Did white slavery exist?

"These people first had to undergo a racial transformation"

By Salon Staff

Published June 19, 2000 7:02PM (EDT)

Slaves of a different color

I was both puzzled and bemused at Stephan Talty's article in which he reports the shocking -- shocking, I tell you! -- news that some whites were also enslaved alongside Africans in this country. Both scholars and casual readers of African-diasporan history have long been familiar with Talty's revelation through the works of Joel A. Rogers, whom the writer mercifully credits, and other writers who did not buy the standard line on this nation's peculiar institution. The information he is presenting is hardly new. Another open secret that the author may want to "discover" was the clandestine use of Filipinos as slaves in colonial Mexico. Around 100,000 of them were imported into Mexico via Manila to sate the Spaniard lust for more free labor.

I was disturbed by Talty's inability to articulate the central truth that so-called "white slavery" confirmed: that the primary criterion used to determine fitness for slavery (and consequently, the suitability for institutional exploitation) was blackness. Those European Americans would not have been enslaved if they had not been declared "black" first. Similarly, the greed of the Spaniards in Mexico forced them to circumvent their own laws and declare those Filipinos as "Africans" so that they could be legally enslaved. In both instances, slave owners condemned two non-African groups to the living hell of slavery. Yet both times, these people first had to undergo a racial transformation into "Africans" before their labor could be so callously exploited. Talty's piece hardly sets our knowledge of slavery on its head; it does little more than verify it in a mainstream forum.

Talty may yet regale us with other new discoveries after boning up on some more "obscure" African-diasporan history. Perhaps next, he will release a daring and controversial article on the phenomenon of African-American slaveholders in the Deep South. He might have crafted a more interesting read if he had tackled the well-documented story of "real" Africans and their descendants, first manumitted through their own enterprise or through the guilt of some dying slave owner, yet found themselves returned to the slave barracks due to the duplicity of various slave catchers and unscrupulous auctioneers.

-- Olayinka Fadahunsi

The belief that whites were never sold into slavery in America must be a Northern ignorance. As a child in southern Louisiana I knew about this, I was told by my grandfather. It was common enough that it was not talked about. They were usually immigrants, always poor. Often kidnapped, but sometimes they were children or wives sold to pay debts or just because they would fetch a good price. And they were sold as blacks. Even though everyone knew they were white. Because even in the selling of white slaves, slavery in America is a black thing.

-- Wahrena Brown

Americans oversimplify the characterizations of the divisions between the races, acting as though they have always been as they are right now. What about how different immigrants were treated in different eras? Just a little digging into the history of immigration reveals a "whitening" of particular ethnic groups, such as Jews, Irish, Italians, etc. These groups were not always considered "white." There was a big difference between Western Europeans and Eastern Europeans. The Anglo-Saxon defined what "white" was and everything else was inferior to that standard at some point or another. Many groups of immigrants, especially those that were poor, were treated and thought of as just as "subhuman" as blacks when they arrived in the U.S. But now they're all considered "white."

Look at the history of how Asian-Americans have been treated. When the transcontinental railroad was constructed in the late 1800s the Chinese laborers who were used to build the railroad where referred to as the "heathen Chinee" and compared regularly with blacks. At first they were thought of as "less than" blacks, but then they were thought of as better laborers because of language barriers and because the young male laborers had left their families in China. They weren't "owned" the same as blacks, but they were thought of as equal to or less than blacks. Now many Asian groups are considered "white" or a "model minority." There are other histories of "negroizing" undesirable whites and non-black people.

-- Hedda Kniess

The fact that there were cases of white slavery is a fascinating historical fact and further points out the barbarity and depravity of the entire slave trade. Just as we are told that we should never forget about the Holocaust, we should not forget this dark period in American history. The sad fact, however, is that we do not learn the lessons of these terrible events. Rather than try to stop the continuing acts of genocide and slavery (slavery continues in Mali and the Sudan) that exist right now in Africa and other parts of the world, Americans would rather fight the battles of 50 or 150 years ago. They are focused on extracting apologies and recompense from the descendants of those responsible for horrific past deeds and they do nothing about alleviating the suffering of their fellow human beings today.

-- Martin Kannengieser

Stephan Talty refers to my book "They Were White and They Were Slaves," as "a compendium of quotes pulled from 17th and 18th century documents." He then writes that "Hoffman's far-right followers need little hard evidence to get misty about injustices perpetrated on their kin ..."

If my book is documented, as Talty says that it is, then it is this documentation and not "far-right" convictions which persuade my readers that I have made a case for injustice perpetrated against poor and working class whites in servitude in early America.

-- Michael A. Hoffman II

Stephan Talty couldn't have done much research on "white slavery" in the antebellum South if he failed to read "The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look at the Slavery Issue" by Lawrence R. Tenzer. If he had done so, Talty would know that "white slavery" was an important factor in increasing the tensions between North and South that ultimately led to the Civil War. Consider these issues that Talty failed to address:

  • Why was slavery the great moral and political issue of the antebellum period if it affected only blacks, a people who were deemed an "inferior race"? The answer is that Northern whites were aware of the fact that slavery was not limited to blacks but posed a constant danger to whites as well because of the maternal descent rule of inherited slave status augmented by the kidnapping of "pure" whites. Unlike the politically correct Talty, Northern whites did not easily distinguish between the "pure" and the "impure" white. Travelers and commentators on Southern life, both Northern and foreign, were SHOCKED to see people as white as themselves held as slaves. Talty may dismiss his fellow Americans of European descent as "light-skinned blacks" (an insulting and odious oxymoron) distinguished from real "Caucasians," but most antebellum whites recognized a fellow Caucasian when they saw one.

  • Why did Northern states exercise their "states' rights" by passing personal liberty laws to nullify the effects of the federal Fugitive Slave Law if it posed no danger to whites? This law gave the accused slave no right to bring witnesses, have a jury or any other forms of due process. The judge was authorized by the law to receive a larger fee if he ruled against the accused slave than if he ruled in his or her favor. Tenzer shows that, when you consider the low wages of the average Southern white male, coupled with the sharp rises in slave prices during the 1850s, slave catching was a tempting business. The slave catcher would earn more with one kidnapping expedition than he could earn by a year or two of hard labor. Who is fool enough to believe that a dubious sense of white brotherhood would keep a Southern slave catcher from capturing anyone who looked like the fugitive -- "pure" white or not?

  • Why did abolitionist literature constantly emphasize white slavery? It's hard to find an abolitionist novel that doesn't feature quadroons, octoroons, etc. If slavery was justified by "race," shouldn't a "white" slave be free? The pro-slavery apologists replied that SLAVERY WHITE OR BLACK was justified and the institution didn't need an "inferior race" to justify its existence.

  • Why did Republican political literature use the threat of white slavery to galvanize voters if it was a marginal issue? Southern pro-slavery apologists constantly stated that their slaves were better off than free white laborers in the North. More than that, the pro-slavery intellectuals defended slavery as a good in and of itself, regardless of "race" or "color." While the current fashion is to argue that Southern states (called the Slave Power in the North) were merely resisting the tyranny of a federal government, we forget that the Slave Power effectively controlled Congress and the presidency for most of the antebellum period. Northern whites had seen the Fugitive Slave Act shoved down their throats, the mails censored, and the expansion of slavery into new territories. Abraham Lincoln wasn't the only one who knew that the nation couldn't exist half slave and half free -- it would become ALL SLAVE or all free. If slave society had triumphed over free society, who is naive enough to think that greedy slave owners wouldn't have used their power to add many poor whites and Indians to their human property?

    Finally, Talty should know that "Negro blood" by itself did not confine anyone to slavery. If the maternal descent line was from a white female or had been broken by manumission, the descendants were free. Southern white people could legally have more Negro ancestry than some unfortunate slaves because the definition of "white" usually allowed between one-fourth and one-eighth "negro blood" in a free person of otherwise European ancestry. Many people moved from "free colored" or "mulatto" to "white" with no "Imitation of Life" secrecy involved. The children of the infamous Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson union would have been legally "white" once manumitted. For more information on this issue, please see my review of "The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War."

    -- A.D. Powell

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