Indentured servitude is a form of labor in which a person (an indenture) agrees to work without salary for a specific number of years for eventual compensation or debt repayment. Historically, it has been used to pay for apprenticeships, typically when an apprentice agreed to work for free for a master tradesman to learn a trade (similar to a modern internship, but for a fixed length of time usually seven years). Later it was also used as a way for a person, to pay the cost of transportation to colonies in the Americas.
Like any loan, an indenture could be sold; most employers had to depend on middlemen to recruit and transport the workers, so indentures (indentured workers) were commonly bought and sold when they arrived at their destinations. Like prices of the enslaved, their price went up or down depending on supply and demand. When the indenture (loan) was paid off, the worker was free. Sometimes they might be given a plot of land.
While the transportation of indentured workers across the Atlantic was not pleasant for them, it was far safer and more comfortable than the treatment given to enslaved (captured) black people. They were passengers, not property. They had rights and, at least theoretically, access to the legal system. Mortality was far lower and bodies were not thrown overboard.
In contrast with the enslaved, indentured workers could usually marry, move about locally as long as the work got done, read whatever they wanted, and take classes.
Until the late 18th century, indentured servitude was common in British North America. It was often a way for Europeans (usually from Ireland) to immigrate to the American colonies: they signed an indenture in return for a costly passage. However, the system was also used to exploit Asians (mostly from India and China) who wanted to migrate to the New World. These Asian people were used mainly to construct roads and railway systems. After their indenture expired, the immigrants were free to work for themselves or another employer. It has been theorized by at least one economist that indentured servitude occurred largely as "an institutional response to a capital market imperfection".
In some cases, the indenture was made with a ship's master, who sold the indenture to an employer in the colonies. Most indentured servants worked as farm laborers or domestic servants, although some were apprenticed to craftsmen.
The terms of an indenture were not always enforced by American courts, although runaways were usually sought out and returned to their employer.
Between one-half and two-thirds of European immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and American Revolution came under indentures. However, while almost half the European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies were indentured servants, at any one time they were outnumbered by workers who had never been indentured, or whose indenture had expired, and thus free wage labor was the more prevalent for Europeans in the colonies. Indentured people were numerically important mostly in the region from Virginia north to New Jersey. Other colonies saw far fewer of them. The total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was about 500,000; of these 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, Tomlins estimates that 48% were indentured. About 75% of these were under the age of 25. The age of adulthood for men was 24 years (not 21); those over 24 generally came on contracts lasting about 3 years. Regarding the children who came, Gary Nash reports that "many of the servants were actually nephews, nieces, cousins and children of friends of emigrating Englishmen, who paid their passage in return for their labor once in America."
Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded, such as that of Peter Williamson (1730–1799). As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, "Although efforts were made to regulate or check their activities, and they diminished in importance in the eighteenth century, it remains true that a certain small part of the European colonial population of America was brought by force, and a much larger portion came in response to deceit and misrepresentation on the part of the spirits [recruiting agents]." One "spirit" named William Thiene was known to have spirited away 840 people from Britain to the colonies in a single year. Historian Lerone Bennett Jr. notes that "Masters given to flogging often did not care whether their victims were black or white."
Indentured servitude was also used by various English and British governments as a punishment for defeated foes in rebellions and civil wars. Oliver Cromwell sent into enforced indentured service thousands of prisoners captured in the 1648 Battle of Preston and the 1651 Battle of Worcester. King James II acted similarly after the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, and use of such measures continued also in the 18th Century.
Indentured servants could not marry without the permission of their master, were sometimes subject to physical punishment and did not receive legal favor from the courts. Female indentured servants in particular might be raped and/or sexually abused by their masters. If children were produced the labour would be extended by 2 years. Cases of successful prosecution for these crimes were very uncommon, as indentured servants were unlikely to have access to a magistrate, and social pressure to avoid such brutality could vary by geography and cultural norm. The situation was particularly difficult for indentured women, because in both low social class and gender, they were believed to be particularly prone to vice, making legal redress unusual.
The American Revolution severely limited immigration to the United States, but economic historians dispute its long-term impact. Sharon Salinger argues that the economic crisis that followed the war made long-term labor contracts unattractive. His analysis of Philadelphia's population shows how the percentage of bound citizens fell from 17% to 6.4% over the course of the war. William Miller posits a more moderate theory, stating that "the Revolution...wrought disturbances upon white servitude. But these were temporary rather than lasting". David Galenson supports this theory by proposing that the numbers of British indentured servants never recovered, and that Europeans from other nationalities replaced them.
The American and British governments passed several laws that helped foster the decline of indentures. The UK Parliament's Passenger Vessels Act 1803 regulated travel conditions aboard ships to make transportation more expensive, so as to hinder landlords' tenants seeking a better life. An American law passed in 1833 abolished imprisonment of debtors, which made prosecuting runaway servants more difficult, increasing the risk of indenture contract purchases. The 13th Amendment, passed in the wake of the American Civil War, made indentured servitude illegal in the United States.
Through its introduction, the details regarding indentured labor varied across import and export regions and most overseas contracts were made before the voyage with the understanding that prospective migrants were competent enough to make overseas contracts on their own account and that they preferred to have a contract before the voyage.
Most labor contracts made were in increments of five years, with the opportunity to extend another five years. Many contracts also provided free passage home after the dictated labor was completed. However, there were generally no policies regulating employers once the labor hours were completed, which led to frequent ill-treatment.
In 1643, the European population of Barbados was 37,200 (86% of the population). During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, at least 10,000 Scottish and Irish prisoners of war were transported as indentured laborers to the colonies.
There were also reports of kidnappings of Europeans to work as servants. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, children from England and France were kidnapped and sold into indentured labor in the Caribbean.
In 1838, with the abolition of slavery at its onset, the British were in the process of transporting a million Indians out of India and into the Caribbean to take the place of the recently freed enslaved Africans (freed in 1833) in indentureship. Women, looking for what they believed would be a better life in the colonies, were specifically sought after and recruited at a much higher rate than men due to the high population of men already in the colonies. However, women had to prove their status as single and eligible to emigrate, as married women could not leave without their husbands. Many women seeking escape from abusive relationships were willing to take that chance. The Indian Immigration Act of 1883 prevented women from exiting India as widowed or single in order to escape. Arrival in the colonies brought unexpected conditions of poverty, homelessness, and little to no food as the high numbers of emigrants overwhelmed the small villages and flooded the labor market. Many were forced into signing labor contracts that exposed them to the hard field labor on the plantation. Additionally, on arrival to the plantation, single women were 'assigned' a man as they were not allowed to live alone. The subtle difference between slavery and indenture-ship is best seen here as women were still subjected to the control of the plantation owners as well as their newly assigned 'partner'.
Colonial Indian indenture system
The Indian indenture system was a system of indenture, a form of debt bondage, by which 2 million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers to provide labour for the (mainly sugar) plantations. It started from the end of slavery in 1833 and continued until 1920. This resulted in the development of a large Indian diaspora, which spread from the Indian Ocean (i.e. Réunion and Mauritius) to Pacific Ocean (i.e. Fiji), as well as the growth of Indo-Caribbean and Indo-African population.
The British wanted local black Africans to work in Natal as workers. But the locals refused, and as a result, the British introduced the indenture system, resulting in a permanent Indian South African presence. On 18 January 1826, the Government of the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion laid down terms for the introduction of Indian labourers to the colony. Each man was required to appear before a magistrate and declare that he was going voluntarily. The contract was for five years with pay of ₹8 (12¢ US) per month and rations provided labourers had been transported from Pondicherry and Karaikal. The first attempt at importing Indian labour into Mauritius, in 1829, ended in failure, but by 1834, with abolition of slavery throughout most of the British Empire, transportation of Indian labour to the island gained pace. By 1838, 25,000 Indian labourers had been shipped to Mauritius.
After the end of slavery, the West Indian sugar colonies tried the use of emancipated slaves, families from Ireland, Germany and Malta and Portuguese from Madeira. All these efforts failed to satisfy the labour needs of the colonies due to high mortality of the new arrivals and their reluctance to continue working at the end of their indenture. On 16 November 1844, the British Indian Government legalised emigration to Jamaica, Trinidad and Demerara (Guyana). The first ship, the Whitby, sailed from Port Calcutta for British Guiana on 13 January 1838, and arrived in Berbice on 5 May 1838. Transportation to the Caribbean stopped in 1848 due to problems in the sugar industry and resumed in Demerara and Trinidad in 1851 and Jamaica in 1860.
The Indian indenture system was finally banned in 1917. According to The Economist, "When the Indian Legislative Council finally ended indenture...it did so because of pressure from Indian nationalists and declining profitability, rather than from humanitarian concerns."
Convicts transported to the Australian colonies before the 1840s often found themselves hired out in a form of indentured labor. Indentured servants also emigrated to New South Wales. The Van Diemen's Land Company used skilled indentured labor for periods of seven years or less. A similar scheme for the Swan River area of Western Australia existed between 1829 and 1832.
During the 1860s planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a trade in long-term indentured labor called "blackbirding". At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad.
Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labor for the sugar-cane fields of Queensland, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders. The workers came mainly from Melanesia – mainly from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – with a small number from Polynesian and Micronesian areas such as Samoa, the Gilbert Islands (subsequently known as Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (subsequently known as Tuvalu). They became collectively known as "Kanakas".
It remains unknown how many Islanders the trade controversially kidnapped. Whether the system legally recruited Islanders, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced them to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland remains difficult to determine. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.
A significant number of construction projects, principally British, in East Africa and South Africa, required vast quantities of labor, exceeding the availability or willingness of local tribesmen. Coolies from India were imported, frequently under indenture, for such projects as the Uganda Railway, as farm labor, and as miners. They and their descendants formed a significant portion of the population and economy of Kenya and Uganda, although not without engendering resentment from others. Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" from Uganda in 1972 was an expulsion of Indo-Africans.
The majority of the population of Mauritius are descendants of Indian indentured labourers brought in between 1834 and 1921. Initially brought to work the sugar estates following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire an estimated half a million indentured laborers were present on the island during this period. Aapravasi Ghat, in the bay at Port Louis and now a UNESCO site, was the first British colony to serve as a major reception centre for slaves and indentured servants for British plantation labour.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) declares in Article 4 "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". More specifically, it is dealt with by article 1(a) of the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.
However, only national legislation can establish the unlawfulness of indentured labor in a specific jurisdiction. In the United States, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.
- Bracero program
- Debt Bondage
- English Poor Laws
- Human trafficking
- Home Children
- Indenture (document)
- Indentured servitude in Pennsylvania
- Involuntary servitude
- List of indentured servants
- Padrone system
- Penal transportation
- Scottish poorhouse
- Khal Torabully
- Irish indentured servants
- United States labor law
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A feature of the Australian Agricultural Company's operation at Port Stephens was the simultaneous employment [...] of various forms of labour. The original nucleus of the workforce consisted of indentured servants brought out from Europe on seven-year contracts.
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- GUIANA 1838 – a film about indentured laborers
- Voices from the Aapravasi Ghat, Khal TOrabully, https://web.archive.org/web/20150617164151/http://www.potomitan.info/torabully/voices.php