Let’s face it; the first English attempts to set up a successful colony in the New World failed dismally. That first outpost of English culture, Roanoke, mysteriously disappeared. The proud little settlement of Jamestown suffered through starvation and indigenous attacks. In general, people who went to the colonies in search of a better life ended up dead, and for some odd reason this made it difficult to recruit new colonists.
Without people to work the land and expand the English dominion, the Colony of Virginia was pretty much doomed, so I suspect the directors of the Virginia Company perked up substantially when someone came up with the bright idea to use indentured servants to populate their land
The practice of indenture had been around for centuries. In essence it was a contract whereby one person voluntarily entered the service of another person for a stipulated period of time. In general, any payments for the service were paid out in arrears, which meant an indentured servant who absconded could not claim on his back pay.
The system set up in Virginia was somewhat different. Someone had to assume the cost of transporting the servant across the sea, and so rules were set in place whereby landowners in the colony could bring over servants at their own expense and receive up to 50 acres in compensation for their efforts. The indentured servant was compelled by contract to work off his debt for transportation and would at the end of his period of service receive some further compensation – plus some land. The problem with this little set up was that the need for indentured labour exceeded the demand – most people were reluctant to cross the sea to an unknown wilderness from which they might never return.
If people didn’t queue up for the fantastic opportunity of expanding their horizons at no cost but their hard toil, maybe some light coercion would help, and what better way to achieve this than by snatching people off the street and have them set their cross to a document they didn’t understand? Quite a number of people were carried overseas against their will, and once on the other side, there was very little they could do but submit to the inevitable and work off their years.
To further swell the ranks of available labour, the powers that were quickly realised that deporting people was an excellent way of delivering able bodied men to the struggling colonies while ridding the kingdom of such undesirables as protesters in general and criminals. During the first eighty years of its existence, the Colony of Virginia received regular complements of deported people, very many of whom were Scots who clung to the Scottish Kirk, refusing to kowtow to the Anglican faith.
Whether forced or voluntary, the life of an indentured servant was no walk in the park. For a woman, there was the constant risk of being raped – these were societies with a chronic shortage of women – and should she become pregnant her term of service would be extended. The men ended up in the fields, disposable beasts of burden that were often worked until they dropped.
A disobedient (or “wilful”) servant was punished – in some cases so severely as to permanently maim the servant. Trying to run away was a serious offence that could lead to beating so brutal the person in question died, and on top of this the reluctant immigrants had to cope with food shortages and unknown ailments. On average, four out of ten indentured servants died in Virginia during the seventeenth century. No wonder the colony had problems recruiting them!
Life in the colonies – both as an indentured servant and as a settler – play an important part in my series The Graham Saga. My male protagonist, Matthew Graham, is a devout Presbyterian, a veteran of the Commonwealth armies and a man who initially at least tends to see the world as black or white. (Which is why I gifted him with Alex Lind, an opinionated modern woman who had the misfortune (or not) of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, thereby being dragged three centuries back in time to land concussed and badly singed at an astounded Matthew’s feet.)
In the second instalment of The Graham Saga, Like Chaff in the Wind, Matthew is one of the unfortunates who are sold as indentured servants to Virginia. The experience leaves him scarred for life, and some aspects of his life as a slave come back to haunt him in future installments of the series. However; first things first, so below is an excerpt from Like Chaff in the Wind, giving some insight into Matthew’s experiences in Virginia. I hope you enjoy it!
Five unbearable days, and on the afternoon of the sixth day he was so tired that he accidentally upended the sled, tipping the load of tobacco plants into the dirt. Jones flew at him.
“Fool! Look at what you’ve done!”
Matthew got to his feet, an effort involving far too many protesting muscles. His shoulders were permanently on fire, the harness had left broad, bleeding sores on his skin, and no matter how he tried to use his worn shirt as padding, the sores deepened and widened, a constant, flaming pain.
“I’ll just load them back.” He bent to pick up an armful. His arms were clumsy with weariness, and it took far too long to reload the sled, with Jones an irate, vociferous spectator. Matthew leaned forward into the straps, bunching his thighs. Dear Lord! He couldn’t budge the load, the leather cutting even deeper into his lacerated skin. He tried again, and still the sled wouldn’t move. Matthew looked back across his shoulder to find Jones sitting on the sled.
“Go on,” Jones sneered, “get a move on.”
“You’re too heavy,” Matthew said, “you can walk.”
Jones raised a brow. “Of course I can. But now I want you to pull.”
Matthew felt his pulse begin to thud. Wafting curtains of red clouded his vision.
“I’m a man, aye? I’ll work as you tell me to, but you can move of your own accord, fat though you may be. I won’t be your yoked beast, I’m a man.” There was absolute silence around him, his companions staring at him with a mixture of admiration and exasperation.
Jones stood up and moved towards him. “That’s where you’re wrong, Graham. You’re no man, not here, not now. You’re a slave, a beast to be worked until you’re no use.” He looked at Matthew expectantly, his hand tightening on the handle of his crop.
Matthew knew he should back down, grovel and mumble, but inside of him the fire grew, red hot rage at the man in front of him, at his traitorous brother, and the injustice of it all.
“I told you. I’ve never done anything wrong. I’m a free man.”
Jones laughed. “Free? Then why are you still here? Why aren’t you on a ship back home?”
“You know why! I have no money.”
“And we own you, until you can pay yourself free, we own you.”
“Nay, no one owns me. I’m a free man.”
“And I tell you you’re but a slave,” Jones hissed.
Matthew punched him straight into the face, having the distinct pleasure of hearing the cartilage in Jones’ nose crack. That was really the last thing he observed clearly, then it was all hands and feet, and the sting of the leather crop. He heard Jones call men to him and Matthew had the shirt torn from his back, he was thrown face down onto the ground and then there was the snap of leather that came down time and time again on his bared skin. One of his arms was twisted up behind his back, and in his ear he heard Jones’ heavy breathing.
“So, what are you?”
“A free man,” Matthew gasped. The pressure on his arm was tearing at his tendons.
“What are you?”
Bend! Alex shrieked in his head, for God’s sake Matthew, bend. But he didn’t want to, he had to salvage some pride, and the pain in his shoulder increased to the point where he knew it would soon be dislocated.
“What are you?” Jones hissed again, throwing his considerable weight against Matthew’s trapped arm. Matthew groaned. Please! Alex cried, please, Matthew, for me. Don’t let him maim you for life, my love, please! In his fuddled state Matthew wasn’t sure if she was here for real, or if it was a hallucination, but the despair in her voice rang through his head.
“I’m a slave,” Matthew mumbled, closing his eyes so that he might still see Alex, not the red earth an inch from his nose.
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
“I’m a slave,” Matthew mumbled again.
“Say it out loud.” Jones heaved Matthew to his feet. “Look at all the men before you and say it.” To his everlasting shame, Matthew did as he was told.
“I am a slave,” he said, repeating it time and time again until Jones released him to tumble to the ground.
He lay where he had fallen, and around him he heard the sound of people moving off, leaving him to lie unaided. No one dared to touch him, lest Jones should vent his anger on them as well, and Matthew found himself staring at his hand, so close to his face. He didn’t want to move. He no longer wanted to live.
“Please let me die. Sweetest Lord, just let me die.” He closed his eyes, and in his mind he saw Hillview, he saw a wee lad running up the lane to meet him, and there she was, laughing and crying at the same time, her skirts bunched high as she flew towards him, and he knew that of course he couldn’t die. He owed it to Alex to stay alive; he owed it to himself.
4 thoughts on “Indentured servants – an alternative to slavery”
Reblogged this on Wendy J. Dunn.
A nice piece of writing, brings the period alive.