Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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Compare and contrast the lives of slaves and indentured servants.

The lives of both slaves and indentured servants were extremely harsh. Ill-treatment was common, as the owners of slaves and servants regarded those who worked for them as inferior. The main difference between slaves and indentured servants is that the latter did at least have some rights in law.

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The practice of indentured servitude was widespread in the early decades of American history. This was by no means planned; rather, it arose out of a desire for cheap labor. European settlers suddenly had access to vast swathes of land, but without anyone to take care of it, such land could not be exploited to its maximum potential.

That's where indentured servants came in. They were widely used in the early decades of the American colonies to provide labor in return for board, lodging, and a passage across the Atlantic. Indentured servants were contracted to work for a set length of time, which was an advantage they had over slaves, who would remain in their condition until they died or their owners decided to set them free.

Indentured servants also had some protections, albeit limited in law, something that wasn't extended to slaves. Though conditions were invariably hard for indentured servants, they were generally much better than those of slaves. The main reason for this is that the former were still free, no matter how hard their working conditions.

Even so, as they were regarded by their employers and society at large as inferior, indentured servants were often singled out for harsh punishments not meted out to those who weren't servants. Like slaves, they did not enjoy equality under the law.

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In the American colonies of the 17th and 18th centuries, both slaves and indentured servants filled the need for a cheap source of labor for farms and plantations of rice, tobacco, indigo, and other crops. Both forms of labor were unpaid and both slaves and indentured servants were subject to mistreatment, unfavorable working conditions, and harsh forms of punishment. However, there were also profound differences between the lives of slaves and indentured servants.

Indentured servants were mainly people brought over from Europe for fixed periods of contracted time that varied from four to seven (or more) years. Their masters paid their fares across the Atlantic in full and provided them with room and board. This was not slavery, though, because at the end of their terms of contract, the indentured servants would be free citizens. Their masters typically supplied them with termination pay that might include land, food, weaponry, and clothes.

In fact, the first Africans brought to Jamestown in the early 17th century aboard a Dutch trading ship were given indentured servant status and eventually became free.

Due to financial expediency, slavery replaced indentured servitude in the Deep South and, to a lesser extent, throughout the rest of the American colonies. Slaves, unlike indentured servants, were treated like property. They received basic food and shelter and were forced to work long hours. They had no rights and received no education or freedom of movement. They had to obtain their master's permission before they were allowed to marry or have children, and at any time, their masters could buy and sell them, separating families in the process.

In conclusion, both slaves and indentured servants were subject to oppression and harsh treatment, but indentured servants were people in temporary service who would afterwards regain their freedom, while slaves were considered property for the duration of their lives and were rarely ever granted freedom.

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At a superficial level, the lives of slaves and indentured servants were not that different. Both had no ability to monetize their labor from the point of indenture and/or enslavement and were beholden to their masters. Both slaves and indentured servants also could face harsh treatment and harsher punishment should they try to escape.

Unlike slaves, however, indentured servants were effective chattel only for a limited period of time. At the end of their period of indenture, they would be restored to their former status as freemen. And, in many cases, indentured servants were awarded property or money at the conclusion of their period of indenture.

Another fundamental difference between slaves and indentured servants is that indentured servants entered indenture freely, usually through a contract in which they would receive certain benefits such as ship passage. Slaves had no such liberty and no similar benefits.

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In many ways, the lives of indentured servants and slaves were very similar to one another.  The indentured servants, of course, had more hope for the future, but slaves could in some cases actually have better conditions in the present.

Indentured servants and slaves were treated in broadly similar ways.  They were both brought to the New World in horrible conditions with many dying along the way.  They were both subject to physical punishment from their masters.  They both worked for no pay and with no control over their working lives.

However, indentured servants had a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.  They would, after a given term, become free.  This was surely a great comfort to them as they had to deal with the bad conditions of their daily lives.  On the other hand, slaves were worth more to their masters than indentured servants.  Slaves could sometimes expect better treatment because their masters had more money tied up in them.  Indentured servants, especially those reaching the end of their terms, were of little value to the masters and did not need to be treated as carefully so as to protect their master's investment.

Overall, then, there were many similarities between the lives of these two classes of unfree labor.

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