Indentured Servitude Essay

Indentured Servitude Essay

Hist. 330 Research Paper Indentured Servants 4/20/11 “Fundamentally, indentured servitude was an institutional arrangement that was devised to increase labor mobility” (Altman and Horn, To Make America, 8) In the early colonial days of America, there was an economic problem; labor shortages. In America the marginal productivity of a single laborer was much higher than in Europe, and there was a very wide availability of cheap or free land. The problem with taking advantage of this opportunity was the fact that there were very few laborers willing to work for a landowner, since it was so easy to obtain your own land and farm it.

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Palmer quotes Adam Smith “Every colonist gets more land than he can possibly cultivate. He has no rent, and scarce any taxes to pay. No landlord shares with him his produce” (Palmer, Worlds of Unfree Labour, 206). Smith goes on to explain that a landowner can produce on his own only one tenth of what his land is capable of, and therefore is very eager to collect laborers but finds that even when offering very liberal wages, it is difficult to retain the workers. This environment created a need for some form of forced labor; the form of forced labor that I will discuss in this paper was called indentured servitude.

One solution to this problem was to bring African slaves to do the work, and this was indeed done in great numbers. But, the slaves were not actually the first form of imported labor in the Americas. According to Altman and Horn “’white servitude’ was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed. ” While African slaves presented a tremendous asset, they were very expensive and therefore a very high liability; if one were to perish the owner would be out quite a lot of cash. This liability was avoided somewhat if a farmer was to go the path of obtaining an indentured servant.

These servants typically came from Europe in areas such as England, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland (Altman and Horn, To Make America, 1-25) Promoters of indentured servitude touted the sparsely settled new world and the availability of cheap and fruitful land upon their release to attract laborers. Workers would typically repay their passage in four to five years’ time. Often, the indenture contracts had incentives due at the end of the term entitling them to things such as clothing, seed for crops, nd land to farm. According to Bush there were three main kinds of indentured servants (Bush, Servitude in Modern Times, 57). The first kind was your traditional indenture who before leaving their home country signed a legal document specifying the terms of their indenture. Following their arrival and subsequent sale, a note was made on the back of the original document regarding the conditions of the sale. The second type of indenture was an indenture who was simply bound by “custom of country. This indenture typically did not sign any legal document but instead was subject to legal statute. This type of indenture was widely practiced. The third type of indentured servant was one called the “redemptioner,” though this type of servant was not common until the eighteenth century. These redemptioners would make the passage from Europe to America with no prior payment, and would be given a 14 day grace period upon arrival in which they had the chance to collect the money to pay off their trip.

If they were unsuccessful, they would then be sold as an indenture. There were also other less common types of indentures including but not limited to; servants who’s owner ““spirited” them away from the old world against their will”; convicts who were sent to America to serve their sentence as an indenture; and colonials who had broken the law and were therefore sentenced to serve as indentures to satisfy their punishment. (Bush, Servitude in Modern Times, 58) The Demographics of an Indenture

Galenson reports on the demographics of indentures in “White Servitude in Colonial America”, while focusing primarily on sex, age, and profession. While there are clear trends in these categories, indentures were more diverse than one might think. In this section we will discuss the diversity of indentured servants in colonial America. Although women did not make up more than one-third of any sample observed by Galenson (Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America, 26), the percentage of women in any single sample did range from as low as 5. 5 percent to as high as 30. 8 percent.

While one would assume men more properly suited to the nature of work done by indentures, it is theorized that the shortage of wives led to the high numbers of women indentures. The highest percentages of women occurred in the earliest samples, where we know that there was a shortage of women in the British Colonies. Also, there was a demand for young female indentures because of their superior ability to perform household duties such as nursing, cooking, and cleaning. Age distribution is as one might suspect; consistently favoring people in their late teens and early twenties. According to Galenson’s table 2. (Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America, 27), people from the age of 16-24 constituted as much as 82 percent of the male servants and as much as 90 percent of the female servants in any single sample. Servants over the age of 30 represented a maximum percentage of 6 percent in any single sample for men and 2 percent for women. The mean age for men in the samples ranges from 19. 7 to 24. 33 years, with the latter being an outlier. The same statistic for women is 19. 35 to 22. 75 years. Both maximum means came in London in the later years of indentured servitude (1773-1775).

I would hypothesize that by this point landowners were becoming less selective because of the decrease in supply of laborers. Tracking occupations of indentured servants is somewhat more difficult than the previous two statistics. Few records were kept regarding what became of the servants after sale, and in the instance that Galenson utilizes, many indentures were never formally given a position. The best research Galenson gathers is from male indentures that originated in Bristol, England between the years 1654-1661 and 1684-1686.

Even in these statistics, in some samples as much as 81 percent of the indentures have no specified occupation. The majority of servants, in descending order, are designated as; farmer, laborer, or textiles and clothing with other professions such as gentleman, food and drink, metal and construction, and services making up the remaining occupations. Galenson also reports these statistics from the Middlesex region between 1683 and 1684, though 60 percent of these indenture positions were unspecified (Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America, 39).

Indenture Conditions “The actual condition of the servant, though in great measure determined by his legal status and by certain social laws, was also largely influenced by many customs that had no sanction in law” (Ballagh, White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia, 68) Because of the cost of an indentured servant reaching the full maturity of their contract, indentures were often subject to very poor treatment, in the hopes that they may perish shortly before their contract expired.

By some accounts, indentures were treated far worse than African slaves, due to their temporary nature. Smith quotes Henry Laurens speaking of the shipping conditions of indentures “He says he ‘never saw an Instance of Cruelty in Ten or Twelve years experience in that branch (referring to the African trade) equal to the cruelty exercised upon those poor Irish’”(Smith, White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina, 83). Indentures did have the right to access the courts if they felt necessary, although that right was rarely exercised.

Another reason given for the poor treatment of these particular laborers was the notion that if one was to become so desperate that they had to resort to indentured servitude, that they must be been horrible persons, engaging in “Whoreing, Thieving, or other Debauchery” (Altman and Horn). Often criminals would be forced into indentured servitude in order to pay off the crime they had committed. Indenture contracts for convicts were often longer, typically 7 to 14 years.

According to Hoffer “No one was prepared for what they found in America. ”(Hoffer, The Brave New World: A History of Early America, 124). In England and much of Europe the summers were much less humid and the work days were much shorter. A typical workday back home was four to five hours, whereas in America work for an indentured servant was done from sunup to sundown. There were also no markets to buy food from, so when the supplies from Europe ran out, they were forced to trade with the Indians or catch, kill, and cook their meals.

These factors led to the deaths of many indentured servants as well. The indentured servant trade actually became somewhat complex during the seventeenth century. A middleman, called a “merchant” would typically purchase the laborer in their homeland and handle the transportation, and once the indenture had reached his/her destination they would then be sold to farmers. The merchants were not obligated to supervise the treatment of the laborers in the colonies, therefore minimizing the risk of death or escape to the exporter.

Essentially, the merchant was a go-between for supplying labor to the colonies. The Decline of Indented Servants and Rise of Slavery Several important factors affected the dramatic switch from European indented servants to African slaves. According to Palmer “Chesapeake planters did not abandon indentured servitude because they preferred slaves; rather, a decline in the traditional labor supply forced planters to recruit workers from new sources, principally but not exclusively from Africa” (Palmer, Worlds of Unfree Labour, 205).

This decline in indented servants was caused by three major factors. First, the economy in England and the rest of Europe improved dramatically, increasing ones real income and therefore making it more viable for a middle class citizen to pay their own voyage. Second, shipping companies improved their voyage efficiency greatly by doing things such as reducing crew size and carrying fewer weapons. Also, pirate attacks were declining, leading to less lost voyages and lower insurance rates.

These factors caused more and more Europeans to forego indentured servitude and instead pay their own way, and those who did enter into indentured servitude obtained more favorable contracts than those before them. These increases in shipping efficiency hurt the indented servant supply, but had the opposite effect on slave supply. Since shipping was now cheaper, it was now more efficient to ship African slaves in to do the work of the previous indented servant, and this was done in great numbers.

According to Palmer, from 1665 through 1669 the ratio of indented servants to slaves in York County, Virginia, was 9. 66:1. Just over twenty years later, 1690-1684, the same ratio was . 07:1. By the early 1800’s indentured servitude was virtually abolished and laws passed in the late 1800’s made it fully illegal. Most recently, passed in 1948, Article 4 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared any form of indentured servitude illegal, though only national legislation can rectify this (Barker, ;http://en. ikipedia. org/wiki/-Indentured_servant;. ) Some argue that indentured servitude still exists in the United Arab Emirates, where workers are brought from places such as China and India, and have their passports taken and are not told when they will be allowed to return home. The world has come a long ways since the days of early America. More value is now put on a human life, no matter the origin of that human. This has led to a major decrease in all forms of forced labor, including indentured servitude and slavery.


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