How were indentured servants and African American slaves different?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Indentured servants came to the colonies after signing a contract, known as an "indenture" that committed them to anywhere from three to five years of service (usually as agricultural labor). In return, the owner of an indenture would pay for passage to the colony and what were called "freedom dues" to be supplied at the end of the indenture. "Freedom dues" might include a small parcel of land, clothing, a gun, or farming implements. Indentures could be sold from one person to another, and they could be extended close to indefinitely if the servant violated the terms of the agreement by running away, refusing to work, or becoming pregnant. The owners of indentures also possessed the power to discipline their workers, often by physical violence. Early in the history of the colonies, particularly in Virginia, the indentured labor force was composed of Irish people, poor urban English people, and African-Americans. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Virginians increasingly turned to enslaved labor. In a process similar to what had occurred in Barbados, the legislature defined slavery in ways that differed from indentured servitude. As a result of this "terrible transformation," as it was described by one historian, slavery was permanent, racial, and hereditary. The children of enslaved women were by law slaves themselves, and would remain so for the rest of their lives. This was the biggest and most significant difference between slavery and indentured servitude, and the fact that it was attached to race had even more tragic consequences.

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