To paraphrase the eminent black scholar Thomas Sowell, nothing unleashes the irrationality of the contemporary Western intellect like the topic of race.
The merchants of Big Racism, or the Racism-Industrial-Complex (RIC), oscillate between two contradictory assertions. On the one hand, they assure us that there are no differences between blacks and whites in terms of criminality, that blacks are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated because of “racist” criminal justice system. Yet, on the other hand, they admit that while blacks do indeed engage in criminal activity to a far greater extent than do whites (or, for that matter, any other racial group), this is a “legacy” of slavery and Jim Crow.
To repeat, these two propositions are mutually contradictory. For the time being, though, let’s focus on the latter.
Numerous thinkers, black, white, and other, have successfully, repeatedly, debunked the legacy of slavery argument. Without regurgitating their arguments, though, I’d prefer instead to consider a conveniently neglected part of the history of slavery in the New World, that part of the past that involves white slaves. After all, 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.
In their, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh paint an image-rich, if horrific, picture of the experience of white indentured servants who differed from slaves in name only.
The authors are quick to note—and rebut—the standard contemporary position “that since the indentured servant was not born a slave,” his servitude “was sufficient to differentiate him from one.” The problem with this reasoning is that it “seems to…miss the point that there were, and are, different types of slavery.”
Doubtless, 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: If whites (in the Americas) were never formally slaves for life, while Africans were, the narrative of unique black suffering—and, hence, the legacy of slavery argument—stands a better chance of being sustained. But there are at least three racially incorrect replies in the coming that fracture this line.
First, as Jordan and Walsh (among others) inform us, Africans were not originally brought to the Americas as slaves—if, that is, by “slave” we mean those who were formally bound for life to a master. Africans, like Europeans, were originally indentured servants.
Second, the transition from indentured servitude to lifelong slavery was facilitated by blacks as well as whites. In fact, the efforts of “the planter from Angola,” as the authors refer to him, Anthony Johnson, were instrumental in legalizing lifetime bondage.
Johnson was an indentured servant who served his term before becoming a successful planter and master himself. When one of his African servants, John Casor, demanded his freedom at the expiration of his term of service, Johnson denied him. A white planter, Robert Parker, to whom Johnson lent Casor, refused to return the latter when he became convinced that Casor was a free man. Yet a court in Virginia sided with Johnson when he sued Parker and declared Casor his servant for life.
Twenty years later, after Johnson had died, Casor passed away in service to Johnson’s widow.
“This was one of the first cases of lifetime slavery being imposed in North America,” remark Jordan and Walsh, and we find “a black man playing one of the villains in the ghastly tragedy that was beginning to unfold.”
Third, the authors inform us that, in practice, “indentured servitude” was every bit as bad as any other kind of slavery. “The indentured servant did not simply sell his or her labour for a period of time to pay off the cost of a sea crossing; the circumstances they encountered…forced them into giving a substantial period of their productive life to another for free.” Servants were “coerced and conned into unnecessarily lengthy periods of slavery [.]”
“In Barbados,” we’re told, “the illegitimate children of servants were forced to work for nothing but their food until they were twenty-one.” Moreover, “methods were used in the attempt to keep servants for longer than the period of their indenture, including adding years on for infractions of the endless rules that governed their lives”—many of which “can be seen as being deliberately irksome, so that servants were likely to break them at some point.”
When it wasn’t at all uncommon for servants to die within five years of their indenture, the latter was a life sentence.
However, not only was indentured servitude as bad as “slavery.” Practically speaking, as far as the treatment of those in bondage was concerned, it was worse. In this first-hand account by Richard Ligon, a 17th century English royalist, he distinguishes the treatment of “servants” (whites) from that of “slaves” (Africans):
“The slaves and their posterity being subject to their masters for ever, are kept and preserved with greater care than the servants, who are theirs but for five years, according to the law of the island [Barbados]. So that for the time the servants have the worst lives, for they are put to very hard labour, ill lodging, and their diet very slight.”
Such was the poor treatment of white servants that those in authority began urging for the importation of more African slaves. The authors of White Cargo refer to a letter written by Colonel William Brayne that was addressed to Oliver Cromwell. Brayne explains that in the case of Africans, “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.”
I doubt that any of this will make the cut for that honest discussion of race and slavery.