English Indentured Servants

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English Indentured Servants

During the seventeenth century, emergent societies of the English Atlantic were transformed by large-scale migrations of hundreds of thousands of white settlers. Most ended up in colonies that produced the major staples of colonial trade, tobacco and sugar: approximately 180,000 went to the Caribbean, 120,000 to the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), 23,000 to the Middle Colonies, and 21,000 to New England. The peak period of English emigration occurred within a single generation, from 1630 to 1660. White immigration averaged about 8,000 to 9,000 per decade during the 1630s and 1640s, then surged to 16,000 to 20,000 per decade from 1650 to 1680, before falling back to 13,000 to 14,000 in the 1680s and 1690s. Across the century, about three-quarters of immigrants arrived as indentured servants and served usually four to seven years in return for the cost of their passage, board, lodging, and various freedom dues, which were paid by the master to the servant on completion of the term of service that typically took the form of provisions, clothing, tools, rights to land, money, or a small share of the crop (tobacco or sugar). They were mostly young, male, and single and came from a broad spectrum of society, ranging from the destitute and desperate to the lower middle classes.

Sweeping changes that transformed English society during the second half of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had a direct bearing on English colonizing projects and on the experience of servants before embarking for America. Of major significance, because so much stemmed from it, was the doubling of England's population from approximately 2.3 to 4.8 million in little more than a century between 1520 and 1630. This huge increase had far-reaching consequences. Rising prices and declining real wages led to a disastrous drop in the living standards of the poorer sections of society, while sporadic harvest failures and food shortages brought widespread misery throughout many parts of southern and central England. Poverty was reflected in the rapid rise in the numbers of poor in town and country alike, the spreading slums of cities, spiraling mortality rates, the massive increase in vagrancy, and the steady tramp of the young and out of work from one part of the country to another in search of subsistence. By early century, the third world of the poor had expanded dramatically in some regions, particularly in woodlands and forests, manufacturing districts, and the country's burgeoning towns, cities, and ports, where as much as half the population lived at or below the poverty line.

For the poor, taking ships to the plantations in the Chesapeake and the West Indies was a spectacular form of subsistence migration necessitated by the difficulties of earning a living and the lack of any immediate prospect of conditions getting better. These emigrants came from a wide variety of regions and communities: London and its environs, southern and central England, the West Country and, in fewer numbers, the northern counties. Many were from urban backgrounds and had lived in small market towns, manufacturing centers, provincial capitals, ports, and cities most of their lives or had moved from the countryside a few months or years before taking ship. Those leaving directly from rural communities came mainly from populous wood-pasture districts, forests and fens, and marginal areas.

Particular reasons that prompted servants to emigrate are obscure, but occasionally there are glimpses that reveal individual circumstances. Jonathan Cole, for example, "being a poor boy," contracted in 1685 to serve as servant in Barbados for seven years. Half a century before, Thomas Jarvis, from Bishopsgate, London, a tailor who had fallen on hard times, was given a £1 "towards supplying his wants" by the Drapers Company of London when he left for Virginia. James Collins from Wolvercot, Oxfordshire, moved to the capital shortly after his father died, where he was taken up from the streets as "an idle boy" in the summer of 1684. Faced with the choice of being sent to prison for vagrancy or laboring in the plantations, he opted for twelve years of service in the Chesapeake. Aboard ship, he might well have met Will Sommersett, formerly of Whitechapel, London, who had no means of supporting himself after being abandoned by his father. The length of their indentures suggests that both were no more than children when they left. Loss of one or both parents was common among poor migrants, and parishes routinely rid themselves of the expense and trouble of caring for unwanted children by indenturing them for service overseas.

The poor, orphaned, and unemployed made up the majority of servants who emigrated, but there were also skilled men like Owen Dawson of London, a joiner, and Edward Rogers of Purbury, Somerset, a carpenter, who were doubtless attracted by the likelihood of high wages in the plantations. Others—blacksmiths, glaziers, sawyers, tailors—were perhaps impressed by stories of high wages to be had in the colonies, or were persuaded to leave by the prospect of becoming independent landowners after what they construed as an apprenticeship in sugar planting or tobacco husbandry.

In terms of sheer numbers, the heyday of indentured servitude in English colonies was between 1635 and 1660. During the 1640s, West Indian sugar planters began replacing white servants with enslaved Africans, the latter being considered a more profitable long-term investment. By 1660, the enslaved population (33,000) equaled that of whites in the islands. In the Chesapeake, white servitude remained the main form of field labor for another thirty years but by the last quarter of the century wealthy tobacco planters were also switching to African slaves.

Unlike Spanish America, where Native American peoples provided a plentiful supply of labor for Spanish settlers, and Brazil, where the development of sugar plantations was underpinned by African slaves, in English America the immigration of hundreds of thousands of indentured servants throughout the seventeenth century was a distinguishing feature of colonization. Indentured servants were a crucial means of building and sustaining colonial populations in English plantation societies that, owing to high mortality rates, would otherwise have collapsed. They also provided a key source of cheap labor without which the rapid growth of staple production would have been impossible. Many died young or failed to improve their economic position—exchanging one kind of poverty in England for another in America—but for a fortunate few moving to the New World opened up opportunities that would have been unthinkable at home.

see also Sugar Cultivation and Trade; Tobacco Cultivation and Trade.


Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Horn, James. Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.

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English Indentured Servants

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