In March, 2010, South Africa’s President Zuma’s made his third visit to a poor white Afrikaner informal settlement in Bethlehem, Pretoria West. Many people were surprised by the fact that such a community existed believing that all whites benefited socially and economically from Apartheid. This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa and examples of European hardship and poverty can be found in just about all the colonies of all nations even during the height of colonial power.
This should not be surprising at all. European working class people were the work horse of the ‘age of discovery’ and the fodder of many of the new settlements that sprung up over the new colonies. These were people desperate to seek out new lives and make their fortunes and if there was an inadequate supply, the ruling rich classes found a way man their overseas processions.
The British proclamation of 1625 allowed for the selling of Irish political prisoners as labourers to English planters settling in the West Indies. This policy which started some 200 years of Irish slavery resulted in a large forced Irish diaspora in the Caribbean and New England. Nearly 70% of the small Caribbean Island of Montserrat’s population were Irish in the 1637 census and it is still known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean due to its high Irish descendant population and the high incidence of ‘red hair’. In all some 300,000 Irish people are estimated to have been affected by this policy. Gradually, the Irish slaves were replaced by African slaves and for some time these slaves were kept side by side. History shows that being a descendant of a slave confers poverty on many generations to follow and it is likely that not many of these Irish descendants became rich and powerful. Later generations of Irish immigrants especially to the United States fared better.
Exporting the undesirables was not limited to the Irish. During the 18th century some 50,000 British convicts were also sent to the penal colonies in the Americas, some under a system of indentured labour. After the American Revolution, convicts were then shipped to the new Australian territories. The British were not the only ones to ship out the convicts, France and the Netherlands also used the system. Many of those shipped to the colonies did not make it back to their homeland. Many stayed to work on, some would have moved to cities and towns to seek better working conditions, better wages and probably mostly stayed poor working class.
The poor’s circumstances in Europe and sometimes working class ambition allowed the practise of indentured labour to flourish. In return for passage to a new life, food, clothing and shelter, millions of people sold themselves or others for a limited period between 5 and 7 years into virtual slavery (see In Search of Pastures New aka the Poor Man’s Burden). Indentured labour is one of the primary means by which the European populations in the new American colonies were increased. In the early days at the end of the indentured period, a small payment of some sort was made. In some cases it was even a piece of land. How many of the millions of released indentured servants went on to be large estate holders or grew a fortune is likely to be small. It is more likely that they remained working, albeit for higher wages or later in the colonial period moved to the cities and towns to seek better paid conditions – adding to the growing white working classes of the colonies.
It is likely that the new working classes were those employed to manage the growing African slave populations in the Americas. They would have been the slave drivers and plantation overseers. As slavery was abolished, a new black underclass formed not only in the countryside but in the cities where many freed slaves moved to seek paid work. The competition to the white working classes will have prompted the racist and restrictive practices that sought to protect the white supremacy. However, having that protection did not necessarily entail lack of poverty. Many white people remained poor, particularly in the rural areas.
Indentured labour may have been one escape from poverty but military service was a much longer tradition. The foot soldiers of pre-colonial and colonial eras were deliberately recruited from the poorer sections of societies. The Officers and the colonial civil servants may have come from the higher echelons of European societies but it was those seeking a way out that bulked the numbers. Both the Dutch East India Company and British South African Company, commercial companies with Royal charters, both maintained private armies and police forces. The recruits were originally recruited at home but later included indigenous people. In the case of Cecil John Rhodes’ British South African Company, soldiers were offered land after service in what was later to become Rhodesia. If the diseases did not kill them, many of these men traded their land for a few dollars to spend in the bars and brothels of frontier towns like Bulawayo. Many died poor in the despair of broken promises. The land eventually became large rolling estates in the hands of the rich and powerful few.
Nothing fires the poor’s imagination as the thought of a quick fortune. From the early Brazil Gold Rush in Minas Gerais in 1695 where nearly half of Brazil’s non-ethnic population ended living around the fields, through several US rushes such as the California Gold Rush (1848–1855) which brought some 300,000 people to California and the population tripling Australian Victorian gold rush was a between 1851 and the late 1860s, the poor have flocked to seek an escape. There are numerous stories of people who found and kept, found and lost their fortunes but there are many more of those who failed and died seeking their out the riches. Gold was not the only allure, precious stones such as diamonds called out to those fortune seekers, the most famous being that of South Africa’s Kimberley Mine in 1871. Localised fortune rushes continue to this day. A recent Diamond rush happened during the economic downturn in the modern state of Zimbabwe, only stopped by Government intervention. The output of which is currently challenging the established Kimberley process with diamonds from the Marange Diamond fields.
The fortune rushes attracted all kinds of people and from all corners of the world. In many places different races worked side by side in seeking out their fortunes. It is interesting to see that slowly but surely the mines if they stayed productive came to fall under the control of the rich and powerful starting with the discrimination of non-Europeans and then the white working classes. It was a powerful incentive for men like Cecil John Rhodes to sell the colonial dream to the ruling classes back at home.
Many times it has been pointed out that the relatively wealth of many western nations were built on the back of slavery, colonialism and racism. There is very little evidence to refute those claims but the wealth was also built on the backs of the poor and working classes. The sought after goods, whether agricultural or mineral, that found its way back to the factories back home were processed and distributed by people who sometimes worked in conditions that mirrored those of those in the colonies. For the most part, those who benefited most from the growing riches of economic expansion were the ones who were in a position to invest in the first place, that is, those who already had financial means.
Over a number of generations, the general lot of those in industrial societies has improved with a well-established middle class. Some of these people may be descendants of the slaves, indentured labour and fortune seekers but many will be the descendants of later arrivals following in the steps of those who came before and doing exactly the same, seeking a new, richer life.
Poverty, despite attempts to colour code it, knows no race and even in the great rich white nation that is the United States, today, some 10% of non-Hispanic whites are poor, attracting such names as trailer trash, white trash, rednecks etc. The capitalist system that spawned slavery and colonialism still despises those who are on the bottom rank offering that ‘there can be no rich people if there are no poor ones’.
- Irish Slavery
- Slave Overseers
- The Forgotten Slaves: Whites in Servitude in Early America and Industrial Britain
- Magazine Article – White Servitude in America (Ebony Magazine)