Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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What systems of forced labor took hold in the Chesapeake colonies?

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The answer to this question relies upon an examination of three main systems of forced labor in the seventeenth century.

Indentured servitude was the most common practice throughout the early years of the Chesapeake, certainly up to the 1680s. Galenson points this out in his book White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. This involved European migrants, who would sign away the ownership of their labor for a period of usually seven years. This period of servitude could be negotiated if the servant was trained in a craft deemed to be valuable in colonial society, such as carpentry or blacksmithing. Indentured servitude was brutal, and in many cases, those involved had very few rights in colonial society. Beatings were commonplace, and the frequency with which servants ran away from their masters can be seen from the abundance of newspaper advertisements calling for their recapture.

The second labor system, which was less common, was the practice of “bounding out” or forcing criminals and debtors into service. A person could avoid the death sentence in England if they sold themselves into an indenture in the Chesapeake colonies, for as little as a shilling.

According to historian Betty Wood, the origins of slavery are much more complex. Slavery can be seen as the third system of forced labour in the colony, but historians are in disagreement over when this started exactly. There is no doubt that the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619. However, their status remains unclear. Many historians believe that the first generation of Africans were more like indentured servants than their grandchildren sixty years later. In many cases, African servants were freed after seven years and given severance packages in tobacco and land. This enabled early African laborers to improve their condition in early colonial society. Written testimony during this time refers to Africans as servants rather than as slaves.

However, as early as 1640, Virginia lawmakers were making distinctions between black and white servants. Africans were excluded from carrying firearms, and in 1642, African women were deemed to be “taxable,” pointing to their being seen as property.

According to Betty Wood, racism toward Africans undoubtedly played a part in the transition from indentured servitude to slavery. In 1662, Virginia passed a series of laws, known as the Slave Codes, to institutionalize the practice. According to these laws, slaves could be held for life, and the status would become inherited along matrilineal lines. Most historians agree that slavery was fully accepted within Chesapeake society by this time.

However, it was not until after the 1680s that Chesapeake society mostly replaced its system of indentured servitude with chattel slavery. The main reasons were that more indentured servants were surviving their seven year contracts and that the reduction of available land meant that severance packages were more difficult to draw up. Economic improvements in Europe meant that fewer people were prepared to make the perilous trans-Atlantic crossing, and as more British shipping companies recognized the economic gains to be made from the slave trade, Africans became more readily available as a source of forced labor.

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For the first century of colonization, the main labor force of the Chesapeake Colonies came in the form of indentured servants. Some ninety thousand of the original 120,000 colonists were poor English citizens who had agreed to a number of years of labor (usually seven) in return for passage to the New World and the resources to start their own homesteads once their term of servitude ended.

However, the use of indentured servitude was largely phased out by the end of the seventeenth century. The high mortality rate of servants and improving economic conditions back in England meant that fewer and fewer people were signing up as indentured servants. As a result of this labor shortage, plantation owners in the colonies began to switch over to a reliance on African slaves. While there had been small numbers of enslaved Africans in the region since 1619, their numbers skyrocketed over to the hundreds of thousands over the next century. This system of slave labor would remain in effect until the abolition of slavery in 1865.

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The first settlers in the Chesapeake tried to use native Americans as slaves initially, but they kept dying due to European diseases and those who survived quickly ran away.  The settlers then used indentured servants--poorer whites from England who could not pay for their passage to the New World so they offered to work it off when they arrived.  However, since much of the Chesapeake was in a mosquito haven, many of these indentured servants died before their (typical) seven year term of service was over.  Those that did survive were set free, often after seven years.  This meant that they could own land, and the planter was left looking for laborers again.  In 1619 the first African slaves were brought to America from a Dutch trading vessel.  The slaves did not get sick in the malaria season due to a genetic mutation brought from Africa.  Also, the slaves would be permanent slaves, which meant that the planters did not worry about creating a new labor force.  At first, owning slaves was as much a status item as it was of any real importance.  However, with the growth of tobacco and ultimately cotton, the planters would claim that they needed slaves in order to maintain the stately manors and increase profits for England.  

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There were two major systems of forced labor that took hold in the Chesapeake colonies.  These were indentured servitude and slavery.

In both systems, people were forced to work for others for no pay and had their lives completely controlled by those who owned their labor.  The major difference was that indentured servitude was a contractual agreement that lasted a specific amount of time.  After that, the servant became free.  By contrast, a slave was enslaved for life and (eventually) the law came to say that the offspring of a slave would also be enslaved for life.

These were the two major systems of forced labor in the Chesapeake.

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