Indentured servitude

Definition: Form of contract labor that binds employees to work for specified periods of time, usually in satisfaction of debts

Significance: 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 fromslavery by its temporary nature. The termalso 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 fromthe 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 majority of female indentured servants, who constituted about 20 percent of all indentured immigrants during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, probably fell into this category. Male indentured servants were more likely to be agricultural laborers. Skilled tradesmen entered the system when they fell afoul of the law.

Colonial America

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 orphans, illegitimate children, and children whose families could not support them. Such forced apprenticeship might include transportation across the Atlantic. English poor laws dictated that adults who were capable of supporting themselves, but had no visible means of support, could be compelled to work. Vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, and able-bodied paupers could be forcibly indentured. For the most part, people who made a conscious choice to immigrate to the colonies for economic gain or to take advantage of greater religious and political freedom borrowed money for relocation costs, calculating (correctly) that a person with any skill or education could redeem the debt in a shorter period and be free in the interim.

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.

In Puritan New England, Sundays included a hefty dose of religious instruction to correct the presumed low moral character of transported ruffians. To some extent justified, the widespread prejudice among free settlers against indentured laborers became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Expecting teenagers and young adults of either sex to remain celibate for years on end, and to refrain from petty property crime when no legal avenue of obtaining money or goods beyond the employer’s meager ration existed, was simply unrealistic. Some of the runaways featured in frequent newspaper advertisements were true runaways, but a fair proportion consisted of young men out on a spree.

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.

After the American Revolution

After Britain recognized the independence of the thirteen colonies in 1784, the flow of legally indentured servants and transported convicts from the British Isles stopped, though not because of the U.S. Constitution or any legislative act in the United States. Britain used these people as a resource to develop its colonial possessions, and was loath to relinquish any of them to an independent state and potential rival. Anyone transported through the justice system after 1784 ended up in Canada, the West Indies, or Australia. Parliament enacted some laws restricting the activities of immigrant brokers and military recruiters during the early nineteenth century, as well as limiting the ability of people with certain critical skills to leave the country voluntarily. The laws restricting voluntary emigration were largely ineffective.

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 westward expansion created a huge demand for labor that neither voluntary immigration from Europe nor involuntary internal migration could satisfy.To make up the deficit, the growing nation looked to China as a source of cheap workers. On paper, the Chinese “coolies” appeared to be voluntary migrants enlisted by brokers in China to work for American employers who paid the broker and shipping agent and collected the debt from the Chinese employees’ wages. In practice, most were forced into service in China and placed in occupations and regions in the United States where alternative employment was impossible, leaving them at the employer’s mercy. This credit-ticket system, which brought 350,000 Chinese laborers to the American mainland between 1840 and 1882, embodied many features of the old indentured labor system. In contrast to earlier European immigrants, however, the Chinese were never encouraged to become permanent settlers or citizens and were prohibited from doing so after 1882.

Military service can be viewed as a form of indentured servitude. During the U.S. Civil War, recruiters for the Union Army operated in some of the German states, enlisting German nationals for a cash bonus on joining and American citizenship and a land grant if they survived the war. Young men from Ireland and other countries where open foreign recruiting was prohibited were met at the docks with the same promise. Availability of an unlimited supply of foreign recruits was a nontrivial factor in the Union’s victory over the South.

Indentured Servitude in Twentieth and Twenty-first Century America

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 guest workers, there were, in 2004, an estimated six million undocumented foreign nationals working in the United States, some proportion of whom paid hefty fees to the agents who smuggled them into the country and connected them with their present employers. These undocumented workers risk deportation if they complain about working conditions or attempt to change jobs.

Amongtypes 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 garment sweatshops operating in the Mariana Islands, a U.S. possession.

In 2007, 120,000 workers were admitted to the United States on H-2 visas to take temporary unskilled jobs for specific employers. Charges against the program include exorbitant fees exacted from workers and employers who seize documents, holding the workers effectively prisoner, and fail to provide contractual working conditions. Employees of embassies are governed by the laws of the parent country, which may tolerate virtual slavery. The status of the Mariana Islands as a U.S. territory, their proximity to Asia, and the vagaries of American import laws have allowed multinational corporations to set up garment factories in Saipan, import contract workers from China and Southeast Asia who live as virtual prisoners, and proudly stamp the products as “Made in the USA.” Unlike the immigrant garment workers who toiled in New York sweatshops in the early twentieth century, these women have no chance of attaining the benefits of American life.

Martha A. Sherwood

Further Reading

  • 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. 

See also: Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885; British immigrants; Civil War, U.S.; Contract labor system; Coolies; Credit-ticket system; Economic opportunities; Guest-worker programs; Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants; Slave trade.

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