A Quick History of the White American Underclass
(And an Even Quicker History of the Goads)
WHITE PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Yumpin’ yiminy, whatta loaded concept. It has acquired the same sinister ring as “HIV in your bloodstream” or “radioactive waste in our water supply.” There’s a primitive, biblical, sins-o’-the-father notion that ALL American whites, by virtue of their birth alone, bear a stain on their souls for black slavery.
White guilt. Can’t turn on the TV or radio without being bum-rushed with it. White guilt. After tubes and tubes of toothpaste, I still can’t brush it off my teeth. White guilt. I tried to have an operation to remove the guilty tumor, but no doctor could help me.
I’ve finally figured out why I can’t get rid of my white guilt. It’s because I have none. Yet the guilt-merchants keep tapping at my door like court-ordered psychiatrists, insisting that I swallow the guilt pill. They chide me with increasingly patronizing tones that I must be too thick-skulled to grasp the doctrine of collective guilt.
Bend over and grasp THIS. I understand collective guilt better than you do. I’m willing to accept blame for whatever I’ve done, but I need PROOF, especially if I’ll be forced to pay reparations. I won’t accept it on hearsay. From my research, I can’t find any ancestors who owned slaves, but more than a few of them seem to have been slaves themselves. So you can take your white-guilt la-dee-da, fold it into a paper airplane, and respectfully tuck it up your rectal canal.
It’s ironic that American schoolbooks preach that all white people came here looking for freedom, when so many of them came in chains. Yet the “freedom angle” is the panoramic totality of received history as pumped into your cranium by school textbooks and multimillion-dollar TV period pieces. As riddled with Swiss-cheese holes as it is, our generalized impression of the white American diaspora runs something like this: There were no white slaves. All whites CHOSE to come to America. Only blacks were kidnapped, shackled, and sent here. Only blacks suffered through a harrowing “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Only blacks were beaten, whipped, sold on auction blocks, and forcibly separated from their families. Only black women were raped by slavemasters. Only blacks were brutalized by their masters to the point where they ran away.
Would you call me a naughty sprite if I proved that every one of those perceptions was wrong? Would you label me as Satan hi’self if I were to prove them erroneous not only in isolated, freaky-flukey instances, but as they apply to most whites who came to the colonies? Would you strike my name from the list of invited guests to your next wine-and-cheese gathering?
‘Tis OK. I’m used to it. I’m a professional jerkoff. My surname is also a verb. To ‘goad,’ if you haven’t caught on by now, means to incite, to prod, to annoy. Jim GoadJim the Annoyer.
Little Jim Goad went to a grade school, a high school, and a college where I was taught an incomplete version of history, probably something similar to what you were taught. You’ve likely heard of “indentured servitude”maybe for about fifteen seconds. If history teachers mention it at all, the context is almost exclusively a comparison of how bad it WASN’T compared to black slavery. You might have the perception of indentured servitude as a benign, voluntary contractual arrangement like apprenticeship. After I left history class, I carried away the idea that a cabal of muckety-muck benefactors allowed white people to learn a trade in the New World and were so effusively benevolent that they even paid for their passage across the Atlantic. I pictured Ben Franklin teaching Oliver Twist how to run a printing press, or maybe Tom Jefferson instructing the Artful Dodger in Latin. It sounded like such a good deal, I wondered how I could sign up.
But alas, as Young Jim Goad reached adulthood, there was too much white trash around and too few explanations of their historical genesis to satisfy my tortured mind. So I asked myself: What were the historical circumstances which gave birth to me, a pasty glob of ivory-colored rubbish? I started probing my ancestry hoping not to find nobility, but peasantry. And it looks as if I’ve struck a gold mine of garbage.
About a year ago, I received a bulk-mailed sales pitch from an Ohio company for a limited-edition volume entitled The World Book of Goads. For $39.95 plus S&H, the book promised to trace my family surname’s history. I ponied up the wampum and waited by my mailbox. The first two-thirds of The World Book of Goads has nothing to do with Goads; instead, it’s a cheap historical rehash resembling my old grade-school textbooks. Pastel-drawn, Reader’s Digest-style artwork portrays historical personages as better-groomed and happier than we all know they were. But almost in spite of itself, this section provides some valuable half-assed disinformation:
Many early immigrants to America at this time were driven from Great Britain and Europe by religious motives....The African-American is the only class which immigrated against its will.
No doubt you’ve heard it before. But it isn’t true. A staggering percentage of early European “immigrants” to America were FORCED out of Europe for reasons which had nothing to do with religion. The World Book of Goads also states that Britain sent more than 120,000 convicts to Australia, a painful penal policy of which most Americans seem aware. But there’s nary a chirp about the fact that Britain sent more than 50,000 convicts to America and only started sending them to Australia after we rebelled against the Crown.
Apart from such cockeyed history, The World Book of Goads contains a list of presumably every Goad family in America, along with mailing addresses. According to my assiduous calculations, sixty-one percent of American Goads live in the South and what I call the “Redneck Southwest,” Texas and Oklahoma. Virginia and Tennessee are the two biggest Goad states, respectively. Another twenty-one percent o’ Goads live in the Midwest. Fewer than one in five American Goad families live outside of these areas. So by satisfying the geographical prong alone, most of us Goads are rednecks.
The book devotes a scant three pages to “Early Goad Immigrants to America,” but this alone may have been worth the purchase price. In 1635, the first year that my paternal ancestors are recorded as having reared their Goadly heads in the New World, five Goads surface in the American colonies or West Indies. Thomas Goad, 15, arrived in Boston. Another Thomas Goad, also 15, landed in New York. William Goad, 18, planted his Goad toenails on Virginia soil. In the same year, two other Goads arrived in Barbados: John, 22, and William, 21. Samuel Goad was sent to Barbados in 1654, followed by another Sam to “Barbados or Nevis” in 1661. A third William Goad (I remember the stinging schoolyard taunts of “billy goat,” and my name isn’t even William) alighted upon Maryland ground in 1674. And according to a cited source called English Convicts in Colonial America, a jailbird-in-exile named Thomas Goad was shipped here in 1766.
I toss and turn at night, sweatily tugging on my ultra-fluffy Elvis blanket: Why only male Goads? Why did all of those male Goads come here alone, without their families? Why were these Goads so young? Why was a convict Goad sent here? And why did so many of dem Goads, dem Goads, dem dry Goads go to Barbados?
Frankly, I don’t have solid answers. I don’t even have solid bowel movements, OK? I can only speculate and expectorate. Most Goad families currently in the British Isles, according to The World Book of Goads, reside in the south of England. And most indentured servants in America had been plucked out of a shiftless, unemployed, potentially volatile group of lime-suckers from England’s southern end.1
Although you wouldn’t know it from gawking at your TV, nearly all current historians concur that the MAJORITY of whites who came to America in colonial times arrived in a servile condition. Most who specialize in researching indentured servitude agree that at least half, and possibly as many as two-thirds, of ALL white colonial immigrants arrived in chains.2
In Virginia and Maryland during the 1600s, the white-servant quotient was even higher. A study of Virginia from 1623 to 1637 showed that white servants outnumbered white freemen by three to one.3 In Maryland at one point in the 1600s, the ratio was six to one.4 As noted above, at least two Goads were sent to Virginia and Maryland during the 1600s. I’ll play the odds and bet that at least a few of my colonial ancestors were brought here as bound servants. This doesn’t count Tom Goad, the aforementioned convict.
Chances are as good, or even better, that those Barbados Goads were white slaves sold by Oliver Cromwell to the whip-crackers of huge West Indies sugar plantations. Barbados, a sweltering Hades closer to South America than North America, became a favored dumping ground of Cromwell’s political enemies. He sacked so many of his opponents in this manner, the practice became known as being “Barbadosed.”5 Cromwell was said to have Barbadosed at least a hundred thousand of his politico-religious foes.6 With one decree in 1651, Cromwell enslaved seven to eight thousand Scots and British Royalists he’d conquered at Worcester and sent them all clanging in chains off to the New World.7 He also sent Irish survivors of his slaughter at Drogheda into slavery. In the 1640s, more than eighty-five percent of the estimated 25,000 slaves in Barbados were white.8 In 1653, an estimated half of all white Barbadians were Cromwell’s political and religious slaves.9
Cromwell’s son Henry helped run the white-slave racket from London along with daddy, and in 1655 Henry issued an edict which stated that although “we must use force” in seizing young Irish women as colonial laborers, it was “so much for their owne goode” anyway.10
Young Hank Cromwell had a point, if you agree that a rapid death from disease, overwork, or torture is for your own good. From nearly all accounts, the hundred thousand or so white slaves in the West Indies rarely survived the term of their indenture. You might say that the climate was hostile to the Caucasian constitution. Hundreds of thousands of dough-colored Brits, Scots, and Irishmen had been transplanted from their ancestral rain and freezing gloom onto the clay-baked furnace heat of the West Indies and American South. Their pale-white ankles were suddenly planted in tobacco fields, sugar farms, and rice swamps.
The acclimatization phase was known ominously as “seasoning.” With the prick of a mosquito’s proboscis, malaria was shot into their veins. Dysentery wormed a bloody swath through their intestines. Bone-melting fevers often boiled them alive. According to accounts from both Virginia and the West Indies during the 1600s, roughly EIGHTY PERCENT of white slaves/servants died within the first twelve months after arrival.11 Thousands and thousands of white servants, male and female, quietly perished in tropical squalor, their “seasoning” having rendered them crispy corpses.
Barbados was barbaric. Not only was the flaming equatorial heat inimical to the European metabolism, Barbadian slave-drivers were said to be particularly cruel. One island commissioner reportedly petitioned Cromwell to switch over to black slavery, reasoning that since black slaves were a costlier, more permanent investment, the vicious overseers might “take more interest in their preservation and so work them with moderation.”12
Some blacks in the West Indies are still said to retain vestiges of Gaelic language and culture. Music scholars have maintained that the odd mix of anger and rhythm engendered by commingling Irish and black slaves in the West Indies provided the cultural genesis of rock ‘n’ roll. But if the white slaves of Barbados still exist, it is only in words and music. They were almost all murdered by a blood-hungry system of human bondage. And some of them may have been my distant relatives.
It would be bad enough if Barbados had been an aberration, but it was only part of a much larger pattern of forced expulsion and enslavement which had arisen in the British Isles and parts of the German Rhineland. Starting in the late 1500s, legal entities in these areas had realized that the most efficient way to quell potential domestic trouble was to deport potential domestic troublemakers.
First came the recruiters. Pamphlets and posters. A greasy handshake, a wide-open smile, and a pocketful of lies about a sunny new land called America. There were boatloads of filthy lucre to be made by shipping human bodies to the New World, but your typical British recruiting agent might not state it that crudely. With a come-on pitch soaked in brassy ostentation and impossible promises, the recruiter of voluntary indentured servants was a sleazy used-car salesman who peddled human bodies as if they were rusty Pintos. Like most swindlers, he worked first by persuasion, resorting to force only when necessary.
Apparently, force was often necessary. In England, the recruiting agents who were polite enough not to bop you on the head and drag you onto a slaveship were called “drums,” because they restricted their activity to drumming up recruits. Those who slipped a mickey in your beer or overpowered you in a grimy alley were called “crimps” or “spirits.” The spirit, perhaps accompanied by several other burly ghosts, would snatch his prey quietly and suddenly. If a person disappeared suspiciously, they were thought to have been “spirited away.” According to historian Richard Hofstadter, the spirit was someone who “waylaid, kidnapped, or induced adults to get aboard ships for America. Often their victims were taken roughly in hand.”13 Gary B. Nash writes that “Kidnapping and shanghaiing of drifters and drunks was endemic. Many unfortunate seaport dwellers awakened one morning with a head-splitting hangover to find themselves in the hold of a ship headed westward across the Atlantic.”14
A British folk song from the era conjures the chilling subconscious havoc wrought by the spirit gangs:
The night I was a-married,/
And on my marriage bed,/
There come a fierce sea captain/
And stood by my bed stead.
His men, they bound me tightly/
With a rope so cruel and strong,/
And carried me over the waters/
To labor for seven years long.15
Adults weren’t the only whites being kidnapped and sold into colonial slavery. Forcible seizure of homeless and orphaned children was widespread. It was commonly known as “kid-nabbing,” later mangled by the Cockneys into “kidnapping.” Hundred of thousands of British kids were nabbed into slave work not only for colonial plantations, but also into forced domestic child labor for Britain’s smoke-snorting industrial machine.16
Because kidnapped men, women, and children were assigned forged contracts of indentureor, in several cases, no indentures at all until they arrived in the New Worldit’s difficult to gauge what percentage of white indentured servants came here against their will. In The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash guesses that “the greater number” of indentured servants “seem to have been mere children or adolescents, lured from home by professional crimps or outright kidnapped.”17
As with black slaves from Africa, white slaves from Europe were being kidnapped and shipped overseas not for reasons of unvarnished human hatred, but because it was profitable. When all the horrors are peeled away, the spirit business was precisely thata business. Without a strong profit motive, the wholesale seizure of white flesh wouldn’t have occurred. “One could kidnap a man at random in the alleys of London and be sure of a ready sale for him in the South,” writes Thomas J. Wertenbaker in The First Americans.18 An ad in a 1784 New York newspaper refers to a still-vibrant “traffick of white people,”19 and an 1829 judicial decision notes that “It was formerly a considerable business to import Irish and German servants.”20
Although the spirit was himself frequently drawn from London’s lower classes, he was merely the hired gun of higher-ups so insulated by their wealthmerchants, judges, shipowners, and New World plantersthat they could afford paying others to do their dirty work. Amazingly, kidnapping was in many cases a legally sanctioned practice. A 1618 Parliamentary bill allowed for constables to forcefully nab all orphaned children over eight years old and to detain them in prisons awaiting shipment to colonial plantations.21 Other laws allowed for the bodily capture of debtors and criminals. A 1652 Commonwealth law permitted officials to identify “begging or vagrant” subjects and cause them to be “seized on and detained” in order to be schlepped in shackles to the colonies.22 Similar initiatives arose throughout the British Isles as local officials realized it was cheaper to sail their lumpen proles westward than to continue doling out poor relief. Hoping to send their underclass en masse to New York, the Scottish Privy Council in 1669 issued orders for local officials to round up “strong and idle beggars, vagabonds, egyptians, common and notorious whoores, theeves, and other dissolute and lousy persons.”23 It was a new, and sparklingly effective, method of taking out the trash.
An estimate published in 1670 alleged that 10,000 British subjects had been kidnapped that year.24 A pamphlet issued ten years later reckoned that ten thousand Brits were still being captured per year, every year.25 If those stats are reliable, this would total 100,000 British kidnapping victims in the 1670s alone. In the history of slavery in America, fewer than 400,000 black slaves were imported.26 For all the bad rep Amerikkka gets about black slavery, it probably received no more than six percent of all African slaves shipped to the Western Hemisphere.27 (Psstblame Brazil.) Making only mild extrapolations from these British kidnapping estimates, and surmising that roughly ten thousand whites were also abducted yearly for a forty-year run all told, the total of unwilling white immigrants brought to America would equal or surpass the number of Africans forced here against their will. And this estimate is probably low, as indentured servitude flourished for over two hundred years, not forty. And I’m not counting the fifty or sixty thousand convicts dragged over here in the 1700s.
So even though the popular belief is that NO whites were shipped to America against their will, it’s highly possible that MORE whites were brought here unwillingly than blacks. It ain’t a competition, but it sure complicates the picture.
Once nabbed by a spirit gang, newly enslaved white kiddies and adults were often detained in rat-filled prisons awaiting the next available ship. En route to the vessel, they were publicly dragged through the streets in chains, with all the whipping, branding, pomp, and ceremony normally attendant to such displays. In other instances, they were chained down in the ship’s hold pending departure.
Then came the Middle Passage, which often proved as traumatic and lethal as it had for African slaves. Like the British, the Germans were engaged in uprooting and ass-booting their peasantry. German “newlanders,” the continental equivalent of the British “drums” and “spirits,” peddled false hopes and empty dreams to German Palatines, many of whom had been rendered vulnerable by political shifts in Der Vaterland. Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German church organist who in 1750 paid for his passage on a six-month embarkation from Nazi-land to Philadelphia, wrote with keening outrage of newlanders who had promised heaven but delivered hell. Once upon the choppy seas, passengers began realizing they’d been duped:
During the journey the ship is full of pitiful signs of distresssmells, fumes, horrors, vomiting, various kinds of sea sickness, fever, dysentery, headaches, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and similar afflictions. In such misery all the people on board pray and cry pitifully together. But most of all they cry out against the thieves of human beings! Many groan and exclaim: “Oh! If only I were back at home, even lying in my pig-sty!” Or they call out: “Ah, dear God, if I only once again had a piece of good bread or a good fresh drop of water.”
Mittelberger wrote of dead women and babies being tossed into the ocean foam. He describes passengers as constantly scraping lice off themselves. The drinking water was salt-infested, and the foodwhat existed of itwas
very black, thick with dirt, and full of worms. [T]oward the end of the voyage we had to eat the ship’s biscuit, which had already been spoiled for a long time, even though no single piece was there more than the size of a thaler [thimble] that was not full of red worms and spiders’ nests.28
Despite the atrocities which Mittelberger’s eyeballs absorbed, he was a paying passenger and received first-class treatment compared to the German servants chained below deck with stale air, scant light, and no freedom of motion. And as soul-snuffingly dismal as Mittelberger’s voyage was, one commentator says “there is no reason to think it particularly unusual.”29 In 1731, the Love and Unity sailed from Rotterdam to Philly with an estimated 150 German Palatines, all but 34 of whom died before reaching the City of Brotherly Love. Food became so scarce that scalpers were SELLING rats and mice to the highest bidder.30
Likewise, the British slaveships were often little more than floating coffins. Duncan Campbell, an English merchant who shipped white convicts to America until the Revolution broke out, chalked up a ten percent middle-passage death rate as a “moderate loss.”31 One historian calculated that between ten and fifteen percent of all white bondsmen “commonly died during the voyage.”32 Others peg the overall death quotient as murderously higher.
During a 1638 voyage to America, nearly three quarters of an estimated 350 passengers died before arrival. One of the ship’s survivors had written, “We have thrown overboard two and three for many dayes together.”33 In 1720, a third of the passengers croaked aboard the Honour.34 The next year, roughly forty percent of those the Owners Goodwill died on the way over here.35 On the 1768 voyage of the Snow Rodney, food became nonexistentpassengers resorted to chewing their own shoe leather.36 The 1741 passage of Belfast’s Sea Flower took four months and killed nearly half of the 106 humans aboard. During the trip, six human cadavers were gnawed at by famished passengers-cum-cannibals.37 Water was so scarce on the Justitia’s 1743 London-to-Maryland jaunt that transported felons resorted to drinking their own urine. Almost a third of the ship’s human cargo died at sea. The vessel’s commander, like most provisions-embezzling ship captains caught up in the trade, picked the dead convicts clean of their belongings. He proclaimed that he was “Heir of all the Felons that should happen to dye under his Care.”38 Nice guy.
In 1771, another Justitiamaybe the same boatarrived in Virginia with its Caucasian cargo. “Just arrived at Leedstown,” ran the Virginia Gazette ad, “the Ship Justitia, with about one hundred Healthy Servants, Men Women & Boys. The Sale will commence on Tuesday the 2nd of April.”39
The SALE?!? Surprise, surprise, Gomer Pylewhite indentured servants were sold to the highest bidder, exactly like black slaves. In 1625, a British merchant claimed that in Virginia, “servants were sold here up and down like horses.”40 In 1755, Maryland’s governor echoed the livestock metaphor: “The planters’ fortunes here consist in the number of their servants (who are purchased at high rates) much as the estates of the English farmer do in the multitude of cattle.”41 Transported convict William Green recalled the auction process: “They search us there as the dealers in horses do those animals in this country, by looking at our teeth, viewing our limbs, to see if they are sound and fit for their labour.”42 Potential servants were often quizzed to determine their temperament and overall eagerness to be treated like shit.
As with Africans, white families were frequently broken apart and sold to different bidders. At auctions, white servants were often purchased in bunches by men known as “soul drivers,” who’d chain groups of newly arrived white slaves together and herd them on foot through rural areas, selling them at a profit. “We were driven through the country like cattle to a Smithfield market and exposed to sale in public fairs like so many brute beasts,” griped one white servant.43 “They drive them through the Country like a parcell of Sheep untill they can sell them to advantage,” sneered another.44
An indentured servant was legally “the property of his Master,” as phrased by West Florida’s Governor Johnstone in 1766.45 A South Carolina bill introduced in 1717 argued that “the ownership of one white man” should be a prerequisite for State Assembly membership.46 A 1757 Pennsylvania court ruling declared that a white servant named Thomas Teaffe was indeed his master’s “property.”47 White servants were listed as property on tax returns alongside livestock, the chattel next to the cattle.
As property, white servants were bought, sold, traded, and inherited like any other disposable goods. One boy was traded by his master for two deer, much to the amusement of his fellow servants.48 In 1657, a female servant’s owner swapped the degraded lassie for a pig.49 Many white servants were bartered for tobacco.50 John Rolfe, one of Virginia’s early elite luminaries, commented in 1619 that white servants were being exchanged to settle gambling debts in card games.51 Living servants were often indistinguishable from inanimate commodities, as evidenced in this 1765 comment from a Philadelphia entrepreneur: “[T]he chief articles that answer here from Ireland which can be bought are Linnens...Beef, Butter, Men, Women & Boy Servants.”52
Few indentured servants could properly be called apprentices, unless you think that “learning” how to pick tobacco or clear swamps or remove tree stumps is a valuable educational experience. The whoppin’ majority of indentured servants were used as field hands on southern estates and northern farms.53
White temp-slaves had few legal rights. They couldn’t vote or sit on a jury.54 They couldn’t marry without their master’s permission, which was often denied.55 Female servants were forbidden from becoming pregnant, even if their masters had raped them.56 It was his word against hers. And her penalty didn’t stop with a bloody good bull-whipping and an extra coupla years tacked onto her servitude. By Virginia law, her bambino itself was born into slavery until the age of 31.57 Back then, 31 years constituted most of a lifetime. In 1765, Virginia curtailed its out-of-wedlock baby-slavery laws to 21 years for white boy trash and 18 years for white girl trash.58
White servants were often whipped à la Kunta Kinte. So-called “privileged” white skin was brutally ripped open on plantation after plantation. “I have seen an Overseer beat a Servant with a cane about the head till the blood has followed,” remarked an observer, “for a fault that is not worth speaking of, yet he must be patient, or worse will follow.”59 In 1624, white servant Elyas Hintone was bludgeoned to death with a field hoe by his master.60 A Massachusetts servant named Marmaduke Pierce was also pummeled into eternal darkness by his master, who went unpunished.61 A New England couple was acquitted of murder in 1666 after the mistress had chopped off a servant’s white toes, causing a slow death.62
Female servants often fared worse than men. The same Virginia slavemaster who whacked out Elyas Hintone’s headlights had regularly whipped his female slave Elizabeth Abbott to the point where “her flesh in some places was raw and very black and blew.”63 Abbott ran away into the forest, where she died of flesh wounds and weakness. In 1663, murdered white female servant Alice Sanford was so viciously abused, her dead body was described as having been “beaten to a jelly.”64 Another white girl was whipped to death by her overseer, Mistress Ward, who was found guilty by a jury but only fined three hundred pounds of tobacco.65 White servant Elizabeth Sprigs complained in a 1756 letter that she’d been “tied up and whipped to that degree that you’d not serve an animal. Nay, many negroes are better used....”66
Under such conditions, suicides proliferated. A Scottish ex-servant commented that “some of these poor deluded slaves, in order to put an end to their bondage, put a period to their lives.”67
Physical torture of white servants was so pervasive that the law began to take notice. A 1642 Virginia statute remarked how “the barbarous usuage of some servants by cruell masters bring soe much scandall and infamy to the country in generall.” The law went on to prohibit the private burial of servants because masters frequently were “guilty of their deaths” and tried to hide the bodies.68 A 1717 law in South Carolina mentioned “barbarous usage of servants by cruel masters.”69 Thirty years later, a Maryland coroner who was alarmed at all the bruised corpses whizzing through his office bemoaned the “rigorous Usage and Ill-treatment of Masters to Servants.”70
But for the most part, the law wasn’t much kinder than the individual slavemaster. Whipping a disobedient or runaway servant was legal if performed under the direction of a judge, who presumably liked to watch. Up to 39 lashes were allowed in Maryland; masters were only forbidden from “excessively” beating their servants.71 A South Carolina servant who had run away twice was ordered in 1671 to “be stript naked to his waiste, and receive thirty-nine lashes upon his naked back.”72 As late as 1785, Virginia’s legal code allowed for uppity white servants to be “corrected with stripes.”73
Indentured servitude was harsh enough that servants frequently ran away, and colonial newspapers were crammed with classified ads from masters trying to reclaim their white-skinned property. These runaway ads first appeared in the early 1600s and lasted into the late 1820s. Servants are commonly described as as bearing whip marks and burned scar tissue, with their attitudes deemed as “saucy,” “proud,” and “impudent.”74
Upon capture, white servants were routinely whipped and then penalized with extra time added to their bondage. Statutes and court decisions mandated that runaway servants have their ears cut off, that they be branded with red-hot pokers, or that they wear leg-irons and metal neck collars called ‘pot-hooks.’ Virginia law provided that servants who had run away a second time be “branded in the cheek with the letter R and pass under the statute of incorrigible rogues.”75 Captured runaway servants in Virginia were also obligated to serve two extra days for every day they had escaped.76 In Maryland, the ratio was ten days to one.77 In South Carolina, it became an extra YEAR for every week a servant absented had himself.78 There are recorded runaway penalties of five, seven, ten, and even fifteen years.79 Runaway white servants were such a pervasive problem, the U.S. Constitution proclaimed that those “held to Service or Labor in one State escaping into another shall be delivered up.”
Some have estimated that as many as half of all white bound servants, throughout the two-hundred-plus years the system was legal in America, never survived their term of indenture.80 If you have any residual doubts that this was a merciless system which chewed up humans and spat out cadavers, consider that these dizzying mortality rates occurred among a population comprised mostly of teenagers whose typical term may have been seven years.
Yeah, Mister Charley, an indentured servant’s life was just a long, gluttonous, pig-feast on that triple-scoop smorgasbord of lily-white skin privilege and sterling cultural entitlement. I wonder what a white slave of two or three hundred years ago, after being whipped, shackled, beaten, raped, starved, infected, or impregnated, would have thought of the currently fashionable Soho/boho doctrine of white skin privilege. They’d probably want to kill every writer in New York.
The latter-day guiltmongers just can’t face the reality of WHITE SLAVES. But in colonial times, the words “servant” and “slave” were used interchangeably. For a fuzzy fifty years or so after Jamestown’s settlement, there was hardly any distinction between white and black forced laborersthe system of racially defined, legally endorsed black chattel slavery didn’t blossom in any significant numerical sense until late in the 1600s. According to one historian, “there is no doubt that the earliest Negroes in Virginia occupied a position similar to that of the white servants in the colony.”81 A 1641 law provided for all disobedient servants to have their skin branded, regardless of its color.82 A 1652 law in Providence and Warwicke (later Rhode Island) mentions “blacke mankind or white” servants.83 A 1683 Pennsylvania law contains the phrase “no Servant White or Black.”84 So there’s a strong chance that if some of those Goad “immigrants” from the 1600s were indentured servants, they sweated in the fields alongside blacks. And you STILL want me to pay reparations?
During a 1659 Parliamentary debate on the white-servant trade to the colonies, legislators used the word “slaves” rather than “servants.”85 A Virginia law of 1705 mentions the “care of all Christian slaves,” Christian being a contemporary euphemism for European.86 A scribe for London Magazine wrote in 1751 that a British convict shipped overseas became a “slave in America.”87 A colonial observer of Virginia convict laborers said, “I never see such pasels of pore Raches in my Life...they are used no Bater than so many negro Slaves.”88 A 1777 screed protesting the indenture racket claimed that a white servant’s body was “as absolutely subjected as the body or person of a Negro, man or woman, who is sold as a legal Slave.”89 In the 1820s, Karl Anton Postl commented that non-slaveowning whites “are not treated better than the slaves themselves.”90
White indentured servants frequently referred to themselves as slaves. In 1623, Virginia servant Thomas Best wrote that “Master Atkins hath sold me for a £150 sterling like a damn’d slave.”91 A white servant named Robert Perkins said that his bondage featured “all the Hardships that the Negro Slaves endured.”92
Modern historians would agree. Howard Zinn states that “white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves.”93 Eugene Genovese claims that “In the South and in the Caribbean, the treatment meted out to white indentured servants had rivaled and often exceeded in brutality that meted out to black slaves....”94
The reason for this was nothing as retardedly ethereal as human hatred. It was the same reason that people beat the shit out of a rent-a-car more readily than a car they own en toto. “The Negro,” argues historian James Leyburn, “was a permanent piece of property and must be conserved; the servant was a temporary investment to be exploited to the full.”95 In 1770, Annapolis customs surveyor William Eddis reasoned that black slaves, as “property for life,” were “almost in every instance, under more comfortable circumstances than the miserable European, over whom the rigid planter exercises an inflexible severity.” Eddis observed that whites, as temp-slaves, were “strained to the utmost to perform their allotted labour....There are doubtless many exceptions to this observation, yet, generally speaking, they groan beneath a worse than Egyptian bondage.”96
Apparently, some black slaves saw it the same way. “I’d rather be a nigger,” ran a popular plantation song, “than a poor white man.”97 Elija Henry Hopkins, a black ex-slave from Arkansas, said that “in slavery times, a poor white man was worse off than a nigger.”98 Black slaves were known to tell anti-Irish jokes to amuse their owners, who often placed the Irish on a social tier below Africans. “My master is a great tyrant,” ran one of the barbs: “He treats me as badly as if I was a common Irishman.”99 In 1855, when travel writer Frederick Law Olmsted asked a steamboat shipmate in Alabama why the Irish were performing more dangerous work than black slaves, he received this verbal shrug: “Oh, the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything.”100 It recalls the line from Blazing Saddles: “Alright, we’ll give some land to the niggers and the Chinks, but we DON’T WANT THE IRISH!”
Buried at the bottom of the white-slave trash heap were the white convict laborers. Convicts were different from indentured servants in that they were thought to have deserved their bondage, whether they actually did or not. White convicts were possibly the first group in America to be verbally likened to trash. A British author dubbed them “offensive Rubbish.”101 Another called them “the Vermin of Society.”102 A Boston writer referred to them as “Excressences.”103 In 1751, the Virginia Gazette decreed that the only way for Britain to “show a more sovereign contempt” for the colonists would be to empty their toilets on America.104 Ben Franklin offered to send rattlesnakes to Britain in trade.105
White convict laborers had dribbled into the colonies throughout the 1600s, but they may have comprised as much as a quarter of ALL white colonial immigrantsfree or boundin the 1700s.106 During the period in which Thomas Goad was transported to Maryland, convicts comprised an estimated forty percent of everyone who entered that state from overseas. One in five of these Maryland convicts bore a sentence of fourteen years to life.107 You heard mewhite slaves for LIFE.
British convicts began arriving here in large lumpsan estimated fifty thousand during the 1700s108after Parliament’s passage of the Transportation Act in 1718. The law provided that convicted felons could be “transported” overseas as slave laborers. Convict-slaves were frequently referred to as “transports.” Transportation was viewed second only to the death penalty in severity. According to one historian, convict-deportation became “Britain’s foremost punishment after 1718.”109 It was considered preferable to hanging, but far worse than being whipped or branded. A British judge in 1741 concluded that a thief whom he’d convicted didn’t qualify as “an Object of mercy and therefore I ordered him, instead of being burnt on the hand, to be Transported for Seven Years.”110 Convicted felons often begged for whipping or burning instead. A thief named Mary Stanford requested to be hanged rather than be banished overseas.111 To the average British subject of the day, America represented a savage, frightening wilderness, more Siberia than Disneyland.
Most transported British convicts were not violent criminals. As one writer tells it, “grand larcenists made up the majority of transports....The typical malefactor cast for transportation, then, was a young male labourer driven to crime by economic necessity.”112 Grand larceny was defined as theft of anything worth over a shilling. The average unskilled worker’s daily salary at the time was barely more than a shilling. Let’s say your average unskilled worker today makes seven dollars an hour, which translates into fifty-six smackolas for a full work day. Therefore, grand larceny back then constituted the theft of anything deemed worth more than fifty clams in modern currency.
Many, if not most, of the transported convicts may have done mothing more “criminal” than being poor. Convict-transportation flourished during a period when one in ten citizens were starving in the best of times, and nearly half went hungry in the worst of times. British subjects were being hung for stealing bread. One could get the noose merely for plucking fruit from a rich man’s estate.113 or buying black-market seafood. One man received a seven-year banishment to America for stealing a sheep after being tormented by the “Cryes of his familey for Bread, at a tyme, when he had it not to give them.”114 In 1771, a starving pregnant woman was banished to America for stealing a large basin of soup.115 This case, far from an exception, was described by one researcher as “fairly typical.”116 There were even rumors of some workers being enslaved merely for asking that they be paid.117 And there’s evidence that public officials frequently convicted innocent persons in order to get monetary kickbacks from slave traders.118
By ridding themselves of the poor, the British saved money on jails and public welfare. As one writer explains, convicts were “pickpockets and thieves who were worth more to the Crown on a New World plantation than dangling from a rope.”119 The Crown typically paid merchants five pounds to transport a convict overseas. In London, the business was cornered by a few wealthy companies. A merchant on the colonial side remarked that “The Sales of the Convicts run up amazingly in a little time.”120 Convicts generated much more incomealthough not for themselvesthan was possible in foggy old England. It was estimated that a convict’s personal upkeep cost between 13 and 15 pounds yearly,121 while his labor during the same stretch could generate from 50 to 150 pounds of income for his owner.122 Taking the lowest possible estimatethat of a 35-pound-per-year profit for the masterand multiplying it by seven years, one arrives at a MINIMUM profit of 245 pounds for the convict’s owner. Not a bad profit on a convict who may have only stolen a shilling. The slaveowner’s financial return was possibly FIVE THOUSAND times the monetary amount originally stolen by the convict. Who was stealing from whom?
Whites comprised the majority of colonial slave laborers through most of the 1600s.123 Black slaves reached a numerical parity with white servants sometime late in that century or early in the 1700s.124 The idea of racial supremacy had little to do with the gradual shift from white to black slavery.
Throughout the time span of white indentured servitude, African slaves-for-life had always been much pricier than British temp-slaves. In the 1690s, black slaves were still selling for twice or three times the cost of white servants, but the mega-planters began a slow tilt toward black slavery. The reason for the shift was economic rather than racial. “The profit motive alone favored the substitution of black labor for whites,” argues historian Edwin J. Perkins.125 In England, it had become common knowledge that the servant trade was not the smiley-faced “Join the Navy and see the World” program promised by the drums and crimps. To attract new “volunteers,” the colonies had passed laws protecting white servants’ rights. The plan backfired, as it rendered their upkeep more expensive. The supply of white servants diminished as more black markets opened up, cementing the shift toward black slavery.
Planters were also said to have perceived blacks as less criminal and more docile than their hellstompin’ white-trash co-slaves. A final reason for the transition from white slavery to black is so nose-crushingly obvious that it’s often overlooked: Blacks were visually identifiable by their skin color. They weren’t so much hated for it as they were identified by it. According to a commentator in 1735, the problem in recapturing runaway white servants had been the difficulty in sussing out “whether they were Servants or not”; blacks, however, could “always be known and taken into Custody.”126
So it was the rich white man’s money and lawnot the poor white man’s unregenerate hatredwhich favored black slavery over white indentured servitude. Yes, the intensification of slavery pushed the poor black man down; what’s rarely acknowledged is that it also squeezed the poor white man out.
Ebony midget Spike Lee raises a hellish funk about emancipated black slaves having been cheated out of the “40 acres and a mule” promised by their alleged liberators. Spike’s right, of course, but I wonder if he realizes that white ex-slaves were also routinely routinely defrauded of their 50 acres and a hoe. Shit, he probably doesn’t even know about white slaves.
Upon release from bondage, white servants were legally entitled to “freedom dues.” The popular myth is that most servants received a fertile chunk of sod and lived happily ever after. This is an outright falsehood, as most states granted no land whatsoever as part of their freedom dues. Maryland was an exception. But a study of approximately 5,000 white indentured servants in Maryland during the 1670s reveals that only a quarter of them inherited the 50-acre headright; in fact, a higher number of them had died in bondage than had received land.127
Instead of land, most white ex-slaves were promised only clothing, tools, and/or a pittance of cash. A 1700 Pennsylvania law provided only for two suits, an axe, and two hoes.128 The hoes, we are to presume, were gardening tools instead of prostitutes, unless “weeding” and “grubbing” were sexual euphemisms in colonial America. In the mid-1700s, Virginia’s freedom dues for newly released servants amounted to a one-shot cash payment of three pounds, ten shillings.129 In North Carolina around the same time, freedom dues were a trifling three pounds.130
So how far could a white ex-slave go on three pounds sterling? Would he be able to puchase livestock, land, or slavesin short, any of the things which brought financial security, especially in the South? Fat chance, liver-lips. For the freed indentured servant, “[T]he statistical probability for rising to even middle-class position was very slight, ” writes one historian.131 The most commonly cited guesstimate, provided by indentured-servitude specialist Abbot Emerson Smith, is that only one in ten white ex-slaves would “wax decently prosperous.” Smith reckoned that maybe another one in ten would achieve some measure of self-sufficiency. Eight of ten servants, however, either “died during their servitude, returned to England after it was over, or became ‘poor whites.’”132 A Maryland priest observed that “white servants, after their terms of bondage is out, are stroling [sic] the county without bread.”133 Governor Bradford of Massachusetts lamented that “by one means or another, in 20 years time, it is question whether ye greater part be not growne ye worser.”134 In South Carolina, Frederick Law Olmsted commented that “the poor white people, meaning those, I suppose, who bring nothing to market in exchange for money but their labor...are worse off in almost all respects than the slaves.”135
Because they had been forbidden from marrying or starting families during their term of bondage, freed white servants often led fractured social lives upon their release. Perhaps the only thing positive about black slavery was that it gave blacks a sense of community. This was not afforded to the white ex-convict. He drank and died alone. And because he was now a “free” laborer in a slave-based economy, he had priced himself out of the market. There was nowhere for him to go but down (economically) and out (geographically).
Virginia’s Governor Spotswood also noted that many ex-servants, banished from the Southern economy, had “settled out on the frontier.”136 Poor white trash started occupying America’s frontier in more than one sense of the word.
1. Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America, p. 61.
2. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 46; also Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 58; Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, p. 176; Nash, Class and Society in Early America, p. 82; Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 34.
3. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 33.
4. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, p. 178.
5. Kellner, Moonshine: Its History and Folklore, p. 34.
6. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 62, citing George Novack, “Slavery in Colonial America,” America’s Revolutionary Heritage, p. 142.
7. Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro, cited in Usenet newsgroup soc.genealogy.uk+ireland.
8. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 11, citing “Some Observations on the Island of Barbados,” Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, p. 528.
9. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 68, citing Jill Y. Sheppard, The ‘Redlegs’ of Barbados, p. 18.
10. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, pp. 62-3.
11. ibid., pp. 90-1.
12. Clinton v. Black, History of Jamaica, p. 37, cited in Usenet newsgroup soc.genealogy.uk+ireland.
13. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 37.
14. Nash, Red, White, and Black, p. 217.
15. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, pp. 5-6.
16. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 15, citing British writer Francis Trollope’s estimate that 200,000 or more British children were kidnapped and forced into factory labor.
17. Cash, The Mind of the South, p. 7.
18. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 63.
19. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 199.
20. ibid., p. 247.
21. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 72, citing Robert C. Johnson, “The Transportation of Vagrant Children From London to Virginia, 1618-1622,” in Early Stuart Studies, p. 139.
22. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 70, citing Egerton Manuscript, British Museum.
23. Nash, Red, White, and Black, p. 217, citing Peter Gouldesbrough, “An Attempted Scottish Voyage to New York in 1669,” Scottish Historical Review, 40 (1961), p. 58.
24. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 55, citing Edward Channing, History of the United States, Vol. II, p. 369.
25. ibid., p. 77, citing a pamphlet by M. Godwyn, London, 1680.
26. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 5.
27. Kennedy & Kennedy, The South Was Right!, p. 67.
28. Mittelberger quotes taken from Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 43, and Hofstadter, America at 1750, pp. 39-40.
29. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 38.
30. ibid., p. 42.
31. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 104.
32. ibid., p. 104.
33. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 80.
34. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 48.
35. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 103.
36. ibid., p. 103.
37. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 42.
38. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 102.
39. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 44.
40. Nash, Red, White, and Black, pp. 53-4.
41. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 34.
42. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 123.
43. ibid., p. 129.
44. ibid., p. 129.
45. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 88.
46. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 40.
47. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 88.
48. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 99, citing H. White, Life and Services of Matthew Lyon, p. 6.
49. ibid., p. 53, citing Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History (1657).
50. ibid., p. 53.
51. Nash, Red, White, and Black, pp. 53-4.
52. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 89.
53. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 146.
54. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 44.
55. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 89.
56. ibid., p. 89.
57. ibid., p. 89.
58. ibid., p. 89.
59. ibid., p. 91.
60. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 227.
61. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 107.
62. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 44.
63. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 227.
64. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 107.
65. ibid., p. 108.
66. ibid., p. 113, citing Public Record Office, London, High Court of Admiralty.
67. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 159.
68. Hamrick, Antient White Slaves.
69. Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, p. 156.
70. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 147.
71. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 46.
72. Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, p. 214.
73. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 134.
74. Ekirch, Bound for America, pp. 196-7.
75. Hamrick, Antient White Slaves.
76. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 230.
77. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 55.
78. ibid., p. 55.
79. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 88.
80. ibid., pp. 88-9.
81. Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, p. 22, quoting John Hope Franklin.
82. ibid., p. 28.
83. ibid., p. 459.
84. ibid., p. 280.
85. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 11, citing Thomas Burton, Parliamentary Diary: 1656-59, Vol. IV, pp. 253-274.
86. Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, p. 411.
87. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 227.
88. ibid., p. 122.
89. “Observations on the Slaves,” etc.
90. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, p. 18.
91. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor, p. 101.
92. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 160.
93. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 37.
94. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 57.
95. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish, p. 178.
96. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 46.
97. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 23.
98. Kennedy & Kennedy, The South Was Right!, p. 97.
99. Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, p. 42.
100. ibid., p. 109.
101. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 20.
102. ibid., p. 226.
103. ibid., p. 136.
104. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 49.
105. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 139.
106. ibid., p. 27.
107. ibid., p. 38.
108. ibid., pp. 1-2.
109. ibid., p. 223.
110. ibid., p. 31.
111. ibid., p. 64.
112. ibid., p. 58.
113. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 66.
114. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 67.
115. ibid., p. 29.
116. ibid., p. 28.
117. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 71, citing Edward Burt, Letters From a Gentleman, Vol. II, pp. 54-55.
118. Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color, p. 394.
119. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, p. 5.
120. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, p. 79, citing William Stevenson to James Cheston, Sept. 12, 1768 and Dec. 30, 1769, Cheston-Galloway Papers, Maryland Historical Society.
121. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 45.
122. ibid., p. 45; also Nash, Red, White, and Black, p. 53.
123. Nash, Class and Society in Early America, p. 41; also Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 133.
124. Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America, p. 28; also Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 25.
125. Perkins, The Economy of Colonial America, p. 72.
126. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 202.
127. Hoffman, They Were White and They Were Slaves, pp. 85-6.
128. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 60.
129. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 125.
130. Hofstadter, America at 1750, p. 60.
131. Nash, Red, White, and Black, p. 220.
132. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 47.
133. Ekirch, Bound for America, p. 183.
134. Wertenbaker, The First Americans, p. 193.
135. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, p. 641.
136. Nash, Class and Society in Early America, p. 47.