Servitude is a relationship between two people in which one person, the servant, has to work for the benefit of another person, the master, without the right to quit and seek other employment freely. Typically, the master may sell or give the servant away under some conditions and may be thought of as having a property right in that person. In some cases, the master may be a corporate entity such as a government or business. Normally, the servant receives only basic food, shelter, and clothing from the master, although the servant’s rights to own or receive property vary widely.
Servitude has existed throughout human history, and ancient civilizations organized almost all labor under some type of master-servant relationship. The peak periods for servitude in Western civilization were during the late Roman Republic (late second to mid-first centuries BCE), when almost all productive labor was performed by slaves, and during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries in the European colonies of the Americas, where the majority of workers producing for the market worked under some form of servitude.
The relationship between master and servant is both economic and personal. Masters and servants have an unequal relationship, of course. But this does not prevent masters from seeing servants as social as well as economic assets and taking care of them beyond the minimum required to keep a valuable worker productive. And it does not prevent servants from seeing their masters as patrons as well as employers. These sorts of feudal relationships may be more or less present, depending on a number of variables, including the connection of the plantation or workshop to a wider marketplace; the potential profits to be gained from servants’ labor; whether master and servant live together; whether they share a common language, ethnicity, culture, or religion; and the values taught by their culture and religion.
In addition, there are generally capitalist elements to the master-servant relationship: The servant is also a worker who produces the goods that the master needs. Often the master is a participant in a competitive marketplace where productivity is all-important and the servant has little stake in the master’s success in the market. The balance between feudal and capitalist elements in the master-servant relationship is responsible for many of the differences in servants’ treatment under different forms of servitude.
Servitude and free labor are normally incompatible. Free laborers resent servants and masters because servitude depresses wage rates and because they may feel discriminated against by the feudal relationship to the extent that any exists. For example, working people in the Northern United States in the early nineteenth century opposed slavery in the Southern states not so much because of their belief in universal principles of human rights, but because they feared that the “slave power” of the Southern planters might impair their own freedom. By their response that Southern slaves were treated better than Northern workingmen, Southern apologists for slavery actually fed these fears. Rural landholders who are heavily invested in being masters, both in economic terms and as a part of their identity, tend to resist the end of servitude, but the bourgeois often see servitude as inefficient and ideologically unsound. Thus servitude tends to change forms or decline as capitalist free labor rises.
Servitude has existed in many forms around the world and in virtually all times and places. Among the forms of servitude are slavery, indenture, debt servitude, serfdom, prison labor, conscription or corvée, and ethnic or lineage servitude.
Slavery is distinguished from other forms of servitude by being lifelong and heritable. In Western traditions, the children of an enslaved woman are usually slaves regardless of the status of the father, although this may not be true in some non-Western slave systems. The slave is the personal property of the master, and that property right can be transferred for cash. Slave systems, like other forms of servitude, have always had legal and customary restrictions on the masters’ right to exploit slaves’ labor, abuse or neglect slaves, or transfer them to another owner. Free people can be enslaved, most commonly as a result of capture in wartime, but also as a legal punishment. Slaves can be freed, or manumitted, by their masters as a reward for service or in return for payment, although there are often legal and customary restrictions to the practice.
One tends to think of slavery as being tied to race, and in the Americas in the early modern period this was certainly the case. Prior to the fifteenth century, however, most slaves in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East were of similar ethnicity to their masters, and this was commonly true of slaves in antiquity. Certainly the equation of slavery and African origins did not exist before the fifteenth century. Having the same or a similar ethnicity and religion as one’s master, however, conferred few or no legal rights enforceable against the master.
Millions of people came from Africa to the Americas, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean as slaves between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The modern African diaspora is mostly the product of the slave trade. In the Islamic world, slaves were commonly employed as personal retainers—household employees, administrators, and soldiers—rather than agricultural laborers. As in the Western world, most Islamic slaves were brutally exploited, but some were able to rise to positions of great power, delegated by their master but no less real. Egypt was ruled by a junta of slave soldiers, the Mamluks, for several centuries. The Ottoman Empire was ruled by a sultan but administered by a grand vizier and his assistants, who were the sultan’s slaves.
Most countries abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, and as a legally sanctioned system it is very rare today. Most of what is called slavery in modern times, such as the imprisonment of young women in the sex trade or of workers in sweatshops, is more properly classified as indenture or debt servitude. Slavery in the individual, permanent, heritable sense still exists in a few African and Middle Eastern countries. Slavery is formally outlawed everywhere but is accepted by custom and social practice in Mauretania, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and many other areas in the region not under the effective jurisdiction of national governments.
Under indenture, the property right of a master in a servant is transferable but limited in time, and the children of the servant are usually free. The conditions under which indentured servants work are governed by contract, custom, and sometimes by law. Indenture typically occurs when free people more or less voluntarily agree to indenture themselves for a period of time in exchange for some benefit, usually financial, although they might be tricked or coerced into signing a contract.
Many European immigrants to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came as indentured servants, having agreed to work for a period of five or seven years in exchange for transportation to America and a small grant of land, livestock, and farm equipment at the end of the contract. Some were prisoners or were forced to accept indenture in order to avoid imprisonment, while others were actually kidnapped off the street; but most signed up willingly enough in order to escape horrible poverty in Europe.
In general, indenture is no longer legal, but it is still quite common. Many people sign employment contracts, and those contracts can legally contain penalties for non-fulfillment, but individuals are not forced to work against their will. Outside the law, however, many illegal migrants from East Asia sign indenture contracts with the smugglers who bring them to the United States, the Middle East, or elsewhere. These contracts are not legal in any country, but they can be enforced by extralegal means by the criminal masters. In some cases, masters have considerable power in local political systems and are able to enforce theoretically illegal contracts using governmental power, so it is harder to claim that indenture has been completely outlawed.
In debt servitude, the master gains a property right over the servant similar to indenture, and that property right can be bought and sold. However, instead of the servitude being limited in time, it lasts until the servant pays off a debt. The master is typically in charge of the accounting so this may take quite a while. In some systems, the debt is heritable, as is the servant status. This is called peonage.
In Spanish America after the collapse of the encomienda system (a sort of ethnic servitude) in the sixteenth century, wealthy landowners ensured a steady supply of farm labor by subjecting the local peasants to peonage. The peons were required to buy their goods at the landowner’s store and were paid in scrip that could only be exchanged there. They were encouraged to borrow against the value of the coming year’s crop, and inevitably found their debt, and thus their labor obligation, increasing year by year.
A modern form of debt servitude is common in the sex industry. Young rural women are sold by their parents in order to satisfy a debt and find themselves working in brothels until the creditor is satisfied. This frequently lasts until age or disease makes the woman unfit for profitable work in prostitution.
As in indenture, the limited nature of debt servitude tends to weaken the feudal ties between master and servant. Masters generally have little compunction about “releasing” servants who become unprofitable, often leaving them destitute. No country’s laws permit debt peonage today, but influential masters often get the support of local officials and criminals are able to enforce debt servitude without benefit of police power.
Serfs were servants tied to the land under a feudal system. Serfs worked for the owner of the land under conditions typically fairly tightly regulated by law and tradition. A wide variety of rules applied, but typically the master could call upon a serf to perform a specific set of tasks (tend a certain field, for example) or provide a certain amount of labor (so many days or so many hours a day, for example) during the agricultural cycle. The serf could not be bought or sold without the land to which he or she was attached. Medieval peasant villages often provided much of their own government, but the master-serf relationship generally gave the master some sort of legal jurisdiction as well as a right to labor service, and the serf gained some right to protection, support in illness and old age, and other social services from his or her master. The serfs’ traditional rights to use the soil as they saw fit often kept landowners from developing their land, and the abolition of serfdom proved advantageous to progressive landlords in the early modern period, if not to the serfs themselves.
In seventeenth-century Russia, on the other hand, masters gained the right to transfer serfs fairly easily from one piece of land to another in response to the rapid expansion of agriculture into eastern lands captured from nomadic peoples. Subsequently, by a legal fiction, serfs could be transferred from one master to another without a transfer of land, and the condition of the Russian serf became similar to that of a slave, subject to being bought and sold as an individual. In medieval Western Europe, on the other hand, serfs had stability in their villages and could be locally influential farmers with considerable wealth and security.
No country permits serfdom today, and relationships of this type are rare.
In a prison labor system, property rights to servants are owned not by an individual but by the government. Governments might exercise this right directly or transfer it to a private party in return for rent. The servitude is a punishment for a real or pretended crime, is limited in time by the prisoner’s sentence, and is not heritable.
In nineteenth-century Australia, much of the productive labor was performed by prisoners, whose labor was leased by free settlers. Free laborers resented prison labor, though, as it drove down wages and discouraged free migration, so as each state’s economy matured, it stopped accepting transported prisoners. In the American South in the aftermath of the Civil War, imprisonment was a tool of social control over the newly freed black population. Landowners rented prisoners’ labor, which helped defray the cost of the huge prison systems. Other prisoners worked on chain gangs to build new infrastructure or produce products the state needed. In Stalinist Russia, prisoners performed much of the labor used to develop the Siberian industrial plants, which produced the weapons that helped win World War II.
Prison labor is very common today. The United States has laws against the importation or transport across state lines of products made by prisoners, but states still use prison labor for many items used by their governments, the most famous being license plates. Chinese factories sometimes contract with the prison system for labor, although this must be concealed if the products are to be exported.
In conscription or corvée systems, free individuals are required to work for their government for a certain period of time as a condition of citizenship or residence. Conscription generally refers to military service, while corvée implies forced civilian service, often as labor on infrastructure projects. The service is generally limited in time, either for the duration of a conflict or for a certain fixed period.
Conscription reached its height in the age of mass armies in the first half of the twentieth century. Millions of conscripts, often serving very much against their will, fought on all sides of the world wars of that period. Conscription into the British navy during the seventeenth and eighteenth century was less organized, accomplished by press-gangs of sailors who would literally kidnap men and force them onto ships, where they would serve for years.
Corvée labor was a feature of colonial practice during the second great wave of European colonialism in the nineteenth century. The most notorious example is the forced recruitment of rubber collectors in the Belgian Congo. Workers’ families would be kidnapped and raped or beaten if the worker ran away, and if workers didn’t bring in enough product, their hands might be cut off by colonial soldiers. Nazi Germany also used corvée labor in which civilians taken from occupied territories were used to supplement prison labor in the arms industry.
Conscription is still very common today. Many countries consider military service obligations to be a part of civic education for their citizens. Corvée labor is still found in many developing countries on a limited scale, often used for road repair or urban beautification campaigns.
As with prison labor and conscription, in ethnic or lineage servitude the owner is a group: an ethnic group, a powerful family, or a government. The servants generally owe their labor collectively as well. A particular ethnic group, defeated nation, family, village, or other collective entity will be required to furnish a certain amount of labor to their masters under conditions set by custom or law.
The best-known example of this in European-controlled territories is the encomienda system in Spanish America during the colonial era. After the Spanish conquest, the defeated native peoples were required to pay tribute in the form of products and labor: so many bushels of corn and so many men for such an amount of time from each village. The government used some of the labor on its own infrastructure projects, to build cathedrals, fortifications, viceroys’ palaces, and the like. Most labor service, though, was assigned to Spanish conquistadors on a temporary basis, not as a property right but as a payment for the masters’ service to the state. Spanish masters might employ the laborers on their own land as agricultural workers, and the situation of the indigenous people in some cases approached that of serfs under Western European feudalism. Many encomienda Indians were sent to work in mines, where they were brutally exploited. The encomienda system deteriorated as the native population declined through the fifteenth century. Indians could also escape the encomienda system by leaving their villages and moving to the cities or living on lands owned by Europeans, who would employ them as wage laborers or peons.
Lineage slavery was prevalent in west Africa, as, for example, among the Fulani of Guinea. After the conquest of the Fouta Djallon highlands in the seventeenth century, the defeated peoples were adopted into Fulani clans but given distinctive surnames. The members of the “slave” lineage groups were given land to plant crops on, while the descendents of the conquerors continued their pastoral lifestyle. The obligation of farmers to pay in-kind tribute and labor service to herders continued under French colonial rule, but was abolished after independence. The sense of status remains, however, governing marriage choice, leadership within communities, and patron-client relationships, even though as servitude the system has ended.
It is common for all forms of servitude to have lingering repercussions. Individuals can escape servitude, either at the end of their term of service, by flight, or by manumission. Whole populations can escape through changes in laws and customs. But even a profound social revolution cannot erase the cultural memories of servitude, which continue to affect relationships between the descendants of masters and the descendants of servants for many generations. When mixed with racial differences, as can be seen in the United States in the twenty-first century, this can produce poisonous social dysfunction.
Sometimes, however, the aftermath is more positive. In the Roman Empire after the first century CE, for example, as the tide of conquest stopped and, with it, the flow of new slaves dried up, the gradual manumission of most slaves led to the establishment of a fairly benign system of patron-client relationships between patricians and the descendents of their freedmen. This patronage system formed the basis for the remarkable strength of Roman culture even after the barbarian invasions starting in the fourth century CE.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Exploitation; Feudal Mode of Production; Feudalism; Latifundia; Mode of Production; Prison Industry; Prison Psychology; Prisons; Selective Service; Slave Trade; Slave-Gun Cycle; Slavery; Slavery Industry; Working Class
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Stewart R. King
The state of a person who is subjected, voluntarily or involuntarily, to another person as a servant. A charge or burden resting upon one estate for the benefit or advantage of another.
involuntary servitude, which may be in the form of slavery, peonage, or compulsory labor for debts, is prohibited by the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Article I, Section 9, of the original Constitution had given Congress the power to restrict the slave trade by the year 1808, which it did, but slavery itself was not prohibited until the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted in 1865. The slave trade had begun in the American colonies in the seventeenth century and involved the forcible taking and transport of Africans and others to sell as slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against slavery encompasses situations where an individual is compelled by force, coercion, or imprisonment, and against his will, to labor for another, whether he is paid or not.
The term servitude is also used in property law. In this context, servitude is used with the term easement, a right of some benefit or beneficial use out of, in, or over the land of another. Although the terms servitude and easement are sometimes used as synonyms, the two concepts differ. A servitude relates to the servient estate or the burdened land, whereas an easement refers to the dominant estate, which is the land benefited by the right. Not all servitudes are easements because they are not all attached to other land as appurtenances (an appurtenance is an appendage or that which belongs to something else).
All servitudes affecting lands are classified as either personal or real. Personal servitudes are established for the benefit of a particular person and terminate upon the death of that individual. A common example of a personal servitude is the use of a house. Real servitudes, also called landed servitudes, benefit the owner of one estate through some use of a neighboring estate.
At civil law, real servitudes are divided into two types: rural and urban. Rural servitudes are established for the benefit of a landed estate; examples include a right of way over a servient tenement and a right of access to a spring, sandpit, or coal mine. Urban servitudes are established for the benefit of one building over another; some examples are a right of support, a right to a view, and a right to light. Despite the name urban servitude, the buildings do not have to be in a city.
Servitudes are also classified as positive and negative. A positive servitude requires the owner of the servient estate to permit something to be done on her property by another. A negative servitude does not bind the servient owner in this manner but merely restrains her from using the property in a manner that would impair the easement enjoyed by the owner of the dominant estate.
ser·vi·tude / ˈsərviˌt(y)oōd/ • n. the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful. ∎ archaic Law the subjection of property to an easement.