An indenture was a legal contract between a servant and master enforced by the courts. Men would sign these indentures to come to the new world and work for a master for up to seven years, to pay for their journey over, and then were set free. Also, if they paid a sum of money within a certain timeframe from his or her arrival, they would be set free. Servants were shipped over by the boatload and then advertised for sale when they arrived. They were barely given enough food to survive the trip over, and many died before they even got to the new world. A buyer would sign the indenture and agree to provide all of their necessities until they were set free. The system proved to be much less desirable than first advertised though as many masters exploited their power.
In the late 1500s, an economic depression hit England, and thousands of farmers went out on the streets. They wandered the streets unemployed and mostly became beggars. England saw this as a “surplus population” and needed to rid them from their land. Queen Elizabeth passed laws that could punish them, imprison them in workhouses without pay, or simply exile them. Anybody who was found begging could be whipped, sent to a workhouse, sent out of the city, or be sent out of the country entirely. This created a need for the now homeless and jobless farmers to escape their terrible living conditions.
Indentured servitude began as a fairly successful way of gathering much needed help to come to the new world. One planter could not get wealthy, regardless of his work efforts, unless he had others to work his fields. This fact necessitated the need for an inexpensive source of labor. Many of the unemployed, homeless, poor and exiled men and women were offered a way to get a fresh start this way. These outcasts became commodities for wealthy merchants looking for cheap labor to bring to the new world. They were offered a trip to North America, along with four to seven years of unpaid work for their masters in exchange for the journey. After this they would be let free, given new clothes, tools and fifty acres of land. The system of indentured servitude was the answer to clearing the streets of the many beggars and homeless in England. The system was tempting to men who wanted to escape their terrible living conditions, and it was impossible for a poor man to obtain that much land otherwise. Little did they know that the conditions they would experience on the journey over, and while working, would be far worse than they endured in their home lands.
Once these men or women were purchased by landowners, they were put to work immediately. They were given food, clothing, and shelter, but not much else. The malnourished servants were easily susceptible to disease and many of them died within a short period of time after starting their work. Female servants were often raped and sexually abused, and all of them were subject to frequent beatings and whippings for various offenses. Servants were not allowed to marry without permission, and could be separated from their families. Unmarried women who became pregnant received even more punishment. This included all of them working for additional years, and some children were taken from them and sold for a few pounds of tobacco. Indentured servants did not have all of the customary rights that English laborers did. They were mostly kept under control by brute force, rather than legal action. Servants in Virginia could not hold their masters liable for any mistreatment or failing to follow their contract. At the end of a servant’s contract, the masters often failed to supply their agreement. Once the majority of indentured servants began to survive their contract and demand the land that they were promised, its appeal to planters was lost. The planters refused to share any wealth and power that they had with their former servants. The servants were angered by this and the group became increasingly large and rebellious. Fear of a rebellion was apparent by the 1660’s and indentured servitude had lost all the appeal that it once had. After more than one hundred years, the system of indentured servitude had finally failed.

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