Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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What distinguishes indentured servitude from slavery?

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In the American colonies, indentured servitude and slavery were vastly different institutions. Indentured servants began to arrive in America mainly after the Virginia Company colonized Jamestown in 1607. They supplied the need for laborers in the Americas. These were mainly white Europeans who contracted for a period of work that typically lasted four to seven years. Indentured servants would receive their passage across the Atlantic and room and board while they worked. At the end of their contracted period of employment, they would be given a termination bonus comprised of money, land, or other goods that they could use as they started their new, free life. Terms were harsh, however: if indentured servants attempted to run away or became pregnant, their period of servitude could be increased.

Slaves, on the other hand, were kidnapped from their homelands in Africa and shipped across the Atlantic in chains. They signed no contracts. They were forcibly taken and then bought and sold as commodities. Slaves became a legal form of property, and the institution of slavery made the owners of tobacco and cotton plantations in the Deep South extremely wealthy. In fact, slavery supplanted indentured servitude as the preferred method of obtaining laborers by the late 17th century because it was much more economical to purchase slaves rather than to enter into contracts with indentured servants.

In summary, the main thing that distinguished indentured servants from slaves in the American colonies was the fact that indentured servants entered freely into labor contracts for a specific period of time, while slaves were forced into labor without pay for their entire lifetimes. Indentured servants had the possibility of a free life after their terms of servitude, while slaves had no such hopes or possibilities.

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Several things distinguished slavery from indentured servitude. First, indentured servants willingly entered into their position, whereas slaves were forced into slavery. Secondly, indentured servitude was temporary. The servants agreed to work for a period of time (usually 5–7 years) as indentured servants in exchange for passage to America, and they usually received some land when their period of servitude ended. Slavery, on the other hand, was almost always permanent. The children of slaves were automatically slaves and would also remain slaves forever, as would their children, and their children's children, etc.

The final major difference is that slavery was tied to race. Whites were not enslaved. Slavery became strictly associated with being black. As time went on and the system of slavery became increasingly codified in America, stricter laws were passed that denied slaves any rights (slaveowners could do whatever they wanted to them) and made things like teaching a slave to read illegal.

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