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.
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.