Colonial America

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What was the role of indentured servants in colonial America's development of slavery?

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Indentured servants were used as an alternative to black slaves in colonial America. The indentured servants could not pay for their passage to the New World so they had to pay for their passage with labor upon arrival. The indentured servants had finite contracts and therefore were not a stable source of labor for the plantations. The indentured servants were mainly poor people from Ireland and England and many of them died due to tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. As conditions in England improved, more people could afford their own passage, and this led to fewer people signing up for servitude.

African slaves proved to be the better long-term solution to plantation labor needs. The African slaves did not catch tropical diseases as often, and one could keep them until they either died or sold to someone else. One could also breed one's African slaves and enslave the offspring. Plantation owners treated the African slaves poorly and justified the bad treatment by stating that they were not European. Some plantation owners justified keeping slaves by saying that their were providing Christian training and promoting good working habits for their African slaves. African slaves were also easier to catch if they escaped since most of the English colonies were populated by white citizens.

All of these conditions led to indentured servitude largely vanishing by the Revolutionary War. African slavery would supply plantation labor needs until the end of the Civil War.

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Indentured servants and slaves became an integral part of the agrarian plantation economy that developed in colonial America. Landowners needed labor to work in fields of rice, tobacco, indigo, and other crops. At first, this manpower was provided by European workers in indentured servitude.

In exchange for free passage aboard ships across the Atlantic as well as room and board, indentured servants would sign contracts agreeing to serve plantation owners for periods of time ranging from four to seven years. Although the work was difficult and punishments were harsh, at the end of their periods of service, indentured servants would receive rewards such as land, food, clothes, and livestock. In this way, plantation owners obtained the cheap labor that they needed, and poor Europeans had a chance to own their own land and become free citizens of the new colonies.

The first contingent of 20 black Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. These Africans were taken on as indentured servants and given their freedom when their period of labor had expired. However, within a few decades, slavery became an established institution in the colonies, and Africans were no longer given the opportunity to be indentured servants.

Slaves performed the same role as indentured servants on the plantations. They did the difficult, backbreaking work in the fields that enabled the plantations to remain prosperous. However, it was more economical for plantation owners to keep slaves rather than to contract with indentured servants, and slaves gradually replaced indentured servants as agricultural laborers in the colonies. Historians estimate that up to 7 million people were forcibly removed from the African continent and brought to America as slaves in the 1700s alone.

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As people traveled to the Americas to build new lives—to experience freedom of religion and have the opportunity to become economically successful— indentured servants and slaves made up a large part of the work force to galvanize these efforts forward, not only with the settlement of towns, but also the development of industry (providing goods and services) which offered a lifestyle either similar to or superior than what the settlers were accustomed to.

Slavery existed in North America almost from the beginning of British colonization.

While slavery eventually settled more to the South, it was valuable to the early settlers of the British colonies.

Slavery was practiced throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and African slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation. 

Unfortunately, owning men and women to build, establish farms, provide services, and so on, was more economically sound than hiring people for a wage. In this way, the overhead of developing a colony was lower, and those able to purchase and keep slaves realized greater wealth and social recognition.

Indentured servants, like slaves, were often treated quite badly, and often they lived lives of drudgery; the biggest difference, however, was that people willingly sold years of their lives and their skills or services for a specific amount of time, with the understanding that after the agreed upon number of years, the indentured servant would be free. For slaves, freedom (at the time) was not an option.

The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.

This was often what poorer people did in order to travel to America. In exchange for transportation across the ocean, men and women would agree to work for the person or persons that purchased their fare, for a term of years—often four to seven.

What the slaves and indentured servants had in common was the degree to which landowners and business owners relied upon them. Not only was their work absolutely necessary for towns to develop and thrive in the wilderness of the Americas, but they also played a key role in supporting the growing economy of Colonies that would one day become perhaps the most powerful nation in the world.

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