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Land of the Shackled

It is estimated that seventy-five percent of all colonists came to America under bondage. We all know about the horrific slave trade, but white indentured servants and deported convicts made up the rest of new arrivals under the yoke.

These people were scorned by the free English. According to Anthony Vaver, author of Convict Transportation from Great Britain to the American Colonies, “colonists thought that anyone who abandoned family and friends to become a servant in a distant land must be lacking in character.”

These attitudes made it easy to treat these people like chattel; they deserved whatever they got, went the belief.

Because few owners wanted to make a purchase sight unseen, most indentured servants had no specific contract before they left home. It was the ship captain who owned the immigrants until he could sell them for a profit.

According to Gottlieb Mittelberger:

a. All who did not pay their own way were required to stay aboard ship until purchased. The sick were left the longest, sometimes dying in the interim.

b. Adults were indentured for four to seven years, while children aged ten to fifteen were owned until the age of twenty-one.

c. Parents could trade or sell their children to unburden themselves of their own debt, but often did not know where they were taken and might never see them again. Entire families were often separated by being sold to different purchasers.

d. If one’s spouse died at sea, the survivor was responsible for working off both passages. If both parents died, the children had to make good on all debt.

While in servitude, disease and overwork killed off many before their indenture was over. Since the arrangement was temporary, the owners worked these people sometimes to death to “get their money’s worth.” Professor Kent Lancaster was quoted in White Cargo (Jordan and Walsh) as saying, “indentured servants were exploitable for a limited time only and that time could not be wasted on the niceties of holidays.”

Make no mistake. While under indenture, these people were OWNED by their purchasers. They could be beaten, branded, raped, and sometimes killed. If times got hard for the owner, they could be sold to another for the remainder of their time. Many masters left their servants to relatives in their wills. While not the life sentence of black slavery, the treatment was often no better.

Why is none of this in our history books even today? Well, it did not take long for the propaganda to begin. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson minimized the influx of indentured servants and 50,000 convicts by claiming only 4000 criminals, including their descendants, then lived in the United States.

I guess he didn’t want the new nation’s reputation resting on the knowledge that three out of every four Americans started out in chains.

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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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Indentured Servitude: The "Official" Version

“What we unfortunate English people suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to conceive. Let it suffice that I, one of the unhappy number, am toiling almost day and night, and very often in the horses’ drudgery, with only this comfort that: ‘You bitch, you do not half enough…'”    —undelivered letter from indentured servant, Elizabeth Spriggs, to her father, 1756

My main fictional character of The Least of These, Mary Edith Dillon, is the daughter of two Irish indentured servants, Joe and Nancy Dillon. My next book, Aroon, was originally a prequel to The Least of These.
It was intended to follow Joe and Nancy on their journey to America. What was it like for two young people to emigrate here as indentured servants? I quickly found out how little I know about the institution–and how little some want us to know.

History books have little more than a sentence or two, explaining that this was an honorable method for the poor, but hard-working to finance their passages across the Atlantic. The textbook, The American Journey, says “Other men, women, and children came to the colonies as indentured servants. In return for the payment of their passage to America, they agreed to work without pay for a certain period of time.”

Sounds fair.

Walter Edgar doesn’t give it much more coverage in South Carolina: A History. He tells of the Bounty Act of 1761 where the colonial government promised four pounds Sterling ($360) for each white immigrant imported into South Carolina. These immigrants were to be given an additional twenty shillings ($90) as start-up money. Yet a prominent South Carolinian called it “more cruel than the slave trade.”

Edgar, however, like most all other references to indentured servitude, soft pedals it. “Selling their children as servants was simply a means for paying the family’s way to South Carolina,” he writes. Also, “Thrifty and industrious, the Germans of Orangeburg and Amelia turned their townships into the breadbasket of South Carolina.”

A little digging outside the traditional history books, however, tells quite a different story.  I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen that exposes the patriotic spin given to most school history texts. You may be astounded, as I have been, by the omissions, slants, and outright myths perpetrated by texbook writers in an effort to present our past in the best possible light. The distortions we’ve been fed on the lot of indentured servants is another such effort.

In my next post, I will tell the true tale from the mouth of a German immigrant, Gottlieb Mittelberger, who wrote “On the Misfortune of Indentured Servants” in 1754.

A voyage to the dark side.