Reviewing the fallout from an influential but fatally flawed work of popular history about “white slaves”
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White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh was published by the New York University Press in 2007. It is a work of popular history authored by a filmmaker and a journalist about what they claim is the “forgotten history” of unfree European labour in Colonial America, or as the authors now call them, “white slaves”. The blurb of the book asserts without qualification that white indentured servants were “chattels”, that white convicts were sold like “livestock” and that this history of “white slavery” has been “submerged under the overwhelming memory of black slavery.” The introduction goes on to state that “white servants were the first slaves in America” and that “today, tens of millions of white Americans are descended from such chattels.” Jordan and Walsh also claim that the
“…brutalities associated with black slavery alone were perpetuated on whites throughout British rule.”
To put it mildly these are simplistic, decontextualised and historically problematic assertions. Despite the author’s haphazard disclaimers to the contrary, their argument unavoidably draws a false equivalence between colonial slavery and colonial servitude. The book’s sensationalist and oversimplified approach to this complex topic means that this attempt at a relative comparison becomes an absolute equivalence in a general discussion. Since its publication ten years ago White Cargo has helped popularise the reductive fallacy that “slavery was slavery” in the history of British America. It has thus aided the growth of a deep misunderstanding and confusion about this history in wider society and has been seized upon at the fringes by White Nationalists and Neo-Confederates as “evidence” in their attempts to legitimate their racist worldview.
Academic criticism points towards a “Fatal Flaw”
I do not doubt that the authors’ hearts were in the right place and I’m convinced that White Cargo had the potential to be an important and accessible work about the broad history of unfree labour in British America and the exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable. Alas the fundamentally misguided decision to conflate the plight of its subjects with the history of racialised chattel slavery, while no doubt helping to garner greater media attention and sales, has critically damaged the book’s import. The American historian Dr. Dixie Ray Haggard noted this “fatal flaw” when he reviewed the book for The Historian journal in 2011 and he concluded how
“This book deliberately conflates indentured servitude with slavery. The authors use a general definition of slavery, rather than an academic one, to prove their point that indentured servants were in essence slaves because of the way they were treated. They fail to acknowledge, or maybe understand, that each institution, slavery and indentured servitude, had its own purpose and position within the colonial economy and society.”
Haggard also noted the book’s poor use of modern literature and scholarship and that the authors predominantly leaned on secondary sources, of which many were published in the mid-twentieth century.
Prof Jerome Handler and Dr Matthew Reilly, scholars of the history of slavery in Barbados, singled out White Cargo in a recent academic article contesting the growing narrative of “white slavery” in the Caribbean. They argued that White Cargo has been “influential amongst transatlantic audiences in its central thesis” that slavery in British America was imposed “first for whites, then for blacks.” Handler and Reilly assessed that the book’s strategy to simplistically refer to white servants as slaves “deflects the experiences of millions of persons of African birth or descent.”
Likewise the economic historian of slavery Dr. Stephen Mullen criticised the book’s “sensationalist interpretations” and he cited the American historian Michael Guasco who “recently suggested the text should be read in ‘conjunction with more analytical and thoroughly contextualised works’ — a diplomatic way of urging caution when considering the authors’ conclusions.” Mullen observed that some of the book’s sources were questionable, pointing out that the section about the transportation of Scottish Jacobites to the Americas in the 1700s relied almost exclusively on John Prebble’s “pseudo-historiographical victimology” rather than objective history. Correspondingly White Cargo lists Sean O’Callaghan’s pseudo-history To Hell or Barbados (2000) in its bibliography. I critiqued this work and found that O’Callaghan had jumbled history and fantasy together to help laminate a perfect victimology that equated indentured servitude with chattel slavery. Prof Don Akenson recently described O’Callaghan’s work as “an end-of-the-pier-act that is just a shade short of being hate literature” while Handler and Reilly delineated how To Hell or Barbados is
“…replete with historical inaccuracies, the frequent extension of documented information on enslaved Africans to all indentured servants without explanation or justification, distorted embellishments of historical incidents, reliance on questionable sources, and unsupported statements of alleged historical facts…”
British historian Dr. Dominic Sandbrook reviewed White Cargo for the Daily Telegraph and found it “unsatisfying” as it was built on “disjointed narratives” and anecdotes. He felt that its most “serious problem” was its decontextualisation of the term ‘slavery’ for polemical purposes. He concluded that “calling them slaves might be a marketing ploy, but it stretches the meaning of slavery beyond breaking point.”
Although not referring to White Cargo directly, the Scottish historian Sir T.M. Devine also dealt with this increasingly popular conflation of servitude and slavery in the very first page of his introduction to Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection (2015)
“Those modern skeptics who consider…the indentured white servants in the transatlantic colonies, to be just as oppressed as black slaves, fail to take into account that stark and fundamental distinction. Colonial servants were bondsmen, indentured to labour, often under harsh conditions, but their contracts were not for life but for specific periods, usually an average of four to seven years, and were enforceable at law.”
These are the only academic criticisms of White Cargo and its thesis that I could find and just one is a full length academic review. It was published four years after the book was available for sale and currently languishes behind a paywall. It is therefore understandable that so many people have been greatly influenced by this book in the wake of a subdued and much delayed critical response by professional historians.
A (brief) critique
In my view the most damning feature of this book it that it does not inform the reader in a coherent or timely manner what the profound differences are between racialised chattel slavery and indentured servitude or penal servitude. I believe that this was purposefully done to gird support for the book’s thesis that “white slavery” preceded “black slavery” in Colonial America. Their narrative of a supposed transition from a system of “white slavery” to black slavery is not supported by the historical evidence and this narrative’s inherent false equivalence is as ahistorical as it is troubling. The transition that occurred was from white indentured servitude to black chattel slavery. It is worth noting that the transition is related to which bonded labour system dominated, not which preceded the other, for Africans were held in lifetime bondage in Anglo America from the very beginning and indentured servitude was reintroduced in the British West Indies after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.
To be sure, these institutions were interrelated; they existed on the same continuum of unfreedom and labour exploitation in colonial realms. But they are not interchangeable and they cannot be equated or conflated without doing enormous damage to the historical record. Which is why Prof Gad Heuman and Prof Trevor Burnard, specialists of the history of plantation slavery in the Americas, take care to elucidate how
Slavery is a form of labour exploitation connected to, but significantly different from, other forms of labour exploitation, such as indentured servitude… (The Routledge History of Slavery, p. 7)
The authors of White Cargo try to get around this by concluding that one should refer to indentured servants in Colonial America (both voluntary and involuntary) as “white slaves” by (1) redefining slavery in this context as a “feeling” and not a socio-legal status and (2) arguing that servants should be called “slaves” because Daniel Defoe said so. The authors disagree with Dr Eric Williams who directly challenged Defoe’s view in Capitalism and Slavery (1944)
“Defoe bluntly stated that the white servant was a slave. He was not. The servant’s loss of liberty was of limited duration, the Negro was [a] slave for life. The servant’s status could not descend to his offspring, Negro children took the status of the mother. The master at no time had absolute control over the person and liberty of his servant as he had over his slave. The servant had rights, limited but recognised by law and inserted into a contract.”
Thus as Williams clarified over seventy years ago, indentured servitude was never racialised, was mostly voluntary and always time-limited. Colonial Slavery in the Early Modern Atlantic world was perpetual, hereditary and was justified and sustained by anti-black racism. Richard B. Morris, an economic historian and former president of the American Historical Association, also alluded to Defoe’s claim in Government and Labor in Early America, 1946.
“To the author of Moll Flanders white servitude and slavery were identical. In fact, the system of indentured servitude differed in certain important essentials from Negro slavery.”
In a prior section Morris spelled out one of these essential distinctions.
“Unlike the slave the indentured servant was bound to labor for his master merely for the period of time expressly stated in his contract or, in the absence of a formal contract, as laid down by custom or statute. At the expiration of his service he was a free man.”
Frustratingly the authors of White Cargo are all too aware of the fundamental differences between slavery and servitude. A closer review reveals that these differences are buried in an erratic fashion throughout the book but never explained in any detail. It must be immensely confusing for any reader (especially those unfamiliar with the issues) to follow what is going on when after approximately one hundred pages of conflation the authors redraw their definitions by explaining that
“one of the fundamental differences drawn between white indentured servitude and black slavery [is that black slavery means forever].”
While it is not until page 176 that they admit that there was no transition from “white slavery” to black slavery as instead they note that there was a “shift from time-limited servitude of Englishmen to the lifetime slavery of Africans” which of course contradicts the book’s central thesis. These inconsistencies are present at various points throughout the text.
To put it bluntly, White Cargo’s simplistic “servants were slaves, convicts were slaves and slaves were slaves” rationale is historically and semantically insupportable. Such reductionism and lack of adequate qualification or nuance collapses the distinctions between these different forms of bondage by default. This extreme revisionist methodology inevitably leads to an unsustainable ahistorical narrative which explains why White Cargo repeatedly refers to “white slaves” as being “indentured servants” in the text. The irony is not lost on this writer that the only way the authors can clarify that they are referring to “white slaves” throughout the book (rather than actual slaves) is to refer to them as indentured servants, which they were to begin with.
This confusion is also reflected in some of the uncritical media coverage the book received when it was first published. NPR labelled their promotional piece “America’s First Slaves: Whites” and then concurred with the authors that “the slavery of Europeans was a prelude to the mass slavery of Africans in the Americas.” NPR thus used White Cargo to present this false equivalence of slavery and servitude to their audience as being historically legitimate, yet by the second sentence they refer to it as “white indentured servitude.” Which is it, NPR? Is it not “white slavery”? If NPR already swallowed the false equivalence then why is there this immediate need to qualify it?
Sensationalism with sparse context = bad history
White Cargo contains a multitude of over-the-top declarations and bizarre anachronistic comparisons that only become possible when a writer is trying to string a narrative together rather than contextualise, interrogate and understand the primary sources. In one jaw-dropping case they find it necessary to follow the activist Theodore W. Allen down the rabbit hole by trawling back to thirteenth century Ireland in an attempt to equate the abuse of the Gaelic Irish by Anglo-Normans with the experience of racialised chattel slaves in Colonial America in the eighteenth century. This false analogy that spans half a millennium omits the basic historical context, which means that it’s not historical writing they are producing, it’s rhetoric.
Their decision to include ‘Arbeilt [sic] Macht Frei’ in the text, implying that indentured servitude (whether voluntary or forced) in Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century could be as futile as the exterminating slave labour enforced at death camps during the Holocaust, is dramatic comparison at its most puerile. Indentured labour in Barbados was a brutal station, especially so when the plantations transitioned to the more labour intensive sugarcane. The various laws that were passed in the colonies to protect servants illustrates how many were abused. The very nature of this system of servitude meant that they were treated as a sort of commodity while bound and undoubtedly in the first few decades of settlement significant numbers of servants died of disease before their indenture had expired.
But the author’s quip of “if only” in reference to the servant’s hope of being free goes way too far. The Cromwellian officer Colonel William Brayne wrote to Secretary Thurloe from Barbados on the 10 January 1657 and he noted that servants who had served out their time were being “continually made free” and that they were leaving Barbados on a daily basis to no doubt find paid work and possibly even some land in another colony. Underscoring this is the approximation that 17,000 whites voluntarily left Barbados between 1650 and 1666. Many of this number were undoubtedly former servants in search of better opportunities. This was a possibility that a slave could never have.
White Cargo pushes the Myth of Col. Brayne and the “White Slaves”
Jordan and Walsh also put forward the false claim that it was white suffering which directly influenced the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and that colonial administrators actually encouraged planters to enslave Africans (what the authors term “whole-life slaves”) rather than indenture whites (what they term “part-life slaves”) as it was the lesser of two evils. This same bogus argument was deployed by the Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist Michael Hoffman II in his self-published screed about “white slavery” in the early 1990s. It was also used by the far-right “race realist” Jim Goad who in 2014 called for a “white slavery” film to made based on White Cargo. Goad fully endorses Hoffman’s work and has gone so far as to describe him as a “sort of a genius.” Hoffman’s book on “white slavery” is a favourite among neo-Nazis and it includes chapters entitled “White Losses in the Middle Passage higher than that of Blacks” and “White Slaves treated Worse than Blacks.”
All of these “white slavery” propagandists and pseudo-historians make the same false claim that it was white suffering which lead to racial slavery. They do so via the myth of Colonel William Brayne and the “white slaves.” The authors of White Cargo cite a nineteenth century Argosy article by A.B. Ellis as their source for this, but then distort this source to make it appear as if they are quoting Brayne’s own words from the seventeenth century. They mislead the reader by presenting it as follows
“A few years later, a Colonel William Brayne wrote a letter to Oliver Cromwell from Jamaica saying that the planters should employ Africans. The reasoning was that ‘the planters would have to pay for them and would have an interest in preserving their lives, which was wanting in the case of bond servants.’” (p. 188)
Jordan and Walsh then inform their many thousands of readers that this alleged communiqué directly led to the importation of “tens of thousands of Africans.”
“Such observations by the colonel and others led to tens of thousands of Africans being shipped into Barbados in the middle of the century.”
But this narrative is fiction. The truth is found in the primary sources and it turns the White Cargo tale on its head. After reading the correspondence in context (you can read my break down here) it is clear that Brayne was referring to the unsuitability of the use of Cromwellian soldiers and a military regimen to plant the colony and suggested that indentured servants should be sent instead. Here are Brayne’s actual words from 1657
“…Wee are now generally healthfull, except those that came last, of which wee must expect to loose a considerable number; theire dyett and behaviour is soe irregular, and it is impossible to compell them to the contrary, for theire first fitt of sicknes takes away theire intellectualls; yet there is nothing neglected, that may tend to theire preservation: but if servants were sent, they that have interest in them will be more carefull of them, and worke them moderately, by which many more lives would be saved, and plantations more forwarded.”
This is contrary to the insidious distortion of the historical record found in White Cargo.
White Cargo’s myths about the origins of slavery in Virginia
The inherent contradictions in the author’s arguments and chronology about the origins of slavery in Virginia reveal a lack of awareness of the scholarship on this issue. Apparently the authors did not undertake primary research and so instead of arguing their case using primary sources they rely on a false authority fallacy by pointedly mentioning that their secondary source is “African American” when they cite writers who agree with their narrative that “white slavery” preceded “black slavery.” What’s implied here is that this assertion can not be wrong because a writer or academic (who happens to be black) has said the same thing. This is the academic equivalent of the “I’ve black friends” disclaimer used in attempts to bestow legitimacy on one’s fallacious argument. It is worth noting that the race of all of the other writers that are cited in White Cargo is not mentioned and so we can assume that they are white.
On page 170 they claim that there was “little if any racism” between indentured servants and slaves but rather than even attempt to illustrate this with historical analysis they resort to the false authority of an academic’s race. Hence this is true “according to the African American historian Audrey Smedley” (she’s actually a sociologist) and this is also true according to the “African-American writer Lerone Bennett Jr.” They quote Bennett as he once wrote that “the first Blacks were integrated into a forced labor system that had little or nothing to do with skin color” and that African Americans were “second in freedom” but also “second in slavery”.
Smedley: “For numerous references, Google “Irish slaves in the Caribbean”….”
A quick word about Audrey Smedley’s poor scholarship in regard to what she calls “Irish slaves”. A footnote in her textbook Race in North America (4th Edition, 2011) suggests that students can verify her (blatantly false) claims by googling the term “Irish slaves in the Caribbean”
The 1612 reference is so incorrect that the Smedley’s source (an infamous “Global Research” article) removed it some years ago. This year arguably marked the start of Irish colonisation in the New World as this is when the Purcell brothers from Cork established a tobacco plantation in Brazil. As for the “estimate” of 300,000, it refers to the Global Research misrepresentation of the blurb of White Cargo, i.e. it alludes to an approximation of all indentured servants from Britain and Ireland from the 1600s to the 1800s, not “Irish slaves” in the 1650s.
Smedley (falsely) claimed in an interview with PBS that “the very first slaves that the English made in the Caribbean were Irish…there were more Irish slaves in the middle of the 17th century than any others” and that “there was really no such thing as race then. The idea of race had not been invented.”
Fabrication of a primary source
Smedley also fabricated a quotation which she claimed was included in a “letter sent to traders by a planter” in the seventeenth century. This fake quote was included in a paper that she presented at a conference sponsored by the American Anthropological Association in 2007.
The quote “don’t send us any more Irish; send us some Africans, for the Africans are civilized and the Irish are not” is an outright fabrication. Disturbingly Smedley has used this quotation in her work over a period of around two decades and it has since been quoted by other academics in various articles and books. It was recently cited by Caryl Rivers in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in 2014 and in a Psychology Today blog in 2016.
Smedley claims that her source is Leonard Liggio’s “English Origins of Early American Racism”, Radical History Review (1976) but I’ve read this paper and the quotation is not present. There is a poorly written paragraph by Liggio which she has paraphrased but there is no primary source. This “letter sent to traders by a planter” does not exist. This is the sort of scholarship that White Cargo leans on.
What Smedley and White Cargo have failed to grasp is that the perpetual and hereditary enslavement of Africans in Anglo America was established by custom long before full legal codification. In Barbados in 1654 Henry Whistler observed that “English, French, Duch, Scotes, Irish, [and Spanish Jews]” made up the servant population while “miserabell Negors” were “borne to perpetuall slauery thay and thayer seed.” Thus “negroes” were being reduced to perpetual hereditary slavery in mid-17th century Barbados; while English, Irish and Scottish servants were in time-limited bondage. Racial prejudice informed this distinction and it was later embedded in very clear language in the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 “being brutish slaves, [they] deserve not, for the baseness of their condition, to be tried by the legal trial of twelve men of their peers…If any [slave] under punishment by his master unfortunately shall suffer in life or member [no person] shall be liable to any fine…”
Jerome Handler’s article Custom and law: The status of enslaved Africans in 17th-century Barbados (2016) convincingly concluded that
“…with the arrival of the first Africans taken as a prize in 1627, the English settlers brought with them a notion of enslaved status that included the characteristics of chattel property, matrilineal descent, and lifetime servitude, in addition to a conception of slavery that gave the owner absolute authority over his human property and the enslavement of Africans ideological sanction. As time passed and the institution of slavery came to dominate the society, Anglo-Barbadian slave owners did not require formal legal codification or statutory law for viewing slave status in these terms. Their early slave laws did not create slavery, but rather they codified and sometimes clarified a status that already existed in custom…[…]…Anglo-Barbadian views of slave status, although not necessarily articulated in writing, were derived from an Iberian ideology of African enslavement that was widespread in the Euro-Atlantic world and buttressed by English common law relating to property, particularly the ownership of domestic animals. These views were part of the ideology and legal culture that English colonists brought with them to Barbados and to other English colonies in the Caribbean and North America. The available evidence, including early laws and legal and financial documents, suggests that owners and local elites incorporated these ideas from the earliest presence of Africans on the island and that they became fundamental elements in the way Anglo-Barbadians viewed their society. Moreover, an inference from the admittedly sparse direct evidence indicates that racist assumptions about Africans and the ideological acceptability of their exploitation and enslavement were already present among the English who settled Barbados. Social practices included an equation between ‘Negro’ and slave, and thereby an assumption of Black/African as slave; that is, slavery was connected to phenotypic characteristics (‘race’) from its very beginning on the island.”
The Origins Debate
The academic source responsible for popularising the narrative that Africans were not enslaved for life in Virginia until the 1660s is Oscar and Mary Handlins’ ‘Origins of the Southern Labour System’ (1950). The Handlins were building on the prior work of James C. Ballagh (1902). Ballagh’s volume was but one of a range of studies at that time that exhibited “unapologetic southern nationalism” and “social darwinist and eugenic logic”. In other words, Ballagh was a racist and an analytic reading of his History of Slavery in Virginia clearly reveals “the skeleton of proslavery ideology.” The historian John David Smith noted that Ballagh “found little in slave life that was depressing” and more importantly he assumed that “blacks retained an element of their seventeenth-century status: in day-today affairs they were “servants”. They were “slaves” only before the law.” This is crucial and is at the core of the historiographical and Neo-Confederate attempt to diminish the nature of chattel slavery in the Antebellum South by blurring the line between servitude and slavery. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman II cites Ballagh (during an interview with a fellow Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel) as being the main inspiration behind his book about “white slavery”.
Carl N. Degler: A Negro girl was sold in Virginia in 1652 “with her Issue and produce…and their services forever.”
The Handlins concurred with Ballagh’s counterfactual and wrote that “the status of Negroes was that of servants…and so they were identified and treated down to the 1660s”. Jordan and Walsh were clearly unaware (or perhaps purposefully ignoring) that this was soundly refuted and shown to be false as early as 1959 by Carl N. Degler in Slavery and the Genesis of American Race Prejudice and again in 1962 by Winthrop D. Jordan in Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery.
Degler found the Handlins’ thesis to be fundamentally weak and he cited an important case from 1640 which overturned their sweeping generalisation.
“The second case, also of 1640, suggests that by that date some Negroes were already slaves. Six white men and a Negro were implicated in a plot to run away. The punishments meted out varied, but Christopher Miller “a dutchman” (a prime agent in the business) “was given the harshest treatment of all: thirty stripes, burning with an “R” on the cheek, a shackle placed on his leg for a year “and longer if said master shall see cause” and seven years of service for the colony upon completion of his time due his master. The only other one of the seven plotters to receive the stripes, the shackle and the “R” was the Negro Emanuel, but, significantly, he did not receive any sentence of work for the colony. Presumably he was already serving his master for a life-time — i.e., he was a slave….”
Delger also cited other cases from Virginia in the 1640s and the 1650s where the slave status of Africans, as distinct from the servant status of Europeans, was evident.
“In early seventeenth century inventories of estates, there are two distinctions which appear in the reckoning of the value of servants and Negroes. Uniformly, the Negroes were more valuable, even as children, than any white servant. Secondly, the naming of a servant is usually followed by the number of years yet remaining to his service; for the Negroes no such notation appears. Thus in an inventory in Virginia in 1643, a 22-year old white servant, with eight years still to serve, was valued at 1,000 pounds of tobacco, while a “negro boy” was rated at 3,000 pounds and a white boy with seven years to serve was listed as worth 700 pounds. An eight-year old Negro girl was calculated to be worth 2,000 pounds. On another inventory in 1655, two good men servants with four years to serve were rated at 1,300 pounds of tobacco, and a woman servant with only two years to go was valued at 800 pounds. Two Negro boys, however, who had no limit set to their terms, were evaluated at 4,100 pounds apiece, and a Negro girl was said to be worth 5,500 pounds.
These great differences in valuation of Negro and white “servants” strongly suggest, as does the failure to indicate term of service for the Negroes, that the latter were slaves at least in regard to life-time service. Beyond a question, there was some service which these blacks were rendering which enhanced their value — a service, moreover, which was not or could not be exacted from the whites. Furthermore, a Maryland deed of 1649 adumbrated slave status not only of life-time term, but of inheritance of status. Three Negroes “and all their issue both male and female” were deeded.”
He concluded that
“…long before slavery or black labor became an important part of the Southern economy, a special and inferior status had been worked out for the Negroes who came to the English colonies. Unquestionably it was a demand for labor which dragged the Negro to American shores, but the status which he acquired here cannot be explained by reference to that economic motive. Long before black labor was as economically important as unfree white labor, the Negro had been consigned to a special discriminatory status which mirrored the social discrimination Englishmen practised against him.”
Winthrop D. Jordan also demonstrated numerous cases of Africans held to lifetime heritable slavery in Virginia in the 1640s and 1650s. One example provided is the will of Rowland Burnham, made in 1657, which differentiated between European servants and enslaved Africans “by specifying that the whites were to serve for their “full terme of tyme” and the Negroes “for ever”. [Nothing in the will indicated] that this distinction was exceptional or novel.”
Jordan thus found it “necessary to suggest with some candor that the Handlins’ statement to the contrary rests on unsatisfactory documentation.”
He then astutely observed how
The complete deprivation of civil and personal rights, the legal conversion of the Negro into a chattel, in short slavery as Americans came to know it, was not accomplished overnight. Yet these developments practically and logically depended on the practice of hereditary lifetime service…
Yet despite this clear evidence the central boast of a book published by the New York University Press in 2007 is that
“The idea that Africans were Virginia’s first slaves is a myth”
This claim is included in the description of Chapter Eleven of White Cargo where it is stated that “the idea that Africans were Virginia’s first slaves is revealed a myth” and to add insult to injury it refers to the exceedingly rare case of an African planter in mid-seventeenth century Virginia as if it was irrefutable evidence that this was the case.
In an interview with Mark Metcalf the authors were asked “Could you explain the unique role of Anthony Johnson in establishing slavery in Virginia?” and they answered that
“Johnson was one of the earliest Africans enslaved in Virginia. Like all slaves in the colony at this time, white and black, there was a term to his servitude — it was not for life. This meant that if Johnson lived long enough he would eventually be freed.”
They are thus repeating the erroneous suggestion that no Africans or people of African descent were reduced to lifetime slavery in Virginia until Anthony Johnson, an African, sought it for one of his servants in the mid-17th century.
It is difficult to overstate how deficient this attempt at historical writing is. Yet it has been so influential. One disturbing repercussion of this ahistorical argument being endorsed by an academic publisher, hence trusted, was seeing an American writer of the calibre of Toni Morrison repeating the false White Cargo thesis on NPR during a promo for her book A Mercy.
“…the notion was that there was a difference between black slaves and white slaves, but there wasn’t….The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free. But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable.”
There is simply no evidence that European servants were ever held to a lifetime term and as the historian Ann M. Little pointed out at the time “suggesting that temporary white servitude, however exploitative, was the same as racially-based, heritable slavery is just not historically accurate. Furthermore, it can be used to push a Kum-Bye-Yah, all-of-our-ancestors-were-oppressed narrative that is extremely popular with white people in this country.”
Crux: If Toni Morrison could be so heavily influenced and misled by White Cargo then one can only imagine the impact that this book has had on American society over the last ten years.
In the description of Chapter Fourteen the authors’ make the equally ahistorical and relational argument that systemic racism and racial slavery were invented out of thin air by the planter class in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. They are implying that up to this point Europeans and Africans were treated the same in their servitude.
In the interview with Metcalf the authors claim that it was only after the rebellion that
“the planters deliberately drove a wedge between white and black slaves. Blacks lost the few rights they had and were totally degraded. Whites gained a few rights, and were told that they were a superior people. Racial divide and rule began to shape America.”
This is a simplified and also distorted version of an argument that Edmund Morgan made in American Slavery, American Freedom (1974). But if you read the chapters in White Cargo for demonstration of these sensational claims you will find that it does not exist in the text. Their case is not made with any conviction or authority and is thus not substantiated for the reader. There are two reasons for this.
(1) They are taking a single sentence from Morgan’s work out of context (p. 328). Morgan refers to the divide between servants and poor freemen, and the enslaved. Jordan and Walsh mutate this into a divide between “white slaves” and black slaves. If the authors had read the next few sentences they would have found the mention that “by 1676 [lower-class Virginians] were doubtless prejudiced against blacks…” yet this was ignored (or maybe not read) because the authors are adamant that despite the fact that English colonists only enslaved Africans and Native Americans (i.e. non-Europeans) for life in their colonies up to this point, systemic anti-black racism did not exist in Virginia pre-1676. Morgan makes the point that Bacon’s Rebellion was fomented by a violent hatred of Native Americans and that the collective racial resentment and fear among the colonists in Virginia was aimed more at this time at the Native people (who they were at war with as they colonised their land) than their enslaved population. Under Bacon’s brief rule of the Virginia colony a new law was passed in June 1676 that legalised the perpetual enslavement of the Native population captured during the war.
An act for carrying on a warre against the barbarous Indians.
And bee it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all Indians taken in warr be held and accounted slaves dureing life, and if any differences shall arise in cases about plunder or slaves, the cheife commander of the party takeing such slaves or plunder is to be the sole judge thereof to make equall division as hee shall see fit.
So despite Bacon filling his ranks with servants and slaves to increase his manpower, this was a rebellion in part in favour of slavery and colonisation rather than against it.
(2) Jordan and Walsh simply did not do enough primary research. If they had studied the laws of Virginia up to 1676 or the case of Anthony Johnson in any detail they would never have put such bald arguments forward. Socio-legal and customary distinctions with regards race and slavery were present in the colony of Virginia from the beginning; and they became entrenched and widened over time as the colony moved from a majority white workforce (many of whom were temporarily bound) to one that relied primarily on the chattel enslavement of Africans and those of African descent.
The perpetual hereditary enslavement of Africans in Colonial America was custom in law long before full legal codification. As Michael Guasco explained in Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World (2014) Jamestown 1619 was not year zero. Guasco reminds us that the English were latecomers to the business of enslaving Africans in their American colonies but were nonetheless intimately aware of Iberian colonial slavery before experimenting with it themselves in the territories. Thus in the beginning they were building on or borrowing from the Iberian slave systems that had been established for approximately a century at that point. The essential features of enslavement in the early modern Iberian Atlantic was hereditary lifetime bondage. This is why English colonists could buy African slaves from European traders and not need their own legal basis for holding them.
Dr Justin Roberts’ excellent overview of Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery alludes to this and makes a notable reference to how Anthony Johnson’s estate was confiscated after his death in 1670 due to racist legislation.
“But after [Anthony Johnsons’s] death [in 1670] some white planters were able to seize some of his lands when the courts ruled that “Johnson was a negro and by consequence an alien.” The opportunities that blacks such as Johnson had for freedom may be the result of Chesapeake planters’ recognition of and adherence to Iberian models of slavery. These models recognized a slave’s right to self-purchase or coartación and manumission as a central tool in slave management and control. The dominant form of racialized chattel slavery in the New World to which the English were exposed, was, after all, an Iberian model, and many Africans brought to Virginia had been taken from Iberian slavers or slave systems.”
The European custom of enforcing the perpetual hereditary enslavement of Africans in their colonies was a sixteenth century innovation and was well understood by Englishmen when they settled their new American colonies in the seventeenth. This basic context is ignored in White Cargo along with much of the last fifty years of scholarship on slavery and race in Early Virginia. As a brief aside this European custom was also understood in the late-sixteenth century in Germany and in Ireland. The account of a German visitor to Ireland in 1591 mentions in passing that a slave ship was intercepted at sea and that its cargo, African people, were for sale. Their slave status was not questioned.
“Indeed, there happened to be a ship full of negroes in Ireland, which had been intercepted at sea, at this time. I was willing to buy one of the negresses…”
The British historian Philip D. Morgan argued in Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (1998) that the
The once-popular view that the earliest black [migrants] in the Old Dominion were servants and not chattels is no longer tenable. Rather, from the outset, the experience of the vast majority of blacks in early Virginia was slavery, although some were servants and even more secured their freedom. In fact, the status of Virginia’s blacks seems singularly debased from the start, evident in their impersonal and partial identifications in two censuses dating from the 1620s; their high valuations in estate inventories, indicating lifetime service; the practice of other colonies, most notably Bermuda, with which Virginia was in contact; and early legislation, such as a Virginia law of 1640 that excepted only blacks from a provision that masters should arm their households — perhaps the first example of statutory racial discrimination in North American history — or an act of 1643 that included black, but not white, servant women as tithables.
Christopher Tomlins, a professor of law at University of California, concurred with Morgan on this point and in 2006 he similarly concluded that most of the first Africans in Anglo-America were enslaved for life.
It is clear that almost as soon as they appeared in Virginia, Africans were considered legally distinct from whites. It is also clear that most were considered slaves — that is, permanently in bond to others — from the moment of their arrival, presumably because purchased and held as such. Some, however, were considered servants, and a few became freemen. From the outset, those that were enslaved were legally distinguished as heritable property from those that were not; those that might be enslaved were defined by legal elaboration of racial categories. — Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865, p. 270
Tracking early socio-legal distinctions
In 1630 a certain Hugh Davis was whipped “for abusing himself…by defiling his body in lying with a negro [woman].” According to Dr Ibram X. Kendi this was “the first recorded instance of gender racism in America, of considering the body of the Black woman to be a tainted object that could defile a White man upon contact.”
In a 1659–60 Act it is mentioned that Africans were explicitly sold as slaves in Virginia (“that if the said Dutch or other forreiners shall import any negro slaves…”) and in 1662 it was codified in law, but based on prior understanding/custom, that the slave status passed from the mother to her child and that the perpetual enslavement of “negro” women was assumed unless explicitly stated otherwise.
Whereas some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or ffree, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” it adds that “if any christian shall committ ffornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the ffines imposed by the former act.
In 1667 it was legally confirmed that the baptism of slaves did not free them. In 1670 it was made illegal for free or manumitted “Indians or Negroes” to “be capable of purchasing christian servants” and in 1671 the Governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, broke the population of the colony down into “forty thousand persons…of which there are two thousand black slaves, six thousand christian servants, for a short time.”
In 1669 a new law of vital historical importance was passed which dealt with the punishment of runaway slaves. It clearly illustrates how the term ‘Negro’ was synonymous with slavery and that this slavery was hereditary, perpetual and racialised at that point. The law’s very title, “An Act about the Casuall Killing of Slaves”, tells us everything we need to know about how the life of an enslaved African was regarded in 1660s Virginia, and yet, it is not mentioned in White Cargo whatsoever. This act of omission is a serious and unforgivable error on the part of the authors and their publishers. The law reads
An Act about the Casuall Killing of Slaves
“Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.”
While runaway servants were punished by having their term of service extended, this was not an option for the masters of runaway slaves. The enslaved were their masters’ “owne estate” i.e. they were their master’s qualified chattel property for life and thus had no rights or meagre protections afforded to servants under common law. Therefore the Virginia Assembly legalised the use of extreme levels of violence to maintain control of the enslaved population, almost all of whom were African or of African descent. So if a slave “by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony.” This law marked the definitive loss of legal protection for a slave’s life in Virginia. Thus slaves had no right to life and were placed outside of basic protections of common law
In contrast the colony passed a law in 1661 which showed that the administrators viewed the lives of their indentured servants quite differently.
This law was no doubt reactive in nature and servants that died through neglect, mistreatment, overwork or murder were being buried privately, i.e. dumped out of sight. Thus as servants were legal persons, and were in theory protected by common law, such private burials were prohibited. In cases of the suspicious disappearance or death of a servant, neighbours would be called in to view the body and inspect it for maltreatment. A law passed in 1657 concerning runaway servants acknowledged that a principle reason a servant fled from their master or mistress was due to mistreatment and so it declared that
“…it shall be lawfull for any servant giveing notice to his master, haveing just cause of complaint against their masters by harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries, to repaire to the next com’r. to make his or their complaint And if the said comissioner shall find by just proofe that the said servants cause of complaint is just, the said com’rs. is hereby required to give order for the warneing of the said master or mistresse before the com’rs. in the severall countie courts, where the matter in difference shall be decided, as they in their discretions shall think fitt, and that care be had that no servant or servants be misused by their master or mistresse where they shall find the complaint to be just.”
I don’t have figures for the outcome of Fugitive Abuse Cases brought before the court in Virginia, but in neighbouring Maryland Becky Showmaker’s found that in 46% of cases between 1650 and 1700 the runaway servant was freed from their indenture after proving mistreatment. Showmaker noted that this was a “higher rate than with servants who directly petitioned the court” which illustrates how difficult it was for servant’s to persuade the (planter-dominated) commissioners.
In 1662 a Virginian law was passed entitled “Cruelty of Masters Prohibited” which sought to address the problem of servant abuse and also redeem the reputation Virginia had that was so prevalent back in Britain and Ireland and therefore limiting immigration to the colony.
“Whereas the Barbarous usage of some Servants by cruel Masters, brings so much Scandal and Infamy to the Country in general, that people who would willingly adventure themselves hither, are through fear thereof diverted, and by that means the supplies of particular men, and the well-seating of his Majesties Country very much obstructed: Be it therefore Enacted, That every Master shall provide for his Servants competent Diet, Clothing and Lodging, and that he shall not exceed the bounds of moderation, in correcting them beyond the merit of their offences; and that it shall be lawful for any Servant, giving notice to their Masters, having just cause of complaint against them, for harsh and bad usage, or else for want of Diet or convenient Necessaries; to repair to the next Commissioner to make his or their Complaint; and if the said Commissioner shall find by just proof that the said Servants cause of Complaint is just, the said Commissioner is hereby required to give order for the Warning of such Master to the next County Court, where the matter in difference shall be determined, and the Servant have remedy for his grievance.”
Making such aspirational laws was one thing but enforcing them was another. As historian Alison Games surmised in Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World “when grievances were more severe, when a servant found himself at real risk to his or her safety, the courts could be slow to respond. By the time conflicts between masters and servants reached the courts, matters had often degenerated to the point of permanent disfigurement or even death. It is clear that for many, the term of service comprised a reign of terror.”
Overall White Cargo is a mosaic of confused narratives. In one passage it is acknowledged that many Irish emigrated voluntarily to St Christopher in the seventeenth century, but then claim, in absolute terms, that “they became, in their multitudes, slaves in the plantations.” Yet almost the next sentence informs the reader that “those Irish who survived their indenture could start up their own smallholdings on the island’s fertile lands” and that “some Irish went on to become major planters and slave owners themselves.” With this paragraph alone the authors have essentially refuted the central argument of their book. Slaves did not survive their indentures. There was no indenture contract for their labour. Like livestock, the enslaved were human beings that were stripped of all rights and reduced by the law to a form of qualified property and held as such for their lifetime.
This profound temporal difference in isolation: the unbridgeable chasm between some years of service (enforceable in court) and a lifetime of enslavement (with the right to life denied) demands a vigilant delineation.
White Cargo’s reckless conflation of colonial servitude and colonial slavery means that the co-option of a heritage of enslavement by white Americans in is the logical next step. In fact it is even encouraged by the authors. Thus it was inevitable that White Cargo would be been mined by agents of far less repute in an renewed effort to spread a dangerous false equivalence. These racists build their case on the three main pillars of anti-history found in White Cargo.
1. Africans were not the first slaves in Anglo-America.
2. An African played a central role in the development of racialised chattel slavery in Anglo-America.
3. Millions of white people in the United States are descended from chattel slaves.
How White Nationalists and Neo-Confederates use “White Cargo” to reinforce their narrative
White Cargo received a glowing review from the white supremacist American Renaissance, which is the webzine of the pro-segregationist New Century Foundation headed by the racist Jared Taylor who believes that “blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears.”
The Southern Poverty Law Centre describe Taylor’s New Century Foundation as a
“…self-styled think tank that promotes pseudo-scientific studies and research that purport to show the inferiority of blacks to whites.”
Jared Taylor established the New Century Foundation in 1990 and has published racist works on “black on white” crime which are singularly influential in white nationalist circles. Taylor acted as a spokesperson for the Council of Conservative Citizens the white nationalist group that influenced the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof. Taylor organises American Renaissance conferences where attendees “posit their theories about black IQ, black crime and the perils of non-white immigration” and where Holocaust deniers rub shoulders with “scientific” racists. The Alt-Reich ideologue Richard Spencer was Taylor’s protege for a number of years and Spencer’s white supremacist outfit, the benignly titled National Policy Institute, has also received financial backing from the Pioneer Fund.
The American anthropologist Robert Wald Sussman exposed American Renaissance in his book The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (2015) and when reading the proceedings of one of their conferences he “was struck by how it is so reminiscent of the literature of nineteenth-century proponents of slavery, the early twentieth-century eugenicists, and the proponents of Nazism.”
American Renaissance embrace Jordan and Walsh’s “White Cargo”
This American Renaissance review by Thomas Jackson shows how White Cargo’s poor scholarship and dearth of context is easily exploited by these groups to further their racist worldview. Buttressed by White Cargo’s highly marketable reductionism, the reviewer quotes the authors’ assertion that “tens of millions of white Americans are descended from such chattels” and then spuriously follow White Cargo’s lead in claiming that the history of enslavement in America was not about racism per se but rather “general ruthlessness”. This is not surprising as the primary aim of far-right “white slave” propaganda is to empty the history of the transatlantic slave trade of its racial element and just reduce it down to another example in history of forced labour.
White Cargo’s conflation of servitude and slavery helps the American Renaissance reviewer to draw a false equivalence between runaway servants and slaves “Mr. Jordan and Mr. Walsh note that in 1775 there were as many or more notices for white as black runaways.” The reviewer goes on to complain that despite such suffering and “unlike black slavery” that “white bondage never prompted an abolition movement.” This is a David Duke version of history and “according to this mythology…[whites] have been history’s greatest victims, and unlike politically correct white liberals, they are the ones who have the guts to unmask the conspiracy of silence that surrounds white slavery.” — Gunther W. Peck, The Shadow of White Slavery: Race, Innocence, and History in Contemporary Anti-Trafficking Campaigns (2015)
Of course such arguments go up in smoke when the implication here is that voluntary migration, which accounts for the majority of indentured servants in the Colonial America, should have been abolished and thus the colonisation of America by white Europeans and the creation of their coveted white American “ethno-state” should have been prevented. The American Renaissance review ends in a flurry of racism as it laments the continuation of non-white immigration into the United States.
“Times may not be as cruel, but we are paying a far higher price for the labor of Mexicans than did our colonial ancestors for the labor of their white slaves.”
For American Renaissance the purity of the “white race” is now at risk as
“…the 20th- and 21st-century versions of those planters likewise put profits ahead of the obvious damage done by unassimilable foreigners.”
This is a telling remark. The chilling use of the term “unassimilable” is rooted in fascist race ideologies from the 1930s and 1940s. This is not a surprise. The New Century Foundation is part-funded by the Pioneer Fund, an obscure eugenicist body which promotes “scientific” racism. The Pioneer Fund was founded in 1937 by Nazi sympathiser Wickliffe Preston Draper to “improve the character of the American people” by bank-rolling racists in academia and promoting “the procreation of the descendants of the original white colonial stock.” (“White Nationalism”, Beirich and Hicks, 2009) From the 1930s to the 1970s Draper funded projects to forcibly deport African Americans, to undermine the civil rights movements, to maintain segregation and to promote the myth of lower black intelligence.
As Prof William H. Tucker has pointed out, “one of Draper’s last acts before his death in 1972 was to finance publication of The Dispossessed Majority” which is now a core white nationalist text which blames all of White America’s woes on “unassimilable minorities.” This work is canonical in white nationalist circles and significantly influenced David Duke, a neo-Nazi and a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Sitting on the Pioneer Fund board today is Richard Lynn a racist “scientist” and Professor Emeritus at the University of Ulster. Lynn’s white nationalism is extreme, bordering on apocalyptic. Lynn advocates secession to protect white supremacy and white homogeneity. To prevent “white genocide” he believes that
“The only solution lies in the breakup of the United States. Blacks and Hispanics are concentrated in the Southwest, the Southeast and the East, but the Northwest and the far Northeast, Maine, Vermont and upstate New York have a large predominance of whites. I believe these predominantly white states should declare independence and secede from the Union. They would then enforce strict border controls and provide minimum welfare, which would be limited to citizens. If this were done, white civilisation would survive within this handful of states.”
Why is this false equivalence useful for racists?
The “forgotten white slavery” narrative appeals to white nationalists as they believe that its inherent false equivalence with black slavery gives weight to their racist ideologies which proclaim non-white inferiority, non-white genetic disadvantage and non-white social pathology. So by pushing ahistorical “white slaves” propaganda they attempt to erase history as the central determinant factor in explaining racial socioeconomic inequalities in the United States in the present. The “white slaves” mythology is reflexively reached for as it is a perfect fit for their purposes: a bespoke solution for the internal logic of devoted racists.
Prof Tucker concluded his article on the Pioneer Fund by charging that while the group may have “supported some projects of genuine scientific interest” they were incidental to its true purpose which was “to provide intellectual justification for racial prejudice.” Likewise the “white slaves” false equivalence is used to build a pseudo-mythological narrative to provide (a)historical justification for racial prejudice. It does so by framing the legacy of chattel slavery as a black pathology; one which they, unlike white people, just can’t seem to get over.
In August 2016 Jack Kerwick of the far-right website FrontPage Magazine used Jordan and Walsh’s White Cargo to project white supremacist narratives of black inferiority.
“…if the enslavement and oppression of their ancestors explains the high rate of criminality among blacks today, then, presumably, it’s true as a general principle that slavery and oppression ultimately lead to criminality. But if this is true, then the enslavement and oppression of whites of yesteryear should’ve led to marked criminality among today’s whites. No such criminality is to be found. Yet before there were black slaves in the Western hemisphere, there were white slaves.”
Kerwick lauded White Cargo for showing that the “experience of white indentured servants…differed from slaves in name only” and he mused “that the stark distinction between slavery and indentured servitude that this generation of students insists upon is valued not for its historical accuracy as much as for its political utility.” In other words, he is claiming that indentured servitude is a “politically correct” term for slavery.
Kerwick then used four of the most historically illiterate themes in White Cargo to sustain his argument.
- “Africans were not originally brought to the Americas as slaves”
- “…the transition from indentured servitude to lifelong slavery was facilitated by blacks as well as whites.”
- “the authors inform us that, in practice, “indentured servitude” was every bit as bad as any other kind of slavery.”
- “Such was the poor treatment of white servants that those in authority began urging for the importation of more African slaves.”
Considering the source, such disingenuous arguments are not a surprise. FrontPage magazine is published by the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, formerly the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Horowitz’s group received around $4 million “from the same Bradley Foundation that subsidized [Charles] Murray’s research for [The Bell Curve] and continued supporting him after publication.” FrontPage magazine also publish the infamous islamophobe Robert Spencer who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 when he attempted to attend an English Defence League rally.
The White Nationalist and neo-Nazi website The Occidental Observer endorse Jordan and Walsh’s White Cargo for similar reasons. In their blog about “white slavery” published in October 2013, ten of the seventeen references were from White Cargo. The allure of White Cargo for The Occidental Observer is that its false conflation can be used to counter what they describe as “obsessive White guilt and pathological altruism that pervade the contemporary West and that are continually promoted by our hostile elite.”
Neo-Confederates use White Cargo to diminish the history of American chattel slavery, particularly with regards to the central role that anti-black racism played in sustaining and justifying the institution. The Neo-Confederate Abbeville Institute, which is named after the South Carolina birthplace of the pro-slavery racist John C. Calhoun, reviewed White Cargo in March 2015. The review opened with the quip “Where’s my reparations payment!”
The Abbeville Institute concluded that
“White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh is an important book for understanding that slavery….shifted from one group to another primarily for economic reasons, not from the evil or racist motives of those who profited by it.”
Unlike “scientific” racism, and thanks in part to the success of White Cargo and New York University Press, this “white slaves” false moral equivalence has gone mainstream to the point where it is almost inevitably invoked online when discussing the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. It has been promoted and normalised by museums, celebrities, politicians, national newspapers, popular websites and shared by millions of people on social media across the world. We will be dealing with the fallout for years to come.
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