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.