White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America

White Cargo tells the story of the 300,000 plus urchins, prostitutes, criminals and those without social blemish or criminal record who were taken from the British Isles during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and sent as forced labour to the American colonies. While the circumstances and stories of those shipped across the Atlantic against their will differed, the horrors of the journey did not. Sadly for them, the arrival marked the start of the living nightmare that was life in what would later be called “the land of the free.” The sole consolation for the “indentured servants” was that their life expectancy in the American colonies was two years.

A book on slavery and its brutalities could be a depressing read, but this is not. Rather than cause depression, the material is so shocking that it is more likely to provoke anger. Don Jordan and Michael Walsh use diaries, letters and court and government documents to create a work that deals sensitively with suffering while avoiding sentimentality and sensationalism. Ample references and notes also prove useful, allowing one to follow up any of the copious sources used. For all of the evil that the subject matter portrays, the book reads extremely well and leaves one feeling that visceral disgust for such a trade.

This fast-moving narrative history reads like a documentary, perhaps to be expected from two documentary film makers who worked at World in Action. They bring their storytelling skills with them, creating clear, lasting images of time and place. Both victims and perpetrators come alive in a series of wonderfully observed pen portraits.

The hardback edition of this book was published to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007. At the time of publication, some reviewers stupidly suggested that it was somehow possible to diminish the suffering of black slaves by highlighting the pain of white slaves and indentured servants who preceded them. Slavery is hell for the slave, whatever his colour.

There should be hesitation in agreeing to review fairly and honestly a work by colleagues or fellow Frontline Club members. With integrity intact, this reviewer wonders if billing this as a “forgotten history” is strictly accurate. Perhaps that was the publisher’s decision. It is, however, probably true to say that for a great many readers this will be the first time they have been exposed to this particularly dark phase of British history.

Reviewer: Eamonn Gearon is a freelance journalist and writer, who works largely in the Middle East and North and Central Africa.