White slavery has by and large been swept under the carpet of history. It is a stain on the reputations of governments that concealed it. Recent research into slavery has emphasised the role of particular entrepreneurs, some of them nobility or simply wealthy individuals who also frequently left bequests to display their benevolence. Until fresh revelations during the last decade there were many memorials in the British Isles that have been tarnished by the history attached to them. Until relatively recently the Irish and Scots were never truly free. The first part of this series examined history and if only quite superficially explained that. A great deal is known about feudalism in England, serfdom and their version of being bound, if not to all intents and purposes owned, by the landowning elite. The story of the transports to the colonies is often recalled. Yet for the rest of the British Isles, history tends to overlook the medieval into early modern periods, does not closely examine such events as the Irish Rebellions of 1641 and 1798 and how the latter led to ‘deportations’ into slavery or how the Highland Clearances after the 1745 Jacobite Rising brought about transportations that lasted until the 1850s, although enslavement finished in 1807 when the slave trade in the British Empire was abolished. However, Irish and Scots slaves in the colonies were not freed until 1838 and then only after slave owners, but not the slaves themselves, received compensation.
After the Transatlantic slave trade was abolished in the 1800s, many formerly enslaved people were forced into indentured labour – a form of debt bondage – for many years on plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia. People who experience debt bondage were often tricked into working for little or no pay. In many cases they were forced to pay off extortionate fees associated with their recruitment, accommodation or food, with no control over the debt they had accrued. Most or all of the money they earned went to pay off their ‘loan’. In many cases, people who experienced debt bondage worked far more, and for far longer, than it should have taken to pay off their loans, worked diligently without seeing an end to their debt.
The murder of George Floyd, filmed whilst he was being arrested in the USA, released a reaction to the injustices done to African Americans over the centuries. This translated into a wider response to discrimination and mistreatment against people of African origin in predominantly white or white controlled nations. In the UK this manifested itself as a reaction to the many monuments to people honoured for their contribution to their country. In Bristol, All Black Lives organised a protest against police brutality and racial inequality at which an estimated 10,000 people gathered on 7 June 2020. The protestors pulled down a statue of a known slave trader, Edward Colston, graffitied it then threw it into the harbour. Colston (1636–1721) was an English merchant, slave trader, philanthropist and Tory Member of Parliament born in Bristol. In around 1680, he became involved in the slave trade as a director of the Royal African Company which held a monopoly on the English trade in African slaves then became deputy governor of the company in 1689. Although his family moved to London when he was very young, his connection with Bristol was maintained for the rest of his life. He supported and endowed schools, housing for the poor, almshouses, hospitals and churches in Bristol, London and other places. His name is found commonly on Bristol buildings and landmarks that included the Colston Tower and Colston Hall (now respectively renamed Beacon Tower and Bristol Beacon). Colston Avenue and Colston Street were named after him and even a regional confection, the Colston bun. The statue was erected in 1895, 174 years after his death as a memorial to a benefactor of the city.
The publicity attached to the toppling of the statue led to other events that have included numerous demands for at least renaming of places and other reminders of the people who benefitted from the slave trade. That included questions about Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet, grandson of Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, who it is known encouraged slavery but is not known although it is probable that part of his wealth derived from that trade, as the founder of Downing College, part of the University of Cambridge. It has already been suggested that Downing Street be renamed, Downing College has been confronted with the same dilemma. What is least said is that Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, included white slaves in his encouragement for the trading of human beings. As said in the previous part of this series, in 1645 he wrote a letter to the Colonial Governor of Massachusetts in which he said ‘planters who want to make a fortune in the West Indies must procure white slave labour out of England if they wanted to succeed.’
It is, of course, not simply the case that Irish and Scots were transported into slavery; it is known that every European colonial power sent its felons, rebels and a few others, possibly kidnapped for that purpose, to their colonies. Those people were generally said to be convicts transported as punishment whose sentence continued as indentured labour. Those who truly were indentured should have been free after three or at most around seven years although many appear to have remained as ‘servants’ of their masters for life. Those referred to as bonded were seldom freed; many of those who became free escaped. The difference may well be in the use of words to describe them, however Irish and Scots were slaves, described as such although the English government variously referred to Irish and Scots who were transported as felons, rebels, military prisoners, priests, rogues or vagabonds, not to forget Catholics who defied the edicts of the Reformation to continue to practice their creed. Historians still tend to refer to them as servants, indentured labour or bondsmen, rarely as slaves, but usually agree that the vast majority were in one sense or another either subject to the profiteering of traders and slave holders and, in many cases, were ultimately political victims. After Irish and Scots land was confiscated by English or their own countries’ wealthy class, people were driven from ancestral homes to be rounded up, or simply kidnapped, to be herded to waiting ships like cattle then transported to English colonies in the Americas where they were sold to the highest bidders at auctions.
During the mid-1600s the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. Eventually more than 70% of the population of Montserrat was Irish slaves. Between 1641 and 1652 and estimated 500,000 Irish were killed by English occupiers and a much debated number of up to as many as 300,000 sold as slaves. The Irish population fell from about one and a half million to six hundred thousand inside a single decade. Most of them never saw their home country again. England transported tens of thousands of Irish and Scots slaves for well over a century. Records state that, after the 1745 Jacobite Rising in Scotland and 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish and Scots slaves were sold in the Americas and Australia.
It would be unfair to imply that the English slave trade was exclusively Irish and Scots, indeed many English and Welsh people were indubitably sold too, however there are fewer records of them as specifically slaves. One cannot exclude large numbers of Asians, especially Chinese and a smaller number from the Indian subcontinent who were also traded as human livestock. The African slave trade is, however, the main focus of all discussion of the slave trade; nonetheless, historians and others who tell of the 17 century American and Caribbean colonies are almost all in agreement that treatment of white servants or, as one should say, slaves in English colonies was pitiless, worse than that of the higher value black slaves. Inhuman treatment was the norm; torture and branding was the punishment for attempted escape. If they rebelled or disobeyed their owners or overseers, they were harshly punished. Owners could torture them by hanging them by their hands then setting their feet on fire as a form of punishment in front of their other slaves to set an example. They also had the freedom to hang or burn to death slaves who had rebelled in any way then place their heads on pikes in local market places as a warning to other slaves to do as they were told.
In 1839, the United Kingdom decided to end its participation in the slave trade thus stopped transporting ‘slaves’ although people sent to the colonies as indentured and bonded labour who were all but by name slaves were deported rather than transported to the colonies or sent to serve penal servitude. There are reliable records of white slavery that were written down by educated slaves who included people who were originally priests and teachers who were freed or escaped and opponents of slavery such as Quakers who recorded the injustices of slavery and what was done to those who were the property of others.
This part of history does not diminish the significance of the far greater scale, more brutal and enduring story of African slavery. The Transatlantic slave trade was a major part of the making of England as the centre of a vast, global empire. At its height, slave traders, owners and investors made England the world capital of the slave trade, bought and sold fellow human beings as though they were cattle to traffic across the Atlantic Ocean to a country that was alien to them, where freedom was reduced to an idea that only very few could contemplate and where humiliation and brutality were sometimes all they received in return for their forced labour. To this day, the descendants of African slaves live with prejudices and low status instilled in the minds and actions of people of European origin. There are fortunes made by the ancestors of people whose wealth was still founded on or significantly boosted by their involved whether directly or indirectly with slavery. That The Guardian produced a series of articles and podcasts that included its own capitalisation is a brave attempt to address that sordid, violent part of history. They told of how their founders John Edward Taylor, the journalist who founded the Manchester Guardian in 1821, and the eleven other men who loaned money to start the newspaper were links to slavery as partners in the cotton manufacturing and merchants that made Manchester one of the richest cities in the world and the hub of the Industrial Revolution that fired the ambition of the United Kingdom to be the most powerful nation in the world.
Nine of the men who loaned Taylor money to found the newspaper had direct links to transatlantic slavery through commercial interests in Manchester’s cotton and textiles industry. One of them, Sir George Philips, a Whig Member of Parliament sometimes known as ‘King Cotton’ was a co-owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica. When slavery was abolished in the UK in 1834 through the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, the government compensated slave owners the equivalent of £17 billion. Freed slaves received nothing. In 1835 Philips unsuccessfully attempted to claim compensation from the British government for the loss of his human ‘property’. On several occasions in the House of Commons he spoke out in opposition to regulating child labour in the cotton mills. By definition, today child labour is generally defined as a form of slavery, albeit that is by far not always a correct definition. It does at least characterise the attitude of people of power and wealth toward their fellow human beings.
In the UK, once the powerhouse of the slave trade, there are many links to the wealth of people or at least the foundation of still existing concerns such as The Guardian that are being made known. It has been revealed that the royal family benefitted through their investment in enterprises that used slave labour although they have not been shown to have owned slaves or made part of their fortune through direct investment in the slave trade. Not just a newspaper but also historians are beginning to tell a bigger picture of slavery, going beyond the better known accounts of the lives of slaves and, to some extent, their owners, into far more about fortunes made from that trade, the names of investors in the slave trade and plantations that many of them worked on. Edward Colston and George Downing are two of a considerable list of names with an attachment to slavery emerging. Only Downing, by expressing his view on the importance of white slaves, hints at the importance of those people as well as their African fellows.
The very justifiable exposure of the bigger picture of African slaves is nonetheless only part of an even bigger picture. It does not really matter what the proportions are or which came first. The fact that there were white slaves, not just Irish and Scots, who may have been measurably less that 5%, means there is still part of that history to be told. Euphemisms do not suffice to hide the fact that those who were described as indentured servants and bondsmen were not free. The Irish and Scots cleared from their lands or transported as sentenced ‘rogues’ tends to be hidden behind extensive waves of emigration from the 18 well into the 20 centuries. Those descended from white slaves who in any sense, if only family names, retained an Irish or Scots identity merged into the migrant population because they were not black, did not suffer the same prejudices and abuses, especially after the abolition of slavery. In the USA people of Irish ancestry have a highly significant place in American society to the point that the present President and some of his predecessors proudly proclaim Irish origins.
Governments in the USA and UK have allowed this part of history to be all but forgotten. Other nations, including those with predominantly populations whose identity is closest linked with African origins, tend to sidestep that part of history, including island nations in the Caribbean where the inclusion of white slaves should be far better remembered since it is part of the ancestry of many of their people. The shameful history of black slavery has predominated in American history despite a trade in white slaves that was well established and lasted into the mid-1800’s.
Slavery is under no circumstances something to be proud of. It is a fact that it is probable it happened in every country, kingdom and empire there has ever existed. Each of us needs to search our hearts and find the answer to stop racial hatred. The place to begin is by realising that people of African origin were not the only ones over the last four centuries in bondage. In other words, there is a story still more widely to be told that is sensitive nut nonetheless of great importance. Several European nations actively participated in the slave trade; indeed history shows that Portugal was probably the first exporter of Africans to the Americas. Nonetheless, England, later the United Kingdom, became the hub of that sordid trade. There are numerous reliable documents including inventories, bills, receipts and actual life stories that authenticate the bondage, kidnapping, purchase and sale of people who were transported to colonies as slaves no matter what they were described as. There is another strand to this history for those who know their forefathers were Irish and Scots but cannot find a ship’s passenger or crew list that includes their ancestors. This is perhaps most pertinent to people of Irish and Scots descent in the USA who cannot place their ancestors among the many immigrants who went there as free people.
But whether or not anyone believes that slavery was only an African experience, they are completely wrong. It is something withheld from history that even their governments, institutions, education and elsewhere that information should come from. Like England, Ireland and Scotland too had prominent people who invested in slavery, benefitted from it or owned slaves themselves. Some would have owned trading businesses and plantations in the colonies that received slaves, thus bought people who were to all intents and purposes ‘their own’ along with other white and black slaves. The memorials to those people, their wealth and sometimes apparent philanthropy hide the whole truth to the extent that where their descendants are still the benefactors of that wealth exposure of that part of history would be an embarrassment if not humiliation. No amount of compensation ever compensates the miserable lives of the majority of people enslaved; apologies are now too many generations late as well.
None of that excuses the fact that that white slavery remains hidden when the story of black slavery is opening up to expose an indisputably far greater blemish on notions of democracy, freedom, brother and sisterhood of all people. It is why I looked at the history of slavery but also took in what was only in the ‘corners’ of my eyes to attempt to open the door to this part of history just a little wider. The Irish and Scots who were sold into bondage were forgotten, the acknowledgement and, at the very least, apologies are long overdue and their place in history needs to be filled.