Book Review: They Were White and They Were Slaves: The Untold History of Whites in Early America, by Michael A. Hoffman II
by John Spritzler
July 2, 2018
The URL of this article for sharing it is https://www.pdrboston.org/they-were-white-and-slaves
[Also related: "Myths about Slavery & Racism"]
[Also please read "Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow and Genocide against Native Americans"]
This book is a must read. While it has one serious flaw, it more than compensates for that flaw by delivering exactly what the title says it does, with overwhelming evidence and documentation. Hoffman's book has a thesis and a motive for being written, each of which merits attention.
Hoffman's thesis is that in Colonial America in the 17th century and part of the 18th century, the little-known fact is that enormous numbers of Europeans (English, Irish and Scots mainly) were enslaved, literally made slaves. They were kidnapped as children or "transported" as convicts (more often political prisoners, actually), shipped in chains in the holds of boats (where sometimes half died), purchased in the New World, and worked as slaves. They were beaten and tortured and killed and worked to death (literally) with impunity by their masters--the aristocratic English plantation owners; the children were taken away from their parents who were not allowed to marry. They were bought and sold and treated as property. They were no better than black slaves except in one respect that, for the vast majority, made no practical difference: they were considered legally to be human beings with, at least theoretically, some rights, which generally were totally ignored.
Hoffman devotes much of his book to showing that the phrase "indentured servant" is a cover up. Most of the white slaves did not have any indentured contract; they were prisoners of war or just kidnapped children taken into slavery totally against their will. Even the indentured servants seldom were able to survive to the end of their period of indenture; they died from the harsh work regimen and/or because the period of indenture kept being lengthened as punishments for so-called "crimes" such as running away or getting pregnant or even just complaining.
Hoffman refers to these white people as "White slaves." He makes a very persuasive case that this is indeed the appropriate phrase to use. Without a doubt, if anybody living today were placed in the position of these whites, they would certainly agree that they were slaves. (While Hoffman uses a capital "W" in "White," I prefer to not capitalize words denoting a race).
Hoffman discusses how, in the beginning, white slaves were far cheaper than African slaves and for that reason far more numerous. The whites were just snatched from the streets or (in the case of prisoners) handed over to the slave merchants, whereas the Africans had to be purchased (from other Africans). As a result of being cheaper, the slave-owners valued a white slave less than a black one, and for this reason conditions were often more life-threatening for the white slaves than the black ones (white deaths on the slave ships, for example, were a greater percentage than for black deaths.)
But eventually the white slaves began resisting more and more. White slaves could escape more easily than black slaves into the general white population without being so obviously an escaped slave. (The fugitive slave laws, however, were created initially for white slaves.) Black slaves were relatively disadvantaged because of their dark skin color marking them as a slave. Blacks also were less familiar with the European culture and English language. As a result, the slave-owners began to rely more and more on black African slaves despite their greater cost.
Hoffman's motive in writing his book is to express his anger at all of the people who have denied the fact of white slavery and who have demeaned the white slaves and their descendants. For example, poor whites are commonly demeaned as "Rednecks" by people who would never dream of using the analogous "N" word to refer to blacks. During the period of white and black slavery, many upper class people, Hoffman notes, condemned black slavery but turned a blind eye to white slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, did this. Many Quakers also did it.
Hoffman is understandably infuriated by this. Likewise, he's pissed off at all of the historians (and they are legion) who have covered up the fact of white slavery while making it seem as if only blacks were slaves. (In the majority-black elementary school one of my sons attended in Boston the ubiquitous theme was that the black students are the children of slaves and the white students are the children of slave-owners! Psychologically, what this did was make the white students have to choose between a) feeling guilty for being white or b) defending themselves by defending slavery!)
Hoffman is also angry at blacks who have denigrated poor whites (slave or not). For example, he quotes Frederick Douglas in his autobiography, Life and Times, telling how where he was born there was a "white population of the lowest order." He quotes Eugene Genovese's "Rather Be a Nigger Than a Poor White Man: Slave Perceptions of Southern Yeoman and Poor Whites" [in Toward a New View of America, pp. 79, 81-82, 84, 90-91) in part as follows:
Ella Kelly, who had been a slave in South Carolina: "...You know, boss, dese days dere is three kind of people. Lowest down is a layer of white folks, then in de middle is a layer of colored folks, and on top is de cream, a layer of good white folks..."
The slaves noticed their masters sense of superiority toward marginal farmers as well as toward poor whites and, by associating themselves with 'de quality white folks,' strengthened their self-esteem...
This situation engendered a rage in the descendants and survivors of White slavery which has seldom been accounted for in the history of White working class support for the Northern abolitionist cause. We can gauge the attitude of yeoman Whites, especially in the border states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but throughout the U.S.A. as well, who were either neutral during the Confederacy's struggle or sided with Lincoln, from the statement of an Iowa Congressman who maintained that it was the planter aristocracy "which exalts and spreads Africans at the expense of the White race."
The flaw in Hoffman's book is that his understandable anger gets in the way of a discourse that can create the much needed solidarity between ordinary people of different races. Hoffman, for example, discusses the extremely important Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, in which there was tremendous solidarity between the black and white slaves against the aristocratic slave-owners (which I discuss in my "Myths about Slavery & Racism"), but he completely ignores that aspect of the event, writing about it as if there were no black slaves involved at all.
Hoffman is right to be angry at the way white liberals ignored the plight of white slaves while devoting themselves to opposing black slavery. And he is right to be angry that some blacks looked down on poor whites. But he doesn't distinguish between the fact that a) ordinary black people are harmed by having contempt for poor whites, whereas in contrast b) the white upper class benefits from blacks having contempt for poor whites.
Hoffman seems not to understand, or care about, the fact that among ordinary people An Injury to One Is an Injury to All: when ordinary blacks and whites lack solidarity because of mutual contempt and mistrust, it only makes it easier for the upper class to dominate and control both races. As a result, Hoffman tends to respond to the anti-poor-white views of some blacks with reciprocal (and un-helpful) anti-black anger in a kind of confused defense of poor whites.
The flaw is indeed a flaw, but nonetheless one will learn some very important truths from this book, truths that I didn't know before and I suspect most people don't yet know. I strongly encourage you to read this book.