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An indentured servant is a laborer under contract to an employer for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities. Unlike a slave, an indentured servant is required to work only for a limited term specified in a signed contract.

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 mechanisms, in that both require a set period of work.

North America

In addition to slaves (who were mostly from Africa), Europeans, including Irish, Scottish, English, and Germans, immigrated to North America in substantial numbers as indentured servants, particularly to the British Thirteen Colonies. Over half of all white emigrants that arrived in the English colonies of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries may have been indentured servants. In the 18th and early 19th century numerous Europeans traveled to the colonies as redemptioners.

It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost 80% of the total British and continental emigration to America prior to the Revolution.

Indenture certificate signed with an X by Henry Meyer in 1738
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 CaptainStephen Jones Master of the Snow Sally to serve the said Stephen Jones and his Assigns, for and during the fullSpace, 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 withsufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and all other necessaries befitting such a Servant, and at the end andexpiration 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 StephenJones or his Assigns 15 Pounds British in twenty one Days after his arrival he shall be Free, and the aboveIndenture and every Clause therein, absolutely Void and of no Effect. In Witness whereof the said Parties havehereunto interchangeably put their Hands and Seals the 6th Day of July in the Year of our Lord, One ThousandSeven 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 (redemptioners) 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 afew 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 CaptainStephen Jones now cancelled in consideration of £ 15,paid for his Passage from London bound a servantto David Rittenhouse of the City of Philadelphia& assigns three years to befound all necessaries.


On the journey to America, many passengers did not survive the trip to the new land. Some died of starvation, disease, or suicide. In Colonial North America, employers usually paid for European workers' passage across the Atlantic Oceanmarker, reimbursing the shipowner who held their papers of indenture. In the process many families were broken apart. During the time living with their masters, their fellow indentured servants took the role of family.

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.
agreement could also be an exchange for professional training: after being the indentured servant of a blacksmith for several years, one would expect to work as a blacksmith on one's own account after the period of indenture was over. During the 17th century, most of the white laborers in Virginiamarker came from Englandmarker this way. Their masters were bound to feed, clothe, and lodge them. Ideally, an indentured servant's lot in the establishment would be no harder than that of a contemporary apprentice, who was similarly bound by contract and owed hard, unpaid labor while "serving his time." At the end of the allotted time, an indentured servant was to be given a new suit of clothes, tools, or money, and freed.

Like slaves, servants could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment, 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 could look forward to a release from bondage. If they survived their period of labor, servants would receive a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society.

On the other hand, this ideal was not always a reality for indentured servants. Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. The large number of servants who ran away or committed suicide suggests that the conditions of life during the period of bondage may not have been so different for the servant and the slave. Female indentured servants in particular might be raped and/or sexually abused by their masters. Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, and social pressure to avoid such brutality could vary by geography and cultural norm. The situation was particularly difficult for indentured women, because in both low social class and sex, they were believed to be particularly prone to vice, making legal redress unusual.

Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the 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:

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. In the north, indentured servants were more likely to be integrated with the community to some extent, with more household chores and town-oriented trade skills associated with their work. What was often great mental stress and suppression in combination with hard work and the possibility of physical abuse took its toll on many indentured servants, particularly women, who were subject to even stricter social mores than their male counterparts.

By contrast, in Virginia, the majority of the population did not live in individual towns, and indentured servants were more likely to work on isolated farms. 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 Upper South, 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.

Indentured servants differed from slavery. There was a continuum between the designations "free" and "unfree" in the colonial period. In this sense, the development of racial thinking to separate and privilege the mainly white laborers from black slaves solidified the institution of slavery even as it opened, at least in name, opportunities for lower-class whites. Ultimately, slavery persisted until 1865 in the South, but indentured servitude did not.

The system was still widely practiced in the 1780s, 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:

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 also used by the Hudson's Bay Company, in what is now Canadamarker, to staff the coal mines around Nanaimomarker well into the late 1800s.

Modern indentured servitude takes the form of illegal immigrants paying their passage by long work-hours in harsh conditions, often at subsistence pay rates to support themselves. Such activity is not uncommon in America and Europe as well.

Article 4 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (passed in 1948) declares such servitude as illegal. But, only national legislation can implement that illegality. In America, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover Peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.African Americans and Europeans were also known to be disrespected and when the contract(s) would end, the servant can and sometimes would be forced to work for more time and would not receive the land grant.

The Caribbean

European settlers who came to the Caribbean islandsmarker during the 16th and 17th centuries did so as indentured servants. Commoners, most of whom were young men, with dreams of owning their land or striking it rich quick would essentially sell years of their freedom 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 and shelter during the term of their service. 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 was considered the property of the master. He could be sold or given away by his master and he was not allowed to marry without the master’s permission. An indentured servant was normally not allowed to buy or sell goods although, unlike an African slave, he could own personal property. He could also go to a local magistrate if he was treated badly by his master. After the servant’s term of bondage was complete he was freed and paid “freedom dues”. These payments could take the form of land or sugar, which would give the servant the opportunity to become an independent farmer or a free laborer.

Indentured servitude was a common part of the landscape in Englandmarker and Irelandmarker during the 1600s. During the 1600s, many Irish were also kidnapped and taken to Barbadosmarker. In 1643, there were 37,200 whites in Barbados (86% of the population). Many indentured servants were captured by the English during Cromwell’s expeditions to Irelandmarker and Scotlandmarker, who were forcibly brought over between 1649 and 1655.

Many Irish indentured servants were taken to Montserratmarker during the 17th and 18th centuries; it is the only territory in the world, other than the Republic of Irelandmarker, to have a public holiday for St Patrick Day.

After 1660, the Caribbean saw fewer indentured servants coming over from Europe. On most of the islands African slaves now did all the hard fieldwork. Newly freed servant farmers that were given a few acres of land would not be able to make a living because sugar plantations had to be spread over hundreds of acres in order to be profitable. The landowners’ reputation as cruel masters in dealing with the large slave populations became a deterrence to the potential indentured servant. Even the islands themselves had become deadly disease death traps for the white servants. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had experience in agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines. Yellow fever, malaria and the diseases that Europeans had brought over contributed to the fact that during the 17th century between 33 to 50 percent of the indentured servants died before they were freed.

When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labor. These servants emigrated from a variety of places, including Chinamarker and Portugalmarker, though the majority came from Indiamarker. This system was pioneered at Aapravasi Ghatmarker in Mauritiusmarker and was not abolished until 1917. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyanamarker, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobagomarker and Surinamemarker, and a substantial minority in Jamaicamarker, Grenadamarker, Barbadosmarker, and other Caribbean islands.

Australia and the Pacific

In the article on the history of Vanuatu, it states that, "During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fijimarker, New Caledoniamarker, and the Samoamarker Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade 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 Queenslandmarker, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude, of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders (from Melanesia, mainly the Solomon Islandsmarker and Vanuatumarker, with a small number from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Samoamarker, Kiribatimarker and Tuvalumarker). They were collectively known as Kanakas.

The question of how many Islanders were kidnapped (or blackbirded) is unknown and remains controversial. The question of whether Islanders were legally recruited, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queenslandis difficult. 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 tended to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.

Australia repatriated many of these people to their places of origin in the period 1906-1908 under the provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 ().

The Australian colonies of Papua and New Guinea (joined after the Second World War to form Papua New Guineamarker) were the last jurisdictions in the world to use indentured servitude.

The Indian Ocean

The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, specialized in sugar cane plantations, badly needed this intensive labor cheaper than the emancipated workforce negotiating for higher wages.

Mauritius was to act as a plaque tournante for this coolie or indentured population, dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies.

Between 1845 and 1917, 140,000+ Indians work contracted to work the plantations of the island of Trinidad.

Mauritiusmarker can be called the country of coolitude as the 'Great Experiment' leading to the widespread recourse to indentured labour started there. It hosts the Aapravasi ghatmarker and has given rise to many books on this special page in the history of human migrations.

Modern day examples

Practices in the United Arab Emiratesmarker are examples of modern day indentured servitude. Workers generally from India and Pakistan are forced to pay people for the promise of work in the Emirates. Once they enter the country their passports are taken from them and they are not told when they will get them back. The indentured servants are provided with lodgings, transportation to the place of work and basic foods.

Notes

  1. Frank R. Diffenderffer, The German Immigration into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia, 1700-1775, Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1979. This book describes the indenturing process in detail for immigrants from foreign countries, not only from Germany.
  2. Gottlieb Mittleberger on Indentured Servitude, Faulkner University
  3. Indentured Servitude in Colonial America, By Deanna Barker, Frontier Resources
  4. "The curse of Cromwell", A Short History of Northern Ireland, BBC. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  5. White Servitude, by Richard Hofstadter, Montgomery College
  6. Morris, Richard B. "Emergence of American Labor.", U.S. Department of Labor, August 30, 2005
  7. Frank R. Diffenderffer, The German Immigration into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia, 1700-1775, Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1979.
  8. Pennsylvania Gazette (weekly Philadelphia newspaper), August 17, 1774
  9. Record of Indentures, Philadelphia, 1771-1773, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 1973.
  10. Eric Foner: Give me liberty. W.W.Norton & Company, 2004. ISBN 978-0393978735.
  11. White Servitude, by Richard Hofstadter
  12. Henry Morgan: The Pirate Who Invaded Panama in 1671. Historynet.com.
  13. Population, Slavery and Economy in Barbados, BBC.
  14. A failed settler society: marriage and demographic failure in early Jamaica, Journal of Social History, Fall, 1994, by Trevor Burnard


See also



Further reading

  1. Frank R. Diffenderffer, The German Immigration into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia, 1700-1775, Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1979. This book describes the indenturing process in detail for immigrants from foreign countries, not only from Germany.
  2. Gottlieb Mittleberger on Indentured Servitude, Faulkner University
  3. Indentured Servitude in Colonial America, By Deanna Barker, Frontier Resources
  4. "The curse of Cromwell", A Short History of Northern Ireland, BBC. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  5. White Servitude, by Richard Hofstadter, Montgomery College
  6. Morris, Richard B. "Emergence of American Labor.", U.S. Department of Labor, August 30, 2005
  7. Frank R. Diffenderffer, The German Immigration into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia, 1700-1775, Genealogical Pub. Co., Baltimore, 1979.
  8. Pennsylvania Gazette (weekly Philadelphia newspaper), August 17, 1774
  9. Record of Indentures, Philadelphia, 1771-1773, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 1973.
  10. Eric Foner: Give me liberty. W.W.Norton & Company, 2004. ISBN 978-0393978735.
  11. White Servitude, by Richard Hofstadter
  12. Henry Morgan: The Pirate Who Invaded Panama in 1671. Historynet.com.
  13. Population, Slavery and Economy in Barbados, BBC.
  14. A failed settler society: marriage and demographic failure in early Jamaica, Journal of Social History, Fall, 1994, by Trevor Burnard
  • Immigrant Servants Database
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.
  • Salinger, Sharon V. 'To serve well and faithfully': Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800. New
  • Khal Torabully and Marina Carter, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora Anthem Press, London, 2002, ISBN 1843310031
  • Saxton, Martha. Being Good: Women's Moral Values in Early America New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.
  • Brown, Kathleen. Goodwives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriachs: gender, race and power in Colonial Virginia, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Jernegan, Marcus Wilson Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607-1783 Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
  • Frethorne, Richard. The Experiences of an Indentured Servant in Virginia (1623)
  • Whitehead, John Frederick, Johann Carl Buttner, Susan E. Klepp, and Farley Grubb. Souls for Sale: Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America, Max Kade German-American Research Institute Series, ISBN 0271028823.


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