The acquisition of indentured servants and slaves began with the earliest days of the settling of America. Before 1680, the most common form of bound labor was the white indentured servant. Up to two-thirds of the English migrants who came to Virginia between 1630 and 1680 arrived in servile status. In return for the cost of a complete outfit of clothes, a steady diet, and transportation across the Atlantic, the servant signed a legal contract, or indenture, which permitted the sale of his or her labor to the highest bidder in the colonies for a period usually running from 4 to 7 years. Estimates of outfitting and transportation costs vary from £6 to £10 ($540-$900), or about 75 to 130 percent of median incomes in the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century. The labor contracts of servants sold at varying prices depending on the age, sex, length of contract, skills of the servant, and on the local demand for bound labor. The contract normally specified the conditions of work and stipulated that the servant was entitled to fair treatment, including an adequate diet, sufficiently warm clothing, and decent lodging. In some cases, the contracts even included luxuries like a generous supply of alcohol. Most of these called for the payment of a sizable bonus, either in land or in money, upon the successful completion of the labor term.
The institution of indentured servitude, a temporary status somewhere between slavery and freedom, was acceptable in English society. The system an extension of the much more common system of apprenticeship whereby adolescents bound themselves to an employer in return for an opportunity to learn the skills of a given trade. Although a few isolated cases involved kidnappings, the vast majority of indentured servants entered into contracts voluntarily. Evidence indicates that they were drawn from a wide spectrum of British society and in fairly equal numbers from the ranks of farmers and artisans, unskilled laborers, and domestic servants. The one clear exception to this was the roughly 30,000 criminals languishing in English jails who were transported to Georgia for sale between 1718 and 1775.
Most indentures came to North America voluntarily. The lure of a new life in an atmosphere where labor was in heavy demand and where the opportunity to reside on land that they owned was more than enough to offset a few years of servitude. In Europe, the likelihood of achieving the status of landowner was almost nil. Despite their servile status, the living standards of colonial indentures were not much below the conditions they had experienced in England. They considered their short-run sacrifices to be trivial relative to their long-run opportunities for advancement much enhanced. If you are struggling for a modern analog to indentured servitude, consider student loans where people routinely pledge to give up very substantial percentages of their early career earnings for the opportunity to acquire a degree and potential for higher lifetime earnings. Although our modern perspective on indentures makes us uncomfortable, people have been (and will continue to do so) making these compromises forever.
Unfortunately, in the tobacco colonies, planters constantly complained about the poor quality of their servant labor. Masters invariably described their white indentures as lazy, ignorant, and alcoholic idlers, who were universally ungrateful, unruly, and irresponsible. Masters could use corporal punishment and could go to court to enforce the terms of a labor contract. If a servant failed to perform assigned duties clearly within the scope of the indenture agreement. or attempted to flee, or when a female servant became pregnant by someone other than her employer, the master could ask a judge to impose penalties. The most serious penalty was an extension of a servant’s contract for additional years; merely the threat of extension was usually sufficient to keep most servants in line. The indentured servant, however had the option of taking a cruel and overbearing master to court for breach of contract. Servants typically asked judges to instruct masters to abide by the terms of the indenture or, if serious injury had already occurred, to reduce the length of service.
In the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church divided the world in half, granting Portugal a monopoly on trade in West Africa and Spain the right to colonize the New World. England was technically encroaching on Spanish lands (in the opinion of the Pope and King of Spain) but since Spain was mostly interested in gold and silver from the empires of Central America, this encroachment was overlooked. Portugal, on the other hand, defended its exclusive rights to territories it claimed along the West African coast and the trade from those areas. The Pope had granted them the right to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and they were out to enrich the kingdom as much as possible. Furthermore, Queen Isabella invested in Christopher Columbus’s exploration to increase her wealth and ultimately rejected the enslavement of Native Americans, claiming that they were Spanish subjects. Spain established an asiento, or contract, that authorized the direct shipment of captive Africans for trade as human commodities in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Eventually other European nation-states — the Netherlands, France, Denmark and England — seeking similar economic and geopolitical power joined in the trade.
On August 20, 1619, “20 and odd” Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrive in the British colony of Virginia. Kidnapped by Portuguese colonial forces, who sent captured members of the native Kongo and Ndonga kingdoms on a forced march to the port of Luanda, the capital of modern-day Angola. From there, they were ordered on the ship San Juan Bautista, which set sail for Veracruz in the colony of New Spain. As it approached its destination, the San Juan Bautista was attacked by two privateer ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer. Crews from the two ships kidnapped up to 60 of the Bautista’s enslaved people. It was the White Lion which docked at Virginia Colony’s Point Comfort and traded some of the prisoners for food on August 20, 1619.
These men were not English subjects and the “pirate” crew who captured them considered (as the Portuguese had) them to be cargo not passengers. These men were then sold, like cattle, at Jamestown thus beginning of two and a half centuries of chattel slavery in North America. Early Virginia scholars argued that the arrivals were technically sold as indentured servants but servants of African origin were oftentimes forced to continue working after the end of their contract. In 1640 a Virginia court sentenced rebellious servant John Punch to a lifetime of slavery and before long a clear and distinct racial caste system developed and African servants were increasingly held for life. In 1662, a Virginia court ruled that children born to enslaved mothers were the property of the mother’s owner.
Eventually almost a half of a million African’s will be forcibly transported across the seas to support the British mercantile economy. Giving rise to the phrase penned by Thomas Jefferson in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence: “he [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
As cash crops like tobacco, cotton and sugar became pillars of the colonial economy, slavery became its engine. Though the slave trade was outlawed in 1807, chattel slavery and the plantation economy it made possible flourished in the South. The 1860 census found that there were 3,953,760 enslaved people in the United States, making up roughly 13 percent of the total population.
In the end, 246 brutal years of slavery had an incalculable effect on American society. It would take another century after the Civil War for racial segregation to be declared unconstitutional, but the end of state-sanctioned racism was by no means the end of racism and discrimination in America.
NOW, the US Supreme Court and the Republican Party are embarking on a new chapter in chattel slavery. They seek to enslave not 13% of our nation but rather 51% by taking away fundamental rights of self-determination (by definition – Slavery). They are further acting to deprive a large districts of our nation of their fundamental voting rights, effectively placing them in temporary subservience to a powerful minority. THIS CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO STAND.
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”– THOMAS PAINE, American Crisis
If you are a true patriot, now is the time to rebel. Rebel at the polls by denying them the satisfaction of cowing you into submission. Rebel in the marketplace by boycotting the companies that fund the candidates who will destroy our rights. Rebel in your speech and ultimately, if no other options exist, rebel in the streets. Let us no surrender to slavery in any age and for any reason no matter how enticing the offer may be.