How similar were the experiences of indentured servants and enslaved persons in the mid-seventeenth century Chesapeake region?

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Indentured servants and enslaved people were both legally considered property in the seventeenth century Chesapeake region, although indentured laborers were offered greater opportunity to improve their situation. However, the insecurity in their lives was much greater for slaves than for indentured servants. The difference between a servant of seven years and a slave of life is as great as that between a man and a beast. And this comment by Thomas R. Dew shows how clearly he understood that slavery was not like other legal relationships: In speaking of slavery, I use the word in its common acceptance – as denoting one who is the absolute owner of another… It is in vain to say that slaveholding is bad for those on whom it is practiced.

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The first enslaved Africans were transported to Virginia in 1619. Prior to that date, indenture by European Americans was the primary means of labor control. Indenture was a contract system, by which the individual committed to perform certain work for a specific period of time. Training or vocational education was...

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one component of the indenture, which also stipulated that the master provide room and board. If the situation worked out successfully, the indentured laborer might accumulate a small amount of money over the course of the contract. Because the system was so widely used, the exact conditions of each worker varied as widely as the master who employed them. When it ended, the laborer might continue in the same situation or seek a similar one, or might strike out on their own in a different location. While most of the labor was agricultural work on the numerous farms, skilled artisans were also needed. Those who had training or experience in such areas were likely to gain employment.

Slavery as it functioned in Virginia and other parts of the British American colonies was also a legal (but not moral) system. However, the enslaved person did not enter into the contract of their own volition. Someone else professed to own the slave, who did not have any of the rights of legal personhood. By definition, "slave" meant that people did not own themselves. The masters purchased the slaves from a third party. Slavery was considered a permanent status, and it extended to children born into slavery.

As the number of enslaved laborers increased in the Americas and almost completely replaced indentured laborers, some of them began working in the trades as well. As slaveholders sought to maximize the return on their investment, they found greater incentive to push the workers to produce. The lack of legal personhood contributed to the dehumanizing attitudes of slaveholders toward those that they legally held as their property. Some enslaved people obtained their own freedom by purchasing themselves; the owners might rent them out to work and their earnings would be credited toward future emancipation. In contrast to the condition of an indentured servant, there was no established end to enslavement. Enslaved people also had no guarantee that the slaveholder might agree to the desired self purchase.

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