How the British invented “Whiteness” and “Blackness”

A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation
A 19th century lithograph by Theodore Bray showing a sugarcane plantation

While Charles I was arrested and executed in 1649 CE in England, another revolution was happening in the far away English colony of Barbados. This was the ‘sugar revolution’ and the prosperity it brought would have far reaching consequence for both Britain in the way how different groups of people were viewed.

After the failure of crops like tobacco, cotton, indigo and ginger, the colonists were under pressure from their financiers to deliver. That’s when they decided to try sugar, a crop which had arrived on the island three decades earlier. The problem was that sugar farming was labor intensive, much more than tobacco. Also, it required expertise to prepare the right soil, protect the shoots from disease and to decide the right moment for cutting. All this did not deter the colonists; they experimented, eventually got the right recipe and that made them immensely rich

That’s when the demographics of the island started changing and that change had both to do with the new found prosperity as well as the politics back in England. The backdrop of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpostwas happening with English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. Since their fortunes did not look good, the Royalists escaped to the island to evade persecution and to keep their head attached to their body. There were some black slaves, but not quite a lot and so the workforce was predominantly white. But as the ‘white gold’ business boomed, more slaves were required.

From around  6000 slaves in 1643, the number rose to 20,000 by 1655. Also, as the black population was increasing, the white population was decreasing because many of them were leaving the island looking for better opportunities in other countries where the land was cheaper. The black slavery also increased due to economics: an indentured slave cost 10 pounds for about 5 -7 years of work while the blacks cost double the money, but remained as slaves for life. By this time, the slave trading network was well established and it was not expensive to ship them from Africa. In an era, where the goal was to make money by any means possible, slavery did not cause any moral qualms for those who touted their superior religion all the time.

Soon, the number of black slaves outnumbered the the indentured whites and the white settlers started getting paranoid due to the thinning of the Christian people. As the first slave society of the British Americas, they had figure out a way to manage these slaves as well as maintain their superiority. The British had to  invent a political structure on which they would be at the top. One of the first laws they passed was the 1661 Act titled “For the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes.” This law declared blacks to be “heathenish, brutish and dangerous people” and since no law existed to govern slaves, new ones had to be invented for “public safety.”

Public safety of course meant the safety of the white settlers; the laws were written by slaveholders and it was upheld by a country which gained financially from the sugar business. The laws were then enforced by the local militia and soldiers. Similar laws were passed by the French and Spaniards and compared to them, the one created by the British was the most cruel. As time went on, more provisions were added which put restrictions on the movement of slaves and prevented them from learning a  trade like carpentry.

Following a revolt by black slaves and Irish servants, another law was passed in 1688 which required every slave owner to search slave cabins for drums or horns which could be used to assemble people. If a slave had to leave the plantation, he had to get written permission from the owner. An absconding slave, if found, was whipped and four years later, another law was added which prescribed the death penalty.


In the British legal system, slaves were property and could be bought, sold, or leased; they were never considered as people. Compared to that white indentured people served a limited term and their rights were restored after that. The white indentured people were given better food, clothing and legal protection with provision for trial by jury. A white indentured servant who killed a slave was asked to pay a fine just like other whites. Soon white felons, Irish and Scots were all treated as “white” people while the blacks became another group. Blacks who came from different parts of Africa and identified themselves based on their birthplace were all collapsed into one single bucket. Their individual identity was subsumed under a different label and the world became simply black and white. By this separation, the white settlers prevented a collaboration between the black slaves and the indentured servants and thus avoided a joint rebellion, but that in turn changed the way people viewed each other on the island.

Reference:

  1. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

4 Comments

  1. Remember Britain did not enter the slave trade or slavery for at least one hundred to one hundred and fifty years after the Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Her colonies in the New World, and the crops such as tobacco, could not be maintained by white indentured servants because they died off too quickly. In fact James 1 (the beheaded Charles 1’s Father) was so concerned by the loss of life in Virginia that he revoked the Royal Charter until something could be done about it.

    Britain did not start the Transatlantic slave trade or slavery, but, for what it’s worth morally, she was the first in history to end it permanently. Selectively apportioning degrees of cruelty on the treatment of slaves, with Britain the winner, seems self-serving compared with Spanish slavery for instance!

    Each country who engaged in slavery had a different viewpoint on color and acceptance of color which is a little more distinguishable than religion (or a caste system) but hardly less cruel!

    So planting the inventor of Whiteness and Blackness on one particular country seems to me to be a little self-serving forgetting the British accepted black people in their culture way before they were engaged in slavery for profit. Also most Brits today have “black blood” in them because of Britain’s long standing acceptance of the freedom of exiles!

    Not sure I agree with the premise of blog or not, but I would question the confirming bias agenda!

    1. Matthew,

      Agree that Britain did not start the Transatlantic slave trade and they ended it. The French Code Noir by King Louis XIV guaranteed a slave’s right to life and social identity, whatever that meant in those circumstances. The Spanish Siete Partidas too accepted the personality of the slave and had some vague notions of liberty. Compared to that the laws that were passed in Barbados were brutal and that’s what I wanted to convey.

      1. Thanks JK. Very interesting and well written blog. If you get the chance, if you have not already done so, take a look at 1493 by Charles Mann. He writes about the British justification or consensus for jumping in on the slave trade, and how strange it was to do so because of its own trouble with the Barbary Coast pirates who engaged in capturing and selling English people (and others I assume) into bondage in Africa and the Ottoman Empire. I think you’ll find out it quite fascinating.

        That the British thought of themselves as the “good guys” has a familiar modern ring of hypocrisy to it don’t you think!

        To your point though about Barbados (and America). You conveyed your point well. If you treat people as property you only need laws to protect your property.

        http://www.amazon.com/1493-Uncovering-Columbus-Created-ebook/dp/B004G606EY

        Thanks again for the very interesting and thought provoking blog!

        Best wishes,

        Matt

  2. Not surprising to see such moral compromises made when they were the judge, jury and executioners. What is more interesting however is the fact that even to this day, be it in resolutions proposed/passed by the UN with regards to net neutrality, criminalizing the slander of a particular religion and so on or more importantly the rules regulating the financial institutions world wide, whites continue to set the rules and play the game all along vociferously claiming a level playing field to all participants. Doesn’t the rest of the world learn anything at all? Or is it just that they lack the guts to oppose/face the consequences of oppositions (read sanctions/war)?

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