The White Slave Trade

Chapter IV

The White Slave Trade

"The history of our colonization is the history of the. crimes of Europe."1 By "Europe" the American historian' means the ruling classes of Europe, for the serfs and artisans of the European countries certainly had no share in the crimes that accompanied the settlement of the colonies, but were the victims of these crimes.

Few people today know or even suspect that a slave trade in white men, transported to America, reached large proportions in our early history. It is one of those unpleasant facts which historians prefer to dwell on briefly or not at all, so that he who wishes to know the extent and character of this commerce must consult a dreary mass of historical documents, and even then must piece together the fragments of information which his research reveals. And yet any view of our history, including the colonial era and the half century that followed independence, that does not include a knowledge of the gains of this traffic; the sufferings of the victims in the voyage to America; the methods employed to induce them to emigrate; the brutality of the slavers who engaged in it, and the servitude the workers endured in America, is a view as distorted as though one were to describe the wealthy residence section of New York today and hand this view on to posterity as a faithful picture of present civilization. This latter view would leave out of consideration the East Side with its millions in tenement hells and sweatshops, the bread lines, the unemployed, and the hand-to-mouth existence that other multitudes are forced to live.

The historian is invariably a man whose associations and environment have formed an aristocratic type of mind which shrinks from revealing anything that reflects discredit on the "great men" of the past. The past must be vindicated in the interests of the class that today possesses resources originally secured by force, fraud and the servitude of workingmen. And it must be confessed that the writer who would tell the whole truth would pay the penalty by having his work killed by the literary police who pass judgment on literature. It, therefore, happens that in addition to the habits, associations and training which give a conservative cast to the mind of the historian, there is the safeguard that he will not become "sensational,"—that is to say, truthful—because of the penalty his folly would invite. Hence the history of colonial society has been written with one chapter usually left out, and that one more important than the silly gossip of some "statesman" or the love affairs of a colonial flirt.

In considering the slave trade it has been the fashion to dwell entirely on the traffic in negroes, and as this traffic at one time or another was indulged in by the ruling classes of most modern nations, no special discredit attaches to America and its rulers. In fact, one may easily find graphic descriptions of the horrors of this trade. It is certainly revolting to know of the slave raids in Africa by men trained for their work; of the crowding of vessels with •slaves to the limit of their capacity; how the stronger strangled the weaker to get more air; how the stench from below was so great that the slavers could not stand near the hatchways; how the steaming bodies of the dead were constantly cast into the sea; or the wretched spectacle of the half-starved survivors—frequently only one-third of those who embarked—who were finally sold to Southern planters. We may even recoil from the inhumanity that prompted slavers to chain an entire cargo of these unfortunates to an iron cable and with a blow of an ax send them to the bottom of the sea.2

But atrocious as these practices were it is doubtful whether they were not equaled by the practices of the men who engaged in the business of transporting white slaves from European countries to America. The demand for servile labor in a sparsely settled country and the struggle to share in the large profits growing out of the traffic, made abuses inevitable. The gains of the trade took the curse off, for "it takes men a weary while to learn the wickedness of anything that puts gold in their purses." (Fiske.) Fortunately for the ship captains and speculators, as we have seen, the economic changes taking place in Europe provided them a large supply of helpless poor to draw upon.

The London company of adventurers who settled Virginia was eager to employ child labor in developing the resources of the colony. In 1619 its records acknowledge the arrival of one hundred children, "save such as dyed on the waie," and another hundred, twelve years old or over, is asked for. In 1627 many ships arrived, bringing fourteen and fifteen hundred children kidnaped by "spirits"2 in European ports, and a few years later they send a request to London for another supply of "friendless boyes and girles."4 In England Bristol was one of the last cities to give up the traffic in white children sold in American colonies. This city for several hundred years remained a white slave market, where it was "no uncommon thing to behold young girls exposed for sale."5 By 1664 the kidnaping had increased to such proportions that the committee for foreign plantations interfered, and an office was created with the duty of "keeping a record of all persons going to America as servants, and the statement that they had voluntarily left England." A penalty of death was later provided for kidnaping, yet "ten thousand persons were annually kidnaped after the passage of the act."9

Paupers were turned over to corporations, prisons were emptied, and convicts were reprieved to supply the demands of those engaged in the trade.7 Servants shipped at an expense of eight or ten pounds were sometimes sold for forty, fifty, or sixty pounds, and even higher rates. "Like negroes, they were to be purchased on shipboard, as men buy horses at a fair."8 In England men of high positions at the court scrambled for a share in the profits to be secured from the trade in prisoners of war. The mayor of Bristol and other officials terrorized petty offenders into praying for transportation; they "were then divided among members of the court."9 This traffic proved more profitable than the slave trade. So profitable, in fact, that those engaged in it were able to evade, or even suspend, the law which in 1670 provided the death penalty for kidnaping. One authority states that the offense was treated with "remarkable leniency by the courts." Under the Civil Law it would have been punished with death, but we meet with petty fines of a few shillings, even when the 'spirit' confessed the crime, and in one case only I2d., a few hours in the pillory, or imprisonment till the fine was paid seems to have been considered by the judges a sufficient atonement. The Session Rolls of Middlesex show that a large number of the cases were not even brought to trial, though true bills had been brought against the offenders."10

The practice of forcible exportation of poor wretches was taken advantage of by wealthy persons. Those belonging to the upper classes and having family skeletons to conceal or inheritances to secure or some criminal scheme to advance, had objectionable members of their class or family seized and transported to America and sold.11 A niece of Daniel Defoe, the English author, left England in 1718, and having no money to pay her passage, was sold by the ship captain at Philadelphia and later married a relative of her owner.12

We have already mentioned the Neulanders and their work in Europe in stimulating emigration. Though they circulated stories of opportunities to be had in America they were invariably failures themselves, and took up slave-hunting as a profession. Advertising of various kinds was distributed broadcast and the emigration from Germany threatened to depopulate the provinces. The Neulanders received a commission for every person they pursuaded to emigrate, generally three florins or a ducat in Holland, while the merchant in Philadelphia sold them for sixty or eighty florins each in proportion to the debt incurred by the emigrant on the voyage. One Scotchman, in the middle of the eighteenth century, tells of his being kidnaped and, after a six months' voyage, being sold into seven years' servitude at Philadelphia for sixteen pounds.13 From 1682 to 1804 the proportion of white slaves to the whole number of immigrants to Pennsylvania steadily increased, till they constituted two-thirds during the last nineteen years.1* This enormous exodus from Germany and Holland is suggestive of the work of the emigrant hunters in these countries.

These agents came mainly from Pennsylvania as representatives of William Penn or land speculators who had secured land from the immense domains he possessed. Early in the eighteenth century the migration from Rotterdam and then to London reached enormous proportions. Five thousand arrived in the latter city during May and June, 1709. This number was doubled by August and two months later thirteen thousand were in London. Still the stream of deluded pauperized poor swelled. So great was the exodus that it became a serious problem to feed them

while waiting for ships to transport them to America. "Starvation staring the needy Palatines in the face, England for months provided them with food. Having no homes, they were sheltered in barns, empty dwellings, warehouses, and a thousand tents taken from the army stores. The queen allowed each ninepence per day for subsistence, and such lodgings as could best be obtained. The paupers of London grew envious of the provision made for the foreigners, and filed complaints against such exceptional treatment."15

The great numbers congregated in London were transported to Ireland, Louisiana and other places, while Governor Hunter of New York contrived to have three or four thousand sent to that colony. Over half of them died of the overcrowding and disease of the ship. Some were placed upon the great Livingston estate, where the exploitation was so severe that they deserted. Some secured land of the Indians, but after planting crops were informed by the Governor that their titles were void and that they must pay for them. A few submitted and the rest again pushed into the wilderness.18 This process of invalidating titles by grafting governors and collecting fees for reissues was a chronic evil throughout the colonial period in New York, and six or seven years were sufficient for a governor to become wealthy by these practices.

The atrocities which developed with the transportation of emigrants would be incredible were it not for the unimpeachable evidence collected in a few works. We have shown the kidnaping of blacks in Africa duplicated by the kidnaping of whites in Europe. The overcrowding of ships in the African slave trade, with its consequent horrors of epidemics of scurvy and small pox, deaths by starvation, smothering and violence, also had their counterpart in the white slave trade of American ship masters with Europe. In fact, some of the details of this traffic are sickening and are scarcely exceeded in cruelty by the deeds of barbarous peoples who lack the culture of civilization. The death of a black slave on the voyage to America meant a distinct loss to the slaver; but death did not always rob the ship captain of his profits on the white slave trade. The white slavers managed to collect a toll of death by providing that "surviving relatives of those who died at sea after the vessel had made more than one-half of the journey, were held responsible for the debts of the deceased.""

Not all those who left Europe did so with the intention of serving a period of years in the colonies to pay for their passage. Many of them, after many sacrifices, saved sufficient sums to pay the expense of the voyage. But ship captains, co-operating with Neulanders, contrived methods by which they robbed emigrants of their money and sold them into servitude to pay debts contracted on the voyage. In the journey from their homes to the ships tolls, fees and duties were exacted on their baggage. The baggage itself, often containing money or valuables, was either stolen or sent by another boat leaving the emigrant at the mercy of the ship master. Enormous prices were also charged for meals so that the poor wretches thus swindled were sold on their arrival in America to pay for debts forced upon them. Even those whose funds were not exhausted by these practices had no guarantee that they would not be sold. "The well-to-do would have to pay for those who could not, or be themselves sold as redemptioners. This arrangement protected the captain against loss, in case a large number of redemptioners died on the way, and also gave him an excuse for extortions. The Germans of Philadelpha attempted to legislate against these abuses, beginning in 1750, but were for a long time unsuccessful, because of the presence in high places of influential grafters heavily interested in the profits of immigrant transportation."1* It may be said in passing, in that day the payment of fare did not include board, and as the immigrant's provisions were often with his baggage, the theft of these left him at the mercy of his exploiters.

However, this robbery, bad as it is, is humane compared with the terrible experience of these unfortunates on board the ships. Here the wretchedness growing out of the avarice of the slavers runs the gamut of human suffering. The large profits to be obtained from the traffic led to overcrowding. Almshouses and prisons were emptied to secure human merchandise for American employers. "The crowded exportation of Irish Catholics," Brancroft writes, "was a frequent event, and was attended by aggravations hardly inferior to the usual atrocities of the African slave trade."10 Starvation and death from thirst were common occurrences. Shipwrecks were also frequent and reports of these were suppressed in Europe. Two thousand died in one year of diseases resulting from overcrowding. One ship sailing in 1730 with 150 emigrants, had only 13 survivors. Another sailed in 1745 with 400 Germans, of whom only 50 lived to see America. Still another bearing

lSFaust, "The German Element in the United States," Vol. I, p. 69. See also Geiser, "Redemptioners," p. 43.

lOQuoted by Washington, "The Story of the Negro," Vol. I, p. 110. 1,500 lost 1,100 from deaths on the voyage. Children seldom survived the journey; "many a time parents are compelled to see their children die of hunger, thirst or sickness, and then see them cast into the water. Few women in confinement escaped with their lives; many a mother is cast into the water with her child."20

The space allotted to the emigrants on board ship accounts for the frightful mortality from disease. Emigrant ships sailing from Holland packed their passengers in a space two feet wide and six feet long. The rations served are small and poor; the drinking water is black, thick and full of worms; spoiled biscuits, full of red worms and spider's nests, are served to the starving. Hunger on one boat drove the starving men to break into the food apartment for which all the passengers were punished. The men received no bread and the women only one biscuit. Twenty men, women and children died of hunger. "The hunger was so great on board that all the bones about the ship

. were pounded with a hammer and eaten; and what is more lamentable, some of the deceased persons, not many hours before their death, crawled on their hands and feet to the captain, and begged him for God's sake, to give them a mouthful of bread or a drop of water to keep them from perishing, but their supplications were in vain; he most obstinately refused, and thus did they perish."21 Mittleberger, a German traveler, mentions "thirty-two children in our ship, all of whom were thrown in the sea.

. Children who have not yet had the measles or small pox generally get them on board the ship, and mostly

20Faust, "The German Element," Vol. I, pp. 70-71. See also Geiser, "Redemptioners" (p'. 48), for account of deaths from starvation and disease.

2iGeiser, "Redemptioners," p. 49, quoting Mittleberger, a German traveler who wrote in 1750.

die of them . . . sometimes whole families die in quick succession; so that often many dead persons lie in the berths beside the living ones, when contagious diseases have broken out. . . ."22

When these slave ships landed at Philadelphia or other ports the scenes were pathetic in the extreme. The immigrants are examined before the ship casts anchor. Those not paying their passage are advertised in the newspapers for sale. Unmarried people of both sexes find ready buyers. Old married people, widows and the feeble, are a drug on the market, unless they have healthy children who assume the debts of the parents, which extends the period of their servitude. But "the sick are frequently detained beyond the period of recovery, when a release would frequently have saved them."23 When land is sighted the wretches crowd the deck and weep and sing and pray and praise God. But the rejoicings soon cease and give way to cries of despair because "parents must sell and trade away their children like so many cattle."2* Batches of twenty-five and fifty are purchased by the hated "soul drivers" and retailed to wealthy farmers. This auction of white flesh is a common occurrence in Philadelphia and excites no more comment than the sale of hogs.

To see loved ones sold with the possibility of never seeing them again was dreadful; but to remain in the clutches of the slavers seemed a worse evil than to be sold. To escape the ship captain and forget the tragedies of the voyage was the consuming desire of the victims. In fact, many felt disappointed if not purchased. William Eddis,

22Geiser, p. 50.

23Faust, "The German Element in the United States," Vol. I, pp. 66-67.

24Geiser, "Redemptioners," p. 52.

an English traveler who boarded a white slave ship in Philadelphia forty-one years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence (1817), describes an incident of this kind. "As we ascended the side of the hulk," he writes, "a most revolting scene of want and misery presented itself. The eye involuntarily turned for some relief from the horrible picture of human suffering which this living sepulchre afforded. Mr enquired if there were any shoemakers on board. The captain advanced; his appearance bespoke his office, he was an American, tall, determined, and with an eye that flashed with Algerine cruelty. He called in the Dutch language for shoemakers, and never can I forget the scene which followed. The poor fellows came running up with unspeakable delight, no doubt anticipating a relief from their loathsome dungeon. Their clothes, if rags deserve that denomination, actually perfumed the air. Some were without shirts, others had this article of dress, but of a quality as coarse as the worst packing cloth. . When they saw at our departure that we had not purchased, their countenances fell to that standard of stupid gloom which seemed to place them a link below rational beings."25 As though the frightful conditions of the voyage were not sufficient to break the spirit of the victims of the slave trade, corporal punishment was administered for many offenses. Just how widespread this practice was cannot be determined with certainty, but that it prevailed there can be no doubt. John Harrower, a redemptioner, kept a diary / from 1773 to 1776. He relates, among other things, the experience of a servant, Daniel Turner, who returned to the ship drunk, and for using abusive language toward two officers he was horsewhipped, "put in irons and thumb

25Quoted by Geiser, p. 57.

screwed." One hour later he was released from the screws, taken out of the irons and bound and gagged for the remainder of the night.26

The diseases contracted on the voyage by those whose destination was Philadelphia alarmed the inhabitants of that city. On the recommendation of Governor Thomas of Pennsylvania in 1742, an act was passed providing for the purchase of a site for a pest-house. Laws had been passed at an earlier period prohibiting the landing of convicts, lunatics and those infected with contagious diseases, but ship captains managed to smuggle these classes ashore during the night. Ship masters also acquired the habit of confiscating the property of the dead.

The pest-house law remained a dead letter, for seven years later a petition is presented to the assembly asserting, among other things, "that for want of suitable buildings and other conveniences, the sick had been induced to wander from one place to another, without care, and to the manifest danger of the inhabitants." From this we would judge that the "grafters in high places" were still on good terms with the slavers and shared in the latter's spoils. More acts were passed, but were easily evaded or not enforced. "In the act of 1749, for example, which was primarily intended to prevent the importation of passengers in too great numbers in a single vessel by specifying the space that each passenger should have, no provision was made for the height of each berth. Vessels were still crowded as much as before the act was passed. To comply with the two dimensions specified by law, the berths were so constructed as to reduce the former height, thus giving

2s"Documentary History of American Industrial Society," Vol. I, p. 368.

no increase in the number of cubic feet per capita. On the whole the conditions through the middle of the century were bad. The increase of immigration brought with it an increase of disorder. The sick were neglected; contracts made in Europe between importers and passengers were disregarded; immigrants were sold into service to pay the fare of friends or relatives who had died on the journey; husband, wife and children were still separated by being sold to different masters; passengers were robbed of their baggage on landing, and held and treated as prisoners until sold."21

As stated in a previous chapter the Revolution brougnt few changes in legislation to improve the lot of imported servants and, in Pennsylvania, "not until a law was passed preventing imprisonment for debt did the merchants and importers lose their grip on this most lucrative traffic."28 And improved conditions in debtors' prisons did not take place till 1814. A law of Pennsylvania in 1794, passed ostensibly to provide food, clothing and shelter to the poor in the debtors' prison in Philadelphia, granted only seven cents a day for food for each prisoner !29

Such was the white slave trade to America from the earliest days of colonization down to a period which closed with the election of the seventh president of the United States. Only the superiority of the negro as an agricultural slave and the gradual cheapening of wage labor finally put an end to indentured servitude and the slave traffic based upon it. One may search the resolutions, platforms, or declarations of the Federalist and anti-Federalist or other

27Gelser, "Redemptioners," p. 64. 28Ibid, p. 70.

29McMaster, "The Acquisition of the Political, Social and Industrial Eights of Man in America," p. 51.

parties down to the administration of President Jackson, when the system of indentured service finally disappeared, at least in the North, and he will look in vain for any denunciation of the atrocities reviewed in this chapter and the one preceding it. Only one party even mentioned it. This was a remnant of the almost dead Federalist party of Washington and Adams, which met in Hartford, Connecticut, in December, 1814. Among the resolutions adopted by the convention is a demand for a constitutional amendment providing that "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included in this Union, according to their respective numbers of free persons, including those bound to serve for a term of years and excluding Indians not taxed, and all other persons."80 Like the aristocrats who met in the constitutional convention twenty-seven years before, these gentlemen regarded the white slaves only as living merchandise to estimate the share of political power to be apportioned among the property owners of that time. For it must not be forgotten that property qualifications for the suffrage in the states excluded the mass of workers from the privilege of voting.

But the system did not entirely disappear at this time. Peonage or the debt system of servitude still prevailing in some of the Southern states is one heritage of it. As we shall see later, it was also resorted to in many of the Central States almost to the time of the Civil War by owners of negroes to avoid coming in conflict with the federal prohibition of slavery in that section. In some of the Southern states it existed with scarcely any modifications at all

30Raynolds, "National Platforms and Political History," p. 12, Chicago, 1896.

down to the rebellion. In many of the Northern states of the Mississippi Valley the indentured codes were drawn upon as models for selling various offenders for limited terms of servitude when they were unable to pay fines.

When William Henry Harrison was a candidate for President in 1840, his opponents published broadcast his action in 1807 when as Governor of Indiana Territory, he approved the act of that year which provided for the sale of those unable to pay fines or the costs of suits at law. Also when a member of the Ohio legislature in 1821 he voted for an act, one section of which provided that "when any person shall be imprisoned, either upon execution or otherwise, for non-payment of a fine or costs, or both, it shall be lawful for the Sheriff of the county to sell out such person as a servant to any person within this State, who will pay the whole amount due, for the shortest period of service."81

In Georgia a code was compiled by Howell Cobb and adopted by the General Assembly in 1859. The section on Indentured Servants was, according to its preamble, to settle the question as to whether contracts signed in European countries would be recognized as binding in Georgia when presented by masters or ship captains having a batch of servants for sale. The act provided that the terms and conditions of such indentures should be recognized and fulfilled under Georgia laws. Should a servant fail to carry out the contract the master could bring him before any three justices of a county who decided the issue and had power to bind the servant. The justices were empowered to decide the ages of the servants brought before

them and the terms they were to serve. The act further provided for the care of servants, against immoderate correction, and cautioned against whipping them naked until master and servant had been heard by the justices. Servants could make complaint of ill-treatment before any justice who, "if he finds cause," may bind the master over until the complaint is heard before the Inferior Court. The court was given discretion to "adjudge, order and appoint what shall be necessary and proper, as well with respect to the diet, lodging, clothing and excessive labor, as to the correction of the servant or servants, complaining." If the court or the three justices decided that a servant's complaint was unfounded the "moderate punishment" of thirtynine lashes was ordered by the court. Should the servant absent himself from his owner's service, the court was authorized to bind the servant "for such absence, a term, not exceeding four days for every day's absence, more than the time he or she were originally indented for, by an order, entered as aforesaid, on the court books."

It is clear enough that the negro slave had every real advantage of his white brother in servitude, except in the duration of servitude. And even as to the duration of servitude the law itself, as it must have been administered by the class in power, contained no substantial guarantee for the servant. One section provides what might virtually lead to the quadrupling and indefinite extension of the term of service. Any poor alien, independent of whether he had paid his passage or promised to indent himself, could be very easily, and doubtless often was, enslaved by the ship's master upon arrival, and sold to some planter. The naked word of the friendless and penniless alien could not have gone far against the word of a jolly, sociable ship captain in a court composed of planter squires, themselves always in the market for cheap human flesh, and themselves often the convivial chums and hosts of the jolly captain himself, when he chanced into a Georgia port. The whole act, looked at from the servant's point of view, is full of what we moderns call "jokers."

The servant who haled his master into court for redress of any grievance, was certain to have wound up with the statutory "thirty-nine lashes," except in such rare cases as that of an extremely unpopular master. Any one who knows anything of human nature and of the relative influence of landed and powerful landed gentry on one hand, and of ignorant, penniless aliens on the other, with the magistrates empowered to construe this act and the contracts, or pretended contracts, named, must know that this act opened the doors of Georgia to a most aggravated species of piracy in the bodies of men and women, to continue as long as there was any profit in the purchase of such labor on this side of the sea.32

In the states north of Georgia the system assumed various guises. A traveler in 1819-20 mentions an advertisement in the "Aurora," of Philadelphia, issue of March 25, 1820, in which blacks are listed for sale, together with white boys and girls whose ages ranged from eight to thirteen years.33 Another traveler in Ohio about the same time mentions children of poor families who are bound out to employers; boys to the. age of twenty-one, and girls to

321 wish to express my indebtedness to Mr. C. D. Rivers of Summerville, Georgia, for the text of this Georgia code. The comment and analysis of its provisions are also his with the exception of a few slight changes that I have made.

S3Welby, "English Settlements," in Early Western Travels, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaltes, Vol. XII, p. 306.

eighteen.3* Writing from Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1819, he observes that "Runaway apprentices, slaves and wives are frequently advertised."35 The constitutional convention of Virginia, which met in 1829, based the suffrage on property qualifications, and apportioned representatives in Congress according to population defined as all free persons, including those bound to service, and three-fifths of the slaves.36 A decade before this period Virginia hired out vagrants for the best terms that could be secured, and those who ran away were dealt with as runaway servants. In Georgia and Alabama vagabonds and disorderly persons were sold, or if a buyer was not found, they were whipped. Louisiana imprisoned vagrants from six months to three years or the sheriffs bound them out for like terms. Missouri sold them for six months at public auction.37 In Maryland those unable to pay fines were held thirty days in jail, and if, during that time, security for payment of the fine within six months was not provided, the sheriff sold the prisoner at auction for a term not exceeding one year. This act also became a law in the District of Columbia, and was still in force in 1840.38 Poverty was still a crime in most of the states, and our early "statesmen" transformed its victims into private convicts for budding capitalists.

A curious by-product of indentured servitude was the adoption of the system by slave owners in the territory northwest of the River Ohio. The Ordinance of 1787 providing for the government of this territory was, as stated in an

other chapter, "the first great land job of the Republic."39 Article VI of the Ordinance provided that "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory." Among the first laws adopted by the government of the Northwest Territory was one providing that when certain offenders were unable to pay fines the sheriff, by direction of the court, could bind such offenders to labor for a term not exceeding seven years, to any person who would pay the fine.40

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