In ‘White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America’ by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, a disturbing and tragic tale is told of indentured servants in Great Britain’s colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The importation of black Africans as slaves early in American history gets a lot of attention – and rightly so. But all too often, the narrative seems to be both believed and repeated uncritically, and without closer examination, that black slavery in the colonies and Antebellum South was the only kind of slavery practiced in America, and certainly the only kind of slavery worth mentioning.
Before blacks were brought here en masse, however, the British Isles exported many white undesirables from their shores in a manner and mode actually more alike than different from the African slave trade.
Irish and Scots, convicted criminals, vagrants, unattended children, prostitutes and political dissidents – the British both brought them all into the colonies by the hundreds and disposed of them with much the same flippancy and contempt as we look with appropriate horror on in the case of chattel slavery of Africans.
Many “indentured servants” were pressed into contracts through lies, false promises, false pretenses, and even against their will with violence and threats of violence.
And as ‘White Cargo’ recounts from the historical record, many of those pressed into service were similarly whipped, beaten, abused, poorly fed, poorly clothed, poorly housed, and deprived of what we now regard as basic human rights, even to the point of early, tragic, and painful deaths hardly remarked on or mourned except as asset depreciation and lost investment.
All this is very controversial to admit and talk about, of course. Even a cursory glance at other reviews of this book make that abundantly clear. And the reason for this is simple, as I see it.
Many social justice warriors today are jealously committed to only recognizing white-on-black oppression, both real and perceived, whether in the present or in centuries past. And to talk about any other historical injustices would distract from black lives mattering, as they see it. So shut up already.
But two things can be true at the same time. It can be true that it was awful what was done to black Africans bought and sold and held as slaves here, and also true that black Americans have not always had a monopoly on being mistreated.
As it turns out, white people can be awful to white people too.
And this is true because people are people, born in sin rather than inherently good. Therefore we as a human race can be relied on to seize any excuse to justify our temptations and sins against one another – including but not limited to distinctions based on race, country or continent of origin, religion and politics, socioeconomic status, or the absence of powerful social connections to which an appeal could be made.
Be careful with this work, though. A certain strain runs through it which very much reminds me of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ and a few reviewers at GoodReads.com have noted that the print copy of this book cites Zinn as a source throughout.
As is always the case regardless the author or work, it would be both unwise and dangerous to see our past and present circumstances as nothing more than class struggle pretending at higher ideals.
Thereby revolutionaries justify hollow and morally bankrupt calls for the workers of the world to unite in ripping up our founding documents and what vestiges of a free market remain so as to implement Marxism. We cannot afford to keep playing into their hands, and this work might just have been intended for us to do just that.
Such cautions notwithstanding, however, there is more than one important and worthwhile take-away to be had here. First of all, people can be awful to people, and find any and all excuses by which to justify their sins. They should not be allowed to do this for either their sake or for ours.
And that might not seem like much of a takeaway, but hear me out.
The fact of our sinful nature and what to do with it is actually the remarkable thing here. There is nothing especially new or surprising about discovering in our history that people hurt and oppress one another, nor that the strong and rich often prey on the weak and vulnerable when they think they can get away with it. The really rare thing is when there is a turning away from the kind of widespread and longstanding practices which are cataloged here by Jordan and Walsh.
That is to say, “indentured servitude” and slavery are entirely normal features of human history in all times and places, mild by comparison to other things which people sometimes do en masse to other people – straight up slaughtering and trying to exterminate their rivals and enemies, for instance.
The putting of an end to such practices, however, is very special, and bears closer examination. So why was slavery abolished in Great Britain and America? And why was the practice of indentured servitude stopped? That’s what we should be really curious about.
For that matter, if we have similar attitudes and ways of relating to one another creeping up again in our day – which we should actually expect to find, since there is no new thing under the sun, and the nature of man has not changed in all our history since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden – the necessary question is what has proven to work in the past for defusing and disarming those attitudes, restraining the sinful nature of man more effectively and according to truer and more righteous principles.
When we ask these questions and search for their answers, what we find is that it was not from an abundance of Christianity that people treated each other the way we read about in ‘White Cargo’ and other such histories. Rather, it was a deficiency of Christian faith and practice.
On the other hand, it was not due to a reduction of Christianity in public life that these practices were abolished. No, it was a surge in Christian conviction and calls to repentance which spurred men of courage and clarity to campaign hard for repeal and emancipation, and to be both heard and joined in their causes by an upswell in righteous indignation that atrocities were being perpetrated by an ostensibly Christian nation and people, in their name and with their acquiescence and blessing.
Just so, we should definitely both read and study histories like this. But we should not get sucked in by the grievance industry which is always looking for fresh victims to enlist in Leftism and atheism. Rather, we should always humbly recognize that the history of people is just like the present circumstance of people – messy, and in desperate need of the grace of God.
But for that, there we go also.
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