Indentured servant

An Indentured servant is an unfree labourer under contract to work (for a specified amount of time) for another person, often without any pay, but in exchange for accommodation, food, other essentials and/or free passage to a new country. After working for a number of years they were free to farm or take up trade of their own. The term comes from the medieval English "indenture of retainer" — a contract written in duplicate on the same sheet, then cut in two along an indented line so that the two parts could later be refitted to confirm authenticity.

Indentured servitude was a form of contract labor, usually of a forced nature. One had to give up one's personal freedom for a specified period of time. In some cases it was called "white servitude," but contract labor was not limited just to white European immigrants. People of every race and ethnicity have some history with this form of labor. Many economic historians have written about the incentive compatibility structure, including David Galenson, Farley Grubb, and Abbot Smith.

Caribbean Islands

Most of the European settlers who came to the Caribbean islands 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 five 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 mistreated 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 normal part of the landscape in England during the 1600s. During the 1640s and 1650s, some indentured servants were kidnapped and taken to Barbados. The term Barbadosed was coined for these actions, and Redlegs for the group concerned. Other indentured servants were English captives from Cromwell’s expeditions to Ireland and Scotland, who were forced into being brought over between 1649 and 1655.

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 landowner’s 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. Yellow fever, malaria and the diseases that the African slaves 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 came to an end in the British Empire in 1838, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labour. These servants emigrated from a variety of places, including China and Portugal, though a majority came from India. This system was abolished in 1917. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyana, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobago, and a substantial minority in Jamaica.

North America

In North American history, employers usually paid for European workers' passage across the Atlantic Ocean, reimbursing the shipowner who held their papers of indenture; in return the servants agreed to work for a specified number of years. The agreement could also be in exchange for professional training; after being the indentured servant to a blacksmith for several years, one would expect to work as a blacksmith on one's own account after the period was over. During the 17th century most of the white laborers in Maryland and Virginia came from England this way. Their masters were bound to feed, clothe and lodge them. An indentured servant's lot in the establishment was often 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 given a new suit of clothes and set loose.

Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of residents/emigrants, especially in the British colonies. Convict labor only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous and disease-stricken, resulting in deaths on every journey, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. In fact contract-laborers were so important a group of people and so numerous that they were mentioned in the US Constitution:

"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, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons".

Thus the system was still going strong 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:

"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, labourers and domestic servants and that he has agreed with them on his own account to hire their services for a period normally of 3, 4, or 5 years for men and women and 6 or 7 years for children."

In modern terms, the shipowner was acting as a contractor, hiring out his labourers. 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.


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