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White Slaves By: Roger D. McGrath


White Slaves
By: Roger D. McGrath

This article first appeared in Roger D. McGrath’s column in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Go to to subscribe

For many years I taught a U.S. history
survey course. One of my lecture topics
was American slavery. I made a real effort
to put the peculiar institution into historical
perspective. I noted that slavery was not
something reserved for blacks here in America
but was as old as man himself and recognized
no racial bounds.

There had been slavery in Asia, slavery in Africa, slavery in
Europe, and slavery in the Americas. Yellow
man enslaved yellow man, black man enslaved
black man, white man enslaved white
man, and red man enslaved red man. This
shouldn’t have come as a surprise to college
students, but, as the years went by, more and
more incoming freshmen were surprised to
learn that slavery was not uniquely American
and not uniquely a black experience.
Shortly before I retired from teaching I
began running into something more stupefying
than sheer historical ignorance: victimology.
I encountered black students whose
worldview was formed by a sense of victimhood.
They were not willing to concede
that suffering enslavement was universal.
If I were black, I would have been elated to
learn that slavery was not something reserved
for blacks only—that my race had
not been singled out as deserving nothing
better. This was certainly the reaction, more
often than not, of my black students in my
early years of teaching. Today, however, we
are reaping the bitter fruit of years of politically
correct indoctrination in schools, and
blacks are outraged when the enslavement
of other peoples is discussed.
The outrage deepens when white slaves
are mentioned and becomes near hysteria
when it is pointed out that whites suffered far
more severe forms of slavery than that experienced
by blacks in American colonies and
the United States. Examples abound, but one
of many from ancient Rome should suffice:
The average life expectancy for a slave in the
Roman mercury mines was nine months.
Moreover, most of the slaves put to work
in the mines were of Celtic or Germanic
stock—as white as one could get. They became
slaves as a consequence of Roman wars
and therefore cost next to nothing. They
worked under brutal conditions and day
by day absorbed more and more mercury.
They experienced terrible pain, mental confusion,
lost of eyesight and hearing, and died
as their liver and kidneys failed. No matter.
There were thousands upon thousands of
conquered folks waiting to replace them.
If ancient Rome is too distant, though,
examples of white slaves in the New World
can be cited. Having grown up with Seumas
MacManus’s The Story of the Irish Race,
I learned from a young age that tens of thousands
of Irish were enslaved and shipped to
the West Indies to labor and die on sugar
plantations. There have been studies of recent
vintage devoted entirely to the subject,
including Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados:
The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland. Such
works have caused a near hysterical reaction
in academe. Politically correct professors
are livid that the topic is even discussed.
As one of my teaching assistants, who was a
member of the Revolutionary Communist
Party, said to another one of my TAs—30
years ago now—“There are some facts students
just shouldn’t know.”
It is difficult to determine exactly when
the first Irish were shipped to the West Indies,
but by the mid-1630’s the trade was
well underway. There were the Freewillers,
who voluntarily sold themselves for a term
of indenture, usually seven years. There were
also the Redemptioners, who were duped
into signing contracts of indenture. Once
in the New World, they were sold for cash
at auctions. Then, there were the Spiriters,
who were kidnapped and, like the Redemptioners,
sold at auctions. Many of those
kidnapped were children, some as young
as eight. One agent bragged he kidnapped
and sold an average of 500 children a year
throughout the 1630’s. Another agent said
he also averaged hundreds of children annually,
and one year sold 850.
The death toll for Africans shipped to the
New World was high; so too was the death
toll for the Irish. A loss of 20 percent during
the voyage was considered normal, a percentage
of deaths equal to that suffered by
Africans in the infamous Middle Passage.
Typical was a ship carrying planter Thomas
Rous and his 350 indentured servants. Every
day two or three died and were tossed overboard.
By the time the ship arrived in Barbados,
80 of the indentured had died. Most
of the ships that carried the Irish were the
same ships used in the African slave trade,
and the Irish were packed into the holds of
the ships in identical fashion to the blacks.
Once on the island, death came regularly
to the survivors of the voyage. They were
forced to work no less than a 12-hour day
and fed only cornmeal and potatoes. The
tropical sun blistered their white skin, and
diseases took a frightful toll. Those who survived
their term of indenture were a minority.
Moreover, various infractions allowed
planters to extend the term of indenture,
and for many this meant life. Whipping
and branding were common punishments.
Maiming was also practiced. When a plot
to rebel was revealed in 1648, the conspirators
were arrested and sentenced to death.
June 2017 43
They were hanged and drawn and quartered.
Their heads were mounted on pikes,
which were placed on the main streets of
Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.
Nonetheless, all of this was but a prelude
to the trade in human cargo that occurred
following Cromwell’s rampage through Ireland,
1649-52. So many Irish soldiers were
killed or exiled to continental Europe that
the Emerald Isle was left with tens of thousands
of widows and fatherless children. This
caused England’s ruling council in Ireland
to pass one of history’s most cynical orders:
That Irishwomen, as being too
numerous now—and therefore,
exposed to prostitution—be sold
to merchants, and transported to
Virginia, New England, or other
countries, where they may support
themselves by their labour.
Cromwell’s soldiers now rode about Ireland
rounding up Irish women and children,
and some men, as if they were cattle being
driven to market. The captives were herded
into holding pens and branded with the initials
of the ship that was to transport them to
the New World. Fetching the highest prices
were young women, who were highly prized
by the Caribbean planters, who “had only Negresses
and Maroon women to solace them.”
Estimates of how many women and children
were transported and sold vary widely, but
50,000 is a conservative number. No less a
figure than physician and attorney Thomas
Addis Emmet, a founder of the United
Irishmen and a participant in the Rising of
1798, and later the attorney general of the
state of New York, put the figure at more than
100,000, following a careful study.
After four years the horrific trade in
women and girls was stopped but only because,
says John Patrick Prendergast in The
Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland, “the evil
became too shocking and notorious, particularly
when these dealers in Irish flesh began
to seize the daughters and children of
the English themselves, and to force them
on board their slave ships.”
None of these women or children had
signed contracts of indenture. They were simply
sold as servants for an indeterminate period
of enslavement. In Barbados they went
on the auction block. The best looking of the
young women were bought as concubines
by the wealthy English planters. Occasionally,
a planter would formally marry one of
the young women. Most of the Irish females
were used as servants in the planters’ households,
but many labored in the fields alongside
men. Others were put to work as prostitutes
in brothels, and some, many of them
no more than 13 years of age, were forced to
breed with black slaves. The mulatto offspring
became the property of the planter. In this
way a small planter could rapidly increase
his slave population without the expense of
purchase. Boys could also fetch high prices
at auctions when homosexual planters and
merchants wanted young playthings. English
visitors to the island worried not about
the sufferings of the Irish, but that the “slavery
corrupts the morals of the master” and
turns respectable Englishmen into “the most
debauched devils.”
By 1660, half or more of the white population
of Barbados was made up of indentured
Irish. The same was true of St. Lucia,
St. Christopher, Jamaica, Antigua, St.
Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat.
Those indentured servants who were
shipped to the American colonies were the
lucky ones. For the most part they were
freed after their term of indenture, usually
four or seven years, although a number
saw their indentures extended for minor infractions.
Many were worked to death long
before their term was up. The planters in
Virginia, for example, had a vested interest
in keeping a black slave healthy and, as
a result, might get 40 years of work out of
him. The planter had little similar concern
for the Irish, Scot, Welsh, or English servant
who would usually be gone at the end of
his indenture. Overworked and malnourished,
the servant often died young. In his
weakened condition, he fell prey to disease.
The big killer in the tidewater regions
of the South was malaria, which arrived in
the New World from Africa carried by the
Anopheles mosquito. Anywhere there were
large bodies of standing water and warm temperatures
the Anopheles mosquito thrived.
If it hadn’t been for malaria, black slavery
might not have developed in the colonies.
Blacks had protection—the sickle cell—from
the disease, while whites did not. Otherwise,
free whites and white indentured servants
would have supplied all the labor needed. By
1700—80 years after the first Africans had
arrived—there were only some 6,000 black
slaves in Virginia, less than eight percent of
the population. Without malaria and other
tropical diseases it is unlikely that this percentage
would have increased.
During his term of indenture the servant
was a slave in all but name. He could
be bought and sold and punished brutally.
Some were beaten to death. Women were
often raped. Owners of the servants rarely
suffered any kind of penalty for their inhuman
treatment of their property. Nonetheless,
there was an end date to this bondage,
and this has caused an almost hysterical
reaction to the use of the term slave when
describing indentured servants, especially
when discussing Irish in the West Indies.
Academics now write articles about
the “myth of Irish slavery.”
The authors of these articles argue that
the Irish entered into servitude voluntarily
and signed contracts of indenture. That was
true for only a minority of the Irish shipped
to the West Indies and clearly not true for the
kidnapped women and children. Moreover,
it seems to me that the term slave is more accurate
than the euphemistic term servant.
The owner of such a servant had near-total
control over his destiny. If a master could
put a servant on the auction block, then he
owned not only the servant’s labor but the
servant himself. He was chattel. The great
English essayist, pamphleteer, and novelist
Daniel Defoe, known best for Robinson Crusoe,
had it right when he said indentured servants
are “more properly called slaves.” ◆

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