During the colonial period of British North America, a high proportion of British working-class immigrants to the American colonies came as indentured servants. Precise figures are unavailable, but it is estimated that 40 to 75 percent of white immigrants experienced a period of unfree labor in colonial times. The British indenture system ceased to operate after the American Revolution, but debt-slavery of migrants continued under institutions such as the Chinese credit-ticket system.
The term “indentured servitude” is distinguished from slavery by its temporary nature. The term also refers to labor contracts in which a heavily indebted worker is effectively prevented from changing employers or retaining wages beyond a subsistence level. Indentured servitude as a North American institution dates from the earliest days of the colonial period. This form of bondage preceded African slavery and existed side by side with it up until the American Revolution. When the Americas ceased to be the property of Great Britain, the formal mechanisms for recruiting or forcing individuals into indentures and shipping them across the Atlantic no longer operated, although an internal indenture system continued to operate at the state level for many decades.
In its strictest sense, indentured servitude refers to a contract transferring ownership of an individual to his or her employer for a fixed term. Indentured servants ceased to be autonomous agents. They had no control over place of residence or conditions of employment and could not marry without the owner’s consent. Their persons could be bought and sold. Although colonial law and terms of contracts granted them some rights and protections, laws protecting the owners’ property rights were more uniformly enforced than those promoting the welfare of the property.
The term “indentured servant” often evokes images of domestic servants. Indeed, the
In theory, an indenture was a voluntary contract, at least for adult males. In practice, most contracts involved an element of coercion or deception. Just under half of the 307,400 migrants from the British Isles to the thirteen colonies between 1680 and 1775 came as free citizens. Seventeen percent were criminal convicts, and 33.7 percent were indentured servants. The convicts, who had been convicted of felonies, served their sentences of transportation as indentured servants to private individuals rather than in state-managed labor camps.
British law also allowed involuntary apprenticeship of
For some members of the British underclass, forcible relocation and involuntary labor provided a door of opportunity, but these were a minority. One-third of those transported did not survive until the end of their indentures. During the seventeenth century, contracts often provided for a modest land grant upon completion of service, but by 1700 good land had become scarce, and a newly freed servant who had no developed skills had few resources to begin a new life. Some settled on the frontier in Appalachia. Others remained with their old employers as ostensibly free laborers. To a large extent, their descendants remained a permanent underclass of poor whites, landless or tied to unproductive land, poorly educated, and little attached to cultural norms that had not served their forebears. Some, especially those who still had strong family ties, returned to England.
Life for indentured servants was often bleak and grueling. They worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. In contrast to black slaves, who were encouraged to raise families, they were expected to remain celibate, and under large employers usually lived under communal conditions resembling military barracks. In theory, the indentured servant had a contractual right to adequate food, clothing, and shelter; in practice, an unscrupulous employer, having no long-term investment in his captive employee, could stint on necessities. Complaints through the civil court system rarely resulted in redress.
An owner could flog his servants if they misbehaved. Serious breaches of contract, including running away, were punished by extension of the indenture contract. Women were liable to sexual exploitation, either by their owners or by fellow servants. Societal perception that women of this social class were inherently immoral meant that protestations of rape or seduction fell on deaf ears. If a woman became pregnant, the law automatically added three years to her indenture contract to compensate for loss of labor to the owner.
German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century came to America under a system resembling indentured servitude, with, however, significant differences. Immigrant brokers recruited laborers in Germany, contracting to transport them to America for a set fee, and sold the debt to the American employer. Called redemptioners, these immigrants were obliged either to work for that employer until the debt was paid off or to find another source for the funds. Although brokers charged excessive fees and misrepresented the opportunities for high-paid employment, and a redemptioner could end up working for little net remuneration for years, without any realistic prospect of changing jobs, he was still a free man. A similar system operated in Ireland, where the absence of poor laws prevented coerced indenture through the court system.
Immigrant brokers continued to operate in Germany and Ireland during the early nineteenth century. European countries with their own expanding empires (France, Spain, Portugal, Holland) or frontiers (Russia) discouraged emigration to the United States.
Railroad building and continued
Military service can be viewed as a form of indentured servitude. During
After World War I, the United States became much more selective in the numbers, classes, and nationalities of immigrants it would accept as permanent residents and potential future citizens. Accepting an exclusive and restrictive contract with a single employer in return for payment of resettlement costs is no longer a possible avenue for becoming an American, except as a means of getting a toehold.
At the same time, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) recognizes a number of classes of temporary workers whose conditions of employment approach indenture. In addition to legal
Among types of legal labor contracts embodying aspects of involuntary servitude that affect foreign nationals, labor activists have singled out the H-2 visa program, special dispensations for employees of foreign embassies and consulates, and
In 2007, 120,000 workers were admitted to the United States on
Jordan, Don. White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America. New York: New York University Press, 2008. A mixture of statistical and anecdotal material that highlights the involuntary nature of most indenture contracts. Illustrated. Lancaster, R. Kent. “Almost Chattel: The Lives of Indentured Servants at Hampton-Northampton, Baltimore County.” Maryland Historical Magazine 94, no. 3 (Fall, 1999). Scholarly study of indentured workers at an iron foundry, 1750-1800, based on company records. Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Extensive statistical information and discussion of legal status of immigrants. Wokeck, Marianne. Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Scholarly study of eighteenth century German and Irish immigration, principally to Pennsylvania. Zipf, Karin. Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Describes institutionalized involuntary servitude of poor women and teenagers in colonies, when it was a feature of immigration, and in nineteenth century America.
Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885
Civil War, U.S.
Contract labor system
Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants