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An Indentured Servant was for all intents and purposes little more than a slave. Although some came to America voluntarily, many were given the choice when imprisoned for debt to continue their imprisonment or make the trip to America. (Many chose imprisonment.) Whether voluntarily or involuntarily, the servant was given free passage by the captain of the sailing vessel. Upon arrival at the colony, the captain sold the servant at auction to recover the cost of transport. The servant was then the virtual property of his master. His term of indenture might be from five to seven years during which time his master was under no obligation to care for him; in fact few did. Servants were frequently beaten, denied food, given little clothing, such that many died before their indenture terminated. The following excerpt from a letter written by a servant to his parents is indicative:
This is to let you understand that I, your child, am in a most heavy case, by reason of the nature of the country, [which] is such that it causeth me much sickness, as the scurvy and the bloody flux [probably dysentery] and diverse other diseases, which make the body very poor and weak. And when we are sick, there is nothing to comfort us. For since I came out of the ship, I never ate anything but peas and loblollie (that is, water gruel). As for deer or venison, I never saw any since I came into this land. There is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go and get it, but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef. A mouthful of bread, for a penny loaf must serve four men, which is most pitiful, if you did know as much as I, when people cry out day and night, O that they were in England without their limbs, and would not care to lose any limbs to be in England, yea though they beg from door to door. ...And I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death, except one had money to lay out in some things for profit. But I have nothing at all, no, not a shirt on my back, but two rags, nor no clothes, but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one cap. My cloak was stolen by one of my own fellows, and to his dying hour he would not tell me what he did with it. But some of my fellows saw him have butter and beef out of a ship, which my cloak I [don't] doubt paid for. So that I have not a penny, nor a penny worth to help me to either spice, or sugar, or strong waters [alcohol, probably rum], without the which one cannot live here. For as strong beer in England doth fatten and strengthen thee, so water doth wash and weaken here, only keeps life and soul together.
For I am not half a quarter as strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals, for I do protest unto you that I have eaten more in a day at home than I have allowed me here for a week. You have given more than my day's allowance to a beggar at the door.
Some Indentured servants ran away. If they were recap0tured, which they often were, their punishment was additional years of servitude. Although they were promised land at the end of their term, many did not live that long; and those that did found that the land offered was of poor quality.
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