Sunday, July 17, 2016

No, There Were No "White Slaves" in America

I keep seeing these articles and memes going around about how there were “White slaves”, usually Irish, in the New World. I am attaching a link to a good article that debunks this idea –which is hogwash –but I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about why this myth has become so popular. It first hit the radar in a noticeable way in the 1990s –around the same time as another myth, that there were large numbers of black soldiers in the Confederacy –and, like that myth, has gained steam in the last few years. I constantly have students on exam essays talking about “white slaves” instead of indentured servants, which is what they were. How are the two different? Unlike slavery, indentured servitude was not permanent- it was limited to seven years (or adulthood, if the servant was a child). In most cases, the person signed a contract willingly, often to gain passage to the colonies. In some cases indentured servitude was forced on criminals or people in debt, and during the Cromwell years on Irish captives. But even if not entered willingly, it was not slavery: a slave did not have a contract, he was a slave until he died, and if a woman her children would be lifelong slaves as well. Plus, no one volunteered for slavery. It IS true that indentured servants had miserable lives, and many were worked to death, but those who survived for a few years went free and often even had a small monetary bonus.

So why do so many people want to insist this was actual slavery, and that there is a conspiracy to keep the public from knowing about it? Well, the conspiracy part is to counteract actual historians who would debunk it as inaccurate. But why slavery? It is no accident that this myth and the one about black Confederates have blossomed simultaneously (note: the “Irish slaves” meme proliferated on Facebook right after the event in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.) Part of the white slavery thing is a form of ethnic pride for people of Irish descent, telling how their ancestors endured suffering. Well, the Irish certainly suffered a lot in America, but they were never slaves. And there is a deeper reason that even non-Irish white people have sustained these myths.

Here’s why: If I can say that white people were slaves TOO, then I can minimize the legacy of slavery and racism. Why, we had it as bad as you people did, and you don’t hear us still whining about it. Similarly, if I can say that large numbers of black men fought for the Confederacy, then I can go on believing that the Civil War –and said Confederacy –were not REALLY about slavery. Thus can we salve our collective conscience, while simultaneously de-legitimizing the complaints of the black community about racism.

[click HERE to see a list of "white slavery" tweets collected by Irish historian Liam Hogan in the wake of the Ferguson protests]

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who re-posts one of those articles/memes has these goals in mind. To most people it just seems like a fascinating story, and it is presented as verified fact. But you have to check the sources. You’re not going to find any credentialed, trained historians making such claims –well, maybe I should say 99.9% of them don’t, since there’s always that one wacko out there somewhere. No, most of this pseudo-history is presented by amateurs and are self-published. One notable exception is a book released by NYU Press called White Cargo, by two television documentarians. The authors make it a matter of semantics, arguing that forced servitude is slavery no matter what the circumstances or duration. People who use this argument to assert that indentured servants were slaves, in my experience, rarely agree that convict labor is slavery. The idea is also propagated a lot on white supremacist blog sites. In fact, the most cited book on the subject is 1993’s They Were White and They Were Slaves (also the first book on the subject that I’m aware of); it was self-published by a Holocaust denier who blamed the Atlantic slave trade on the Jews.

Bottom line: if you’re interested in the history, read some books about indentured servitude (which really could be a horrible experience). But when you see things framed as “white slavery” in the Americas, be aware of what’s really going on. It may seem like only a matter of semantics, but words matter... because of the ideas behind them.

By the way, here are a few quotes from readers’ reviews of White Cargo on amazon:

I assume since America was founded by the British the history books were ‘edited’ not to mention this time in history or ‘edited’ to use lighter language like ‘indentured servants’ instead of slaves.

“It is significant that two journalists wrote this extremely important book. Many professional historians don't want much attention paid to white slavery for fear that it will take something away from black slavery or make whites feel less compassion for black slaves.” [this person goes on to recommend a long list of books defending the Confederacy or denying racism]  

“Euphemistically white slavery was referred to as `indentured servitude'. Indentured servitude however was in fact slavery.

You can find my essay about forced labor on colonial plantations HERE.

You can find a well-researched essay –part of a longer piece in progress (not by me, by the aforementioned Liam Hogan) –HERE.

Note: you will find references to "white slavery" in relation to the pirates of the Barbary Coast (in North Africa). This is a completely different subject; Barbary pirates were known to capture Europeans in the Mediterranean and sell them into slavery.


  1. My indentured servant forebear, Captain John Whipple, served his seven years and went on to become a prominent citizen at Providence Plantations, RI. Hardly a slave. That said, as far as I know from the several family histories in my possetion, the Rhode Island Whipples never owned slaves. William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Massechusetts Whipple, had a slave who claimed to have been a prince in his native land. Whipple manumitted the slave, who took the name of Prince Whipple. He is the black man you see in the boat with Washington crossing the Delaware.

  2. Wow- I knew that was Prince Whipple, but I didn't know the connection

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  4. there was the Carthaginian and later Arabian slave trades where white, Christian, cities along the coast of Europe and even north America were ransacked and their inhabitants sold into slavery throughout north and central Africa. even the first permanent slave owner in America, Anthony Johnson, was black. he actually took a case to court after his black indentured servant left after his allotted time and then was forced to return under johnsons wishes. instances of white slavery throughout history has greatly outnumbered those of black slavery and it is grossly unfair to say that whites were the only slave owners and blacks the only slaves. even in America there were many white slaves. even if that number pales in comparison to that of black slaves it is still a statistic. admittedly black slavery was horrible, however that does not change history, whites were treated just as bad as blacks. do research