that we examine slavery in all of its incarnations as a great evil that is perpetuated by a powerful elite, white and black alike, just to make a boatload of money. 


Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and ten books.

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