“Fundamentally, indentured servitude was an institutional arrangement that was devised to increase labor mobility” (Altman and Horn, To Make America, 8)
In the early colonial days of America, there was an economic problem; labor shortages. In America the marginal productivity of a single laborer was much higher than in Europe, and there was a very wide availability of cheap or free land. The problem with taking advantage of this opportunity was the fact that there were very few laborers willing to work for a landowner, since it was so easy to obtain your own land and farm it. Palmer quotes Adam Smith “Every colonist gets more land than he can possibly cultivate. He has no rent, and scarce any taxes to pay. No landlord shares with him his produce” (Palmer, Worlds of Unfree Labour, 206). Smith goes on to explain that a landowner can produce on his own only one tenth of what his land is capable of, and therefore is very eager to collect laborers but finds that even when offering very liberal wages, it is difficult to retain the workers. This environment created a need for some form of forced labor; the form of forced labor that I will discuss in this paper was called indentured servitude. One solution to this problem was to bring African slaves to do the work, and this was indeed done in great numbers. But, the slaves were not actually the first form of imported labor in the Americas. According to Altman and Horn “’white servitude’ was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.” While African slaves presented a tremendous asset, they were very expensive and therefore a very high liability; if one were to perish the owner would be out quite a lot of cash. This liability was avoided somewhat if a farmer was to go the path of obtaining an indentured servant. These servants typically came from Europe in areas such as England, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland (Altman and Horn, To Make America, 1-25) Promoters of indentured servitude touted the sparsely settled new world and the availability of cheap and fruitful land upon their release to attract laborers. Workers would typically repay their passage in four to five years’ time. Often, the indenture contracts had incentives due at the end of the term entitling them to things such as clothing, seed for crops, and land to farm. According to Bush there were three main kinds of indentured servants (Bush, Servitude in Modern Times, 57). The first kind was your traditional indenture who before leaving their home country signed a legal document specifying the terms of their indenture. Following their arrival and subsequent sale, a note was made on the back of the original document regarding the conditions of the sale. The second type of indenture was an indenture who was simply bound by “custom of country.” This indenture typically did not sign any legal document but instead was subject to legal statute. This type of indenture was widely practiced. The third type of indentured servant was one called the “redemptioner,” though this type of servant was not common until the eighteenth century. These redemptioners would make the passage from Europe to America with no prior payment, and would be given a 14 day grace period upon arrival in which they had the chance to collect the money to pay off their trip. If they were unsuccessful, they would then be sold as an indenture. There were also other less common types of indentures including but not limited to; servants who’s owner ““spirited” them away from the old world against their will”; convicts who were sent to America to serve their sentence as an indenture; and colonials who had broken the law and were therefore sentenced to serve as indentures to satisfy their punishment. (Bush, Servitude in Modern Times, 58) The Demographics of an Indenture
Galenson reports on the demographics of indentures in “White Servitude in Colonial America”, while focusing primarily...