Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Indentured Servant

Indenture contract signed with an X by Henry Meyer in 1738

Indentured servitude was a form of debt bondage, established in the early years of the American colonies. Farmers, planters, and shopkeepers in the colonies found it very difficult to hire free workers, primarily because it was so easy for potential workers to set up their own farms.[1] Consequently, a common solution was to transport a young worker from England or Germany, who would work for several years to pay off the debt of their travel costs. During the indenture period the servants were not paid wages, but were provided with food, accommodation, clothing and training. The indenture document specified how many years the servant would be required to work, after which they would be free.

Not all were sent willingly. Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded and this falls more clearly into the bracket of "white slave". Whilst these white slaves were often indentured in the same way as their willing counterparts it is an important distinction to make. An illustrative example of such a kidnap story is that of Peter Williamson (1730-1799).

Most white immigrants arrived in Colonial America as indentured servants, usually as young men and women from Britain or Germany, under the age of 21. Typically, the father of a teenager would sign the legal papers, and work out an arrangement with a ship captain, who would not charge the father any money. The captain would transport the indentured servants to the American colonies, and sell their legal papers to someone who needed workers. At the end of the indenture, the young person was given a new suit of clothes and was free to leave. Many immediately set out to begin their own farms, while others used their newly acquired skills to pursue a trade.

In the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of settlers to the New World from the British Isles came as indentured servants. Given the high death rate, many servants did not live to the end of their terms. In the 18th and early 19th century, numerous Europeans traveled to the colonies as redemptioners, a form of indenture.

It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost 80% of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to the Revolution. Indentured servants were a separate category from bound apprentices. The latter were American-born children, usually orphans or from an impoverished family who could not care for them. They were under the control of courts and were bound out to work as an apprentice until a certain age. Two famous bound apprentices were Benjamin Franklin who illegally fled his apprenticeship to his brother, and Andrew Johnson, who later became President of the United States.

Costs and Wages

In the 18th century, wages in Great Britain were low because of a surplus of labor. The average was about 50 shillings (£2.50) a year for a plowman, and 40 shillings (£2) a year for an ordinary unskilled worker. Ships' captains negotiated prices for transporting and feeding a passenger on the seven or eight week journey across the ocean, averaging about £5 to £7, the equivalent of four or five years of work back in England.

Legal Documents

Indenture of apprenticeship binding Evan Morgan, a child aged 6 years and 11 months, for a period of 14 years, 1 month. Dated Feb. 1, 1823, Sussex Co., Delaware.

An indenture was a legal contract enforced by the courts. One indenture reads as follows:

This INDENTURE Witnesseth that James Best a Laborer doth Voluntarily put himself Servant to Captain Stephen Jones Master of the Snow Sally to serve the said Stephen Jones and his Assigns, for and during the full Space, Time and Term of three Years from the first Day of the said James’ arrival in Philadelphia in AMERICA, during which Time or Term the said Master or his Assigns shall and will find and supply the said James with sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and all other necessaries befitting such a Servant, and at the end and expiration of said Term, the said James to be made Free, and receive according to the Custom of the Country. Provided nevertheless, and these Presents are on this Condition, that if the said James shall pay the said Stephen Jones or his Assigns 15 Pounds British in twenty one Days after his arrival he shall be Free, and the above Indenture and every Clause therein, absolutely Void and of no Effect. In Witness whereof the said Parties have hereunto interchangeably put their Hands and Seals the 6th Day of July in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Three in the Presence of the Right Worshipful Mayor of the City of London. (signatures)

When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants were for sale:

Just imported, on board the Snow Sally, Captain Stephen Jones, Master, from England, A number of healthy, stout English and Welsh Servants and Redemptioners, and a few Palatines [Germans], amongst whom are the following tradesmen, viz. Blacksmiths, watch-makers, coppersmiths, taylors, shoemakers, ship-carpenters and caulkers, weavers, cabinet-makers, ship-joiners, nailers, engravers, copperplate printers, plasterers, bricklayers, sawyers and painters. Also schoolmasters, clerks and book-keepers, farmers and labourers, and some lively smart boys, fit for various other employments, whose times are to be disposed of. Enquire of the Captain on board the vessel, off Walnut-street wharff, or of MEASE and CALDWELL.

When a buyer was found, the sale would be recorded at the city court. The Philadelphia Mayor’s Court Indenture Book, page 742, for September 18, 1773 has the following entry:

James Best, who was under Indenture of Redemption to Captain Stephen Jones now cancelled in consideration of £ 15, paid for his Passage from London bound a servant to David Rittenhouse of the City of Philadelphia & assigns three years to be found all necessaries.


Indentures could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment (like many young ordinary servants), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society. One could buy and sell indentured servants' contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.

Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. Richard Hofstadter notes that, as slaves arrived in greater numbers after 1700, white laborers became a "privileged stratum, assigned to lighter work and more skilled tasks".

Redemptionist Profile

Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the English and later British colonies. Voluntary migration and convict labor only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. Contract-laborers became an important group of people and so numerous that the United States Constitution counted them specifically in appointing representatives:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years....

Displaced from their land and unable to find work in the cities, many of these people signed contracts of indenture and took passage to the Americas. In Massachusetts, religious instruction in the Puritan way of life was often part of the condition of indenture, and people tended to live in towns.

The labor-intensive cash crop of tobacco was farmed in the American South by indentured laborers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indentured servitude was not the same as the apprenticeship system by which skilled trades were taught, but similarities do exist between the two, since both require a set period of work. The majority of Virginians were Anglican, not Puritan, and while religion did play a large role in everyday lives, the culture was more commercially based. In the Chesapeake and North Carolina, tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output. (In the Deep South (mainly Georgia and South Carolina), cotton and rice plantations dominated.) In the lower Atlantic colonies where tobacco was the main cash crop, the majority of labor that indentured servants performed was related to field work. In this situation, social isolation could increase the possibilities for both direct and indirect abuse, as could lengthy, demanding labor in the tobacco fields.

The system was still widely practiced in the 1780's, picking up immediately after a hiatus during the American Revolution. Fernand Braudel (The Perspective of the World 1984, pp 405f) instances a 1783 report on "the import trade from Ireland" and its large profits to a ship owner or a captain, who:

"puts his conditions to the emigrants in Dublin or some other Irish port. Those who can pay for their passage—usually about 100 or 80 [livres tournois]—arrive in America free to take any engagement that suits them. Those who cannot pay are carried at the expense of the shipowner, who in order to recoup his money, advertises on arrival that he has imported artisans, laborers and domestic servants and that he has agreed with them on his own account to hire their services for a period normally of three, four, or five years for men and women and 6 or 7 years for children."

In modern terms, the shipowner was acting as an contractor, hiring out his laborers. Such circumstances affected the treatment a captain gave his valuable human cargo. After indentures were forbidden, the passage had to be prepaid, giving rise to the inhumane conditions of Irish 'coffin ships' in the second half of the 19th century.


Indentured servitude was a major element of colonial labor economics, from the 1620's until the American Revolution. Few indentures arrived during the revolutionary war, and the indenturing practice subsequently declined.

Several factors contributed to the decline of indentured servitude. The expansion of staple crop production in the colonies led to an increased demand for skilled workers, and the price of indentured agricultural labor increased. For example, the cost of indentured labor rose by nearly 60 percent throughout the 1680's in some colonial regions.

Relative labor costs changed, with an increase in real income in Europe and England. This, along with improved transportation productivity and efficiency with smaller crew sizes, and cheaper insurance rates reduced the cost of the voyage to the colonies, so immigrants could pay for it themselves and refrain from entering indentured contracts.

Rising prices for English servants made the rather elastic supply of Africans comparatively less expensive and more desirable. Colonial farmers preferred not to train adult slaves to do skilled labor, and chose to train younger Africans when they reached the colonies or to train the children of adult slaves already in British America. By the turn of the 17th century, unskilled labor positions were often filled by African slaves and skilled service positions were still filled by white indentured servants. Thereafter, Africans began to replace indentured servants in both skilled and unskilled positions.


A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean (primarily the south Caribbean, Trinidad, French Guiana, and Surinam) before 1840. Most were young men, with dreams of owning their land or striking it rich quick would essentially sell years of their labor in exchange for passage to the islands. The landowners on the islands would pay for a servant’s passage and then provide them with food, clothes, shelter and instruction during the agreed upon term. The servant would then be required to work in the landowner’s (master) field for a term of bondage (usually four to seven years). During this term of bondage the servant had a status similar to a son of the master. For example they were not allowed to marry without the master’s permission. They could own personal property. They could also complain to a local magistrate about mistreatment that exceeded community norms. However, his contract could be sold or given away by his master. After the servant’s term was complete he became independent and was paid “freedom dues”. These payments could take the form of land which would give the servant the opportunity to become an independent farmer or a free laborer. As free men with little money they became a political force that stood in opposition to the rich planters.

Indentured servitude was a common part of the social landscape in England and Ireland during the 17th century. During the 17th century, many Irish were also taken to Barbados. In 1643, there were 37,200 whites in Barbados (86% of the population). During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms many Scottish and Irish prisoners of war were sold as indentured labors to the colonies.

After 1660, fewer indentured servants came from Europe to the Caribbean. Newly freed servant farmers, given a few acres of land, were unable to make a living because profitable sugar plantations needed to cover hundreds of acres. The landowners’ reputation as cruel masters became a deterrence to the potential indentured servant. In the 17th century, the islands became known as a death traps, as between 33 to 50 percent of indentured servants died before they were freed, many from Yellow fever, malaria and other diseases.

When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labor. These servants arrived from across the globe; the majority came from India where many Indians departed as indentured laborers to work in colonies requiring manual labor. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyana, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and a substantial minority in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands.

Australia and the Pacific

Convicts transported to the Australian colonies before the 1840's often found themselves hired out in a form of indentured labor. Indentured servants also emigrated to New South Wales.

During the 1860's planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a trade in long-term indentured labor called "blackbirding". At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad.

Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labor for the sugar-cane fields of Queensland, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders. The workers came mainly from Melanesia - mainly from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu - with a small number from Polynesian and Micronesian areas such as Samoa, the Gilbert Islands (subsequently known as Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (subsequently known as Tuvalu). They became collectively known as "Kanakas".

It remains unknown how many Islanders the trade controversially kidnapped (or blackbirded). Whether the system legally recruited Islanders, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced them to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland remains difficult to determine. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.

Australia deported many of these Islanders to their places of origin in the period 1906-1908 under the provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901.

Australia's own colonies of Papua and New Guinea (joined after the Second World War to form Papua New Guinea) were the last jurisdictions in the world to use indentured servitude.


A significant number of construction projects, principally British, in East Africa and South Africa, required vast quantities of labor, exceeding the availability or willingness of local tribesmen. Coolies from India were imported, frequently under indenture, for such projects as the Uganda Railway, as farm labor, and as miners. They and their descendants and formed a significant portion of the population and economy of Kenya and Uganda, although not without engendering resentment from others. Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" from Uganda in 1972 was an expulsion of Indo-Africans

Indian Ocean

The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, with extensive sugar cane plantations sought a cheaper workforce than emancipated workers negotiating for higher wages. Mauritius was the country of coolitude, the 'Great Experiment' of widespread recourse to indentured labor having started there. Mauritius acted as a hub or plaque tournante for this indentured population of coolies, receiving and onward dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies through the Aapravasi ghat.

Legal Status

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) declares in Article 4 "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". However, only national legislation can establish its unlawfulness. In the United States, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.


Bracero Program


History of Guyana

Indenture (document)

Indentured servitude in Pennsylvania

Indian indenture system

Involuntary servitude

Padrone system


Runaway servants


Trafficking in human beings

White Servitude

Immagrants Servants Database

Source: Wikipedia

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