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Indentured Servants: The Voyage

Tall ship rigging

Gottlieb Mittleberger was a German schoolmaster who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1750. While he did not come as an indentured servant, he wrote of the experiences he witnessed and heard about from his countrymen who were. Totally disenchanted, Mittleberger returned to Germany in 1754.

Once back in Europe, he wrote “On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants” to warn his countrymen of the horrors that possibly awaited them. He began, “Both in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam the people are packed densely, like herrings so to say, in the large sea-vessels. One person receives a place of scarcely 2 feet width and 6 feet length in the bedstead, while many a ship carries four to six hundred souls; not to mention the innumerable implements, tools, provisions, water-barrels and other things which likewise occupy much space.”

A voyage in these cramped conditions lasted seven weeks during good weather, up to twelve in bad.

As if the inhuman crowding weren’t enough, Mittelberger wrote , “terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably. Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions and lamentations, together with other trouble, as . . . the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body.”

Ugh. Imagine trying to exist in such conditions. According toMittelberger, “Among the healthy, impatience sometimes grows so great and cruel that one curses the other, or himself and the day of his birth, and sometimes come near killing each other. Misery and malice join each other, so that they cheat and rob one another.” Could Job himself do any better?

Mittelberger felt tremendous pity for the pregnant women aboard. Many died in childbirth and both mother and child were thrown into the sea, one through a porthole.

Another crowded ship, the S.S. Patricia
pulls into NYC in 1906.
“Children from 1 to 7 years rarely survive the voyage,“ he noted. “I witnessed misery in no less than 32 children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea. The parents grieve all the more since their children find no resting-place in the earth, but are devoured by the monsters of the sea.”

Even the most basic food was contaminated. “Such meals [three warm meals a week] can hardly be eaten, on account of being so unclean. The water which is served out on the ships is often very black, thick and full of worms, so that one cannot drink it without loathing, even with the greatest thirst.”

Imagine the relief the survivors felt at reaching the New World at last. But their problems were just beginning.

More on the life of the indentured servant in the next post.

To read more of Gottlieb Mittelberger’s first person account, go to,+On+the+Misfortune+of+Indentured+Servants.pdf. 

S. S. Patricia photo: Credit: ©1906 Edwin Levick. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number LC-USZ62-11202]

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