For many years I taught a U.S. history survey course.  One of my lecture topics was American slavery.  I made a real effort to put the peculiar institution into historical perspective.  I noted that slavery was not something reserved for blacks here in America but was as old as man himself and recognized no racial bounds.  There had been slavery in Asia, slavery in Africa, slavery in Europe, and slavery in the Americas.  Yellow man enslaved yellow man, black man enslaved black man, white man enslaved white man, and red man enslaved red man.  This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to college students, but, as the years went by, more and more incoming freshmen were surprised to learn that slavery was not uniquely American and not uniquely a black experience.

Shortly before I retired from teaching I began running into something more stupefying than sheer historical ignorance: victimology.  I encountered black students whose worldview was formed by a sense of victimhood.  They were not willing to concede that suffering enslavement was universal.  If I were black, I would have been elated to learn that slavery was not something reserved for blacks only—that my race had not been singled out as deserving nothing better.  This was certainly the reaction, more often than not, of my black students in my early years of teaching.  Today, however, we are reaping the bitter fruit of years of politically correct indoctrination in schools, and blacks are outraged when the enslavement of other peoples is discussed.

The outrage deepens when white slaves are mentioned and becomes near hysteria when it is pointed out that whites suffered far more severe forms of slavery than that experienced by blacks in American colonies and the United States.  Examples abound, but one of many from ancient Rome should suffice: The average life expectancy for a slave in the Roman mercury mines was nine months.  Moreover, most of the slaves put to work in the mines were of Celtic or Germanic stock—as white as one could get.  They became slaves as a consequence of Roman wars and therefore cost next to nothing.  They worked under brutal conditions and day by day absorbed more and more mercury.  They experienced terrible pain, mental confusion, loss of eyesight and hearing, and died as their liver and kidneys failed.  No matter.  There were thousands upon thousands of conquered folks waiting to replace them.

If ancient Rome is too distant, though, examples of white slaves in the New World can be cited.  Having grown up with Seumas MacManus’s The Story of the Irish Race, I learned from a young age that tens of thousands of Irish were enslaved and shipped to the West Indies to labor and die on sugar plantations.  There have been studies of recent vintage devoted entirely to the subject, including Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland.  Such works have caused a near hysterical reaction in academe.  Politically correct professors are livid that the topic is even discussed.  As one of my teaching assistants, who was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, said to another one of my TAs—30 years ago now—“There are some facts students just shouldn’t know.”

It is difficult to determine exactly when the first Irish were shipped to the West Indies, but by the mid-1630’s the trade was well underway.  There were the Freewillers, who voluntarily sold themselves for a term of indenture, usually seven years.  There were also the Redemptioners, who were duped into signing contracts of indenture.  Once in the New World, they were sold for cash at auctions.  Then, there were the Spiriters, who were kidnapped and, like the Redemptioners, sold at auctions.  Many of those kidnapped were children, some as young as eight.  One agent bragged he kidnapped and sold an average of 500 children a year throughout the 1630’s.  Another agent said he also averaged hundreds of children annually, and one year sold 850.

The death toll for Africans shipped to the New World was high; so too was the death toll for the Irish.  A loss of 20 percent during the voyage was considered normal, a percentage of deaths equal to that suffered by Africans in the infamous Middle Passage.  Typical was a ship carrying planter Thomas Rous and his 350 indentured servants.  Every day two or three died and were tossed overboard.  By the time the ship arrived in Barbados, 80 of the indentured had died.  Most of the ships that carried the Irish were the same ships used in the African slave trade, and the Irish were packed into the holds of the ships in identical fashion to that of the blacks.

Once on the island, death came regularly to the survivors of the voyage.  They were forced to work no less than a 12-hour day and fed only cornmeal and potatoes.  The tropical sun blistered their white skin, and diseases took a frightful toll.  Those who survived their term of indenture were a minority.  Moreover, various infractions allowed planters to extend the term of indenture, and for many this meant life.  Whipping and branding were common punishments.  Maiming was also practiced.  When a plot to rebel was revealed in 1648, the conspirators were arrested and sentenced to death.  They were hanged and drawn and quartered.  Their heads were mounted on pikes, which were placed on the main streets of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.

Nonetheless, all of this was but a prelude to the trade in human cargo that occurred following Cromwell’s rampage through Ireland, 1649-52.  So many Irish soldiers were killed or exiled to continental Europe that the Emerald Isle was left with tens of thousands of widows and fatherless children.  This caused England’s ruling council in Ireland to pass one of history’s most cynical orders:

That Irishwomen, as being too numerous now—and therefore, exposed to prostitution—be sold to merchants, and transported to Virginia, New England, or other countries, where they may support themselves by their labour.

Cromwell’s soldiers now rode about Ireland rounding up Irish women and children, and some men, as if they were cattle being driven to market.  The captives were herded into holding pens and branded with the initials of the ship that was to transport them to the New World.  Fetching the highest prices were young women, who were highly prized by the Caribbean planters, who “had only Negresses and Maroon women to solace them.”  Estimates of how many women and children were transported and sold vary widely, but 50,000 is a conservative number.  No less a figure than physician and attorney Thomas Addis Emmet, a founder of the United Irishmen and a participant in the Rising of 1798, and later the attorney general of the state of New York, put the figure at more than 100,000, following a careful study.

After four years the horrific trade in women and girls was stopped but only because, says John Patrick Prendergast in The Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland, “the evil became too shocking and notorious, particularly when these dealers in Irish flesh began to seize the daughters and children of the English themselves, and to force them on board their slave ships.”

None of these women or children had signed contracts of indenture.  They were simply sold as servants for an indeterminate period of enslavement.  In Barbados they went on the auction block.  The best looking of the young women were bought as concubines by the wealthy English planters.  Occasionally, a planter would formally marry one of the young women.  Most of the Irish females were used as servants in the planters’ households, but many labored in the fields alongside men.  Others were put to work as prostitutes in brothels, and some, many of them no more than 13 years of age, were forced to breed with black slaves.  The mulatto offspring became the property of the planter.  In this way a small planter could rapidly increase his slave population without the expense of purchase.  Boys could also fetch high prices at auctions when homosexual planters and merchants wanted young playthings.  English visitors to the island worried not about the sufferings of the Irish, but that “slavery corrupts the morals of the master” and turns respectable Englishmen into “the most debauched devils.”

By 1660, half or more of the white population of Barbados was made up of indentured Irish.  The same was true of St. Lucia, St. Christopher, Jamaica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat. 

Those indentured servants who were shipped to the American colonies were the lucky ones.  For the most part they were freed after their term of indenture, usually four or seven years, although a number saw their indentures extended for minor infractions.  Many were worked to death long before their term was up.  The planters in Virginia, for example, had a vested interest in keeping a black slave healthy and, as a result, might get 40 years of work out of him.  The planter had little similar concern for the Irish, Scot, Welsh, or English servant who would usually be gone at the end of his indenture.  Overworked and malnourished, the servant often died young.  In his weakened condition, he fell prey to disease.

The big killer in the tidewater regions of the South was malaria, which arrived in the New World from Africa carried by the Anopheles mosquito.  Anywhere there were large bodies of standing water and warm temperatures the Anopheles mosquito thrived.  If it hadn’t been for malaria, black slavery might not have developed in the colonies.  Blacks had protection—the sickle cell—from the disease, while whites did not.  Otherwise, free whites and white indentured servants would have supplied all the labor needed.  By 1700—80 years after the first Africans had arrived—there were only some 6,000 black slaves in Virginia, less than eight percent of the population.  Without malaria and other tropical diseases it is unlikely that this percentage would have increased.

During his term of indenture the servant was a slave in all but name.  He could be bought and sold and punished brutally.  Some were beaten to death.  Women were often raped.  Owners of the servants rarely suffered any kind of penalty for their inhuman treatment of their property.  Nonetheless, there was an end date to this bondage, and this has caused an almost hysterical reaction to the use of the term slave when describing indentured servants, especially when discussing Irish in the West Indies.  Academics now write articles about the “myth of Irish slavery.”

The authors of these articles argue that the Irish entered into servitude voluntarily and signed contracts of indenture.  That was true for only a minority of the Irish shipped to the West Indies and clearly not true for the kidnapped women and children.  Moreover, it seems to me that the term slave is more accurate than the euphemistic term servant.  The owner of such a servant had near-total control over his destiny.  If a master could put a servant on the auction block, then he owned not only the servant’s labor but the servant himself.  He was chattel.  The great English essayist, pamphleteer, and novelist Daniel Defoe, known best for Robinson Crusoe, had it right when he said indentured servants are “more properly called slaves.”