Blackbirding, debt bondage, serfdom and slavery

170px-Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795).jpgI’m not sure if I would be terribly pleased if someone gave me four calling or holly birds for Christmas.  Unfortunately I can think of something historic to do with black birds or more specifically the deeply repugnant act of “black birding.”  Some nineteenth century Australian settlers dealt with labour  shortages by ‘blackbirding’ Southsea Islanders.  Islanders were transported from their homes to Australia from the 1860s onwards.  Many of the labourers were tricked into boarding the ships  or did not realise the terms and conditions of their employment- at best they could be described as bonded labourers at worst they were slaves who had simply been rounded up by ships’ crews and kidnapped at gunpoint.  Blackbirding was made illegal in 1872 following an episode where more than 60 people were killed during a black birding raid. The idea of tricking people or simply rounding them up and taking them away from their homes is not a new one and sadly not an extinct one.

Reeve_and_Serfs.jpgWhen William the Conqueror arrived in 1066 there were a class of Saxons who were slaves, it’s thought about 10% of the population – they had come into slavery by different methods including being sold into slavery as children, being bale to pay a debt or for a crime.  Some of the slaves had been born slaves, a reminder that many the Norse peoples who  settled in Britain had grown wealthy on the back of slavery.  Slaves had no value in terms of weir-gold but they did have value as property.  Slave owners were  legally responsible for the actions of the men, women and children that they owned.

The Normans did away with slavery but serfdom – the bottom of the feudal hierarchy- essentially meant that  people who were serfs could not leave the manors on which they were born, could be bought and sold by their lords of the manor and were required to work for the lord of the manor.  Serfdom was effectively a form of debt bondage- services in repayment for an obligation created by their lord’s care of them.  The Black Death with arrived in 1349 helped to speed the demise of serfdom on account of the resulting labour shortage.

The transportation of slaves from Africa began in the sixteenth century as work forces were required in the Americas.  Essentially, at various times and locations, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English arrived along with their bugs and lurgies which killed off local populations meaning that there was no one close at hand to force into servitude.  The first shipments of slaves went directly from Africa to the Caribbean and by the early seventeenth century the English had started to forcibly move large numbers of people to North America to work on the sugar plantations.  This led to the development of the so-called triangular trade which saw Liverpool and Bristol flourish – The trans Atlantic or middle passage  of the triangular trade with boats laden with men, women and children destined for slavery was not one of British History’s finest moments.  It has been estimated that mortality rates were about 50% before vessels became larger and greater care taken of the “cargo.”




Kaufman, Miranda. Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Orr, Brian J. Bones of Empire.