Describe the transition from indentured servitude to slavery in the Chesapeake region of North America during the 17th century. Be sure to incorporate the economic and social aspects...

Describe the transition from indentured servitude to slavery in the Chesapeake region of North America during the 17th century. Be sure to incorporate the economic and social aspects of both forms of unfree labor into your answer.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the Chesapeake region in the 17th century, there was a gradual, but inexorable, movement away from the use of indentured servants (most of whom were white) and towards the use of slaves from Africa or of African descent.  This change happened for both social and economic reasons.

In the earliest days of the Chesapeake region, there were clearly Africans who were, to some degree, unfree.  We know that a group of Africans was brought to Virginia in 1619. We do not know exactly how many Africans were treated as indentured servants and how many were slaves. We simply know that both of these forms of unfree labor existed.  At the same time, we know that there were many English indentured servants as well. By the end of the 17th century, indentured servitude was much less common and slavery was much more common.  Moreover, a system had arisen in which Africans were enslaved for life (as were their descendants) instead of being, in some cases, merely indentured.

This transition happened for economic and social reasons. The social reasons had to do with both race and class.  Racially, there was a clear feeling that Africans were inferior to whites.  This feeling was originally mixed up with religion as well, since Africans were not Christian.  As more and more Africans were brought to the Chesapeake, colonists felt the need to make sure that they were differentiated from whites.  This eventually led to the creation of a full-blown system of race-based slavery. 

There were also class-based reasons for the move to slavery. These reasons were more of reasons not to have indentured servants rather than reasons to have slaves. The indentured servants were, of course, poor people.  As the years went by, more and more indentured servants reached the end of their indentures and became free.  This created a growing pool of lower-class whites.  These whites sometimes became restive, worrying the colonial elites.  The elites wanted to reduce the number of indentured servants so as to stop adding to this pool of free poor people who might upset the social order.

There were also economic reasons for the transition to slavery. These reasons mainly had to do with the supply of indentured servants and slaves, respectively. As time went by, the supply of indentured servants decreased and their cost, therefore, increased. This happened partly because England’s economy was improving and fewer people were willing to indenture themselves in order to gain greater opportunities in America.  It also happened because more American colonies were created, giving English people options as to where they would go in the colonies. Both of these factors increased the price of indentured servants.

At the same time, the price of African slaves was generally declining. The supply of these slaves seemed unlimited.  This was particularly true after the Royal African Company was chartered as a company dedicated to bringing slaves from Africa to the new world.  Since there was such a large supply of African slaves, their price dropped as the price of indentured servants went up. This, of course, made slaves economically more attractive than indentured servants.

In these ways, indentured servants became less attractive than slaves. Slaves would never become free to swell the pool of potentially rebellious poor, free people. Slaves were in greater supply and were therefore cheaper.  This led to a situation where indentured servitude gradually died out and a system of racial slavery, set in law, became prevalent.

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