America's First Slaves: Whites The slavery of Europeans was a prelude to the mass slavery of Africans in the Americas. For more, Farai Chideya talks with the co-author of a new book about the harsh and surprising reality of white indentured servitude in colonial America.
NPR logo

America's First Slaves: Whites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
America's First Slaves: Whites

America's First Slaves: Whites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. Many people know Britain was involved with the slave trade, but did you know that some white Europeans were taken to America as slaves, as well? The slavery of Europeans was a prelude to the mass slavery of Africans in the Americas says our next guest, Michael Walsh. He's the co-author of "White Cargo," a new book about the harsh and surprising reality of indentured servitude in colonial America. Michael, welcome.

Mr. MICHAEL WALSH (Author, "White Cargo") Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: So you paint a vivid picture of someone named Sir John Popham. Tell us about him, when and how he lived and his influence on sending Europeans to literal or virtual slavery in the U.S.

Mr. WALSH: He was the chief law officer under Elizabeth - Queen Elizabeth. He had a colorful background. He'd been a highwayman, and somehow he got away with it. He was a venal, corrupt politician. And one of his issues was the scum of England. He wanted to get rid of them. He wanted to get rid of vagabonds and street children and beggars. And they called them the surplus. And there was great fear among the rulers of England that this surplus would take over. So they wanted somewhere to dump them.

And Sir John Popham cleared the jails to try and start a colony in New England. He failed. His ship turned back. It took the wrong - it didn't turn back, it was captured by the Spanish. And meantime, another colony was taking root in Virginia. But a few months later, Sir John's ship did reach New England and a colony was begun. It was a flop because they were looking for gold, they found no gold, and then the news came through that Sir John had died. So all his colonists, most of whom were forced-labor convicts, they came back to England and they had freedom. There was no Sir John waiting to roast them alive as he might have done. So he, if you like, in a way started English colonization in the Americas.

CHIDEYA: Sort of the intellectual or business father of this. But he himself did not survive. But the practice did survive. And I want to ask for some distinctions here. You have different terms in the book, slaves, indentured servants and what you call free willers. I'm intrigued by the concept of a free willer. Who were they, and what did they get from essentially putting themselves in servitude?

Mr. WALSH: Well, that's what they got. They put themselves in servitude. They were desperate. They were poor people or people who didn't have enough money to pay for the trip to America. They wanted a new life. They hoped that they would get one in America. And so they signed themselves away, their freedoms away, as indentured servants to pay for their passage. And that would be for anything between three and 11 years, usually. Now most of them, initially, didn't survive more than a couple of years.

The first - the average, I think, lifespan of a new indentured servant in the 1620s was probably two years. So these were - they were called at the time free willers because they went of their free will, and so many others didn't go of their free will. They were sent there. They were sent there in chains. They were sentenced to go there. They weren't free at all. Well, nor were these people. So that's the free willers. They are indentured servants.

CHIDEYA: What about the relationship of the white indentured servants to the African or African-descendant slaves? How did they get along, and how did the people who were essentially their masters treat them differently, if they did?

Mr. WALSH: They did treat them differently. They got along surprisingly well, given what we hear these days. According to some African-American historians, there was no sign or little sign of racial tension between the English servants - which we reckon were slaves - and the African servants, who were also called servants. They were treated in much the same way for many decades. They complained together, they ran away together, they rebelled together. There was a huge explosion of discontent in 1676, the Bacon Rebellion. That was black and white. And that terrified the plantation owners.

So they got on very well for a long time. OK, they saw themselves as suffering in common, and therefore, they fought, as I say, against their oppressors together. In the end, their oppressors got terrified of black and white amity at this lowest level, and therefore, a racial wedge was deliberately pushed between them. And the whites were made to feel superior. They were given a few rights, they still weren't free. And the blacks were made to feel - or they were told they were inferior, and they lost all their rights.

CHIDEYA: One story I've heard in the past is that it was easier to catch black slaves because they were black, and you could identify them as opposed to people who were, you know, fair skinned, who you wouldn't be as sure whether or not they were a landholder or an indentured servant. Is that part of the issue here?

Mr. WALSH: Yeah, that's true. You had lots and lots of runaways on both sides. Just on the week of Lexington, the beginning of your War of Independence, the Revolutionary War, there were ads in the Virginia Gazette for runaways. And I think there were - that week there were something like 11 for white runaways and three for black runaways. And two of the 11 white runaways were being advertised for by George Washington.


Mr. WALSH: There were a lot of people involved in this trade, the good and the bad, the great and the small. And there were terrible things that happened to both black and white. We're not saying that the whites ever suffered quite as much as the worst-treated blacks. They weren't castrated. They didn't lose a limb for running away. But they were beaten. They had red hot needles plunged through their tongues.

There was a girl, one of the first white children to be bundled up in 1618 and sent to America, supposedly for a new life, in fact, to be sold to plantation owners. She was called Elizabeth Abbott. And she was one of the few who survived the rigors of the first couple of years. Because of the first 300 of these children, only 12 survived, that we know about, more than three or four years. She was one of them. And a few years later, she was found dying because she'd run away too often, and her owner had ordered her to be given 500 lashes. The owner was never found guilty of anything.

CHIDEYA: We only have a very short amount of time. What do you think we need to learn from this history?

Mr. WALSH: I think you need to learn that you're a great nation. You've survived the most awful beginnings. But indentured servants, the poor, were part of your heritage, and you don't recognize it, I don't think. I scoured America for heritage organizations, and there are lots for every kind of newcomer: in the first cooks, the first sheriffs, the first bakers. Their descendants all have heritage clubs or associations. There were none as far as I could see for the first indentured servants. And millions of white Americans are descended from these unfortunates.

CHIDEYA: Well, look forward to learning more about this, Michael. Thank you.

Mr. WALSH: Thank you very much. Goodbye.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Michael Walsh. He is the co-author of the book, "White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America," and he joined us by phone from London.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.