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  • James Wheeling

European Indentured Servant vs. African Slave

As a woman of the western United States, the concept of servants and slaves has no specific ancestral significance to me. But, in 1849, understanding the difference between an indentured servant and a slave was not only important but carried major social consequences.

Indentured servants and slavery have been a part of American history since right after the Jamestown colony experiment. An institution in England, the practice of indentured servitude was easily transferred to Virginia where the tobacco industry had an insatiable demand for laborers. Throughout the seventeenth century, poor Europeans who could not afford the passage to the New World would sign an indenture agreement (known as an indenture or covenant) with the ship’s captain or a company man aboard the same ship. When the ship arrived, the indenture contract was sold to a tobacco planter or other tradesman in the colonies thereby binding the signer to a term of 4 -7 years of service in exchange for food, clothing and shelter. This made the signer a servant the purchaser’s property or chattel for the covenant’s duration. Once the term of the covenant was fulfilled, the servant was free to go. In rare circumstances, they would leave with money they had earned, skills learned or land given as reward for their hard work.

Early in the colonial settlement, those indentured were mostly men, capable of hard labor, surviving extreme deprivation and, on occasion, severe beatings. By the end of the seventeenth century, the flood of European indentured started to wane and the planters turned to another source of labor: African slaves.

Enslaved Africans, mostly eastern Africans captured and sold into slavery by western Africans, were cheaper and more plentiful than European servants. African slaves became the backbone of labor in the late 17th, 18thand mid-19thcenturies in America. Purchased and owned as valuable property, their service, and the service of their descendants, was for “natural life.” Few had the opportunity for fulfilling a time requirement on a contract like an indentured servant had: they were owned until they were sold away or died on the land.

I don’t need to go on about the horrific issues associated with African slavery except to say that by 1849, after two full centuries of purchased servitude and slavery, some Americans were beginning to get a conscience.

Sources: https://memory.loc.govSlavery and Indentured Servants Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia

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