White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America
by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh
Herein lies a feast for hungry historian eyes in search of the truth about America's founding myths. Using a bevy of primary sources, released in the 1990s by both British and Spanish archives, and augmenting them with pirate ship manifests and logs, and court records; plus a wealth of correspondences and anecdotal evidence, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have now joined a rising chorus of historians who have taken the deep-dive into these new materials, and here, without ever fully acknowledging that they have done so, have come up with a new revised, more complete, and arguably a more honest picture of America's creation story.
The leitmotif of this story is that Britain, though always recognized as a skillful plunderer of the global sea routes, only after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was finally accepted not just as a band of state-sanctioned pirates, but as a bona fide global sea power and rival to Spain's predominance. England had gotten into the empire-building game late and was playing "catch-up" to the other European powers already occupying most of North America, especially Spain, Portugal and France. Since Spain had ruled the seas for nearly 150 years, it was the Spanish model of conquest that the English adopted as its template.
The reader will surely recall that in the Spanish model, Queen Isabella of Castile had commissioned and financed able seamen from Genoa of the Italian variety, like Christopher Columbus, who then used the funds his long time friend the queen had provided him, all in a quest for glory and gold, and in the process, the hope to expand her empire by christianizing the savages thought to populate the "New World." In the British adaptation of the Spanish model, a single new twist to the colonization and conquest formula was added: Since ongoing skirmishes in Europe, and within England in particular, had virtually stripped the British Exchequer, Queen Elizabeth I, commissioned, but refused to finance, missions to America. British entrepreneurs were thus forced to raise their own funds. The best they could hope for was to use the Queen's commissions as a hook to lure investors.
The first such commission went into the two failed missions of Humphrey Gilbert, the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh. Gilbert found no gold and managed to die in a capsized ship on returning from his second voyage. The second commission was that given to Sir John Popham, his successor, and a man curiously written completely out of the American historical narrative, but who, arguably, nevertheless appears to have played a more important role than many of our founding fathers.
In addition to being a rogue, highwayman (i.e., a stage coach robber, today's equivalent of a drive-by shooter or carjacker) and a privateer (i.e., a robber of seagoing vessels), he also proved to be a convincing and a conniving entrepreneur. Because Elizabeth's very corrupt kingdom had taken a liking to men with unsavory reputations such as his, Popham, like Gilbert, too had risen to become a respected, if not one of the most corrupt, British office holders. In lieu of not being financed by the Crown, Popham made a virtue out of necessity, and chose to establish two joint stock companies by selling shares exclusively to the gentry as his way of financing his voyages. He thus established both the "London" and the "Virginia" companies. And in the grand style of political corruption to follow, Popham of course made himself the principle investor in the Virginia Company.
Gilbert's earlier failed forays had disabused Popham's about what to expect in the "New World." He knew there was no "pie-in-the-sky" or "pots of gold" to be found at the end of the American rainbow. Being a hard-nosed realist in addition to being a criminal, and thus a savvy entrepreneur, he believed that economics (and crime as well as corruption too, apparently) dictated that when there is a demand for something, a market will soon develop.
In short, Popham was convinced that the British colony could be turned into a viable investment project only in the old fashion way: through brute amoral entrepreneurial force: If the vast territories that made up North America were ever to be developed into a viable investment proposition, he advised the queen that the land would have to be worked into farms, and crops yielding goods that could be traded globally would have to be produced. Tobacco and cotton would later prove him right in this regard.
But producing farm goods, required vast sums of non-existent cheap labor. Whereupon, over the next few decades there followed a two-pronged strategy to both raise finances and bring free labor to Britain's American colony. There were a series of failed fund-raising attempts, as well as a few failed attempts at settlements, before any of Popham's ideas took off.
One idea that achieved modest success was establishing lotteries to buy a chance at winning tracts of land in America. However, the most unsavory of ideas was also the most successful. It was called the head-right system. The head-right system was a scheme in which agents would "trick" poor and wayward Europeans into making the voyage in search of freedom and land -- never knowing before hand that upon arrival they would immediately be enslaved for between 3-15 years. The agents who were engaged in this 17th Century con game, were paid handsomely, as well as rewarded with 20-100 acres of land per head. In fact, it is fair to say that most of the gentry of the American colonies, including most of our founding fathers, became wealthy through the acquisition of land through some variation of the head-right system.
As for how agents were able to fool enough free souls to give up everything and sail to the colonies? Well all that can be said is that they had considerable assistance in this project. Given the social turmoil going on in the British Isles at the time, both Popham and his predecessor, Gilbert, were of one mind about how this could best be done: Colonize America with the dregs of England: Empty the jails, prisons, flophouses, streets, insane asylums, hospitals, prostitution houses, etc until there are enough slaves transported to turn a profit.
Thus, began a long immoral descent into "entrepreneurial hell" for those who were told they would find freedom, justice and equality in the new land, when in fact, just the exact opposite of what we have been taught, ensued. In fact, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the populating of America was a series of cheap entrepreneurial investment schemes involving unwitting enslavement, schemes that, after much trial-and-error, eventually were perfected for all of the wrong, and often for greatly embarrassing, reasons.
The fabled quest for freedom, liberty and justice, as we now know from this book and from the other recent authors mentioned above, was "still-born." Freedom, liberty and justice were just words that served as the rhetorical decorations needed to "reel-in" the "marks." Then, to add moral insult to injury, even after wholesale enslavement, the cynical entrepreneurs, still adorned their crimes with the language of freedom, liberty and justice. .
As is still the case today, Sir John Popham was the first to recognize, and then begin a process that would become the real underlying reason for America's founding: finding the quickest route to the bottom of the global labor pool. On this point, the historical evidence deployed in this and several other recent books, is all but incontrovertible. Sadly, the "canonical American story about "liberty, freedom, equality and justice," was just so much cheap PR rhetoric, used as the "top-cover" needed to lure unsuspecting victims into the traps of boarding transport ships. Put simply, a lot of trickery that ended many lives prematurely and placed innocent people into slavery for the rest of their lives was the defining act in the creation of the British colony that would become America.
Thus, in his devious but well-organized entrepreneurial mind, it was clear to Popham just how to make a buck for his investors off the cheapest form of labor, which in every culture then as it is now, was to force people to work for free against their will. In every place but Britain and colonial America, this process was known as slavery. But Britain, still crawling out of the Feudal era, had no need to yet invent a word for slavery. So, the euphemism "servant," was also transported to colonial America. And when most of the white Europeans were transported (tricked actually) to America "under contract," the term expanded to "indentured servants."
Sir John Popham, should go down in history as a "one man category F-5 social tornado," one who single-handily rearranged British laws and society so as to facilitate turning America into a dumping ground for British criminals, convicts, kidnapped kids, prostitutes, malcontents, terrorists and so-called free-willers. Not only did he play the leading role in rewriting new laws, and altering and upgrading old ones such as vagrancy, juvenile delinquency, drunkard-ness, parole violations, indebtedness, etc., being Chief Justice, also gave him controlling influence in all the decisions made in the jails and penitentiaries in Britain.
All that was left to be done to finalize his plan, was to establish a PR campaign sufficiently robust to lure as many innocent souls as possible onto ships for the 4000 mile trip. How this was done, in my view constitutes the real tragedy of the American national experiment, and exposes the utter hollowness and dishonesty of the canonical American founding story. For, just as is the case today, the discovery of America, was not first about liberty, justice and equality, as we are repeatedly told, but was first about the investor's bottomline -- and to make this point unmistakably clear, the investor's bottomline was an investment in buying and selling humans as slaves. Indeed slavery for both blacks and whites was exactly the opposite of freedom, justice and equality.
Any one who doubts this, cannot miss the color-coded parallels strewn across American history of: red, white, and then black slavery, quickly followed by yellow coolies during the mid-19th Century (who were paid, but in worthless Chinese scripts), and finally the brown near-slaves called "Braceros" and "Latinos," freshly up from our southern borders today in the twentieth Century.
But more importantly, the Popham template is still live and well, operative in the form of a new alphabet soup of so-called "free-trade" agreements, one of which is at this very moment being negotiated between our faux progressive mulatto president, Mr. Obama, and the party that literally had for seven years spewed venom at him and acted to stymie his every move. What, one might reasonably ask, would motivate Mr. Obama to get in bed with the very snakes that have already bitten him severely and repeatedly?
The answer of course is that as president, Mr. Obama's job is to maintain a steady flow of low wage workers for this generation's version of the 18th Century American gentry. Not disturbing the founding formula that built this nation is Mr. Obama's mandate. His agreements, currently being negotiated with like-minded corporate elites in other nations, will continue to make the global labor force available for maximum exploitation by U.S. corporations. This mindless amoral search across the globe for the cheapest available labor, is a sickness of our contemporary corporate class -- just as it was for the gentry of our founding generation. His version of NAFTA and CAFTA, etc will undermine the democratic freedoms of Americans in the same way that slavery did during the revolutionary generation.
I am disappointed that the authors chose to make this a "white slave" versus "black slave" intra-colonial competition, instead of seizing on the fact (as other like Gerald Horne, Roxanne Dubar-Ortez, and Andrea Stuart, for instance, did) that this new material actually rewrites the canonical American founding narrative.
I do agree with the authors though that the facts of white enslavement, prior to, during and especially after the American Revolution, very much needed dramatizing. This is especially true since the enslavement of whites went on for at least forty years after the "so-called "American Revolution? (Go figure?) Are we supposed to forget the fact that it went on for blacks another full century, before it was then not eliminated but converted over into its kinder and gentler forms?
But more to my criticism of the book, I believe it borders on being more than just a bit disingenuous not to emphasize that it was the very whites enslaved (and now their direct poor white descendants), who, after the "Bacon Rebellion," threw their lot in with the slaveholding class? How could they so easily drink the Kool-Aid of the slaveholders, all in exchange for the paltry price of sharing a "symbolic only" relationship with their masters?
I say "symbolic only" because in every other respect except the artifice of skin color, white slaves remained exactly like black slaves until nearly forty years after the revolution. And sadly, it was as clear then, as it is today, that this concession on the part of the Planters, was a devious Machiavellian gesture designed specifically to drive a wedge between black and white slaves, so that the kind of unified revolt against them that Bacon's rebellion represented, could never happen again. And in fact, it has never happened again. And quite simply, doing so today in today's toxic racist dominated culture, is quite impossible.
Today, due in large part to the skillful invention and refinement by the planters of a very useful political instrumentality called "race," division of whites and blacks by racial ideology still remains, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the most salient element in American politics. Four stars