White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery

White slavery in the Industrial Revolution

Michael A. Hoffman II has explained that even whilst not encumbered by the institution of slavery, White people were subjected to slave-like conditions.

    "in the 18th century in Britain and America, the Industrial Revolution spawned the factory system whose first laborers were miserably oppressed White children as young as six years of age. They were locked in the factories for sixteen hours a day and mangled by the primitive machinery. Hands and arms were regularly ripped to pieces. Little girls often had their hair caught in the machinery and were scalped from their foreheads to the back of their necks.

    White Children wounded and crippled in the factories were turned out without compensation of any kind and left to die of their injuries. Children late to work or who fell asleep were beaten with iron bars. Lest we imagine these horrors were limited to only the early years of the Industrial Revolution, eight and ten year old White children throughout America were hard at work in miserable factories and mines as late as 1920."

The awful conditions suffered by the child chimney sweeps are alluded to in the poem "The Sweep Boys Lament" (London, 1824).

    I'm weak and young and frightened oft,
    when the dark flue I see;
    by blows and threats forced up aloft,
    where nobody loves me.

    My master beats me with a rope,
    a cruel master he:
    But I have neither friends nor hope;
    For nobody loves me.

    They loved the negro 'oer the wave,
    they strove to set him free;
    But though I am a little slave,
    there's nobody loves me.

Another example of child slavery in Britain can be found in A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy, Sent from the Workhouse at St. Pancras, London at 7 Years of Age to Endure the Horrors of a Cotton Mill.

    "Being too short of stature to reach his work standing on the floor, he was placed on a block; but this expedient only remedied a part of the evil, for he was not able by any possible exertion to keep pace with the machinery. In vain the ...child declared it was not in his power to move quicker. He was beaten by the overlooker with great severity and cursed and reviled from morning 'till night, 'till his life became a burthen to him and his body discoloured with bruises."[94]

Men would be typically hired for heavy duty or labouring jobs, whilst women would carry out more intricate work. Women were paid less than men, and children were paid even less, and therefore employers liked to hire children as a source of cheap labour.[95]

Chapman Cohen, in Christianity, Slavery and Labour, made note of these practices.

    Sir Samuel Romily [1757 - 1818] says:--

    It is a very common practice with the great populous parishes in London to bind children in large numbers to the proprietors of cotton-mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, at a distance of 200 miles. The children who are sent off by wagon loads at a time, are as much lost for ever to their parents as if they were shipped off for the West Indies. The parishes that bind them, by procuring a settlement for the children at the end of forty days, get rid of them for ever; and the poor children have not a human being in the world to whom they can look up for redress against the wrongs they may be exposed to from these wholesale dealers in them, whose object it is to get everything they can possibly wring from their excessive labour and fatigue.

Children working in the mines

    ...In the mines the conditions were, if possible, still worse. In 1842, there was presented to both Houses of Parliament a Report from the Children's Employment Commissioners. From a summary of this report, published in the Westminster Review for October, 1842, and extending over fifty pages, I take the following: Of the extent of child labour in mines, we are told:--

    Children are taken at the earliest ages, if only to be used as living and waving candlesticks, or to keep rats from a dinner; and it is in pits of this worst character, too, in which most female children are employed. It would appear from the practical returns obtained by the Commissioner, that about one-third of the persons employed in coal mines are under eighteen years of age, and that much more than one-third of this proportion are under thirteen years of age.

    In Shropshire we learn "there are very few under six or seven who are employed to draw weights with a girdle round the body; and those only when the roof of the pit is so low for short distances as to prevent horses of the smallest size from being employed." Of a Yorkshire pit, in describing the way the children draw the trucks of coal--from two to five cwt. [hundred weight (has varied: 100-120 pounds)], "they buckle round their naked person a broad leather strap, to which is attached in front a broad ring and about four feet of chain, terminating in a hook." No wonder the Commissioners speak of these human beasts of burden, chained, fettered, and harnessed, as "presenting an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural."

    In the West Riding there was no distinction of sex so far as underground labour was concerned. "The men work in a state of perfect nakedness, and are in this state assisted in their labours by females of all ages, from girls of six years old up to women of twenty-one, these females being quite naked down to the waist." Pages might be filled with similar descriptions of pits in England, Scotland and Wales. The whole forms a striking comment on Canon Brownlow's statement that "One of the most remarkable effects of Christianity was ...the rehabilitation of manual labour in public estimation.

    One ought to say a word or two on the employment of boys in sweeping chimneys - a practice unknown outside the British Isles - before leaving this aspect of the subject. Children of six or seven were employed at this task, although an Act was passed in 1817 ordering that no boy should be employed under eight years of age.

    Most of these boys were either sold outright to the employers by callous parents, or apprenticed from the parish. They were set to climbing chimneys, and often straw was lit behind them to encourage quickness of movement. Some masters washed their boys once a week, others just left them alone. The boys were stunted in growth, blear-eyed from the soot, and "flapper-kneed" from climbing. Deaths from suffocation were common. Yet, when in 1803, a very mild Bill was brought before the House of Lords, regulating the trade, it was rejected by a House consisting of one Archbishop, five Bishops, three Dukes, five Earls, one Viscount, and ten Barons."

The chronic overworking of Whites was rampant in Western societies. The fact that England had campaigned for an end to Black slavey whilst ignoring conditions at home that were equivalent to White slavery was a source of anger to many working class people and trade unionists.

In 1837, George Loveless, the leading figure of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (the six Dorset labourers who had been sent to the penal colony of New South Wales for their Trades Union activity), made a speech to his fellow labourers:

    "England has for many years been lifting her voice against the abominable practice of negro slavery. Numbers of great men have talked, have laboured and have struggled until at length emancipation has been granted to the black slaves in the West Indies. When will they dream of advocating the cause of England's white slaves?"[97]

At the height of the anti-slavery campaign, William Cobbett wrote to Wilberforce:

    "You seem to have great affection for the negroes... I feel for the hard-pinched, the ill-treated, the beaten down labouring classes of England, Scotland and Ireland, to whom you do all the mischief that it is in your power to do; because you describe their situation as good, and because you do, in some degree, at any rate, draw the public attention away from their sufferings." [98]

In an impassioned letter to the Leeds Mercury in 1830, a social reformer, Richard Oastler, wrote:

    "Thousands of our fellow creatures are existing in a state of slavery more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system, colonial slavery... The very streets which receive the droppings of the Anti-Slavery Society are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled, not by the cart whip of the negro slave driver, but by the equally appalling thong or strap of the overlooker, to hasten, half-dressed, but NOT half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery - the worsted mills in the town of Bradford." [99]

Advocates of social justice, such as Loveless, Cobbett, and Oastler, campaigned hard to alleviate the conditions of the working people of those times. In the 1890s, Rev. Louis Albert Banks of Boston wrote the book White Slaves Or The Oppressions Of The Worthy Poor to expose the awful conditions of the poor people that he had witnessed in his work.[100]

Slave girls

Chapman Cohen, in Christianity, Slavery and Labour, has revealed instances of White slavery in Britain in the seventeenth century and beyond.

    "In the seventeenth century thousands of Irish-men, women, and children were seized by the order, or under the licence of the English Government, and sold as slaves for use in the West Indies. In the Calendar of State Papers, under various dates, between 1653-6, the following entries occur: "For a licence to Sir John Clotworthy to transport to America 500 natural Irishmen." A slave dealer, named Sellick, is granted a licence to take 400 children from Ireland for New England and Virginia. Later "1,000 Irish girls and the like number of youths" are sold to the planters in Jamaica.

    In Scotland the Parliament passed, in 1606, an Act binding all workmen engaged in coal mines and at salt works to perpetual service. For over a century and a half later whenever coal mines or salt works changed owners those employed were sold with the estates. They were emancipated in 1775 by an Act of the British Parliament, but with certain special conditions that made the Act almost a dead letter. It was not until 1799 that the colliers [coal miners] and salt-workers of Scotland became free men."

The Heritage League has also revealed some of the horrendous working conditions suffered by White people in Britain during the nineteenth century.

    "Campaigning by a few radicals, and several of the more humane factory owners, led to a Factory Inquiry Commission being set up by Parliament in 1833. Reports to the Commission showed that children as young as 5, but more often 7, were employed in a working day of 14-16 hours, exclusive of intervals and meals. It was also reported that factory owners permitted overseers to flog and maltreat children and often took an active part themselves. In many factories children were employed on 12-hour night shifts. Medical reports to the Commission showed that thousands of children were maimed and deformed by factory work, lack of sleep often leading to accidents involving several children and adults.

Children working in the mines

    ...Children were also employed in the mines, starting underground at the age of about 7 or 8, when they would spend long hours alone in the darkness of the pit. Older boys and girls, strapped to loaded wagons, hauled these along tramways underground. Very small children as young as 5 or 6 were sometimes employed on the surface, in charge of the pit-head winding gear, responsible for the lives of colliers being hauled up and down the shaft.

    ...In the wake of the Factory Inquiry Commission, a Factory Act of 1833 limited the hours to be worked in a day for the under-12s to eight, and to twelve hours for those aged 13-18. But there were clauses in the bill that allowed children to work successive eight-hour shifts, thus prolonging the adult working day to 16 hours. This Act became known as the "White Slavery Bill."

    ...At long last, during the latter part of the 19th century, a series of Factory Acts reduced the working hours for children, and also began to introduce the idea of providing working class children with an education. The Factory Act of 1867 permitted only part-time work for children under 11, and a further Act of 1870 put up the age of boys working underground in the mines to 12. This Act also set the maximum working week for children under 16 to 54 hours. A national system of education for working-class children only began after the 1870 Education Act set up local School Boards. But as these Boards were allowed to charges fees for their classes, most ordinary workers could still not afford to send their children to school. It was only after another Education Act of 1891, which permitted schools to claim grants for the children it educated from poorer families, that a more universal education system came into being."

"The Secret Of England's Greatness, 5 pence Per Hour"
[The Bulletin, August 1889]

Shop assistants were notoriously overworked, and campaigners eventually secured the passage of the Shop Hours Act in 1886. The Act imposed a limit of hours worked per week of 74 hours, however, this remained ineffectual until the enforcement of the regulations was handed over to the local authorities in 1912. One has to wonder how many hours a week shop assistants were forced to work, if a reduction to 74 hours a week was thought to be "reasonable".[103] It is little wonder that such conditions have been referred to as "White slavery" or "wage slavery".

In such times, Black slaves in America were often treated better than White employees, as the slaves could be quite expensive to buy, and therefore were looked after as an economic asset. The Economist has estimated that in 1753 an African slave from the Gold Coast would cost £16 (about UK£1,000 or US$1,650 in today's money), and in the West Indies would fetch up to £35."[104] On the other hand, White labourers were simply hired by the hour or by the day, and - in a era without Workers' Compensation laws - could be used in reckless and dangerous ways without economic liability to their bosses. An example of this can be seen in the observations of Frederic Olmsted.

    "In 1855, Frederic Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park, was in Alabama on a pleasure trip and saw bales of cotton being thrown from a considerable height into a cargo ship's hold. The men tossing the bales somewhat recklessly into the hold were Negroes, the men in the hold were Irish. Olmsted inquired about this to a shipworker. "Oh," said the worker, "the niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything." "[105]

In light of the "White slavery" conditions suffered by the British working class, the Heritage League has attacked those "bleeding hearts" who have for so long tried to place the yoke of a "White guilt complex" upon the shoulders of White people worldwide.

    "The cause of African slavery was championed, whilst that of the child slaves of Britain was virtually ignored, because of an early form of political correctness. The "bleeding hearts" of the day preferred to campaign for abolition of slavery because it was more socially acceptable: because it was taking place somewhere else. Considering the attitudes of their ilk today, it is unsurprising that they would campaign for one but ignore the other. When one reflects and considers the suffering of our ancestors, our kith and kin, and the way their plight was ignored, then you have to say that we are the ones who should be angry. Conquerors have enslaved their enemies since before the dawn of time, the native Britons were enslaved by the Romans, then by the Saxons who, in turn, were enslaved by the Normans. We move on. And it is the mark of a civilized and mature folk that they accept that what was done in the past was done in the context of the age in which it took place.

    For those who did not know about these things, and sadly there are a great number, I hope that you will now be better equipped to resist attempts to make you feel guilty about your past. And perhaps you will educate others who are ignorant of the truth.

    There may be things that have been done by the British that have been wrong, but they are far outweighed by those things that have been right. Our ancestors suffered more than any plantation labourer. Let no-one lecture us with the pious guilt of the "chattering classes." Don't preach to us, liberal, when it was your kind that emancipated the African slave while leaving our own children to work 16-hour days in the factories!"

White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery