A slave by any other name is still a slave, even if they go by the innocuous name of “indentured servant.”
Educator and writer Lori Garrett-Hatfield, Ph.D. of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a report regarding whites held in bondage, a chapter in American history that most are woefully ignorant of.
In cited sources ranging from the Library of Congress to the National Humanities Center, Garrett-Hatfield notes that while indentured servants are normally considered present day as simply “people who agreed to a term of service in exchange for passage to the New World,” the reality is something much different.
While the vast majority of classrooms in the West generically sugar-coat indentured servants (also known as bond slaves) as those from Britain, Ireland and from the European continent proper as poverty-stricken individuals willing to contract a handful of years of their lives for passage to the New World.
With the average term of servitude between four to six years, to the modern but just a few of what isn’t covered is as follows; (Emphasis mine)
While the promise of land and freedom allowed companies to fill ships with indentured servants, only 40 percent of those brought over lived to fulfill their contracts. In addition, women who became pregnant during their term of service often had years added to the end of their contracts.
Indentured servants were no better than property. An indentured servant’s contract could be bought or sold like currency — which meant that masters could buy or sell servants as punishment or retribution. While the servant was under contract, they were forbidden to marry or conceive. Masters could also forbid the servant from travel, keeping any personal money or working for someone else to earn extra money. The living conditions for indentured servants were less than ideal. Many indentured servants did not live long enough to serve out their term, having died from what was called the “summer seasoning” — illnesses that were not found in Europe that killed many new arrivals to the Colonies. Some indentured servants found themselves on small farms with decent living conditions. Servants whose masters needed specialized workers also were treated well. The worst living conditions were found on the Southern plantations.
Indentured servants were frequently overworked, especially on the Southern plantations during planting and harvesting season. Corporal punishment of indentured servants was expected for rule infractions but some servants were beaten so severely they later died. Many servants were disfigured or disabled. Masters were rarely punished for killing or severely injuring their servants. Other indentured servants did not get enough to eat, subsisting on bread and water, which contributed to their overall poor health. If indentured servants ran away to escape their horrible conditions, they could be punished with additional time added on to their contracts. When indentured servants finished their contracts, many were promised land. However, only one in 10 servants actually received the land they were promised. Some servants sold their land for cash, some opted for a business arrangement in lieu of land and others were “unaccounted for.” When they did receive land, some servants found that the land they received was barren and uninhabitable.
Where Garrett-Hatfield leaves off, authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh add in their book, White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves In America
As cited; (Emphasis mine)
In today’s excerpt – early British colonizers of America in the 1600s and 1700s needed laborers for their new colonies:
“They needed a compliant, subservient, preferably free labour force and since the indigenous peoples of America were difficult to enslave, they turned to their own homeland to provide. They imported Britons deemed to be ‘surplus’ people—the rootless, the unemployed, the criminal and the dissident—and held them in the Americas in various forms of bondage for anything from three years to life. … In the early decades, half of them died in bondage. …
“Among the first to be sent were children. Some were dispatched by impoverished parents seeking a better life for them. But others were forcibly deported. In 1618, the authorities in London began to sweep up hundreds of troublesome urchins from the slums and, ignoring protests from the children and their families, shipped them to Virginia. … It was presented as an act of charity: the ‘starving children’ were to be given a new start as apprentices in America. In fact, they were sold to planters to work in the fields and half of them were dead within a year. Shipments of children continued from England and then from Ireland for decades. Many of these migrants were little more than toddlers. In 1661, the wife of a man who imported four ‘Irish boys’ into Maryland as servants wondered why her husband had not brought ‘some cradles to have rocked them in’ as they were ‘so little.’
“A second group of forced migrants from the mother country were those, such as vagrants and petty criminals, whom England’s rulers wished to be rid of. The legal ground was prepared for their relocation by a highwayman turned Lord Chief Justice who argued for England’s jails to be emptied in America. Thanks to men like him, 50,000 to 70,000 convicts (or maybe more) were transported to Virginia, Maryland, Barbados and England’s other American possessions before 1776. …
“A third group were the Irish. … Under Oliver Cromwell’s ethnic-cleansing policy in Ireland, unknown numbers of Catholic men, women and children were forcibly transported to the colonies. And it did not end with Cromwell; for at least another hundred years, forced transportation continued as a fact of life in Ireland. …
“The other unwilling participants in the colonial labour force were the kidnapped. Astounding numbers are reported to have been snatched from the streets and countryside by gangs of kidnappers or ‘spirits’ working to satisfy the colonial hunger for labour. Based at every sizeable port in the British Isles, spirits conned or coerced the unwary onto ships bound for America. … According to a contemporary who campaigned against the black slave trade, kidnappers were snatching an average of around 10,000 whites a year—doubtless an exaggeration but one that indicates a problem serious enough to create its own grip on the popular mind.’ “
One other historical tid-bit that the vast majority of Americans never knew, “between one-half and two-thirds of all white immigrants to the British colonies between the Puritan migration of the 1630s and the Revolution came under indenture.”
- Encyclopedia Virginia: Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia
- The Library of Congress: American Memory: Slavery and Indentured Servitude
- National Humanities Center: Resource Toolbox – Becoming American:“Slaves for life, and Servants for a time”: Servitude in British America
- U.S. History: Indentured Servants
- Stratford Hall: Indentured Servants
- Montgomery College: History and Political Science – White Servitude
- University of Illinois: The Plymouth Colony Archive Project: Servants and Masters in Plymouth Colony
- National Park Service: Bacon’s Rebellion