Former President Barack Obama raised eyebrows recently when, on his new podcast co-hosted with Bruce Springsteen, he said he was always open to the idea of reparations for slavery, but never raised the issue as president because of “the politics of white resistance and resentment.”
He further told Springsteen, black reparations are justified because “there’s not much question that the wealth of this country . . . a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves.”
The statements had an effect apparently. While the Biden Administration expressed a willingness to commission a study on the question, this past weekend, White House advisor Cedric Richmond told Axios, “We don’t want to wait on a [reparations] study. We’re going to start acting now.”
If “resentful whites” really are a problem on the reparations question (polling does show a sizeable racial gap, at least), a way for the now gung-ho Biden to make the idea more palatable is to consider reparations not just for the black slavery experience but for the white one as well.
English researchers Don Jordan and Michael Walsh’s 2007 book White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America should have been the tour de force that did to the American slavery narrative what The Jungle did to the meatpacking industry. By showing the extent of America’s similarly shameful history of white slavery, it could have exposed the decades of educational mismanagement and distortion of this most important issue.
But in spite of its readability, thoroughness, and expert research, White Cargo failed to ignite interest among those in the academy. It did not influence further books and research, nor did it kickstart a national dialogue on the issue. Now might be the time to try again. Then as now, too many Americans think slavery not only was a uniquely American institution, but one in which black Americans were the only victims.
With Biden apparently setting the stage for a reparations-push, conservatives must take note. The reality is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, around 300,000 whites, mostly English and disproportionately children, were brought to the colonies to live unnaturally short lives producing cash crops like tobacco and cotton. In its earliest days, at least, the institution of white slavery was about as deadly as what came after it.
While it did not entail permanent ownership, indenture generally carried terms of 7 to 14 years. And, as Jordan and Walsh argue, the fact that it’s often characterized as simply “mortgaging one’s labor and nothing more” is “nonsense.” “In practice,” they write, “autonomy and freedom existed only at the discretion of the master.”
Moreover, quibbling over semantics would not portend well for the schools and media outlets currently promoting the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” Indeed, the equatorial West Africans who did arrive in Jamestown that year—hence the project’s title—did so not as permanent slaves but also as indentured servants—in fact, one of them went on to buy both land and indentured servants of his own, both black and white.
Further, that transaction was a one-off, and precisely because the colonial plantations at the time were already filled with subordinated and malaria-stricken whites. It would take almost a century in fact for enslaved blacks to outnumber “mortgaged” whites.
Taking their cue from arch-abolitionist and Robinson Crusoe-author Daniel Defoe who said at the time that indentured servants should be “more properly called slaves,” Jordan and Walsh write commandingly that, “to be the chattel of another, to be required by law to give absolute obedience in everything and to be subject whippings, brandings and chaining for any show of defiance, as were many whites . . . was to be enslaved.”
“Chattel” certainly seems an apt description. Laws passed by the Virginia statehouse in the early 1600s imposed years of extra bondage on whites caught escaping. Those who merely resisted their master endured public whippings, several days in the stocks, and would sometimes have their ears and noses cut off.
Elsewhere, in Maryland, a law imposing capital punishment on white escapees was put in place in 1693.
To show how merciless plantation owners were to their co-ethnics, officials in Rhode Island in 1636 had to create a law prohibiting masters from kicking out the sick or injured under the pretense of “freeing” them. Unfortunately, it took Virginia over a century to follow suit.
Dying in Bondage
In rebutting the servant/slave distinction so often used to dismiss the history of white American slavery, the authors compare how actual servants had it back in England. Unlike their American cousins, for instance, their contracts were annual, not multi-year, and couldn’t be unilaterally extended for “broken conditions.” Further, they were never sold like chattel and their treatment was more akin to that of an extended family member, not livestock. Also, unlike American indentured servants, their masters would have had little chance of getting away with it if they killed these servants.
White American slaves generally came in three types: petty criminals, kidnapped children, and, as Jordan and Walsh call them, “free-willers.” But similar to how impoverished Africans would often sell their children into slavery, the latter was largely composed of dirt-poor peasants who sold themselves to traders out of a desperate hope of someday owning land (which was often promised in phony pamphlets commissioned by American plantation owners).
Unfortunately, Jordan and Walsh found, the majority would die still in bondage. And among those who didn’t, the bulk often ended up landless, poor, and “no better than when they’d arrived.”
The reprehensible practice of hereditary slavery did not feature in the white system, although servants’ children were certainly not untouched. Early Virginia law, for instance, was especially punitive on this front, requiring children born to indentured servants to become servants until they reached the age of majority. As the authors write: “While these children did not face a lifetime in bondage like the offspring of black slaves, given the short life expectancy of those days, they faced almost half a lifetime as chattels.”
Erasing a Class
As for white child-slaves brought across the Atlantic—the first of which also arrived in 1619—few would live long enough to reach adulthood. Of the first 300 children shipped between 1619 and 1622 (mostly kidnapped orphans and street kids), only twelve were still alive in 1624. “Evidently,” they wrote, “their bodies had not proved more adaptable to the blistering heat of the Chesapeake than those of adults.”
Just a few years before, in 1615, Virginia tobacco interests successfully lobbied the English parliament to erect a penal colony system. Perversely, this would create a trafficking racket among English judges who would order “transportation” to the colonies for crimes as inoffensive as stealing bread, then privately sell the convicts to traders (who then resold them to plantation owners).
Besides cheap labor, an additional incentive for harvesting white colonial slaves was the swelling population of London at the time. Due to war and poverty in the countryside, the early 17th century saw levels of vagrancy, prostitution, and petty crime reach unprecedented levels in the English capital. On top of removing these convicts to the colonies, one proposed solution included trading them for Englishmen captured both at sea and on the southern coast by Barbary pirates of modern-day Morocco—another historical phenomenon pushers of the official slavery narrative would do well to study.
Republicans must raise these historical facts in the looming reparations push. The talking points used in the past—i.e. the cost and distribution problems such payments would entail—won’t budge the hyper-emotive Left or light a fire under apathetic independents. That a whole slave class has been omitted from history and disregarded in the discussion about “repairing” past injustices is a moral claim and should be fought as such. If the Democrats feel this group deserves reparations but that group deserves nothing at all, they should be forced to answer why.
While injecting instances of historical suffering into the public dialogue for political gain doesn’t sit well for white conservatives, or conservatives generally—preferring, as they do, to earn respect through their own achievements rather than through moral intimidation—they certainly have an equal claim to make arguments on these grounds if those are to be the grounds of the argument.
After all, the descendants of those described in White Cargo—people who absolutely suffered institutional subordination, exploitation, and utter misery—were central in forming the nation in its very earliest days. If we are supposed to be so dead-set on settling centuries-old scores, these Americans deserve recognition as well.