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Indentured Servants During Slavery

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Indentured Servants of the Americas were those driven by the turmoil of continuing war and religious persecution in Europe; by economic misery; and by widespread hopelessness (Dohan, Our Own Words, p144) as well as involuntarily. They came to the American colonies after having exchanged some years of work for their passage, their up-keep, and their freedom. The words “Slave” and “Servant” were often used interchangeably because at first, in the 17th century, White indentured servants worked alongside African Slaves. Roughly around 1650 Black indentured servants were gradually converted to Slaves in the South and the North. This was associated with black, colored, and “negro” (with a belittling small “n”) being in respectable use for those with dark skin. Soul Doctor and Soul Driver were terms recorded in 1774 by abolitionists which applied to White men who took indentured servants and Slaves from place to place in colonial times to sell them in markets. Laws were passes stating the child inherits the condition of the mother in reference to indentured servants or Slaves and thereby ensuring those children would be enslaved.

The passage from Slave to Servant or vice versa (as reflected by records) was often indistinct for many Blacks and, once freed, most stayed with their former owners. Gradually, the label "Slave" moved into prominence to indicate those pertaining to African Slaves and Black "indentured servants," as in speaking of “Slave quarters or servant quarters.”

They were an entirely different class of laborer from White indentured servants. Later in the 17th century the term "Servant" took on a new and ominous meaning and was used synonymously with Slave but much more often. One of the reasons is that by the 1720s the importation of servants had become big business and eager employers were willing to pay the high prices demanded by procurers. Since Africans were more and more being recognized and treated as Slaves rather than servants, while White indentured servants were not, there was an increasing trend to use the term “Negro” in word combinations as a way of distinguishing them -- like “Negro quarters” (which was recorded in 1734). After the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780 was passed in Pennsylvania, the term "servant" frequently came to mean either someone in indentured servitude or someone employed by the head of the household.

Meanwhile, despite thousands of poor Whites, criminals, prostitutes, and religion dissenters arriving in the Americas, in the 18th century the honorable and respected concept of "Servant" for Whites meant an immigrant intending or destined to become a servant or indentured servant in America. Note the separation of "intending" and "destined."

However, many who left their European homes with adequate resources and with skills to qualify them for independent American living were swindled, robbed, and otherwise reduced to beggary before departure or on the voyage over. At that point they were at the mercy of unscrupulous ship's captains or agents and were forced to join the Redemptioners (who were redeeming the cost of their passage) and free Willers (who were selling their labor for a period of years, usually 5 to 7 years).

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+1 # Joe H 2013-07-17 18:20
Sir, I agree with you about the differences in indentured servants and African slaves. However, from what I have read in studying both terms is that the indentured servants represented only about ten percent *19%( of the white slaves that were actually held. As many as half these white slaves were forced here as criminals or other poor people by or with the complicity of the English Crown and Virgina slave laws made no distinction. Both were condemned, by those laws, to servitude in perpetuity. Are you disputing this or overlooking it, as most school systems in the US do?

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