In school we’re taught that the slave trade was an evil thing perpetrated by Whites against Blacks. But what if this were only half the truth, what if slavery was an economic institution, instead of a White on Black hate crime? As Whites, we are taught to feel guilty for slavery, because our ancestors were the people responsible for the enslavement of millions of innocent Blacks. But what if most of us, instead of being the descendants of slave traders, have a greater chance of being descendants of White slaves?
What is a slave? Is a slave any person whose life is subjected to the will of another? Must a person be called “a slave” in order to actually be a slave? Would a Black person who was kidnapped in Africa and forced into an entire lifetime of hard labour on a plantation be a slave? What if this Black person were called an “indentured servant” instead of a “slave?” Would he really be a slave? Of course he would.
Isn’t it therefore true that if a White person were kidnapped from the streets of London or Aberdeen and taken against his or her will to the Americas to be forced to work for twenty or more years, or even an entire lifetime, on a plantation, that this person would also be a slave, even if such a person is officially called an “indentured servant?”
Would a five-year-old child taken from an orphanage and forced to climb up scorching hot chimney flues, forced to beg for its food and sleep in cellars, and not allowed to run away – would such a child be a slave? It would be if it was Black, but child chimney sweeps were not Black. They were White, they numbered in the tens of thousands, thousands of them died, and they have all been forgotten.
“There is a race of human beings in this country, the Chimney Sweepers’
Climbing boys…which…is more oppressed than the Negroes in either the West Indian Islands, or in North America…These objects are all young and helpless. Their employment is tenfold more horrible than that of any attaching to the Negro salves…a far greater number of them are crippled, and rendered deformed for life. A far greater proportion of them die I consequence of hard usage, while the horrible deaths by suffocation, burning and other accidents, are in this case beyond measure and more numerous.”
These chimney-sweep boys, some as young as four or five years old, were made to climb chimneys that sometimes were barely fourteen inches by twelve. It was not uncommon to send the children up the chimneys when they were still on fire, or to place flaming straw in the grate, beneath a child who had entered a chimney but refused to go all the way up.
“On Jan 17 th, 1831, John Pasely, ten years of age, was sent up a flue at the Omnibus coffee-house. It appears that when the boy had reached the top, the whole chimney gave way. The child was found with his head crushed.”
Skeletal deformities and crippling were common, as were fatal accidents. Because of the chimneys size, the smaller the boy, the more that was paid for him, therefore these boys, none older than twelve, were thin and malnourished, sold to chimney sweepers for prices ranging from a few shillings to two guineas; “Small boys for small chimneys” was a popular advertising slogan.
Bills proposed in parliament requiring the abolition of the use of climbing boys under the age of ten were defeated in the House of Lords in 1804, 1818 and twice in 1819. The Earl of Launderdale argued against any restraint of the practices of the masters of the chimney sweeps, on the basis that children should be considered free agents for wage bargaining purposes.
In 1828 Joseph Glass improved the design of a chimney-cleaning machine invented earlier by George Smart, however the masters of sweeps and home owners alike mostly ignored this new device because English boys cost even less than the affordable cleaning-machine.
“The cost of Glass’ machine with a ball and brush amounted to £4; yet sweeps preferred boys who they could easily obtain in almshouses or on the streets; they made the boys beg for their food, so the upkeep was almost nothing.”
“Whereas the machine was liable to wear and tear, the child was forced to work, often when ill; moreover the machine required the combined effort of the master and journeyman; the child swept the chimney unaided.”
When Parliament abolished Negro slavery in 1808, boys four, five and six years of age were climbing the flues of its august chambers. Would children forced to work sixteen hours a day in locked factories be considered slaves? Would they be considered slaves if they were never allowed to quit, were forced to run the machinery while eating meals of stale bread, and were beaten with leather straps by overseers? When things not as terrible as these happen in sweatshops in Pakistan today, we are outraged, but strangely enough, we seem to have forgotten that our own people suffered similar conditions in cities like Bradford and Manchester not so long ago.
These people, many of them young children, were made to work sixteen hours a day, locked into a building, without breaks except to go to the necessary. Food was taken standing up, while tending the primitive machinery that mutilated tens of thousands of children. For falling asleep or talking, White girls and boys were beaten with a leather strap or a “billy- roller” – an eight feet by and inch and a half iron bar.
“When Charles Kennedy was the overseer he licked us very bad…beat over our heads…and kicked us very bad.”
These forms of White slavery were never referred to as such. They were called indentured servitude, apprenticeship, or economic slavery. However, these types of slavery, and others similar to them, were real and occurred millions of times in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Why do we not learn in school about the White slave trade?
One cannot look at slavery by only observing its final years. Looking around us today, we see that there are millions of Asians in Great Britain. But this doesn’t mean that there were any Asians in Britain three hundred years ago. Similarly, by the middle 1800’s in America, almost all slaves were Black, and almost all slave owners were White. But this was not always the case: according to historian John Van Der Zee:
“Between one half and two thirds of all Whites who came to the New World between 1609 and the early 19th century were slaves.”
These White slaves came in the millions from the shores of the British Isles, in the form of deported convicts, political prisoners, and kidnapped children. “Transportation” to the New World or Australia was a common punishment up until the late 1800s, and orphans have been sent to Australia as late as the 1950s.
In 1618 the Council of London passed a bill legalizing the capture of vagrant children, aged eight or older. These homeless children were to be sent to Virginia, where they would be indentured as slaves for fourteen to sixteen years. After this, the slaves were to be released and given land. Promises like these were common. “Indentured servants,” or White slaves, as they should be called, rarely saw their benefits. The term of service was often extended, and many of the boys and girls who were captured died in slavery.
The practice of kidnapping young children for shipment of slaves became common throughout Great Britain, to the point where a London pamphlet produced in 1680 estimated that 10,000 Whites were sold into slavery per year. In 1664, legislation was passed granting judges 50 percent of the proceeds from children sent to the New World in chains. Another percentage went to the King.
The Puritan leader Henry Cromwell, a contemporary of the more famous Oliver Cromwell, was personally responsible for the shipment of large numbers of White people from the British Isles to slavery in the Caribbean. After conquering Ireland, Cromwell made an effort to cleanse the country of its leaders, and sentenced more than one hundred thousand men, women, and children to a life of slave labour in the oppressive climates of Jamaica and Barbados.
“Much as I was prepared to see misery in the South of Ireland, I was utterly shocked at the condition of the poor peasantry between Limerick and Dublin. Why sir, John never felt so proud of being a Black Virginia slave. He looked with horror upon the mud hovels and miserable food of the White slaves, and I had no fear of him running away.”
After various deportations, less than one sixth of the Irish were left on their original lands. In 1656, Cromwell ordered 3,200 English women to be found and transported to Jamaica for enslavement. Later that year, Cromwell decreed all of Scotland’s homeless poor to be sentenced to a similar fate. The journey to the Caribbean or America often happened under the worst conditions, with men, women and children being crammed onto one of the many slave ships, and transported. This journey often took weeks, sometimes months if the weather was unfavourable.
“All the states of horror I ever had an idea of are much short of what I saw this man in; chained to a board in a hole not above sixteen feet long, more than fifty with him; a collar and padlock about his neck, and chained to five of the most dreadful creatures I ever looked on.”
Once in America the slaves were sold to different masters, and then made to work for long hours every day for very little or no money. They were forced to do work that the masters thought were too much of a risk to let the blacks do.
“Sold to a master in Merion, near Philadelphia, I was put to work ‘hewing and uprooting trees’ – – land clearing, the most arduous of colonial labour, was spared black slaves because they were to valuable.”
Even today, white women from Eastern Europe are still being taken to Israel for sexual slavery. Traffickers acquire their victims in a number of ways; sometimes women are kidnapped outright in one country and taken forcibly to another. In other cases, victims are lured with job offers. Traffickers entice victims to migrate voluntarily with false promises of good paying jobs in foreign countries as au pairs, models, dancers, domestic workers, etc. Traffickers advertise these phoney jobs, as well as marriage opportunities abroad in local newspapers.
Russian criminal gangs with close connections to Israel use marriage agency databases and matchmaking parties to find victims. In some cases, traffickers approach women or their families directly with offers of well-paying jobs elsewhere. After providing transportation and false documents to get victims to their destination, they subsequently charge exorbitant fees for those services, creating lifetime debt bondage.
While there is no single victim stereotype, a majority of trafficked women are under the age of 25, with many in their mid to late teens. The fear among customers of infection with HIV and AIDS has driven traffickers to recruit younger women and girls, some as young as seven, who are perceived by customers to be too young to have been infected.