Essay indentured labour

Instead, lengthy terms of service became customary and dictated by law.

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As early as , the General Assembly required all servants to register with the secretary of state upon arrival and "Certifie him upon what termes or conditions they be come hither. Legislation passed in the — session adjusted these ages: anyone under the age of fifteen should serve until he or she turned twenty-one, while anyone sixteen or older should serve for four years.


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By , the law had been simplified, so that all non-indentured Christian servants older than nineteen should serve until they turned twenty-four. Lawmakers entrusted the county courts with judging the age of each servant. In the meantime, they required slightly different terms for Irish servants.

The assembly declined to dictate standard terms for privately negotiated indentures; as a result, contracts varied in length and specificity. On September 7, , Robert Coopy, whose age went unnoted, signed an indenture for three years' service to the proprietors of Berkeley's Hundred requiring that he be "obedient" to his betters and that they "transport him with gods assistance " to Virginia and there "maintayne him with convenient diet and apparel. By , Thomson Mason could simply fill out a form , which he did in order to indenture for four years William Buckland, a twenty-one-year-old carpenter and joiner, to his brother George Mason , who was overseeing the construction of Gunston Hall.

Servants whose contracts had expired typically received "freedom dues," loosely described as a quantity of corn and clothing. The statute was the first to explicitly mention this "good and laudable custom," and required that male servants, "upon their freedom," be supplied with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings or the like value in goods , and a musket worth at least twenty shillings.

Women were entitled to fifteen bushels of corn and the equivalent of forty shillings.


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During the seventeenth century, freedom dues were negotiated as part of the indenture. Robert Coopy's contract, for instance, guaranteed him thirty acres of land at Berkeley's Hundred. John Barnes, who purchased William Freeman, was obliged only to pay the boy "his full due According to the Custom of this Country. At Jamestown, when a male indentured servant who had fulfilled his contract insisted on receiving his "corn and clothes," his master exploded in rage and struck him on the head with his truncheon.

In addition to contract terms, the General Assembly concerned itself with servant behavior. In The Whole Duty of Man , a Protestant devotional work published anonymously in , the English author reminds readers that all servants owe their masters, as a matter of conscience, "obedience," "Faithfulness," "Patience and Meekness," and "Diligence. For instance, burgesses were forced to pass laws in response to servants who ran away and to those who, while still under contract, hired themselves out to new masters under better terms. The — assembly passed a law —subsequently revised in ——requiring that servants carry certificates and punishing any master who hired a servant without proper papers.

The assembly was also perennially concerned with "ffornication," especially when it resulted in female servants becoming pregnant. This led to a loss of the servants' labor, for which the law attempted to provide compensation to the master. An act passed in the — session and revised in — added time, in the case of pregnancy and so-called secret marriages, to the indentures of male and female servants both; it called for fines on any freemen involved.

Sometimes servants were singled out in the context of broader morals laws, such as in "Against ffornication," passed in —, which responded to servant pregnancies by requiring large fines to be paid to the local parish. If the master refused to pay, then the servants were to be whipped.

Another law , passed in , stipulated that the children of such pregnancies were to be handed over to the church, which would be reimbursed for its trouble by the "reputed father. This was to prevent female servants from avoiding work through pregnancy and then attempting to leave their children in the care of their masters.

A number of these laws were combined and revised into "An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences," passed by the assembly in Servants ran away largely because their lives in Virginia tended to be nasty, brutish, and short. Although they often worked alongside their masters in tobacco fields, they usually lived apart and often under primitive conditions.

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They worked from dawn until dusk, six days a week through the growing season, which on tobacco and wheat farms could last from as early as February until as late as November. The mortality rate was very high, mostly due to what Virginians called the "summer seasoning," a time during which disease killed a majority of new arrivals. According to the Dutchman David Peterson DeVries, who visited Virginia in March , immigrants died "like cats and dogs," while the sick "want to sleep all the time, but they must be prevented from sleeping by force," lest they die.

In the meantime, servants—whether seasoned or unseasoned—were treated as property subject to overwork and beatings. For instance, in Alice Proctor, whom Captain John Smith termed a proper and civil gentlewoman, arranged for her runaway maidservant Elizabeth Abbott to be beaten, and the punishment was so severe that Abbott died. George Sandys , the colony's treasurer, allowed his servants to starve and languish for lack of medical treatment, while in a mistress was charged with thrashing her "mayd Servant … more Liken a dogge then a Christian," so that her head was "as soft as a sponge, in one place" and her back was possibly broken.

Other female servants were victims of sexual assault. DeVries worried that servants were not treated with appropriate dignity. Jane Dickenson was a servant living on the Martin's Hundred plantation with her husband, Ralph Dickenson, when Opechancanough 's Indians attacked in John Pott , a Jamestown physician and future Virginia governor , ransomed her freedom for two pounds of beads.

Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia

Pott claimed that Dickenson owed him both the remaining time on her late husband's contract and the time it would take her to reimburse him the ransom he paid for her release. In a petition dated March 30, , Dickenson asked the General Court to free her, alleging that Pott's treatment of her "much differeth not from her slavery with the Indians. On at least two occasions, servants banded together to protest the way they were treated.

In , forty servants in York County , angered by the lack of meat in their diets, conspired to rebel against their masters; in , a group of nine indentured servants in Gloucester County plotted to arm themselves and march to Governor Sir William Berkeley 's home, where they would demand their freedom. In both cases, the authorities were notififed before the plans could be carried out, and the conspirators were punished. According to Berkeley, four of the Gloucester County conspirators were hanged for their actions.

The General Assembly did pass legislation aimed at protecting servants from mistreatment. In a statute otherwise concerned with runaways, servants were granted the right to take to the courts complaints of "harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries. In , the assembly further directed masters not to make bargains with their servants in an attempt to trick or manipulate them into extended terms of service.

Other acts aimed to protect the limited rights of Virginia Indian servants. Of course, these laws were neither preventative nor always enforced; rather, they reflected the harsh reality of servitude in Virginia, a reality that, as time passed, became less and less distinct from chattel slavery. Morgan wrote.

For much of the seventeenth century, those servants were white English men and women—with a smattering of Africans, Indians, and Irish—under indenture with the promise of freedom. By , and the passage of "An act concerning Servants and Slaves," slavery had become ensconced at all levels of Virginia society and was well on its way to completely replacing indentured servitude as the primary source of bound labor in the colony.

Most historians have explained this shift by citing either social or economic shifts in Virginia beginning around the s. Morgan and others, for instance, have argued that Bacon's Rebellion — was, in part, the result of discontent among former servants. By harnessing that discontent and, in the name of racial solidarity, pointing it in the direction of enslaved Africans, white elites could create a more stable workforce and one that was less likely to threaten their own interests.

Other historians have observed that the flow of English servants began to dry up beginning in the s and fell off dramatically around , forcing planters to rely more heavily on slaves. Slavery did not end indentured servitude, in other words; the end of servitude gave rise to slavery. The historian John C.

Coombs has suggested a third possibility: "There was no 'trigger' cause for the conversion.

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By the s, slaves had begun to replace white indentured servants among the Virginia gentry —before both Bacon's Rebellion and the sharp decline in new servants. By , slaves accounted for nearly all of the gentry's bound workforce but only 25 to 40 percent of the non-elite's. Over time, as the supply of enslaved Africans increased and their prices decreased, farmers and planters agreed that they preferred a slave for life to a servant who had the hope of freedom. Even so, indentured servants—particularly those with specialized skills—and convict servants continued to be imported to the colony throughout the eighteenth century.

Wolfe, B.

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Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia. In Encyclopedia Virginia. Wolfe, Brendan and Martha McCartney. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 28 Oct. Thank you! Thanks to your advocacy efforts on our behalf, we're happy to report that the recently passed Omnibus Spending Bill includes a very small increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities!

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While our work is not over with regards to the upcoming budget to be passed in the fall, the Omnibus Spending Bill represents an endorsement of the important work that the humanities do for our communities. These funds will continue to support our work of providing free access to authoritative content about Virginia's history and culture. Indenture of James Bracken Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia Contributed by Brendan Wolfe and Martha McCartney Indentured servants were men and women who signed a contract also known as an indenture or a covenant by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation to Virginia and, once they arrived, food, clothing, and shelter.

Origins Servitude had a long history in England, dating back to medieval serfdom. Time Line June - The English Parliament passes the Ordinance of Labourers, declaring that all men and women under the age of sixty who do not practice a craft must serve anyone requiring their labor. January 12, - The English Parliament passes the Statute of Artificers, which compiles and revises years' worth of law regarding indentured servitude.

It is still in effect when Jamestown is founded in He is awarded the next open appointment as prebendary of Bristol Cathedral, which he will take up in November 18, - The Virginia Company of London issues its "Instructions to George Yeardley," which include the establishment of the General Assembly and the headright system. These instructions come to be known as the Great Charter. August 4, - The General Assembly passes a law requiring all servants to register with the secretary of state upon arrival in Virginia.

September 7, - Robert Coopy of North Nibley, Gloucester, England, age unknown, signs a three-year indenture to work as a servant for the proprietors of the Berkeley Hundred plantation in Virginia. During the same time, shipping costs decrease. John Pott. July 18, - The Virginia Company of London declares its intention to pay to ship new settlers to Virginia, including tenants, apprentices, young women, and indentured servants.

March 30, - In a petition addressed to the governor and General Court, the indentured servant Jane Dickenson pleads for her release from Dr.

A former prisoner of Virginia Indians, Dickenson claims that Pott's treatment of her is worse. October 10, - The General Court hears testimony concerning the deaths of two indentured servants, Elizabeth Abbott and Elias Hinton, at the hands of their masters, John and Alice Proctor. January 31, - The General Court hears testimony in the case of an indentured servant, William Mutch, who allegedly was attacked by his master after he demanded his so-called freedom dues, or the payment servants customarily receive upon completion of their contracts.