Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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How were indentured servants treated?

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The treatment of indentured servants in colonial North America varied greatly. How they were treated depended largely on the attitude of the landowner for whom they worked. The landowners were responsible for the welfare of their indentured servants and had a large amount of latitude in how they fulfilled this commitment.

There are some reports of indentured servants who were treated well, given a large degree of autonomy, and considered part of the landowner's family. Servants with a specialized skill usually faired the best, as their services were highly valued. This, however, was not the norm.

More often, indentured servants were treated as mere chattel. Since they were seen as a way to increase profits for the landowner and little else, they were usually given very simple housing and just enough food (when it was available) to stay healthy enough to work. In fact, many did not survive their first year in North America. It was very common for disease, harsh conditions, and starvation to take the lives of servants in what was known as "summer seasoning."

Work was hard for indentured servants. They would be expected to toil from dawn to dusk every day but Sunday. If a servant was too weak to work or suffering from an injury that prevented labor, more time would be added to their contract.

Furthermore, indentured servants who did not comply with the landowner's wishes could be severely punished. Food could be withheld, and in certain circumstances, servants could be severely beaten. In some cases, they would be beaten so harshly that they died. There was no punishment for a landowner who beat their servant to death. Additionally, it was not uncommon for female servants to be sexually assaulted.

Even though the mistreatment of indentured servants was widespread, it still shocked many English observers. Many felt that the harsh and inhumane treatment of fellow English men and women was beneath the dignity of a civilized society.

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