The History of Indentured Servitude in North America

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


The History of Indentured Servitude in North America

 

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An indenture signed by Henry Mayer, with an "X", in 1738. This contract bound Mayer to Abraham Hestant of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who had paid for Mayer to travel from Europe.

Photograph: Wikipedia



 

There were indentured servants in North America as early as 1600. Indentured servitude refers to the system of the 17 Century when workers sold their labour in exchange for free passage to the New World. They usually worked for 4-7 years. 


 

It was the main means of attaining large-scale migration of Europeans to Colonial America. They came as farm labourers, household help, or as clerks in stores. 

It was the main source of labour until 1917 when slavery became a more powerful institution. Slave labour was much cheaper.

 

In the United States, indentured servitude began after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Young men and women from Britain and Germany below 21 years of age were preferred, although whole families relatives and friends came together. 


 

This system was an experimental solution to the need for labour. The British colonies, rather the companies, earned profits and were given extensive, and the most fertile land. The labour on huge tracts of land was indentured servants. 

 

The cash crops were tobacco, rice, and indigo. Their life was very harsh, but they were given room and board and at the end of their contract were given money, a gun, land or clothes. 

 

About 40% of workers were indentured in 1607 Virginia, of the 13 colonies of about 500,000 people. If the contract was breached, running away, or women getting pregnant, it lead to extensions of the contracts. The lives of these servants were hard and confining.

 

Maryland and Virginia practiced the Headright system. Planters who imported workers were given 50 acres of land for each servant. Some individuals were kidnapped and transported to the American colonies. It was involuntary, forced indenture. Peter Willaimson from Aberdeenshire, Scotland was one of these people who was coerced into coming as an indentured servant. 

 

In the 18 Century, indentured servants were taken from Germany, and often families would redeem them from shipping companies, and the length of the indenture was bargained for. They entered the New World as “Redemptioners.” 

 

The servitude was cruel and exploitative but at the end of their contracts, they were free to go, unlike slavery. Black people who were freed often had to work as indentured servants for a few years after they were freed. 

 

With slavery, people were defined as property, it was lifelong forced labour, and the children became property, so it was an intergenerational system. 

 

On March 25, 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire. Slavery was abolished everywhere in 1834. In Upper Canada, an Anti-slavery Act was passed in 1793, freeing people 25 and over and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada. It was somewhat later in Prince Edward Island, pronounced in the legislature in 1825, nine years before the Imperial abolition of 1834.

 

With the abolishment in Canada, slaves came through the “underground railway”, to freedom but there had already been 200 years of slavery.

 

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Shirley Langton 2020





 


Submitted: December 02, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Shirley M. Langton. All rights reserved.

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