White Losses in the Middle Passage Higher than that of Blacks
White slaves transported to the colonies suffered a staggering loss of life in the 17th and 18th century. During the voyage to America it was customary to keep the white slaves below deck for the entire nine to twelve-week journey. A white slave would be confined to a hole not more than sixteen feet long, chained with 50 other men to a board, with padlocked collars around their necks. The weeks of confinement below deck in the ship’s stifling hold often resulted in outbreaks of contagious disease which would sweep through the “cargo” of white “freight” chained in the bowels of the ship.
Ships carrying white slaves to America often lost half their slaves to death. According to historian Sharon V. Salinger, “Scattered data reveal that the mortality for [White] servants at certain times equaled that for [Black] slaves in the ‘middle passage,’ and during other periods actually exceeded the death rate for [Black] slaves.” (Salinger, p.91.) Salinger reports a death rate of ten to twenty percent over the entire 18th century for Black slaves on board ships enroute to America compared with a death rate of 25% for White slaves enroute to America (Salinger, p. 92).
Foster R. Dulles writing in Labor in America: A History, p. 6, states that whether convicts, children ‘spirited’ from the countryside or political prisoners, white slaves “experienced discomforts and sufferings on their voyage across the Atlantic that paralleled the cruel hardships undergone by black slaves on the notorious Middle Passage.”
Dulles says the whites were “indiscriminately herded aboard the ‘white guineamen,’ often as many as 300 passengers on little vessels of not more than 200 tons burden— overcrowded, unsanitary. The mortality rate was sometimes as high as 50% and young children seldom survived the horrors of a voyage which might last anywhere from seven to twelve weeks.”
Independent investigator A.B. Ellis in the Argosy writes concerning the transport of white slaves, “The human cargo, many of whom were still tormented by unhealed wounds, could not all lie down at once without lying on each other. They were never suffered to go on deck. The hatchway was constantly watched by sentinels armed with hangers and blunderbusses. In the dungeons below all was darkness, stench, lamentation, disease and death.”
Marcus Jernegan describes the greed of the shipmasters which led to horrendous loss of life for White slaves transported to America:
“The voyage over often repeated the horrors of the famous ‘middle passage’ of slavery fame. An average cargo was three hundred, but the shipmaster, for greater profit, would sometimes crowd as many as six hundred into a small vessel. The mortality under such circumstances was tremendous, sometimes more than half. Mittelberger (an eyewitness) says he saw thirty-two children thrown into the ocean during one voyage. (Jernegan, pp. 50-51).
“The mercantile firms, as importers of (White) servants, were not too careful about their treatment, as the more important purpose of the transaction was to get ships over to South Carolina which could carry local produce back to Europe. Consequently the Irish— as well as others— suffered greatly. “It was almost as if the British merchants had redirected their vessels from the African coast to the Irish coast, with the white servants coming over in much the same fashion as the African slaves.” (Warren B. Smith, p. 42).
A study of the middle passage of White slaves was included in Parliamentary Petition of 1659. It reported that White slaves were locked below deck for two weeks while the slave ship was still in port. Once under way, they were “all the way locked up under decks… amongst horses.” They were chained from their legs to their necks.
“…transports… travel in double irons… were whipped and beaten… captains such as Edward Brock-ett of the Rappahannock Merchant, were totally unfit.” (Ekirch, p. 101). Of the White slaves bound for Maryland from London aboard the slave ship Justitia, at the mercy of the savage Capt. Barnet Bond, nearly one-third of the Whites died: “The very worst excesses were revealed during the voyage of the Justitia in 1743. Under the command of Barnet Bond… Bond set stringent water rations. Despite ample reserves of water on board, he allotted each transport only one pint a day. Some started to drink their own urine…” (Ekirch, p. 102).
The former partner of Andrew Reid of the White slave trading firm of Reid & Armour wrote that Reid was “a person against whom every species of complaint was made.” Profits continued to flow in spite of the deaths of what the White slave-trade firm of Stevenson, Randolph & Cheston referred to as “the goods.” The traffic in these “goods… properly managed will in a few years make us very genteel for-tunes. The sales of the convicts run up amazingly in a little time.” (William Stevenson to James Cheston, Sept. 12, 1768 and Dec. 30, 1769, Cheston-Galloway Papers, Maryland Historical Society).
Once the slave ships left British shores, “profit rather than penal policy shaped the character of transportation” and what happened to enslaved Whites overseas “mattered little. As soon as they were safely consigned to merchants, authorities assumed no responsibility for their welfare.” (Ekirch, p. 3). White slaves aboard ship were treated “worse than dogs or swine and are kept much more un-cleanly than those animals are…” (Shaw, p. 35).
A witness who saw a White slave aboard a ship owned by the slaver John Stewart, reported: “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.” Another observer watching the auction of a hundred White slaves in Williamsburg, Virginia remarked, “I never seen such passels of poor wretches in my life. Some almost naked…” (Ekirch, pp. 100 and 122).
One White woman slave bound for Australia, Elizabeth Dudgeon, had dared to talk back to a guard. She was trussed up to a ship’s grating and mercilessly whipped. One of the ship’s officers relished watching her lashed: “The corporal did not play with her, but laid it home, which I was very glad to see… she has long been fishing for it, which she has at last got to her heart’s content.” (Journal of Ralph Clark, entry of July 3, 1787).
In order to realize the maximum profit from the trade in White slaves, the captains of the White Guineamen crammed their ships with as many poor Whites as possible, certain that even with the most callous disregard for the lives of the Whites the financial gain would still make the trip worth the effort. A loss of 20% of their White “cargo” was regarded as acceptable. But sometimes losses were much higher.
“Out of 350 White slaves on a ship bound for the colonies in 1638 only 80 arrived alive. “We have thrown overboard two and three in a day for many days together” wrote Thomas Rous, a survivor of the trip. A ship carrying White slaves in 1685, the Betty of London, left England with 100 White slaves and arrived in the colonies with 49 left.
A number of factors contributed to the higher death rates for white slaves than Blacks. Although the goal of maximum profits motivated both trades, it cost more to obtain Blacks from Africa than it did to capture Whites in Europe. White slaves were not cared for as well as Blacks because the Whites were cheaply obtained and were viewed as expendable. “The African slave trade was not fully established in the early 17th century… The price of African slaves was prohibitively high and the English were neither familiar with nor committed to black slavery as a basic institution” (Beckles, White Servitude, p. 3).
Ship Captains involved in the white slave trade obtained white slaves with penal status either free of charge or were subsidized to take them, and for all other categories of White slaves, they paid at most a small sum to an agent to procure them, forfeiting only the cost of their keep on board ship if they died.6
Moreover, traders in black slaves operated ships designed solely for the purpose of carrying human cargo with the intent of creating conditions whereby as many black slaves as possible would reach America alive. White slave ships were cargo ships with no special provisions for passengers.
In addition, transportation rules decreed that, in cases where White slaves were sold in advance to individual planters in America, if the White slave survived the voyage beyond the halfway point in the journey, the planter in America— not the captain of the slave ship— would be responsible for the costs of the White slaves’ provisions whether or not the slave survived the trip. Captains of the slave-ships became infamous for providing sufficient food for only the first half of the trip and then virtually starving their White captives until they arrived in America.
“Jammed into filthy holds, manacled, starved and abused, they suffered and died during the crossings in gross numbers. Thousands were children under 12, snatched off the streets…” (Kendall, p. 1).
“…the transportation …became a profitable enterprise. Traders delivered thousands of bound laborers to Pennsylvania and exhibited a callous disregard for their… cargoes” (Salinger, p. 88). As a result, White slaves on board these ships suffered a high rate of disease. “…transportation (of White slaves) remained a branch of commerce wedded to carrying human cargoes at minimal expense… sizable numbers never reached American shores… from disease, mistreatment… (Ekirch, p. 108).
The number of diseased White slaves arriving was high enough for Pennsylvania officials to recommend a quarantine law for them. Thus a new torment was to be endured for White slaves who “were often stopped just short of the New World, with land in sight, and forced to remain quarantined on board ships in which they had just spent a horrifying ten to twelve weeks” (Salinger, p. 89).
In 1738 Dr. Thomas Graeme reported to the colonial Council of Pennsylvania that if two ships crammed with White slaves were allowed to land, “it might prove Dangerous to the health of the In-habitants of this Province.” (“Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania,” Colonial Records, 4:306).
Ships filled with diseased White slaves landed anyway. In 1750 an island was established for their quarantine, Fisher Island, at the mouth of Schuylkill River. But the establishment of the quarantine area did nothing to protect the health of the White slaves and the island was more typical of Devil’s Island than a place of recuperation. In 1764 a clergyman, Pastor Helmuth, visited Fisher island and described it as “a land of the living dead, a vault full of living corpses.”
More than 14,000 died during passage. Following the Battle of the Boyne and the defeat of King James in 1691, the Irish slave trade had an overloaded inventory, and the slavers were making great profits. The Spanish slavers were a competition nuisance, so in 1713, the Treaty of Assiento was signed in which Spain granted England exclusive rights to the slave trade, and England agreed to supply Spanish colonies 4800 slaves a year for 30 years. England shipped tens of thousands of Irish prisoners after the 1798 Irish Rebellion to be sold as slaves in the Colonies and Australia. Curiously, of all the Irish shipped out as slaves, not one is known to have returned to Ireland to tell their tales.
Many, if not most, died on the ships transporting them or from overwork and abusive treatment on the plantations. The Irish that did obtain their freedom, frequently emigrated on to the American mainland, while others moved to adjoining islands. On Montserrat, seven of every 10 whites were Irish. Comparable 1678 census figures for the other Leeward Islands were: 26 per cent Irish on Antigua; 22 per cent on Nevis; and 10 per cent on St Christopher. Although 21,700 Irish slaves were purchased by Barbados planters from 1641 to 1649, there never seemed to have been more than about 8 to 10 thousand surviving at any one time. What happened to them? Well, the pages of the telephone directories on the West Indies islands are filled with Irish names, but virtually none of these “black Irish” know anything about their ancestors or their history. On the other hand, many West Indies natives spoke Gaelic right up until recent years.
They know they are strong survivors who descended from black white slaves, but only in the last few years have any of them taken an interest in their heritage. There were horrendous abuses by the slavers, both to Africans and Irish. The records show that the British ship Zong was delayed by storms, and as their food was running low, they decided to dump 132 slaves overboard to drown so the crew would have plenty to eat.
If the slaves died due to “accident”, the loss was covered by insurance, but not if they starved to death. Another British ship, the Hercules averaged a 37% death rate on passages. The Atlas II landed with 65 of the 181 slaves found dead in their chains. But that is another story. The economics of slavery permeated all levels of English life. When the Bishop of Exeter learned that there was a movement afoot to ban the slave trade, he reluctantly agreed to sell his 655 slaves, provided he was properly compensated for the loss. Finally, in 1839, a bill was passed in England forbidding the slave trade, bringing an end to Irish misery. British commerce shifted to opium in China. An end to Irish misery? Well, perhaps just a pause.
During the following decade thousands of tons of butter, grain and beef were shipped from Ireland as over 2 million Irish starved to death in the great famine, and a great many others went to America and Australia. The population of Ireland fell from over 9 million to bottom out at less than 3 million. No movie blockbusters, book signing bonuses for authors writing of these horrors or collective guilt instilled in the masses for these abominable crimes.Below you will find the numerous cited references for this article. Please feel free to do more research on this subject.