Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

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What was life like for indentured servants in the colonies?

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While slavery was prevalent in the colonies, indentured servitude may well have been the preferred choice for labor. An indenturing contract occurred when a man, woman, or child entered into a voluntary agreement to provide labor services for a period of time in exchange for something of value. Usually, the period of service was four to seven years, and the exchange was for land, passage to the colonies, or something else of value.

There was a biblical basis, with Hebrews indenturing themselves to other people of the same faith for repayment of debts or other reasons. The tradition of indentured service was established long before it became a practice in England and as a way of populating the colonies. It may have been preferred over slavery because when the time of the contract expired, the person indentured would receive the agreed-upon compensation. Being that the contract was voluntary, was certain to end on a specific date, and promised compensation when the contract terminated, the worker would be theoretically more motivated to work than coerced slave labor with no end or no compensation. However, the indentured servant's contract was treated as the property of the owner. The contract could be bought, sold, traded, or passed on as an inheritance.

A large population of laborers was needed to colonize the Americas. Encouraging people to leave the routine civilized life of England for the unknown and difficult life in the colonies was not an easy sale. Indentured servant contracts provided some incentives and protection for both the servant and contract owner. Laws in Virginia and Maryland offered some protection to labor under the indentured servant system. These were known as the Headright System. Under the Headright System, the contracts usually stipulated the owner provide the servant with passage to the colonies, room, and board while working. Once the contract was fulfilled, the indentured servant would be compensated per the contract and was under no obligation to continue to provide services to the owner of the contract.

Life for indentured servants was better by comparison to life for slaves, but it was still harsh. It is estimated by some historians that as much as sixty percent of the indentured servants died before receiving the benefits of completing the contract. Once in the colonies, unscrupulous owners might renege on portions of the contract, and the workers, not being property owners or having little education, would have no legal recourse. Women were subject to varying degrees of harassment. In some instances, women who became pregnant during the term of the contract could have their indentured time extended. Child laborers were subjected to all types of abuse and placed in many inappropriate work situations that were dangerous. Abuse of the system was not always the case, but the working conditions generally were harsh, difficult, and oftentimes not much better than the poverty many had experienced in their home countries.

The majority of indentured servants were young, uneducated, and poor. They worked manual labor jobs from sunrise to sunset, usually six days per week with a half a day's rest on Sundays. Though they were promised a better life in return for service for a short time, the reality was that many indentured servants did not live to see their freedom or earn the compensation promised in exchange for their efforts.

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