Indentured Servitude: Origins of US Labor Conflict
Myths and Misunderstandings
The study of labor in the United States has a tendency to lean towards a myopic analysis of the battle between corporations and unions. Working-class organization struggling against industrial titans understandably dominates any modern labor discussion, but the sources of these conflicts in the US are older than the nation itself. The labor system in Colonial America established the pattern of labor exploitation witnessed and discussed continually throughout US history.
Before the formation of the United States, the European colonies in the Americas had an insatiable demand for cheap, exploitable labor. Despite myths to the contrary, the land was not untamed nor virginal. Native Americans were seen as the ideal choice for wealthy Europeans seeking cheap labor, however many could not survive contact with diseases carried over the Atlantic by the colonialists. Local labor was out of the question. The next option was to bring over workers from England, Ireland, Germany, and other European countries, where a glut of low-skill workers had resulted in a growing impoverished class.
For many early European immigrants, life in the American colonies was sold as a fresh start. Pamphlets were distributed to all classes of life selling the bountiful riches of the colonies in an effort to sustain functioning population levels. Wealthy merchants established businesses profiting from the region's rich natural resources, politicians used their favor with royalty to acquire huge swaths of 'untamed' land, and mercenaries gained massive fortunes establishing white, European superiority in North America. For many the passage to the 'new world' was far too expensive. Many early immigrants were impoverished, low-skilled individuals with very few prospects for success in their homelands. They had few resources to draw upon to afford the journey, yet such a journey was perpetually pushed as a path towards wealth and reinvention. In the mid-17th century, indentured servitude became the method of choice for the poor to reach Colonial America.
Indentured Servant Contract
A History of Forced Labor
For the first hundred years of colonization in what is now the United States, the majority of inhabitants were either indentured servants or slaves. Indentured servants were individuals who entered into a temporary agreement to serve another person in exchange for payment for the passage across the Atlantic and maintenance upon arrival. Such servants ranged in background from second sons to convicts to entire working class families. Some were indentured against their will, such as children, young women kidnapped to be breeders in the colonies, or convicts forced by law to emigrate. The agreements usually entailed between four and seven years of labor from the servant, with housing and support provided by the owner. Children were kept until they reached adulthood. One example is Benjamin Evans, a "Pauper Apprentice" in New York, who became indentured at the age of four in 1797 and remained trapped in servitude until he turned twenty-one. At the end of the contract, a large allowance called a freedom due was given to the indentee. This was intended to be used by the servant to obtain housing and establish themselves in free society.
Just like many contemporary labor contracts written today, such an exchange sounds like a reasonable deal. It is affordable for the contract holder, and the laborer receives his or her freedom at the end of a contract period. The same cannot be said for kidnapped slaves from Africa. There was, of course, a catch. Indentured servants were abused, tortured, insufficiently clothed or fed, and suffered from injuries and disease with little medical treatment. More than fifty percent did not survive longer than five years. As such servants were generally cheaper to purchase than slaves, and freedom dues were left unpaid in the event of the servant's death, many landowners opted to use such servants over slaves from Africa, suppressing the growth of slavery for several decades.
By the 18th century, the popularity of indentured servitude began to wane and was replaced by enslaved African-Americans. The pattern of control over the less fortunate by the wealthy in exchange for merely sustaining the life of the laborer had been established. Many parallels can be drawn between indentured servitude and modern labor compensation, with freedom dues and retirement benefits seeming eerily similar to one another. Today, minimum wage earners across the country work horrific hours in physical demanding roles in order to sustain their families in impoverished squalor. It is important to remember that the United States has never represented the bastion of workers freedom. Any gains in that direction should not be expected, but should be viewed as a worthy struggle against hundreds of years of intense exploitation and class stratification.
- "A Person Like Me, Oppress'd By Dame Fortune, Need Not Care Where He Goes"
"William Moraley, The Infortunate: or, the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley". Written by Himself. Newcastle, England, 1743; Reprint by History Matters, George Mason University
- "We Unfortunate English People Suffer Here": An English Servant Writes Home
Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756, Reprinted by History Matters, George Mason University.
- The Brooker Collection - Spring 2004 - Boston College
"#2019 Indentured Servant Contract: Benjamin Evans" 1797, New York
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