Indentured Servitude and the Prison Industrial Complex
The other side of the story of all those masses of people coming to the colonies was why all those masses of people were leaving the British Isles. Between 1520 and 1630, the population of England doubled. This population explosion had “serious and far-reaching consequences,” as historian James Horn put it. Horn explains that:
“Rising prices and declining real wages led to a disastrous drop in the living standards of the poorer sections of society, while sporadic harvest failures and food shortages brought widespread misery throughout many parts of southern and central England. Poverty was reflected by the rapid rise in the numbers of poor in town and country alike, the spreading slums of cities, spiraling mortality rates, the massive increase in vagrancy, and the steady tramp of the young and out of work from one part of the country to another in search of subsistence. By the early seventeenth century, the third world of the poor had risen dramatically in some regions, particularly in woodlands and forests, manufacturing districts, and the country’s burgeoning towns, cities, and ports, where as much as half the population lived on or below the poverty line.”
By 1600, the start of the seventeenth century, there were more than four million people in England and Wales—double the previous century—and the population continued growing. London alone nearly doubled from a quarter of a million people at the start of the seventeenth century to almost a half-million at the end of the century. Unlike the rest of Europe, whose populations were being decimated by the continent-wide Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), England was exploding with people, particularly very poor people.
One of the biggest reasons why so many people were impoverished and why they were crowding the cities had to do with England’s economic system. Mercantalism drove the economy, an economy in which commodities for export were critical. What’s more, some of the most profitable commodities were crops grown for the luxury market, like wheat, as well as the raw materials for textiles, like wool, which was particularly desireable. And so land was appropriated by wealthy landowners to raise sheep and grow commodity crops. This appropriation of land was known as the practice of enclosure, and the impact of all of this is described in the Encyclopædia Britannica:
“Systematic efforts to grow luxury market crops like wheat…drove many smaller tenants from the land. So, too, did the practice of enclosure, which allowed far more productive land use by large holders at the expense of their poorer neighbors…Marginally productive land came under the plow, rural revolts became more common, and harvest failures resulted in starvation rather than hunger.”
As historian Howard Zinn wrote, “the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagabond poor.”
England dealt with the crisis much like contemporary America deals with our similar crisis of poverty, hunger, unemployment, and homelessness: by criminalizing the poor. In other words, making the conditions and social realities of poverty illegal in order to get people off the streets and warehoused in jails and poorhouses. Beginnning in the mid-1550s, increasing numbers of laws were passed making it illegal for people to do much of what poor people generally did to survive.
It became illegal to beg, it became illegal to sleep in the open (in other words, to be homeless), it became illegal to be “Minstrells wandring abroade,” it even became illegal for “comon Labourers” to refuse employment or to loiter while unemployed. In fact, a new category of criminal was created to deal with poor people: “rogues” and “vagabonds.” If you were a woman, you ran the risk of all of the above plus being charged with “loose morals,” especially if you were raped or accused of prostitution. And if you became pregnant without being married, you were arrested because having a child “out of wedlock” was against the law, though only for the woman, not the man.
In 1606, while all these “vagabonds,” and “rogues,” and homeless unemployed peasants were being imprisoned in increasingly overcrowded prisons and poorhouses, the new English colony of Virginia was established by the Virginia Company. But the company soon found they were having difficulty convincing people to sink their money into ship passage that equaled roughly half the average person’s annual income in order to work in a mosquito-ridden swamp. And the living conditions, according to economist David Galenson, were primitive camps under “quasi-military conditions” with a “high rate of mortality and scanty food.” What was worse, by 1612, the company’s colonial governor began dealing out harsh punishment for the workers who ran away and were recaptured. According to company documents: “Some he apointed to be hanged Some burned Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to death.” Hardly the best way to attract paying “investors” in your swampland-in-Virginia scheme.
The Virginia Company managed to survive (unlike so many of their workers) because of something called the “servants in husbandry” system, which was already a common custom in England. Under this system, poor peasants indentured themselves as household servants for a specified period of time, and it’s estimated that the majority of all hired labor in England at the time were servants in husbandry. For the most part, explains Galenson, they were “youths of both sexes, normally between the ages of 13 and 25, who lived and worked in the households of their masters, typically on annual contracts.”
And so, in 1619, the Virginia Company instituted a version of the custom in which the company contracted with the prospective emigrant to pay for their passage in exchange for a contract of indenture, generally for periods of four to seven years. Once the emigrant—now an indentured servant—arrived in Virginia, the contract and the servant would be sold to the eager wealthy planters, the landed gentry who’d been granted their land by the Crown. By 1620, the Virginia Company was selling servants by the dozens, and one of the Company’s indenture shipping forms from that year recorded “one hundred servants to be disposed amongst the old Planters.”
The success of English indentured servitude in populating the American colonies is in the numbers: From 1619 to 1776, according to historian Russell Menard, “some 200,000 to 300,000 servants came to British mainland North America, accounting for one-half to one-third of all European immigrants.” Throughout the 1600s, nearly all indentured servants came from England, but by the eighteenth century, European servants primarily came from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany.
At first, the emigrants were people who, though desperate, signed the contracts of indenture of their own free will—as much free will as they had under their desperate circumstances. But as the commodification and trafficking of human beings grew, the numbers of people tricked, cajoled, and kidnapped into servitude exploded. The business of buying and selling indentured servants was extraordinarily lucrative, which not only helped fuel the emigrations, it also fueled the despicable abuses. According to Eric Williams: “Adults would be plied with liquor, children enticed with sweetmeats…The captain of a ship trading to Jamaica would visit the Clerkenwell House of Correction, ply with drink the girls who had been imprisoned there as disorderly, and ‘invite’ them to go to the West Indies.”
But far worse were the kidnappers — the “spirits,” as they were commonly called. A spirit was defined as “one that taketh upp men and women and children and sells them on a shipp to be conveyed beyond the sea.”
In his book America’s Revolutionary Heritage, George Novack gives this description of how extensive the trafficking industry was:
“Gangs of kidnappers roamed the streets of English seaports and combed the highways and byways of Britain and Ireland for raw material. In the rapacious search for redemptioners the homes of the poor were invaded. Where promises could not persuade, compulsion was brought in play. Husbands were torn from their wives, fathers from their families, children from their parents. Boys and girls were sold by parents or guardians; unwanted dependents by their relatives; serfs by their lords—and all this human cargo was shipped to America to be sold to the highest bidder.”
Novack also describes the brutal suppression of the Irish rebellion in 1641, when Oliver Cromwell “made slaves as well as subjects of the Irish people.” In 1641, Ireland was invaded and colonized by England and over a hundred thousand Irish women, men, and children were rounded up and sent to the West Indies to be sold as slaves.
The Irish were also jailed in huge numbers for sedition, rebellion, suspicion of rebellion, and just for the crime of being Catholic (or Irish). The punishment for many (other than execution or having their ears cropped) was exile to the American or Caribbean colonies or, in the 1800s, to the island penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land.
It wasn’t only the Irish Catholics who were criminalized for their religious and political beliefs. Other religious dissenters, as well as political dissenters, were also being increasingly criminalized — and exiled to the colonies. Starting in 1661, Quakers who refused to accept the Church of England were sentenced to transportation to the colonies, as were members of other religions who gathered in groups of five or more.
It also wasn’t only religious and political dissenters who were caught up in the English prison labor industry. In fact, the deliberate and increasing criminalization of the poor became a major factor in the commodification of humans through the indentured servant trade; more criminal laws were passed in order to create more prisoners to send to the colonies as forced laborers. Worse, the penalties for even minor offenses became increasingly harsher in order to justify sentencing people to long sentences of penal servitude in distant colonies. For example, the punishments for begging included being “stripped to the waist and whipped bloody, sent out of the city, sent to the workhouses, or transported” to the colonies.
But as the laws developed in tandem with the indentured servant trade, minor crimes became “capital” crimes; in other words, punishable by death. As Eric Williams explained: “The harsh feudal laws of England recognized three hundred capital crimes. Typical hanging offences included: picking a pocket for more than a shilling; shoplifting to the value of five shillings; stealing a horse or a sheep; poaching rabbits on a gentleman’s estate.”
However, prisoners would commonly be offered an alternative to hanging: penal transportation to the colonies where they would serve out a prison term as convict laborers. The reason for this was that it wasn’t unusual for the judge himself to own a plantation to which the prisoner would conveniently be sent to work off his or her term. As Williams described, the justices who owned plantations “would terrify petty offenders with the prospect of hanging and then induce them to plead for transportation.” Williams also described a 1667 petition to the court in which a husband pleaded “for transportation instead of the death sentence for a wife convicted of stealing goods valued at three shillings and four pence.”
Then in 1718, the Transportation Act was passed which made penal transportation to the colonies the mandatory punishment for increasing numbers of offenses. Some of the crimes punishable by transportation included stealing cloth, damaging public property, and “burning stacks of corn,” and in 1745, Williams reported that “transportation was the penalty for the theft of a silver spoon and a gold watch.”
But it wasn’t just the merchants and the spirits and judges and prison wardens, ship captains, customs officials, wealthy planters, lords, and councilors who were getting rich: Williams writes that “prisoners were granted in batches to favorite courtiers, who made handsome profits from the traffic in which, it is alleged, even the Queen shared.”
Despite a high mortality rate both during the voyage to the colonies and afterwards, enough indentured servants survived to form the bulk of the growing population. Once their period of indenture was up, they were given land, some money, and freedom to homestead or become independent craftspeople. Thus, they contributed not only in sheer numbers to the growth of the English colonies, but in the economic and land expansion. It was this expansion, far more than the concentrated and tightly-held wealth of the elite minority, that generated the wealth the English needed to defeat the Dutch and take control of the slave trade, which, in turn, enabled them to make use of a much cheaper and even more plentiful source of labor.
At the same time, the former indentured servants were forming the beginnings of an upwardly mobile working class that eventually created the middle class. The land given to these former servants who then become small farmers and planters also helped expand the territories; it was these farmers and planters who took the risks for living in “Indian country,” while the colonial government reaped the benefit of more crops to tax and export. In the event that the small farmer fell into debt thanks to usurious taxes, which was often the case, the landed gentry got to pick up more land for themselves for next to nothing at the tax sale, then rent the land back to the former owner who was now a tenant farmer or, later on, a sharecropper. Either way, the land was permanently taken away from the Native Americans, and the territory owned by the English continued to expand.
Although indentured servitude in America remained in force until the 1880s, social, political, and economic changes starting in the 1650s motivated the English to stop relying on white indentured servants as the primary labor force and, instead, to begin exploiting increasing numbers of enslaved Africans.
In the 1650s and 1660s, economic conditions, combined with crop failures, rising taxes, and the increasing malfeasance of a corrupt colonial regime, resulted in a growing number of uprisings and rebellions involving white indentured servants joining forces with black slaves, so the colonial elites began a campaign of racial division which used economic class as a way to pit white servants and against black slaves. One of the first steps was to begin passing laws, starting in the 1660s, that turned slavery into a legal status based strictly on race. Even worse, not only did these laws state that only blacks could be slaves, these laws also made slavery a permanent condition of blacks. At the same time, increased legal protections and entitlements were given to white indentured servants. Finally, as law professor Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow:
“Deliberately and strategically, the [white] planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and the black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias.…Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.”
Another important factor leading to the decline of the use of white indentured servants is that the scheme had become too successful — not for England, but for the colonies. For more than a hundred and fifty years, indentured servants performed most of the labor in the colonies, first as servants, then as free farmers, craftspeople, artisans, etc. They made plows and wove linens. They tanned leathers and built houses. They were masons, bakers, coopers, distillers, carpenters, and smithies. At a certain point, the goods produced in the colonies began to compete with the goods produced in England. In response, England passed laws in 1718 and 1750 not just restricting the importation of English indentured servants, but banning all emigration to the colonies by skilled English workers.
But in the end, the success of the English colonies in America was what enabled it to amass enough wealth and power to challenge and defeat their own English masters. And all of it was due to the initial migrations of indentured servants.