The Indentured Servitude Industry
The majority of the indentured servants in the early 1600s were composed of English peasants fleeing poverty. They were also religious and political refugees, and prisoners sentenced to penal exile — called “transportation” — to the colonies. After 1641, many indentured servants were also composed of Irish women, men, and children fleeing poverty and English persecution.
These were the masses who far outnumbered the French, Dutch, and Spaniards, and crowded out the indigenous peoples. They also provided the labor required to produce the export commodities that generated the wealth that provided the English Crown and the growing military with the power and weaponry required to dominate the world economy. As historian Eric Williams wrote, “white [indentured] servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.”
The first permanent English colony was established in 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia. But by that time, there were already long-time, well-established colonies owned by the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch. Those three European nations controlled the exploitation and the occupation of the American continent, and they controlled the wealth that was being extracted from it.
The English were newcomers hoping to get rich off the exploitation, too, but the competition was wealthier and more powerful. The highly profitable industry created to enslave and sell human beings from Africa for forced labor — the Slave Trade — was controlled by the Dutch and mainly used by the colonial plantations in the Caribbean and South America. The French controlled trade with the Native Americans for the lucrative markets in pelts and other luxury goods. The Spaniards controlled Central and South America and had the most well-financed armada thanks to their monopolistic plundering of the gold, gems, and metals of the Americas.
But unlike the French, Dutch, and Spaniards, the English had a different idea of what they wanted to do with the New World because they also had a more pressing need that the others didn’t: They were running out of room on their little island for the masses of poor that crowded the streets of their cities and the cells of their jails and poorhouses. England’s overpopulation problem was becoming a disastrous situation. And so the English government saw the New World not just as a foreign trading post or plantation outpost as the others saw the Americas, but as a very big extension to their native country and a place to send all those unwanted peasants.
As a result, the English government encouraged private companies, in the form of “joint stock companies,” to establish colonial settlements in the New World — starting with the Virginia Colony in 1607 — and allowed these companies to populate the colonies mostly with workers contracted under an indenture system. An indenture was a contract which stipulated that a person agreed to be the servant of another person for a specified period of time (usually around seven years). In return, the servant would receive clothing, room and board, and in the case of the colonial indentures, passage to the colony. (By the mid-1600s, masters were also required to provide servants with land, money, corn, and some farm tools once the period of indenture was over.)
Another extremely important aspect of England’s indentured servitude system was that prisoners in the overcrowded jails were also forced into indenture, either by being sold or leased to plantation owners or by being given a choice between hanging or being “transported” to the colonies as convict laborers.
What started as an experimental way to ease overcrowding, while at the same time making use of a cheap source of labor to help the colonial companies become profitable, became one of the most pivotal events in history. For the next century and a half, England’s indentured servant system populated the colonies, produced the wealth, and turned the New World into a powerful and wealthy extension of England.
The experiment also created a highly profitable trade in indentured servants. The historian Eric Williams, who traced the history of slavery, wrote that the huge industry that was created for buying, selling, and transporting indentured servants served as a prelude to slavery and the slave trade. It was an experience he called “invaluable” in enabling the English to become a major power in the slave trade and eventually take control of it away from the Dutch. Williams pointed out that the English “captains and ships had the experience of the one trade to guide them in the other. Bristol, the center of the servant trade, became one of the centers of the slave trade. Capital accumulated from the one financed the other. White servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed. The felon-drivers in the plantations became without effort slave-drivers.”
Though the economic benefit to the English of using indentured servants and prisoners for labor in the colonies was important in establishing English dominance, what also mattered equally was the numbers of people emigrating to the colonies. This is what enabled the English to rapidly establish numerous settlements, plantations, and frontier farmsteads, as well as steadily increase the populations and wealth of their commerce centers like Boston, Jamestown, and Philadelphia. The Dutch may have had New York and the French New Orleans, but England had all else in between and was rapidly filling it up with her people who were anxious to put down roots and were pretty well-armed.
By sheer numbers, the English continually pushed back the Native Americans, continually stole more and more lands, and continually created larger and larger militias and armed frontier forces who didn’t hesitate to kill the indigenous population in large numbers. These same growing forces were able to turn the military defeats of the seventeenth century at the hands of the Dutch and the French into successful raids and all-out routs by the middle of the eighteenth century. None of it could have been accomplished without the large numbers of indentured servants and prisoners pouring into the English colonies from the beginning of the 1600s to the middle of the 1700s.