Before slavery, there was bonded servitude. It was known as indentured servitude, and it was an institution that was so fundamental to the economy of the British colonies and so widespread—involving masses and masses of servants—that without indentured servitude, America would never have become an English-speaking nation or the capitalist behemoth whose politics and troops dominate the world.
The colonized version of indentured servitude is that it was a minor chapter in U.S. history. This decolonized history dispels that myth and shows just how crucial this institution of bondage and exploitation was to the creation of the U.S.
In fact, had it not been for the mass importation of English indentured servants to the colonies in the 1600s, the English would likely have lost to the French, and the French would likely have maintained the eastern half of the continent as a semi-autonomous foreign outpost that traded with various First Nations and maintained majority interests in the export crop plantations. The southern and western territories of the continent would probably have been ruled rather harshly by Spanish lords who might have waged a series of wars against the French for domination of the continent and the enslavement and forced labor of the indigenous people. Meanwhile, the English would likely have lost out to the Dutch in the African slave trade wars, who perhaps would have been more likely to ship obscene numbers of slaves to the Dutch East Indies and much of southeast Asia and Oceania.
But instead, the English gained control of the continent, and the way they were able to do that was through the sheer numbers of indentured servants imported to the British colonies.
This decolonized history is also an example of Restorative History: Through this process, I show the links of bondage and exploitation that move through our history—from indentured servitude to slavery to compulsory labor and sharecropping, to convict leasing and chain gangs, to Jim Crow, racial profiling and three strikes drug laws, and finally to today’s corporate reliance on prison labor in the massive Prison Industrial Complex.
By using the Restorative History process, it becomes clear that the wealth and power of our nation began with, continues with and relies on forced labor, racialized workforces, and a permanent prison labor system. And it all began with the labor of indentured servants.