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.

 

Apprenticeship

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.

 

Slavery

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.

 

Brexit, royalty, and falling iguanas: it’s the news from Britain

Britain and the European Union now have a Brexit deal, so instead of complete chaos on January 1, we can only expect moderate chaos.

Moderate chaos looks good these days. 

Like 99.4% of the country–and quite possibly like the Members of Parliament who are expected to approve all 1,246 pages of it before their tea’s had time to cool down (some sources say it’s 2,000 pages; does it really matter)–I have only the more general idea of what the deal says or what it will mean for any of us, although the papers are starting to fill us in. 

Before the agreement was reached, a poll asked people first whether they thought we were wrong to leave the EU and then how they’d vote in a referendum to rejoin: 49% said we were wrong to leave and 39% said we were right. Then they took one chair away, restarted the music, and asked the next question. (Presumably that same) 49% said we should apply to rejoin while 51% said we shouldn’t.

So 10% had no opinion on leaving or staying but did on rejoining. I have no idea what that means. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

The queen

Britain’s Channel Four showed a fake queen’s Christmas speech, timed to follow the real one on Christmas afternoon. 

The queen’s speech? It’s a British institution, and everywhere but here it gets capital letters. Every Christmas day, she addresses the nation and says something. I don’t know what because even during the brief moments when I haven’t been able to avoid listening all I heard was a faint buzz.

People take it very seriously, though. At various times, I’ve been asked if I was going to listen to the queen’s speech, if I did listen to the queen’s speech, if I do in general listen to the queen’s speech. It’s a measure of something, although I don’t know what. When I answer, I try to avoid expressions of horror and I try to avoid making jokes. A fair number of my fellow citizens–and even of my friends–take her seriously. And I’m an outsider here. It’s best not to walk into someone’s house and rearrange the furniture, although I might whisper quietly to a few thousand of my closest readers that I find the whole queen thing–not to mention the queen’s speech–odd.

So, yes, this Christmas we doubled down on oddity and had a real queen’s speech followed by a fake queen’s speech. Officially, the fake one was to send a “stark warning” about deep fakes and the possibility of fake news. Unofficially, I’m pretty sure lockdown was responsible. A bored mind is a dangerous thing. 

The fake speech has been criticized as not a very good fake, and it’s true that the queen looks rigid, but I watched a (very short) snippet of the real speech and the real queen was also rigid.

The fake includes  a TikvTok dance and the queen saying about Harry and Megan that it’s hurtful when someone tells you “they prefer the company of Canadians.” 

That was entirely realistic.

Yeah, go on and watch it.

*

Speaking of the queen, England and Wales are fighting the history of colonialism all over again.

To brush up on our British history: England’s bigger than Wales. England conquered Wales and did all the unpleasant things that conquerors do. That started centuries ago. It lasted until–

Um, yeah. We could argue about the end point, and also about whether there’s been one. But even if we agree that it’s all in the past (we won’t, but never mind that), I doubt anyone in Wales has forgotten the history.

That takes us up to the present day, when a few politicians on the English side of the Severn Bridge, which links England and Wales, proposed renaming it to mark the queen’s platinum jubilee

No, I don’t know how many years you have to put behind you to get a platinum jubilee and I don’t care enough to look it up. A lot. It’s not the point.

The proposal woke both residents and politicians on the Welsh side of the bridge, and they all sat up in bed to said–in unison, mind you–that if the bridge gets renamed it should be named after either the Welsh rugby hero Gareth Edwards or the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. That last idea is guaranteed to annoy the Conservative politicians who want to rename the bridge (and quite possibly the health service and also your back teeth) after the queen. 

The bridge is made up of several parts, and one of them both starts and ends on English soil, which is why the English politicians think they can pull this off, but the collection of bridge part-lets are maintained as a unit and up to now seem to have been named as a unit. 

In addition to offending the Welsh, the renaming would cost money–probably a lot of it, although no one’s mentioned a figure yet. It’s maintained by Highways England, which was itself renamed recently at a cost of £7 million after having been called–apparently quite happily–the Highways Agency.

 

Chilly weather and a chance of falling ignuanas

On December 23, the south Florida weather forecast included cold weather and the possibility of falling iguanas. 

I know. Florida’s not in Britain. I cheat. It’s your own fault for not keeping an eye on me.

Iguanas are cold blooded. At around 45 F., they go dormant and look like they’re dead. They’re not. Or at least the ones who don’t die aren’t. The larger they are, the more likely they are to be alive but dormant.

The problem is that they like to sleep in trees and if they go dormant up there they have a habit of falling out. Which doesn’t do them any good and can also be a problem for humans underneath. Iguanas can measure up to 5 feet long and weigh as much as 20 pounds. 

If you need to know the impact of a 20-pound iguana falling out of a tree–and who doesn’t?–the formula is W=PE=Fd=mghF=d [over–sorry, my computer skills aren’t up the finding the right symbols and this is too important to leave out] mgh

I have no idea what any of that means, but I do know that at some point you’ll need the height of the tree before it does you any good. After that it gets complicated–there’s a second step, where you have to plug in the results of the first step. You’ll be happier going to the website for the second formula without me. 

Iguanas aren’t native to Florida, but they have adapted. Some dig deep burrows to stay warm. Some live near water, where the air temperature’s higher. Some sleep in trees and fall out if it gets too cold. And some cry weee, weee, wee, all the way home.

It’s a brutal kind of personality test. 

Or maybe which way they face the cold doesn’t depend on their personalities but on what they find to work with–cement, water, tree, diggable dirt. We are all, to some extent, creatures of our environment.