A Note On Forced Labor In The American Colonies

A Note On Forced Labor In The American Colonies

As written by Charles Beard in his Rise Of American Civilization

pp. 103-05

“A large part of the labor which underlay the social fabric of the American colonies was furnished by semi-servile whites imported under bond for a term of years and by Negroes sold into chattel slavery.  [That is there were two forms of slavery, chattel and bond.] This is one phase of American history which professional writers have usually seen fit to pass over with but a sidelong glance.  Bancroft admitted that having “a handful” of data on the subject he “opened his little finger.”  In fact, although exhaustive researches have not been made for all the colonies, it seems probable that at least one-half the immigrants into America before the Revolution, certainly outside New England, were either indentured servants or Negro slaves.

The white servants [slaves in all but name] fell into two classes.  The first embraced those who voluntarily bound themselves for a term of years to pay their passage.  The second class included those who were carried here against their will– hustled on board ships, borne across the sea, and sold into bondage.  This gruesome traffic was a regular business darkened by many tragedies and illuminated by few romances.  the streets of London were full of kidnappers, “spirits” as they were called; no workingman was safe; the very beggars were afraid to speak with anyone who mentioned the terrifying word “America.”  Parents were torn from their homes, husbands from their wives, to disappear forever as if swallowed up in death.  children were bought from worthless fathers, orphans from their guardians, dependent or undesirable relatives from families weary of supporting them.

To the great army of involuntary immigrants were added thousands of convicts who were either sent by English judges or who chose deportation in place of fines, prisons, stripes, or the gallows.  No doubt many of this class were criminals and incorrigible rascals, but a large portion were the luckless victims of savage laws enacted to protect the property of the ruling classes in England– peasants caught shooting rabbits on some landlord’s estate or servant girls charged with purloining a pair of stockings or a p0cket handkerchief.  Mingled with this motley array of victims were political offenders who had taken part in unsuccessful agitations and uprisings.

The fate of all white servants, whether they voluntarily chose to sell themselves for a term of years to get to America, or were transported against their will, was very much the same.  They were bound to serve some master for a period of years ranging from five to seven.  They were not tied to the soil, as were the serfs of the middle ages, or sold like slaves into life-long servitude, but during their term of bondage they were under many disabilities.  The penalties imposed upon them for offenses against the law were heavier than those laid upon freemen; if they attempted to escape or committed a crime their term of service could be increased; they could not marry, leave their place of work, or engage in any occupation, without the consent of their masters.

Absolutely at the beck and  call of their owners, they could be severely punished for laziness or neglect of duty.  The were, in fact, little better off than slaves while their servitude lasted; their fate depended upon the whims of their masters; and at best it was harsh enough.  When the weary years of indenture were over, the bondmen were set free to enter any occupation for which they were qualified. The more fortunate became independent artisans or went into the interior, where they found liberty as the tillers of small farms, rising out of bondage into freedom.  But others, weighed down by their heritage, individual and social, sank into the hopeless body of  “poor whites,” the proletariat of the countryside.

Finding it difficult to secure an adequate supply of indentured servants, promoters of settlements turned in the course of time to Negro slavery.  Neither the Puritans nor the Cavaliers had fixed scruples against the enslavement of their fellow men, of their own or any other color; it seems to  have been necessity rather than choice that forced them to resort to Africans.  Both sought to reduce Indians to bondage and to a slight extent they were successful; but the haughty spirit of the red man made him a poor worker under the lash.

Nor did the Puritans of [old] England show any invincible repugnance to driving white men and women into perpetual servitude; Cromwell thought the Irish well adapted to that career, for he sold as slaves in the Barbadoes all the garrison that was not killed in the Drogheda massacre, and his agents made a business of combing Ireland for boys and girls to be auctioned to English planters in the West Indies.  Even Cromwell’s own countrymen were sometimes caught in the dragnet; there is in the archives of London a piteous petition of seventy Englishmen carried off from Plymouth and sold in the West Indies “for 1,550 pound weight of sugar a piece, more or less.”  Nevertheless, by the latter part of the seventeenth century, public opinion in England was running against this form of domestic enterprise in favor of seeking slaves abroad.”

It would seem probable then that to some extent the campaign to end the slave trade concerned less Negroes that native English.  By ending the African trade the domestic English trade was brought to a stop.  Note also that slavery both bond and chattel was part and parcel of every English colony whether North or South.  The South was merely the last refuge of slavery in America.


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