Labor, Types of

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Labor, Types of

Following the voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus in opening up the Americas in 1492 and of Vasco da Gama in finding the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) to India in 1497 to 1498, European geographical expansion was closely linked to flows of unfree and free labor to the New World, and to the concomitant growth in commercial agriculture and mining, and, hence, in the expansion of world trade. This entry discusses three types of unfree labor flows—slaves, indentured labor, and transported convicts—together with free European migrants, and the links between these labor flows and the expansion in world trade.


The origins of the transatlantic slave trade can be found in the attempts by Europeans in the early sixteenth century to establish sugar plantations using African slave labor on offshore Atlantic islands: Madeira, Canary Islands, and Sâo Tomé (in the Gulf of Guinea). From these beginnings, Europeans developed plantations in the Americas using African slave labor. Before the age of "mass migration" from Europe, which commenced in the 1840s, the cumulative importation of African slaves to the Americas much exceeded the number of free migrants. Whereas about 12 million slaves were imported up to 1867, when the last slave ship arrived in Cuba, less than 3 million Europeans emigrated to the Americas up to the 1830s, although, in following decades, there was a marked increase. About half of the slaves were shipped in the eighteenth century. In the Americas, mineral deposits were exploited and commodities, notably sugar-cane, coffee, cotton, and tobacco, were produced on slave plantations to satisfy the growing demand of European consumers.

European penetration in the Indian Ocean region was also closely linked to the growth of world trade. Initially, Europeans focused on the spice trade: pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (and its derivative mace), which were much in demand in Europe as medicine and to preserve and flavor food. With gradual European colonization of the region, plantations were established to produce tea, coffee, sugarcane, and other commodities entering world trade. Although the institution of slavery preceded European penetration, and Europeans actively participated in slave markets in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, few plantation commodities destined for Europe were actually produced by slaves. The use of slave labor was restricted to African slaves on the clove plantations of Zanzibar and Pemba, islands off the coast of East Africa; African and Indian slaves on the sugarcane plantations of the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius and Reunion); imported Indonesian slaves on the nutmeg plantations on the Banda Islands (in eastern Indonesia); and African slaves from Madagascar in the gold mines of Sumatra (in northwestern Indonesia).


From the early seventeenth century, about a half a million Europeans went to the British Caribbean and British and French North American colonies as indentured laborers. In exchange for a free passage across the Atlantic, they bound themselves in contracts of indenture to work for an employer for a number of years, usually four or five. During the contract they usually were not given a wage, but received food, shelter, and clothes for their subsistence. British indentured laborers mainly worked in the Chesapeake, many on tobacco estates.

Although by 1820 this stream of European indentured workers had ended, the system was revived after the abolition of slavery in British colonies. Between 1834 and 1917 about 1.25 million Indians were recruited on five-year contracts for the sugarcane plantations of Fiji, the Mascarene Islands, Malaysia, Natal (South Africa), and the Caribbean. Chinese, Japanese, Javanese, and other Asian labor were also employed as indentured workers on sugarcane plantations in Queensland (Australia), Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Between 1862 and 1914 about 125,000 Pacific Islanders, mainly from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Kiribati, were recruited on three-year indentures for employment on the sugarcane and copra plantations of Queensland, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, and other islands in the Pacific. A variant of the system of indentured labor, the enganche system, was also widely used in Latin America. Under this system, migrant workers were given a cash advance on signing a labor contract and they were legally required to work for the creditor until the debt was repaid.


Before the American Revolution, Britain transported more than 50,000 convicts to their American colonies, where they were sold to private employers and worked as indentured laborers. Thereafter, from 1787 to 1868, Britain transported 163,000 convicts to their Australian colonies. Smaller numbers were sent to Gibraltar and Bermuda. The French, Spanish, and Portuguese also transported convicts to their colonies. And within the British Empire, Indian convicts were transported to the Andaman Islands (in the Bay of Bengal), Aden, Mauritius, and Southeast Asia.

Convicts were mainly used in constructing the colonies' physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, buildings, dockyards, and fortresses) necessary for the establishment of export staple production, but some convicts were directly employed in the production of commodities entering world trade. French convicts, for example, were used in the nickel mines of New Caledonia. And in Australia, most convicts were assigned to private employers, and many worked as shepherds in the wool industry.


In the century following 1815, some 55 million Europeans migrated overseas, dwarfing the earlier flow of European migrants. Migration was greatest between the 1840s and 1914, and so this period has been called the "Age of Mass Migration." Most went to the Americas, but smaller flows went to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Their migration was associated with a vast increase in commercial agriculture in commodities such as wheat, corn, and wool, which entered world trade. This was also the period of the gold rushes—in the late 1840s to California; in the early 1850s to Victoria (Australia); and in the 1880s to the Witwatersrand (South Africa). In the period after 1914 through to the end of the twentieth century, Europeans continued to emigrate, though not on the scale of the Age of Mass Migration.


In comparing these four types of labor flows, important differences in their gender composition are noteworthy. Whereas Chinese and Pacific Islander indentured workers were nearly exclusively male, British emigrants to nineteenth-century Australia, whose passage was paid by the colonial governments in Australia, had a roughly even sex ratio. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the streams of African slaves, European migrants in the Age of Mass Migration, and Indian indentured labor were male.

There were also important differences among these flows in the extent of return migration. Slaves, indentured laborers, transported convicts, and free emigrants generally were settlers, though by the end of the nineteenth century, with the greater ease in being able to return home, about one-third of European free migrants to the United States returned home. After the completion of their contracts, about one-third of Indian indentured laborers were repatriated. The Pacific Islander indentured labor system was, in large measure, a circular migratory labor system. After a three-year contract in, say, Queensland, most returned to their home islands and many were recruited later for a further contract. Others remained on in Queensland as "time-expired" workers. But with the federation of Australia in 1901 and the adoption of the White Australia Policy, which was designed to exclude non-European immigrants, most were repatriated. The descendants of the few thousand islanders who were allowed to settle in Australia have largely remained a distinct "South Sea Islander" community in Queensland.


The geographical expansion of Europe benefited European consumers in that they were able to purchase tropical and semitropical commodities at lower prices. European capitalists and workers in the manufacturing sector also benefited in being able to export their manufactured goods to expanding overseas markets. In the case of British workers, by the last few decades of the nineteenth century they were not only receiving higher real wages (in terms of their purchasing power), but with the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, which widened the electorate and the growth of organized labor, they were able to effect the repeal of the Masters and Servants Acts in 1875, which had made breaking of labor contracts a criminal offense.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Capitalism; Industrialization;Laborers, Coerced;Population—Emigration and Immigration;Slavery and the African Slave Trade.


Anderson, Claire. Convicts in the Indian Ocean: Transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815–53. London: Macmillan, 2000.

Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Eltis, David, ed. Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Moore, Clive. Kanaka: A History of Melanesian Mackay. Port Moresby: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and University of Papua New Guinea Press, 1985.

Northrup, David. Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Richards, Eric. Britannia's Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland since 1600. London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2004.

Shaw, A. G. L. Convicts and the Colonies: A Study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other Parts of the British Empire. London: Faber, 1966.

Steinfeld, Robert J. The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Ralph Shlomowitz

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Labor, Types of

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