Indentured Servitude

Michael Guasco

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:
Indentured Servitude

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Although it most famously appeared during the 17th century as a means for facilitating transatlantic migration and providing labor in England’s early American colonies, indentured servitude has manifested itself in many forms during its long history. Indentured servants were individuals who bargained away their labor for a period of four to seven years in exchange for passage to the New World. In the 17th century, indentured servants made up the mass of English immigrants to the Chesapeake colonies and were central to the development of the tobacco economy. Large numbers of indentured servants could also be found in the English West Indian colonies, but they were replaced by enslaved African laborers by the end of the century as cash-crop agriculture (particularly sugar) and plantation slavery gradually minimized the overall demographic and economic importance of indentured servitude as a labor system. Regardless, indentured servitude continued to be an important institution in the Atlantic world through the 19th century. Debates persist about the general characteristics of early indentured servants, but they were certainly primarily younger English men in search of new opportunities for wealth and advancement that were unavailable to them at home. Some people achieved this goal, but many more either died before their contract expired or were unable to rise above a relatively moderate status in the colonies. In the 17th century, most indentured servants were of English origin and migrated to the Chesapeake and West Indies. Of the 120,000 emigrants to the Chesapeake during this era, roughly 90,000 arrived as bound laborers. Another 50,000 to 75,000 white indentured servants went to the islands, although these numbers included many Irish servants, political prisoners, and convict laborers. A few indentured servants, or engagés, appeared in the French colonies, but the institution was much more common in the British colonies. Indentured servitude did eventually become much more diverse, particularly during the 18th century when increasing numbers of German redemptioners arrived and an increasing percentage of people chose to locate themselves in nonplantation zones, especially Pennsylvania. Perhaps 150,000 non-English migrants arrived as servants during the late colonial period. After the American Revolution, however, the system virtually disappeared in the United States. In the West Indies, however, indentured servitude revived in many places after the abolition of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. During the 19th century, large numbers of Indian and Chinese migrant laborers were bound into servitude to perform tasks once the responsibility of enslaved Africans. Scholars disagree about whether or not this new system was simply a new form of slavery. Regardless, as late as the first decades of the 20th century, unfree laborers—effectively the descendants of the mass of indentured servants who first appeared nearly four hundred years earlier—could still be found toiling in subjugation in the old plantation zones of North America and the Caribbean.

Article.  8868 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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