Not Slavery But Yes Slavery

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Indentured servitude was an institutional arrangement concocted to expand the workforce from Europe to the New World, furthermore, it was the framework of forced labor that preceded American slavery. During the 17th Century, the growth of tobacco and rice in the middle colonies constituted a tremendous demand for labors. Without the assistance of modern machinery, human labor was necessary to cultivate, plant, and harvest cash crops. Indentured servants quickly became the method of choice for manual labor due to its tempting promises for the poor.

On the surface, the system allowed both the masters and the servants to benefit mutually, however, indentured servants were often ended on the short end of the bargain. Life of indentured servants at the time was faced with hardships, battled diseases, and mistreated. Servants who have been subjected to forced labor oftentimes see themselves the same, irreconcilable ways, to those who were victimized by slavery.

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Life of earliest settlers in Chesapeake was barbarous and short-lived due to diseases such as malaria, typhoid, cutting life expectancy by ten years. Despite the adversities, Chesapeake struggled on as the population grew slowly as enormous waves of indentured servants arrived in North America throughout the 17th century.

The primary culprit was Virginia and Maryland’s implementation of the headright system provided an incentive for colonies’ leaders to bring more laborers across the Atlantic Ocean. For each servant brought over to America, they were rewarded an addition 50 acres of land. Majority of indentured servants were teenagers who were born in underprivileged families, thus sold their labor, in return, for passage to the New World.

For instance, “a Servant boy Named Marcus Linshey to be Judged, he comminge in without Indenture, which being Considered, the Court doe deeme him the said Marcus Linshey to be now about Thirteene yeares of age, and doe order that he shall Serue the said Thomas Bedwell or his Assignes untill he shall arriue to One and Twenty yeares of age.” in exchange for “…Corne Cloaths and Toolls” at the end of the term. Assuredly, the servants were being exploited for extended, intensive labor, typically for 5 years or more, in return, for merely basic clothes and tools.

The maltreated living conditions, which can be condemned servants to the level of slaves, can be seen through Richard Frethorne’s written letter to his family in 1623. His document provided a clear picture of hardships of an indentured servant battling sickness, disease, and discomfort. Frethorne wrote: Richard Frethorne recognized that life was particularly challenging and quickly learned the harsh living climate of the new world.

Given this, Frethorne’s letter suggested that being an indentured servant was not only difficult but the promised free lands were out of grasp. The theme of laborious life of those who are similar to Frethorne persisted largely because indentured servants continued to suffer outrages long after, until the shift to the ever-renewable source of labor, slavery. Likewise, women were frequently subject to sexual harassments and torture.

Moreover, an indentured servant’ contract could be extended as punishment for breaking law, especially women becoming pregnant. In the letter to home, “Lament Of Elizabeth Sprigs”, she wrote about her condition and treatments of her master. Elizabeth wished for her father’s “pity” for his “Destress Daughter”. She described her typical day: Sprigs’ echoed Frethorne’s point that indentured servants were often treated as property and lived under primitive conditions. To an extent that she had to beg her father for clothes to be sent across the sea.

On the contrary, the work of Robert Beverly demonstrated the colonies’ attempt to dismiss the misconducts of the system. It offered a series of distinctions between an indentured servant and a slave. As an example, “Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the Maxim, partus sequitur ventrem. They are call’d Slaves, in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life.” Such distinctions only went as far as the term of the service, yet, it neglected to address the specific conditions of how the masters ought to treat servants compare to a slave.

Admittedly, there were also laws to existed to protect servants’ rights as they were entitled to become free members of society upon completion of their contracts. Such laws existed, like “Laws of their Country”, an effort to lessen the maltreatment of masters upon their servants. It read: Evidently, it had proven to be ineffective since there was no real authority to enforce the laws. The servants continued at large due to nasty and foul conditions.

The risk of getting caught and punish outweighed the rewards of fulfilling the contract. In fact, the colonies emphasized more on punishment rather serving justice. The most common form of punishment was to extend the term of labor. This punishment was typical for runaway and misbehaved servants. Particularly in the case of a woman, if she became pregnant, her inability to work while nursing will result in an extension years so she can make up for the time lost.

Consequently, liberated yet poor workers had a scarce choice but to sell themselves to their masters. Indentured servants led a hard but optimistic life in the early days of the Chesapeake settlements. They anticipated freedom and obtaining a place of their own in the wake of finishing their term of servitude. At first, it was an opportunity for luckless poor to a chance of landowners, simultaneously, support the colonies’ insatiable hunger for economic prosperity. Circumstances had changed, indentured servants were deprived of their basic rights, which has given way to a more subtle form of slavery, which coexisted along with punishments, beating, harassments, and torturing.

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Not Slavery But Yes Slavery. (2022, Mar 17). Retrieved from

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