Slavery and Servitude in the Colonies

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How were indentured servants treated in the colonies?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The treatment of indentured servants in colonial North America varied greatly. How they were treated depended largely on the attitude of the landowner for whom they worked. The landowners were responsible for the welfare of their indentured servants and had a large amount of latitude in how they fulfilled this commitment.

There are some reports of indentured servants who were treated well, given a large degree of autonomy, and considered part of the landowner's family. Servants with a specialized skill usually faired the best, as their services were highly valued. This, however, was not the norm.

More often, indentured servants were treated as mere chattel. Since they were seen as a way to increase profits for the landowner and little else, they were usually given very simple housing and just enough food (when it was available) to stay healthy enough to work. In fact, many did not survive their first year in North America. It was very common for disease, harsh conditions, and starvation to take the lives of servants in what was known as "summer seasoning."

Work was hard for indentured servants. They would be expected to toil from dawn to dusk every day but Sunday. If a servant was too weak to work or suffering from an injury that prevented labor, more time would be added to their contract.

Furthermore, indentured servants who did not comply with the landowner's wishes could be severely punished. Food could be withheld, and in certain circumstances, servants could be severely beaten. In some cases, they would be beaten so harshly that they died. There was no punishment for a landowner who beat their servant to death. Additionally, it was not uncommon for female servants to be sexually assaulted.

Even though the mistreatment of indentured servants was widespread, it still shocked many English observers. Many felt that the harsh and inhumane treatment of fellow English men and women was beneath the dignity of a civilized society.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What was life like for indentured servants in the colonies?

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on