Indentured Servitude and Slavery Essay

To counter Spain’s growing influence in the Americas, England set out to establish colonies of its own in the New World. While Spanish- English rivalry had for a long time been political, England was concerned that the Spanish settlers in the Americas would manage to convert the region to Roman Catholicism (Olwell and Tully 24). Therefore, in coming to the Americas, the English had religion as an added objective. Contrary to the Spanish, they were mostly Protestants hence they sought out to convert the native people to Protestant Christianity (Price 29). Following previous failed attempts at establishing a permanent settlement in America, the English finally managed to establish Jamestown in May 1607 as their first permanent settlement. This establishment was marked by the arrival of three small ships landing in Jamestown with 104 men and boy and 39-crew members on board (McAneney 18). The English selection of Jamestown, Virginia was based on the fact that the location could easily be defended from any enemy attacks.Although the Jamestown area they had established their settlement was uninhabited, the English settlers were attacked by Paspahegh Indians only two weeks after their arrival. This forced the settlers to build a Fort as a defense mechanism (Price 96). However, the settlers would face a myriad of problems including an unfamiliar climate, diseases, lack of food and prolonged drought. While additional settlers continued to arrive in subsequent years including some women, the harsh conditions they faced led to the death of many of these early settlers (McAneney 11). Since many of the early settlers were upper-class Englishmen, the new colony also experienced a labor problem as they lacked enough laborers and skilled farmers. Despite their well-laid out plans to establish industries, engage in farming and establish trading relations with their Powhatan Indian neighbors, the colonialists short of labor options (McAneney 20). The labor issue combined with other factors ensured that the early settlers’ entrepreneurial efforts were unsuccessful.

Indentured Servitude
Despite these initial failures, the colonists didn’t give up and in 1613 they finally managed to introduce tobacco farming in the Virginia colony. As a cash crop, tobacco farming required large tracts of land and labor (Price 68). While the land issue would be solved by displacing the Powhatan Indians from their land, the settlers still had a labor problem. To ensure their entrepreneurial efforts were successful the colonist embraced a new form of labor, indentured servitude. However, before the introduction of indentured servants, the colonist had tried other forms of labor including the no work-no food policy and the enslavement of Indian Americans (Lawson 134). This form of labor was similar to family or community labor where people were expected to render their services to the community. The skilled laborers who were among the early settlers would earn their food and other benefits from the governing council by working for the colony (Olwell and Tully 19). However, as tobacco farming expanded and became the main attraction in the colony, more labor was required.

Although it was adopted by other colonies, indentured servitude was first introduced in Jamestown less than a decade after the establishment of the Virginia colony (McAneney 27). The labor system involves an indentured servant offering unfree or paid labor on the basis of a signed or forced contract that expires after a certain period of time. In the case of the Virginia colony, the contract lasted between four and seven years with the indentured servant receiving his/her freedom and other benefits such as land and passage to the colonies (Marques 58). However, the contract also allowed the employer to hire out his indentured servants to a third party. While the system involves harsh treatment and hard work, indentured servitude is not slavery (Murrin, Hämäläinen, Johnson, Brunsman, and McPherso 47). Despite the challenges faced by the indentured servants, the system was considered mutually beneficial as it provided the employer with cheap labor in exchange for passage to the colonies for the servants.

Since passage to the colonies was expensive, poor Englishmen agreed to become indentured servants for the wealthy colonists who promised them freedom, land and the passage they could not afford in exchange for labor (Thomas 102). While the idea of indentured servitude was born out the need for cheap labor, its timing coincided with an economic crisis in Europe. The Thirty Year’s War had had a devastating effect on economies across Europe hence there were no jobs (Wareing 78). For the many skilled and unskilled laborers in Europe who were finding it hard to secure jobs in their native countries, moving to the New World as indentured servants was a far better option. The rapid growth of the colonies ensured that indentured servitude was always in demand (Lawson 44). It is estimated that half to two-thirds of the American colonies immigrants arrived as indentured slaves.

As the cash crops including tobacco, sugar, and cotton became profitable and led to the rapid growth of the colonies, indentured servants became vital to the colonies. Colonies including Virginia continued to increase the number of indentured servants (Wareing 54). Despite harsh and restrictive lives as indentured servants, laws that had been put in place to protect the rights of the servants ensured that employers kept their end of the bargain once the contract ended. However, some servants would have their contracts extended as a form of punishment for breaking some set rules (Thomas 123). While many of the freed servants were contented with a modest life as part of the rich colonial economy, some freed servants worked so hard after the end of their contracts such that a few years down the line they had become part of the colonial elite(Murrin et al., 95). For the first half of the 17th century, indentured servitude was the main form of labor for the English American colonies.

As the demand for the New World cash crops continued to increase across Europe, more labor was required to ensure continued cultivation. The unending demand for labor would also lead to increased cost of indentured servitude (Marques 49). The fact that the indentured servants were no longer cheap labor worried many landowners. The landowners were also worried about the threat the newly freed servants posed especially in their demand for land. Even as the colonial economies continued to expand, the colonial elites were staring at a looming labor crisis that would significantly reduce their profits. The first black Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, less than ten years after the introduction of indentured servitude (Wells23). Since there were no slave laws in Virginia, the black Africans were accorded the same treatment as white indentured servants (Thomas 67).

They even enjoyed the same benefits including freedom after the expiry of their contracts.

However, the 1641 passing of slave laws in Massachusetts set in motion the introduction of slavery with Virginia passing a similar law in 1661(Price 165). With the passing of the laws, the indentured servant status of the black Africans was scrapped. The landowners who were by this time struggling with labor issues under the indentured servitude system quickly embraced slavery (Wareing 90). Slave labor was not only free labor hence profitable but was also ever-renewable as countless slaves were now being regularly shipped from Africa to the Americas. The second half of the 17th century witnessed a significant shift as indentured servitude was replaced by racial slavery as the main form of labor for the English American colonies (Feagin 24). By the end of the 17th century, slavery was still the main form of labor and the practice would continue even beyond the end of the colonies into the newly free states.

Landowners in the English American colonies favored the slavery of black Africans not only because of the free labor but also due to other factors. First, the Africans were well suited to the tropical climates of the Americas especially the Caribbean where the colonists had huge sugar plantations (Olwell and Tully 34). The Africans were also beneficial to the colonists since they brought with them new farming skills for crops such as rice. This is in contrast to white indentured servants who were ill-suited for the tropical climate and would constantly fall sick. However, the Africans slaves had limited immunity for diseases like malaria which was more common in the English North American colonies. Therefore, only a few of the African slaves were sent to the North (Thomas 88). The elaborate nature of the Atlantic slave trade also ensured that slavery became entrenched as the main form of labor for the English American colonies.

A combination of factors including tropical diseases, harsh working conditions, malnutrition, and poor housing ensured that there were always high mortality rates among the slaves. Despite the high mortality rates, increased slave trade ensured that racial slavery met the labor demands of the English colonies (Thomas 76). Slavery as a source of labor in the Americas would continue beyond the end of the colonies until the 19th century. Slavery was not only a building block for the colonial economy but was also critical in the expansion of the English territory across America (Feagin44). Compared to previous labor system racial slavery was very successful as a form of labor for the English American colonies with only indentured servitude slightly comparable.

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Work Cited
Feagin, Joe R. How Blacks Built America: Labor, Culture, Freedom, and Democracy. Routledge, 2016.
Lawson, Russell M. Servants and servitude in Colonial America. Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2018.
Marques, Leonardo. The United States and the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas, 1776-1867. Yale University Press, 2016.
McAneney, Caitie. Uncovering the Jamestown Colony. Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2017.
Murrin, John M., Hämäläinen, Pekka., Johnson, Paul E., Brunsman, Denver., and James M. McPherso. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, Volume 1: To 1877. Cengage Learning, 2016.
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Wells, Robert V. Population of the British Colonies in America before 1776: A Survey of Census Data. Princeton University Press, 2015.