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Indentured servant


Indentured servant

Indenture contract signed with an X by Henry Meyer in 1737

Indentured servitude was a labor system whereby young people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a certain number of years. It was widely employed in the 18th century in the British colonies in North America and elsewhere. It was especially used as a way for poor youth in Britain and the German states to get passage to the American colonies. They would work for a fixed number of years, then be free to work on their own. The employer purchased the indenture from the sea captain who brought the youths over; he did so because he needed labor. Most worked as farmers or helpers for farm wives; some were apprenticed to craftsmen. Both sides were legally obligated to meet the terms, which were enforced by local American courts. Runaways were sought out and returned. About half of the white immigrants to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries were indentured. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, children from England and France were kidnapped and sold into indentured labor in the Caribbean for a minimum of five years, but most times their contracts were bought and sold repeatedly and some laborers never attained their freedom.[1]


  • North America 1
  • Caribbean 2
  • Australia and the Pacific 3
  • Africa 4
  • Indian Ocean 5
  • Legal status 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
    • Historiography 10.1
  • External links 11

North America

Between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and American Revolution had come under indentures.[2] However, while half the European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies were indentured servants, at any one time they were outnumbered by workers who had never been indentured, or whose indenture had expired. Free wage labor was the more common (in this sense) for Europeans in the colonies.[3] Indentured persons were numerically important mostly in the region from Virginia north to New Jersey. Other colonies saw far fewer of them. The total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was about 500,000; of these 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. (A separate 300,000 were enslaved Africans.) Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, Tomlins estimates that 48% were indentured.[4] About 75% were under the age of 25. The age of adulthood for men was 24 years (not 21); those over 24 generally came on contracts lasting about 3 years.[5] Regarding the children who came, Gary Nash reports that, "many of the servants were actually nephews, nieces, cousins and children of friends of emigrating Englishmen, who paid their passage in return for their labor once in America."[6]

Not all European servants were sent willingly. Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded and this falls more clearly into the category of "white slavery". While these white slaves were often indentured in the same way as their willing counterparts it is an important distinction. An illustrative example is that of Peter Williamson (1730–1799). As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, "Although efforts were made to regulate or check their activities, and they diminished in importance in the eighteenth century, it remains true that a certain small part of the white colonial population of America was brought by force, and a much larger portion came in response to deceit and misrepresentation on the part of the spirits [recruiting agents]."[7] One spirit named William Thiene was known to have spirited away[8] 840 people from Britain to the colonies in a single year.[9] Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. notes that "Masters given to flogging often did not care whether their victims were black or white."[10]

Indentures could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment (like many young ordinary servants), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society.[11] One could buy and sell indentured servants' contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.

The American Revolution severely limited immigration to the United States. Economic historians differ however on the long-term impact of the Revolution. Sharon Salinger argues that the economic crisis that followed the war made long-term labor contracts unattractive. His analysis of Philadelphia’s population shows how the percentage of bound citizens fell from 17% to 6.4% over the course of the war.[12] William Miller posits a more moderate theory, stating "the Revolution (…) wrought disturbances upon white servitude. But these were temporary rather than lasting".[13] David Galenson supports this theory by proposing that British indentures never recovered, but Europeans from other nationalities replaced them.[14]

Several acts passed by the American and the British government fostered the decline of indentures. The English Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, which regulated travel conditions aboard ships, attempted to make transportation more expensive so as to stop emigration. The American abolition of imprisonment of debtors by federal law (passed in 1833) made prosecution of runaway servants more difficult, increasing the risk of indenture contract purchases.


A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean (primarily the south Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, French Guiana, and Suriname) before 1840.[15][16]

Indentured servitude was a common part of the social landscape in England and Ireland during the 17th century. During the 17th century, many Irish were also taken to Barbados. In 1643, there were 37,200 whites in Barbados (86% of the population).[17] During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms many Scottish and Irish prisoners of war were sold as indentured laborers to the colonies.[18] There were also reports of kidnappings of youngsters to work as servants.

Australia and the Pacific

Convicts transported to the Australian colonies before the 1840s often found themselves hired out in a form of indentured labor.[19] Indentured servants also emigrated to New South Wales.[20] The Van Diemen's Land Company used skilled indentured labor for periods of seven years or less.[21] A similar scheme for the Swan River area of Western Australia existed between 1829 and 1832.[22]

During the 1860s planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a trade in long-term indentured labor called "blackbirding". At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad.

Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labor for the sugar-cane fields of Queensland, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders. The workers came mainly from Melanesia – mainly from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – with a small number from Polynesian and Micronesian areas such as Samoa, the Gilbert Islands (subsequently known as Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (subsequently known as Tuvalu). They became collectively known as "Kanakas".

It remains unknown how many Islanders the trade controversially kidnapped (or blackbirded). Whether the system legally recruited Islanders, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced them to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland remains difficult to determine. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.

Australia deported many of these Islanders to their places of origin in the period 1906–1908 under the provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901.[23]

Australia's own colonies of Papua and New Guinea (joined after the Second World War to form Papua New Guinea) were the last jurisdictions in the world to use indentured servitude.


A significant number of construction projects, principally British, in East Africa and South Africa, required vast quantities of labor, exceeding the availability or willingness of local tribesmen. Coolies from India were imported, frequently under indenture, for such projects as the Uganda Railway, as farm labor, and as miners. They and their descendants formed a significant portion of the population and economy of Kenya and Uganda, although not without engendering resentment from others. Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" from Uganda in 1972 was an expulsion of Indo-Africans.[24]

Indian Ocean

The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, with extensive sugar cane plantations sought a cheaper workforce than emancipated workers negotiating for higher wages. Mauritius was the country of coolitude,[25] the 'Great Experiment' of widespread recourse to indentured labor having started there. Mauritius acted as a hub or plaque tournante for this indentured population of coolies, receiving and onward dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies through the Aapravasi ghat.

Legal status

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) declares in Article 4 "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms".[26] More specifically, It is dealt with by article 1(a) of the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. Although illegal under international law, only national legislation can establish its unlawfulness in a specific jurisdiction. In the United States, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.[27]

See also


  1. ^ Pirates: An Illustrated History, by Nigel Cawthorne; pg. 35
  2. ^ Galenson 1984: 1
  3. ^ John Donoghue, "Indentured Servitude in the 17th Century English Atlantic: A Brief Survey of the Literature," History Compass (2013) 11#10 pp 893–902.
  4. ^ Christopher Tomlins, "Reconsidering Indentured Servitude: European Migration and the Early American Labor Force, 1600–1775," Labor History (2001) 42#1 pp 5–43, at p.
  5. ^ Tomlins (2001) at notes 31, 42, 66
  6. ^ Gary Nash, The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution (1979) p 15
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ ibid., page 36
  11. ^ Eric Foner: Give me liberty. W.W.Norton & Company, 2004. ISBN 978-0-393-97873-5.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Michael D. Bordo, Alan M. Taylor, Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds. Globalization in historical perspective (2005) p. 72
  16. ^ Gordon K. Lewis and Anthony P. Maingot, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900 (2004) pp 96–97
  17. ^ Population, Slavery and Economy in Barbados, BBC.
  18. ^ Higman 1997, p. 108.
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ p.15 Duxbury, Jennifer Colonia Servitude: Indentured and Assigned Servants of the Van Diemen's Land Company 1825-1841 Monach Publications in History 1989
  22. ^ Fitch, Valerie Eager for Labour:The Swan River Indenture Hesperian Press 2003
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ M Carter and K Torabully.Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora (Anthem South Asian Studies)ISBN 978-1843310068
  26. ^
  27. ^


  • Bahadur, Gaiutra: Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. The University of Chicago (2014) ISBN 978-0-226-21138-1
  • Tomlins, Christopher. "Reconsidering Indentured Servitude: European Migration and the Early American Labor Force, 1600–1775," Labor History (2001) 42#1 pp 5–43. new statistical estimates
  • Khal Torabully,Coupeuses d'azur, Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, Mauritius, 2014.

Further reading

  • Abramitzky, Ran; Braggion, Fabio. "Migration and Human Capital: Self-Selection of Indentured Servants to the Americas," Journal of Economic History, (2006) 66#4 pp 882–905, in JSTOR
  • Ballagh, James Curtis. White Servitude In The Colony Of Virginia: A Study Of The System Of Indentured Labor In The American Colonies (1895) excerpt and text search
  • Brown, Kathleen. Goodwives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriachs: gender, race and power in Colonial Virginia, U. of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. America at 1750: A Social Portrait (Knopf, 1971) pp 33–65 online
  • Jernegan, Marcus Wilson Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607–1783 (1931)
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (Norton, 1975).
  • Nagl, Dominik. No Part of the Mother Country, but Distinct Dominions - Law, State Formation and Governance in England, Massachusetts und South Carolina, 1630-1769 (LIT, 2013): 515–535, 577f., 635–
  • Salinger, Sharon V. To serve well and faithfully: Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800. (2000)
  • Tomlins, Christopher. Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in English Colonization, 1580–1865 (2010); influential recent interpretation online review
  • Torabully, Khal, and Marina Carter, Coolitude: An Anthology of the Indian Labour Diaspora Anthem Press, London, 2002, ISBN 1-84331-003-1
  • Torabully, Khal, Voices from the Aapravasi Ghat - Indentured imaginaries, poetry collection on the coolie route and the fakir's aesthetics, Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, AGTF, Mauritius,November 2, 2013.
  • Whitehead, John Frederick, Johann Carl Buttner, Susan E. Klepp, and Farley Grubb. Souls for Sale: Two German Redemptioners Come to Revolutionary America, Max Kade German-American Research Institute Series, ISBN 0-271-02882-3.
  • Zipf, Karin L. Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919 (2005).


  • Donoghue, John. "Indentured Servitude in the 17th Century English Atlantic: A Brief Survey of the Literature," History Compass (Oct. 2013) 11#10 pp 893–902, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12088

External links

  • GUIANA 1838 – a film about indentured laborers
  • Voices from the Aapravasi Ghat, Khal TOrabully,
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