Review by Choice Review
The historical film documentary is a sophisticated popular art form in Britain. This book by two documentary film writers brings the methods and assumptions of that art into print. The subject is the forced migration into Colonial America of some 200,000 to 300,000 Britons who were "slaves in all but name." The result is a colorful series of portraits of villains and victims, exploiters and exploited, rendered with bemused outrage. The work centers on Virginia, Maryland, and Barbados during the 17th century, where imported servants included street children, criminals, vagrants, Irish captives, and youth kidnapped mainly from ports. The awful conditions of work and transport and the appalling death rates are not slighted. Nor are the initiators and perpetrators. The portraits of such Jacobean rascals as Sir John Popham, a highwayman who became chief justice in England, are particularly good. The last third of the book, on the 18th century, is a comparative account of German and Scot immigrant workers. The 19 chapters are short. The bibliography of primary and secondary sources is extensive. Footnoting is erratic and is not paginated. There are also uncited anomalies such as "maroon communities of the Cumberland Plateau" during the 1680s. In short, this is decent popular history. Summing Up: Recommended. General, public, and undergraduate collections. R. P. Gildrie emeritus, Austin Peay State University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
Were America's first slaves white? This book says they were. EVERY schoolchild recognizes certain images of this nation's darker side: slaves kidnapped from their native lands, shipped in disease-ridden holds, traded like animals, and then whipped and worked on America's plantations. Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, both of whom have made documentaries and both of whom live in London, retell that familiar tale - although the victims here are not Africans but English, Irish and Scottish people, sent to the colonies largely against their will in the 17th and 18th centuries. "White Cargo" begins with the discovery of a 17th-century skeleton in Maryland in 2003; it turned out to be that of a boy, about 16 years old, who had suffered from tuberculosis and injuries consistent with hard labor. Presumably he had been a slave, since his body had not been properly buried, but thrown into the basement of a home near Annapolis, "in a hole under a pile of household waste." He was northern European, probably British, one of tens of thousands of victims of a century-long practice, stretching from Boston to Barbados, that treated whites as slaves and that largely predated both the black slave trade and American independence. Mainstream histories refer to these laborers as indentured servants, not slaves, because many agreed to work for a set period of time in exchange for land and rights. The authors argue, however, that slavery applies to any person who is bought and sold, chained and abused, whether for a decade or a lifetime. Many early settlers died long before their indenture ended or found that no court would back them when their owners failed to deliver on promises. And many never achieved freedom or the American dream they were seeking. This vividly written book tells the tale from both sides of the Atlantic. Its condemnation is aimed at both American planters and the English elite, who were blinded by greed, arrogance and a desire to get rid of their "society's sweepings." Horribly, one of the first groups sent to America was made up of street children, ages 8 to 16, who arrived in 1619. This slave trade, which the authors say was often "dressed up in bright humanitarian clothes" for the public, later extended to beggars, Gypsies, prostitutes, dissidents, convicts and anyone else who displeased the upper classes. Founders like George Washington do not fare particularly well, but Sir John Popham and Oliver Cromwell come off worse. Benjamin Franklin is one of the few good guys. John Popham sent convicts to America. "White Cargo" is meticulously sourced and footnoted - which is wise, given its contentious material - but it is never dry or academic. Quotations from 17th- and 18th-century letters, diaries and newspapers lend authenticity as well as color. Excerpts from wills, stating how white servants should be passed down along with livestock and furniture, say more than any textbook explanation could. The authors are not only historians, but also natural storytellers with a fine sense of drama and character. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, their playful way with words and love of literary allusion come through. There are kidnapping victims of the kind written about in Daniel Defoe's "Colonel Jack," and a tumultuous ocean voyage that may have inspired Shakespeare's writing of "The Tempest." What little discussion there is about this forgotten bit of American history is sometimes linked to those with ulterior political motives, usually interested in delegitimizing current-day discourse about race or the teaching of black history. "White Cargo," which was first published in Britain last year, has a refreshing sense of distance and neutrality. The authors take care to quote African-American sources and clearly state that they have no wish to play down the horrors of the much larger black slave trade that followed. If anything, Jordan and Walsh offer an explanation of how the structures of slavery - black or white - were entwined in the roots of American society. They refrain from drawing links to today, except to remind readers that there are probably tens of millions of Americans who are descended from white slaves without even knowing it. Joyce Hor-Chung Lau is an editor in the Hong Kong office of The International Herald Tribune.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
High school American history classes present indentured servitude as a benignly paternalistic system whereby colonial immigrants spent a few years working off their passage and went on to better things. Not so, this impassioned history argues: the indentured servitude of whites was comparable in most respects to the slavery endured by blacks. Voluntary indentures arriving in colonial America from Britain were sold on the block, subjected to backbreaking work on plantations, poorly fed and clothed, savagely punished for any disobedience, forbidden to marry without their master's permission, and whipped and branded for running away. Nor were indentures always voluntary: tens of thousands of convicts, beggars, homeless children and other undesirable Britons were transported to America against their will. Given the hideous mortality rates, the authors argue, indentured contracts often amounted to a life sentence at hard labor-some convicts asked to be hanged rather than be sent to Virginia. The authors, both television documentarians, don't attempt a systematic survey of the subject, and their episodic narrative often loses its way in colorful but extraneous digressions. Still, their expose of unfree labor in the British colonies paints an arresting portrait of early America as gulag. 8 pages of photos. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Two British journalists unravel a significant history of indentured servitude in the New World. Before the 18th century, when Southern tobacco grandees and West Indian sugar planters imported Africans for cheap labor, the New World was the forced destination of many of England's unwanted--the rootless, the unemployed, the criminal and the dissident. Jordan and Walsh systematically dispel the creation myth--"in which early American settlers are portrayed as free men and women who created a democratic and egalitarian model society more or less from scratch"--surrounding the arrival of the English settlers by documenting several waves of "victims of empire" who were often treated as savagely as black slaves and toiled alongside them: boatloads of children raked up from the streets of London, forcibly transported to places like Virginia, sold to planters and often dead within a year; vagrants and petty criminals, ranging from beggars to prostitutes; the Irish, dehumanized and deported under Oliver Cromwell's ethnic-cleaning policy; the kidnapped, often young people snatched from the streets by " 'spirits' working to satisfy the colonial hunger for labor"; and the so-called "free-willers," who agreed to become indentured servants in return for free passage and perhaps an illusory plot of land. The authors work chronologically, beginning with England's Vagrancy Act of 1597, under which "persistent rogues" could be banished to the fledging colonies. As the first 100 street children were rounded up and sent off to work the tobacco fields of Virginia by 1618, kidnapping, or "spiriting," became so prevalent and feared that it appeared in the work of Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. The authors conclude with the abject floating British prisons off the coast of newly independent America. An eye-opening work to be read alongside Richard S. Reddie's forthcoming Abolition!: The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies (2008). Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.