Monday, August 6, 2007

Rehearsal 1: Indentured Servitude in Masters of the Trade - Rehearsal 1 - 8/5/07

A wealth of subtext started bubbling to the surface of last night's rehearsal.

Initial findings on indentured servitude follow. More to come on other questions that arose.

Michael Rowan came to Kentucky by way of Georgia following the sudden death of his master after a disagreement over the length of Michael's indentured servitude. Michael had a wife and children killed at Zion.

About Indentured Servants:

Indentured Servants and Transported Convicts

White indentured servants came from all over Great Britain. Men, women, and sometimes children signed a contract with a master to serve a term of 4 to 7 years. In exchange for their service, the indentured servants received their passage paid from England, as well as food, clothing, and shelter once they arrived in the colonies. Some were even paid a salary. When the contract had expired, the servant was paid freedom dues of corn, tools, and clothing, and was allowed to leave the plantation. During the time of his indenture, however, the servant was considered his master's personal property and his contract could be inherited or sold. Prices paid for indentured servants varied depending on skills.

While under contract a person could not marry or have children. A master's permission was needed to leave the plantation, to perform work for anyone else, or to keep money for personal use. An unruly indentured servant was whipped or punished for improper behavior. Due to poor living conditions, hard labor, and difficulties adjusting to new climates and native diseases, many servants did not live to see their freedom. Often servants ran away from their masters. Since they often spoke English and were white, runaway servants were more difficult to recapture than black slaves. If runaway servants were captured, they were punished by increasing their time of service.

Since indentures were not recorded, information about indentured servants at Stratford is scarce. Most information has been taken from advertisements for runaway servants and court records. Some of the male indentured servants were highly skilled laborers, holding such jobs as bricklayer, joiner, plasterer, cook, clerk, gardener, coachman, butcher, blacksmith, and musician. Female indentured servants performed domestice chores like laundry, sewing, and housekeeping. Children also were indentured.

Transported convicts, both men and women, were sold to plantation owners as another form of labor. One-fourth of the British immigrants to the colonies were convicts. Most of these convicts were male, young, unskilled, and poor. The usual crime was grand larceny. Generally, the only people exiled were those judges felt could be rehabilitated. Convicts performed the same type of work as indentured servants but were less trusted. Their length of service was usually longer than that of indentured servants. Like indentured servants and slaves, convicts frequently ran away. Political prisoners also were shipped to the colonies. Most of these were convicted following religious persecutions.




Indentured servants first arrived in America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607.

The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.

The timing of the Virginia colony was ideal. The Thirty Year's War had left Europe's economy depressed, and many skilled and unskilled laborers were without work. A new life in the New World offered a glimmer of hope; this explains how one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants.

Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.

In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.

As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.


Additional sources:
Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America, in The William & Mary Quarterly, 3d. series, 42 (April 1985): 167-83.
Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for the Chesapeake: Convicts, Crime, & Colonial Virginia, In Virginia Cavalcade, 3 (Winter 1988): 100-13.

No comments: