The Other Slaves


Like their hypocritical counterparts in New England in the 1820’s, the English abolitionists were fixated on the plight of black slaves and ignored the industrial slavery that employed seven-year-old children, worked them 14 to 16 hours a day, beat them with leather thongs and straps to encourage production, and paid them starvation wages. The American abolitionists were descended from the New England slave-traders who grew rich off the African slave trade, and invested their money in what was the basis of our own industrial revolution which too exploited child labor.

The New Englander’s also chose to ignore the slavery in their own backyards as they chastised the Southerners for holding the slaves sold to them by Providence and Boston merchants. It is easy to connect the dots here—bustling British mills fed by raw cotton shipped by New Englanders after Northerner Eli Whitney invented his time-saving device, an explosion of Southern cotton plantations, many Northern-financed, needing cheap labor supplied by New England slavers that plied the oceans until the 1860’s. The New Englanders, led by the example of the British industrialists, sought to eradicate a form of labor that had to be fed and clothed, maintained in youth, old age and infirmity; and in its place a form of labor that could be fully exploited with low wages, long hours and no responsibility for injury, sickness or old age. And the American Confederacy is responsible for slavery and the sum of all evil? For an interesting view of British anti-industrialism and the Luddite revolt, see "Rebels Against the Future" by Kirkpatrick Sale.

Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Post Office Box 328
Wilmington, NC 28402

The Other Slaves:

"Throughout the 1820’s, in spite of trade setbacks, the north of England had been growing more industrialized. The cotton industry had continued to expand…imports of the raw cotton which fed the factory machinery had almost doubled during the 1820’s…(and) children supplied the bulk of the labour force. The youngest, from around seven years old, were employed to clean up waste off the floor; as they grew older, they became "piecers," or "pieceners," mending broken strands. Their wages were very low—around fourpence a day. But even this meant that the children were self-supporting; and that might be sufficient to save its parents from destitution. About five thousand children under the age of seven, it was estimated, were employed in the mills; and from the mill-owners own figures, it appeared that about half the total of their employees were under the age of eighteen. In the great majority of mills, children—whatever their age—had a working day of at least fourteen hours, out of which they might, if they were lucky, get a half hour off for breakfast, and an hour for lunch. If demand was heavy, the hours could be increased to fifteen and even sixteen.

In October 1830, a letter (by Richard Oastler) appeared in the Whig Leeds Mercury….that it was "the pride of Britain that a slave cannot exist on her soil," and that "the air which Britons breath is free." These were sentiments which were applauded; unfortunately they were untrue. At that very moment , thousands of people in that very county, Yorkshire, were "in a state of slavery more horrid than are the victims of the hellish system of colonial slavery…the very streets which receive the droppings of an "Anti-Slavery Society" are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled, not by the cartwhip of the Negro slave-driver, but by the dread of the equally appalling thong, or strap, of the over-looker, to hasten, half-dressed, but not half-fed, to those magazines of British infantile slavery—the worsted mills in the town of Bradford!!!

The writer was Richard Oastler (who) recalled with embarrassment the hours he had spent agitating on behalf of slaves in the West Indies—whose hours of work, he knew, were regulated and far shorter. Many of the mill-owners…disliked…legislation which would control the hours worked by children. As machinery improved it was growing simpler for children to operate; in fact, "the great object of such improvements"…had become "to adapt the machinery to the youngest class of workers." If the youngest class of workers was restricted, they (mill-owners) would lose their competitive advantage…they insisted that unfettered private enterprise was best for he children, the industry, and the nation. The work too, was most suitable for boys between the ages of seven and fourteen, because they were particularly "capable of undergoing long-continued labours,—an opinion, they (mill-owners) felt sure, that doctors practising in the region would uphold.

(This child-labour created) a form of slavery in some ways more debased than the real thing, which (British abolitionist) Wilberforce and his followers were trying to abolish; and that they should be seeking to improve the conditions of the slaves in the Caribbean, (while) ignoring the plight of the labourer at home….Why did Wilberforce not appeal on behalf of the English paupers, working in gravel pits, with sacking as their only protection against the weather; or breaking stones on the roadside?

"What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must be he that can send it forth, what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British laborers; to appeal to them on behalf of black slaves, when these free British labourers, these poor mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls out of which the black slaves have breakfasted, dined or supped….?"

"…Parliament had taken upon itself to regulate the employment of Negro slaves. Henceforth, it had been decreed, no slave on English colonial territory was to be compelled to work except between the hours of six in the morning and six in the evening; and in that period slaves were entitled as a legal right to an hour’s break between eight and nine, and two hours between twelve and two. Adult slaves, in other words, were limited to a nine-hour working day. Was the House to say that it was right to limit the hours of labour for African children—but monstrous to suggest any such limitation for an English child?"

(Men of Conscience, Brian Inglis, The Macmillan Company, 1971)