A major problem with the system of indentured servitude was that in many cases, an indentured servant would become indebted to their employer, who would forgive the debt in exchange for an extension to the period of their indenture, which could thereby continue indefinitely. In other cases, indentured servants were subject to violence at the hands of their employers in the homes or fields in which they worked without compensation.
The labor-intensive cash crop of tobacco was farmed in the American South by indentured laborers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indentured servitude was not the same as the apprenticeship system by which skilled trades were taught, but similarities do exist between the two mechanisms, in that both require a set period of work.
In addition to African slaves, Europeans, mostly Irish, Scottish, English, and Germans, were brought over in substantial numbers as indentured servants, particularly in the British Thirteen Colonies. Over half of all white immigrants to the English colonies of North America during the 17th and 18th centuries consisted of indentured servants.
An indenture was a legal contract enforced by the courts. One indenture reads as follows:
This INDENTURE Witnesseth that James Best a Laborer doth Voluntarily put himself Servant to Captain Stephen Jones Master of the Snow Sally to serve the said Stephen Jones and his Assigns, for and during the full Space, Time and Term of three Years from the first Day of the said James’s arrival in Philadelphia in AMERICA, during which Time or Term the said Master or his Assigns shall and will find and supply the said James with sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and all other necessaries befitting such a Servant, and at the end and expiration of said Term, the said James to be made Free, and receive according to the Custom of the Country. Provided nevertheless, and these Presents are on this Condition, that if the said James shall pay the said Stephen Jones or his Assigns 15 Pounds British in twenty one Days after his arrival he shall be Free, and the above Indenture and every Clause therein, absolutely Void and of no Effect. In Witness whereof the said Parties have hereunto interchangeably put their Hands and Seals the 6th Day of July in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Three in the Presence of the Right Worshipful Mayor of the City of London. (signatures)
When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants (redemptioners) were for sale:
Just imported, on board the Snow Sally, Captain Stephen Jones, Master, from England, A number of healthy, stout English and Welsh Servants and Redemptioners, and a few Palatines [Germans], amongst whom are the following tradesmen, viz. Blacksmiths, watch-makers, coppersmiths, taylors, shoemakers, ship-carpenters and caulkers, weavers, cabinet-makers, ship-joiners, nailers, engravers, copperplate printers, plasterers, bricklayers, sawyers and painters. Also schoolmasters, clerks and book-keepers, farmers and labourers, and some lively smart boys, fit for various other employments, whose times are to be disposed of.
Enquire of the Captain on board the vessel, off Walnut-street wharff, or of MEASE and CALDWELL.
When a buyer was found, the sale would be recorded at the city court. The Philadelphia Mayor’s Court Indenture Book, page 742, for September 18, 1773 has the following entry:
James Best. Who was under Indenture of Redemption to Captain Stephen Jones now cancelled in consideration of £ 15, paid for his Passage from London bound a servant to David Rittenhouse of the City of Philadelphia & assigns three years to befound all necessaries.
The law provided for punishments for runaway indentured servants. In 1638, for example, several lashes were the punishment for running away. In the following year, the punishment was extended to hanging the runaway. By 1641 the law was changed such that death would be the punishment unless the servant requested that his or her service be extended after the expiration of the contract. The service could be extended up to twice the time absent, not to exceed seven years.
On the journey to America, people aboard the ship sailing were given a portion of food set to last 2 weeks, with no opportunity for more, and no care as to the lives of those who finished their rations early. Many passengers did not survive the trip to the new land. Some died of starvation, disease, or suicide. In Colonial North America, employers usually paid for European workers' passage across the Atlantic Ocean, reimbursing the shipowner who held their papers of indenture. In the process many families were broken apart. During the time living with their masters, their fellow indentured servants took the role of family. In return, laborers agreed to work for a specified number of years.
The agreement could also be an exchange for professional training: after being the indentured servant of a blacksmith for several years, one would expect to work as a blacksmith on one's own account after the period of indenture was over. During the 17th century, most of the white labourers in Virginia came from England this way. Their masters were bound to feed, clothe, and lodge them. Ideally, an indentured servant's lot in the establishment would be no harder than that of a contemporary apprentice, who was similarly bound by contract and owed hard, unpaid labour while "serving his time." At the end of the allotted time, an indentured servant was to be given a new suit of clothes, tools, or money, and freed.
On the other hand, this ideal was not always a reality for indentured servants. Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. Female indentured servants in particular might be raped and/or sexually abused by their masters. Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, and social pressure to avoid such brutality could vary by geography and cultural norm. The situation was particularly difficult for indentured women, because in both low social class and sex, they were believed to be particularly prone to vice, making legal redress unusual.
Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the British colonies. Voluntary migration and Convict labor only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. Contract-laborers became an important group of people and so numerous that the United States Constitution counted them specifically in appointing representatives:
Most indentured servants were recruited from the growing number of unemployed poor people in urban areas of England. Displaced from their land and unable to find work in the cities, many of these people signed contracts of indenture and took passage to the Americas. In Massachusetts, religious instruction in the Puritan way of life was often part of the condition of indenture, and people tended to live in towns. In the north, indentured servants were more likely to be integrated with the community to some extent, with more household chores and town-oriented trade skills associated with their work. What was often great mental stress and suppression in combination with hard work and the possibility of physical abuse took its toll on many indentured servants, particularly women, who were subject to even stricter social mores than their male counterparts.
By contrast, in Virginia, the majority of the population did not live in individual towns, and indentured servants were more likely to work on isolated farms. The majority of Virginians were Anglican, not Puritan, and while religion did play a large role in everyday lives, the culture was more commercially based. In the Upper South, where tobacco was the main cash crop, the majority of labor that indentured servants performed was related to field work. In this situation, social isolation could increase the possibilities for both direct and indirect abuse, as could lengthy, demanding labor in the tobacco fields.
Indentured servants rebelled in Virginia in response to poor work conditions and the hardships they faced after they were freed, which could include a lack of land, poverty, taxes, militia duty, and forced labor on county projects. Nathaniel Bacon's Rebellion found its support among white, disillusioned laborers in Virginia and slaves.
Indentured servants differed from slavery. There was a continuum between the designations "free" and "unfree" in the colonial period. In this sense, the development of racial thinking to separate and privilege the mainly white laborers from black slaves solidified the institution of slavery even as it opened, at least in name, opportunities for lower-class whites. Ultimately, Slavery persisted until 1865 in the South, but indentured servitude did not.
The system was still widely practiced in the 1780s, picking up immediately after a hiatus during the American Revolution. Fernand Braudel (The Perspective of the World 1984, pp 405f) instances a 1783 report on "the import trade from Ireland" and its large profits to a ship owner or a captain, who:
In modern terms, the shipowner was acting as an contractor, hiring out his laborers. Such circumstances affected the treatment a captain gave his valuable human cargo. After indentures were forbidden, the passage had to be prepaid, giving rise to the inhumane conditions of Irish "coffin ships" in the second half of the 19th century.
Modern indentured servitude takes the form of illegal immigrants paying their passage by long work-hours in harsh conditions, often at subsistence pay rates to support themselves. Such activity is not uncommon in America and Europe as well.
Article 4 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (passed in 1948) declares such servitude as illegal. But, only national legislation can implement that illegality. In America, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover Peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.
Indentured servitude was a common part of the landscape in England and Ireland during the 1600s. During the 1600s, many Irish were also kidnapped and taken to Barbados. Many indentured servants were captured by the English during Cromwell’s expeditions to Ireland and Scotland, who were forcibly brought over between 1649 and 1655.
Many white Irish slaves were taken to Montserrat during the slave trade: it is the only territory in the world, other than the Republic of Ireland, to have a public holiday for St Patrick Day.
After 1660, the Caribbean saw fewer indentured servants coming over from Europe. On most of the islands African slaves now did all the hard fieldwork. Newly freed servant farmers that were given a few acres of land would not be able to make a living because sugar plantations had to be spread over hundreds of acres in order to be profitable. The landowners’ reputation as cruel masters in dealing with the large slave populations became a deterrence to the potential indentured servant. Even the islands themselves had become deadly disease death traps for the white servants. Africans, on the other hand, were excellent workers: they often had experience of agriculture and keeping cattle, they were used to a tropical climate, resistant to tropical diseases, and they could be "worked very hard" on plantations or in mines. Yellow fever, malaria and the diseases that Europeans had brought over contributed to the fact that during the 17th century between 33 to 50 percent of the indentured servants died before they were freed.
When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1838, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labor. These servants emigrated from a variety of places, including China and Portugal, though a majority came from India. This system was pioneered at Aapravasi Ghat in Mauritius and was not abolished until 1917. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyana, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and a substantial minority in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands.
In the article on the history of Vanuatu, it states that, "During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade called "blackbirding." At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad."
Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labor for the sugar cane fields of Queensland, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude, of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders (from Melanesia, mainly the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with a small number from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu).
The question of how many Islanders were kidnapped (or blackbirded) is unknown and remains controversial. The question of whether Islanders were legally recruited, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland is difficult. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tended to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.
The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, specialized in sugar cane plantations, badly needed this intensive labor cheaper than the emancipated workforce negotiating for higher wages.
Mauritius was to act as a plaque tournante for this coolie or indentured population, dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies.
Between 1845 and 1917, 140,000+ Indians work contracted to work the plantations of the island of Trinidad.
Mauritius can be called the country of coolitude as the 'Great Experiment' leading to the widespread recourse to indentured labour started there. It hosts the Aapravasi ghat and has given rise to many books on this special page in the history of human migrations.
Practices in the United Arab Emirates are examples of modern day indentured servitude. Workers generally from Pakistan are forced to pay people for the promise of work in the Emirates. Once they enter the country their passports are taken from them and they are not told when they will get them back. The indentured servants are provided with lodgings, transportation to the place of work and basic foods.
Similar practices exist in Europe but mainly revolve around to sex and construction workers, the difference being the illegal practice is being pursed by European authorities.