Indentured servitude and slavery in Britain & its colonies

Now that discussions about structural racism are more widespread than they used to be, every so often I see someone mentioning that whites were brought to the New World as indentured servants. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a whisper underneath the argument. It says, “We had a hard time too but we’ve gotten over it. So what’s your problem?”

Sometimes you don’t have to listen all that carefully. The whisper gets a little shouty.

So let’s look at the condition of indentured servants in the American colonies. I know I’m supposed to be doing British history here, but I’m limiting myself to the British colonies, so I don’t even have to cheat. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose


Indentured servants in Virginia

We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when indentured servants got to be that way by agreeing to a deal: passage to the New World in exchange for a fixed number of years working for a master–usually between four and seven years. During that time they got housed and fed and clothed and so-forthed. And they got worked–hard, with no choice about what they did or whether they did it. They didn’t get to leave. They didn’t get to choose who they worked for: Their contracts could be bought and sold, and they were. At the end of their contracts, though, they got a freedom package (also called freedom dues–take your choice). 

We’ll come back to that in a minute.

In the Virginia Colony, some half to two-thirds of the settlers arrived as indentured servants. By some estimates, half the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came under indentures. That needs a time period tucked into it, but I don’t have one. Sorry. That’s what you get for reading a non-historian. 

People agreed to indentures for a variety of reasons. The first was that the passage to the New World was only slightly less affordable than a seat on the space shuttle. (I know; they’re not up for sale, but you get the picture.) 

The second was that at the end of the Thirty Years War England’s economy was depressed and both skilled and unskilled workers were desperate enough to take the gamble. Seven years’ work in exchange for meals and a new start someplace else? Sign me up.

The Thirty Years War? It ended in 1648 and lasted a nice, even thirty years. They’d have ended it sooner but were afraid of being sued for false advertising.

The third reason draws us into the understanding that the choice to enter indentured servitude wasn’t always made freely. A person might have a debt to pay off or be a prisoner who accepted indentured servitude as an alternative to a prison sentence.

The system was perfect for a country–that’s Britain–that was anxious to get rid of undesirables: beggars, debtors, convicts, “disorderly persons,” the defeated soldiers of this war or that. 

And the colonies were hungry enough for indentured servants that people were sometimes kidnapped and sold as indentured servants. Occasional undesirables from other countries were scooped up and indentured as well.

In Virginia, at least, the law gave some protection to indentured servants–or at least to some of them–but if you’d been one you might not have felt particularly protected. Indentured servants faced harsher punishments for breaking the law than non-indentured people did, and their contracts could be extended for serious infractions, which included running away or getting pregnant. 

That last infraction probably only applied to women, and it was perfectly reasonable. You know what women are like about getting pregnant. They’ll do it just to spite people.

On the other hand, if indentured servants survived first the passage and then the number of years they were contracted for, they got that freedom package, which would also have been specified in their contracts. It might have been 25 acres of land, a year’s worth of corn, tools, a cow, new clothes. Not all of those at once, I think–that’s a list of possibilities–but whatever they got might have put them in a better position than the newly arrived immigrant who’d spent everything on his or her passage.

Emphasis on might. That’s one historian’s take on it. Another one I’ve read disagrees. That’s the problem with the past. You can’t go back and check.


Categories of indentured servants

Indentured servants who’d entered into their contracts voluntarily were treated better than the ones who hadn’t. They could own property, testify in court, trade. The law offered some protection from abuse, although I don’t know how effective it was, but even so their contracts could be bought and sold without them having a word to say about it. 

The involuntary indentured servant faced a whole different system, although the details would vary from colony to colony. They might be forbidden to leave home without a pass. By way of punishment for running away, their indentures might be extended or their freedom dues reduced. They might be branded. In Maryland, they could be executed. 

At times, suspicious-looking characters who couldn’t prove they were free were arrested as runaways.

Mark Snyder, in his paper on the education of indentured servants in colonial America, counts the experience of indentured servitude as dismal and the success stories of those who served out their indentures as few and far between.



How was indentured servitude different from apprenticeship? The most obvious difference is that apprentices were children and indentured servants, adults. The apprentice was bound to a master craftsperson and couldn’t leave but was owed an education in the craft. The indentured servant was there to work and presumably knew enough of a craft, whether skilled or unskilled, to be made use of. The two systems overlap, though. Both apprentices and indentured servants were bound by a contract. Both had, at least theoretically, agreed to the deal–or in the case of an apprentice, a parent or some other adult had agreed for them. 

But apprenticeship had set the pattern that indentured servitude followed.



The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619 (the colony was founded in 1606), and initially the law didn’t have a category for them and they were sold as indentured servants. But they hadn’t entered into a contract–they’d been kidnapped from Africa and then stolen from Portuguese ships by privateers. 

Some of that first group of slaves did eventually become free, but not all. Even the number of people in the group is vague–twenty to thirty. Some fell out of recorded history, but in 1640 one became visible when was sentenced to a lifetime of slavery for rebelliousness. What form that rebelliousness took I don’t know. He was called John Punch, his original name having been hung, drawn, and quartered. Even then slaves were separated from their histories, their languages, and their names.

While they were still (legally speaking) indentured servants, any children they had were born free, but after Virginia’s first slave laws were passed in 1661 a court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the slave owner. 

Massachusetts passed its first slave laws earlier than Virginia, in 1641. Massachusetts later became a center of anti-slavery sentiment and organization, but initially it was allowed slavery, as all thirteen colonies did. It didn’t abolish slavery until 1783.

With these new laws, landowners now had a source of labor that didn’t walk free in four to seven years, that didn’t have to be given land and tools and whatevers, and that didn’t have the small legal protections of indentured servants. And whose children were pure profit.

Basically, slavery was more profitable and indentured servitude was on its way out. And since slaves were a visibly distinct group, this quickly became a race-based caste system, which wove itself so deeply into the culture that–at least to many people who weren’t on the wrong end of it–it seemed like the natural order of things.


Finding the line between slavery and indentured servitude

Now let’s take a quick look at England in 1659, when Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector. [Oops. For a correction that dates and deaths and Cromwells, see below, in the comments.] The king–the one who came before Cromwell–was dead. The king-in-waiting was alive but sulking because he wanted a throne and couldn’t have it yet. And a group of royalist former soldiers had petitioned parliament: 

Four years earlier, they’d been sent to Barbados–an English colony, even if it’s not one we’ve been following–as indentured servants after having taken part in a failed royalist uprising. They complained that in spite of the assurances they were given their condition was, essentially, slavery. They were sold for more than half a ton of sugar each and were put to work in the sugar mills and furnaces.

Parliament debated their petition. One MP argued that indentured servants were “civilly used” and had horses to ride. Most of the work, he said, was done by Black slaves and so (he didn’t need to say) that was okay. 

Another–one of parliament’s leading republicans–argued that the petitioners had been treated barbarously. A third objected to the buying and selling of men, but only when it applied to white ones. That race-based caste system had already taken root. And a fourth reminded the house that the men had all agreed to be sent to the colonies. 

After a day’s debate, nothing was resolved and, in a triumph of parliamentary process, the issue was forgotten. 

When slavery was finally abolished in most of the British empire, in 1834, the freed slaves were not compensated as indentured servants had been. But the slaveowners were, for the property they’d lost.

Britain borrowed £20 million–about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product–for that compensation. According to the Treasury, the country only finished paying off the loan in 2015. 

By 1834, as you will have already figured out, the thirteen colonies had become the United States and gone their–or its–own way. The U.S. didn’t free its slaves until 1863, although in practice freedom was slow in coming and didn’t reach Texas until 1865. As for compensation, some land was distributed to former slaves under an army field order, and the army lent the new landowners some mules, but the program was reversed under President Johnson, who followed Lincoln, and the land was returned to the former slave owners.. 

That was the end of any compensation to former slaves in the U.S. and it’s why Spike Lee calls his movie production company Forty Acres and a Mule. 

The story of indentured servitude continues when British colonies looked around for a source of cheap labor to replace slaves, but we won’t follow it there, at least in this post.


43 thoughts on “Indentured servitude and slavery in Britain & its colonies

  1. “At the end of the thirty years war, England’s economy was depressed” – interesting, I didn’t realise that England was so affected by a religious war in central Europe.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Ellen, I so appreciate this post and the reference to “1619,” which of course is at the center of education debate here in the U.S. You were clear in your post that there is no comparison between indentured servitude and slavery. I appreciate Faye’s comment above, too. Colonial laws pointedly based slavery on being Black, and continued to further refine what is a slave. For instance, whites were referred to as “Christians” in many slave codes; but when enslaved people converted to Christianity, a new law passed that stated becoming “Christian” would not make an enslaved person free. Also, various colonial era slave codes also addressed the status of a child born of a Brit and an enslaved mother. The colonies adopted the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrem (L. “That which is brought forth follows the belly”) and it was used from 1662 in Virginia and later other English royal colonies to establish the legal status of children born there. I learned some real American history when I started genealogy research a year ago, and also prepared for a presentation I gave my office a couple of months ago. I was not taught any of this in school, especially the significance of 1619. And, my 3x great grandmother and great-great grandfather were apprentices in North Carolina. The 3x great grandmother was apprenticed at 10 years old and I have a copy of the legal document. The courts were involved in apprenticeships. It seemed to have a social work element to it, as well as some Oliver Twist. Apprenticeships in North Carolina would be mandatory for free Black children, whose mothers were not married, the father unemployed, or the family was poor. The parent had an opportunity to make his/her case in court for why a child should not be apprenticed. In North Carolina, the apprenticeship period was longer for Black children than White children. Real American history is fascinating, maddening, and sobering. It has also been scrubbed and concealed. Sorry to write so much, but I was excited about your topic.

        Liked by 4 people

        • No apologies. Thank you. You’ve added a lot that I didn’t know. If I can separate my emotions from it (which is a bizarre thing to do but both helps me write about stuff like this and keeps me marginally sane while I do), it’s fascinating to watch a system cobble together both legal and philosophical frameworks to justify and hold in place a system that’s there only because it’s profitable. First it’s okay because slaves aren’t Christians.

          Oh. Slaves are Christians? Yeah, well, they’re still Black, so it’s still okay.

          And so on.

          In England, I think apprenticeships were always registered with some authority–possibly the courts although I think it might’ve been guilds. So the system the US and the colonies were drawing on had established a formal framework for that. The poorest and least protected children might be apprenticed as chimney sweeps. Many of them wouldn’t live out their apprenticeships–it was brutal work–and those who did would become too large to go up chimneys but could in turn take on child apprentices who could, repeating the cycle. So basically, although the language was about learning a trade, the least protected children’s apprenticeships were about working, not learning a trade. I can’t help how much of that was true in North Carolina.

          Liked by 2 people

      • Your article was good but I would say the comparables simply aren’t on the same level. Both are heinous but so different. While we can try to empathize and understand both sides it’ll never be enough.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I do agree: Both are horrible but they’re different. We can acknowledge the pain of both without trying to erase the historical damage done by slavery–which is, I think, what people who equate the two are trying to do.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t know Ellen. With indentured servitude the individual had the promise of freedom and sometimes a sliver of control. They usually didn’t get sold etc. (please correct if wrong). slaves were property. they had no hope or control. they were’t even seen as people.
            The argument will swirl forever and no one is either wrong nor right. Both are terrible. We can’t compare our pain to another. Imagine if someone said…the german jews should just get over it a lot of other people died too….ummm not the same.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Indentured servants didn’t get sold, but their contracts did, and they went with the contracts, so effectively they did. But, but, but. I’m not sure how much control they had–I suspect not much, certainly when they were in the lower categories of indentured servitude, maybe more in the upper category–but there was still a huge difference between that and slavery. The fact that indentured servants had promise of freedom. The freedom of their children. The fact that they weren’t on the wrong side of a race-based caste system. The past creates our present and stays with us in ways that are so everyday that we barely notice them.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ellen, did you happen to read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson? It took me 2-1/2 months to read it because I had to take the information in small doses. It was the best explanation of what happened and why we are where we are.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I not only haven’t read it, I hadn’t heard of it. I’ll add it to my list–which is growing at an alarming rate. I’ve been on a light reading binge and it may be time to get back to the real world and see if my brain still works. Thank you.


  2. I have had friends on Facebook say that the Irish indentured servants were equal to slaves. They are no longer my friends. I descend from an Irish indentured servant. She was a governess to the family and got pregnant from the man of the house. His wife left him with the children and their son was my 3x great grandfather after they married.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I will go as far as agreeing that the indentured servants were, for the most part, treated very badly–and the English did seem to go out of their way to treat the Irish particularly badly. But slavery it wasn’t. Why people want to steal the pain of other groups is beyond me. No country’s history, I suspect, is free of pain. Can’t that be enough?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent history lesson again. Thank you. And as I recall, under the feudal system the serfs were tied to the land and were sold or transferred along with it, So they wouldn’t have been treated so wonderfully well either, and how many descendants do they have scattered all over the place ? Not many of us have any reason to be snooty.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think with serfs we’re supposed to talk about them being transferred with the land–they were tied to it. It’s important to preserve the illusion that this wasn’t slavery–which did, for a while, continued in parallel with serfdom before being phased out in serfdom’s favor. I’d certainly agree that not many of us have any reason to be snooty and I’d raise you one: The people who think they have a reason to be snooty have even less reason to be snooty.

      Liked by 3 people

        • Okay, I had to look that one up. I believe the correct response is thank you but since I’ve moved out of my linguistic comfort zone I’m a little uneasy about that so correct me if I’m wrong. The image that jumped into my mind at the idea of dropping a mic was the time I succeeded in dropping my phone in the toilet. You can maybe see why I’m a little uneasy here.


  4. I seem to recall that Daniel Boone’s wife came over as an indentured servant. I’m not sure how much of a step up it was to spend the rest of her life in the wilderness with him

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. Interesting question. I wonder how much of the time he was home–and whether that was good or bad or a bit of both. Almost everything I (don’t) know about Boone came from that godawful kids’ TV show (my brother actually wore what he was convinced was a coonskin cap), and I don’t remember any mention of a wife. She probably didn’t fit his image.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was that. I wish I knew when it would end. But for what it’s worth–and I haven’t double checked this–I’m reasonably sure that it goes back further than 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks certainly had slaves. The ancient Egyptians. Probably all or most of the civilizations around the Mediterranean in that period. (I don’t know enough history of other cultures of that period to even guess at whether they did.) I doubt it was on the industrialized scale that we saw in the Transatlantic slave trade, but it was there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I stand corrected. Based on Britain’s history, has to be around 2,000 years, as when the Romans conquered Britain many anglo-saxons were sold into a life of slavery. Of course the pyramids of Ancient Egypt were built by slaves…

        Liked by 1 person

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