There is a lot in the media around African slavery, rightfully so. Some say that tales of white slavery have been wiped from the history books. others say this is not true at all. Were white people real slaves? Were whites a historically privileged type of slave?
Division of opinion lies in the definition. Let’s take a look.
Oxford Living Dictionary – Slaves & Slavery
The Oxford Living Dictionary seems a good place to start. It defines slave as follows.
- 1(especially in the past) a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.
- 1.1 A person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.
- 1.2 A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something.
1 – Applies to the slaves (mostly black) who met the legal requirement of chattel
It specifically refers to the heinous laws & practices that meant that many & mostly black slaves could be owned as possessions not people. They had no rights at all above the requirement to feed and house them. They could legally be kept with little regard above that given to farm animals.
The Barbadian Slave Code of 1661 established the English legal base for slavery in the Caribbean.
This code was adopted by the American colony of South Carolina in l696. It introduced the basic guidelines for slavery in British North America. South Carolina had established a slave’s position as freehold property by l686. It meant that individuals were property and could not be moved or sold from the estate. Thus the (mainly) African slave was degraded to chattel. The enslaver had absolute control and absolute ownership of African slaves. Enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and mulattoes could legally be bought, sold and their children were owned from birth. The system was similar to the medieval European idea of serfdom.
Virginia had its own law from l662. This law created the status of chattel for Africans. It meant that they were slaves for life and their slave status passed to descendants through the mother. The Virginia 1662 statute read: “All children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” (Hening, l819, 3:252).
The colony of Maryland (in 1664) provided: “That whatsoever free-born English woman shall intermarry with any slave shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.”
White, free-born women who married black slaves became slaves. Her mixed race children inherited the slave status of their father – They were chattel. A white woman who married a black man effectively became black herself (by virtue of her marriage). White men who had children by a black woman remained white, although his children mixed race children were chattel. White women certainly existed as slaves. They also met the legal requirement to be regarded as chattel. Some some white women were certainly therefore slaves – Even when the requirement to be regarded as chattel is deemed necessary to qualify for such a terrible status.
The word ‘chattel’ is akin to the word ‘cattle’ and in fact both words share a common origin. There are two basic forms of chattel, domestic chattel, with menial household duties and productive chattel, working in the fields or mines. A chattel, like an animal or pet, had no actual protection under law although there were codes that regulated the use of those enslaved. An enslaver who killed his slave received only mild punishment. A slave could only attack a white person to defend his owner’s life. He could be punished by death for even planning a way to break free.
The Negro Act of 1740 in South Carolina condemned a person to death for teaching another African “the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, or herb.”. Codes required slave owners to dress their slaves and dictated how they should be dressed.
Like most things, there were exceptions. Indeed, Africans brought to the slave colonies in the 16th century had uncertain legal status. Some were actually indentured servants – Others became slave owners themselves.
By the middle of the 17th century Africans entering the Caribbean and Americas did so as chattel property. White people from any class were considered more privileged than a black from any class – But remember that white women were black if they married across colour lines.
Barbary slaves existed between 1 & 1.1. While they were not labelled as chattel, they were certainly owned & devoid of rights.
Slaves taken between 1530 and 1780 could easily number 1,250,000. This number is broadly considered to be greatly underestimated. No records were kept to tell of men, women and children that were enslaved by this device. Some efforts conservatively calculate the number of fresh captives needed to keep populations steady. Slaves who died, escaped, were ransomed, or converted to Islam all needed replacing. Estimates are around 850,000 captives from 1580 to 1680.
Slavers raided the coasts of Valencia, Andalusia, Calabria and Sicily so often that it was said ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’. British slaves were mostly sailors or peasant farmers caught in raids. These slaves were not labelled as chattel, but they existed outside of any legal protection, unprotected by any law codes – And were arguably worse, if not as badly treated as any non white slave.
White slaves in Barbary were generally from impoverished families, and had almost as little hope of buying back their freedom as the Africans taken to the Americas. They lived miserable lives & ended their days as slaves in North Africa. They died of starvation, disease – Many died of plain maltreatment.
Europeans enslaved by Barbary corsairs had lives just as pitiful as their African counterparts. The media has been less outspoken about their plight by far compared to the loud condemnation around the plight of black slaves from Africa. Little attention has been given to this prolific slave trade carried out by pirates, or corsairs, along the Barbary coast in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. It began around 1600 AD. Anyone travelling in the Mediterranean at the time faced being captured by the Corsairs and taken to Barbary Coast cities and being sold as slaves. These pirates also made frequent raids to steal people from their homes.
This feudal system was brought to England in 1066 by (Norman) King William 1st. The king owned all the land. He kept a quarter, gave some to the church and Conditionally rented some to Barons who swore allegiance to and paid taxes to the king. Barons granted land to knights who promised to defend the Baron (and the King). These knights granted land to villeins who produced food and resources to keep the system going. They were poor and could never own land. They were obligated to provide free labour, food and service whenever the Knight demanded. They had no rights, were not allowed to leave the Manor and could not marry without their Lord’s permission. It might be argued that these villeins were the first slaves – White & trapped by poverty.
This 18th-century British naval practice of kidnapping young men and forcing them to serve on sailing vessels is largely excluded from the historic term “slavery” because it falls short of treating people as chattel. I’d figure that there was little (if any) substantial benefit to the young men who were captured in this net. Were they slaves? I’d say that they were. Yes, they were mostly white. It’s been said this slavery was on a whole different plane to African slavery. This might be the case in the later years. The earlier years of the practice offered terms and realities that were far closer to the experiences of African slaves.
A change happened After the Napoleonic Wars impressment was ended in practice, though not officially abandoned as a policy. The last law was passed in 1835, in which although the power to impress was reaffirmed, it limited the length of service of a pressed man to five years, and added the provision that a man couldn’t be pressed twice. From this point, it might be said that these people moved from effectively being chattel as they had some means or protection against lifelong slavedom. Prior to that, the few laws that did exist were largely ignored.
1.1 A person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation.
Indentured Servitude seems to fit here. It’s argued that these servants agreed to work for 4-7 years in exchange for transportation to the colonies while slaves were brought to America against their will. While agreement might have been given, it is almost certain that a large number of these indentured servants had little or no real choice above starving or taking a chance in the colonies. Agreements favoured the so-called employers, and could be extended many times by citing arbitrary clauses. Some of these people did complete their contracts and improve their lives. Many were worked literally to death and died in servitude. Laws meant to protect them were badly and seldom enforced. It is possible that despite rhetoric, that many of these people were slaves by definition, even if they were not necessarily termed as chattel. The vast majority of these people who effectively lived as slaves under 1.1 were white.
All colonies had slaves and indentured servants and both worked at the jobs, without pay. Life was difficult, hours were long and hard. Masters were often cruel. Indentured servants were often sold to new masters just like slaves, and were moved away from their friends and family. Some (not all) indentured servants were eventually freed, most slaves were not.
Irish slaves were sometimes cheaper to buy than black slaves, & considered to be a lot less valuable. The Irish poor were starving. If they became problematic they were either enslaved by the British or wealthy Irish, or shipped off to Australia, the Bahamas or North America. Slave traders often bred Irish with Africans
1.2 – A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something
Sadly, far too many people have and continue to live as slaves under this section. I will build on this as time allows.
White slaves are under represented in the media. They should not be forgotten when we we think of the horrors of the slave trade. Poor white people have often experienced the same plight as black people – It might have happened in different areas, but it did happen. Slavery is about oppression. It has many faces – It continues today.