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.
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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