Indentured Servitude: Unfree Labour and Citizenship in the British Colonies 
by Anna Suranyi.
McGill-Queen’s, 278 pp., £26.99, July 2021, 978 0 2280 0668 8
Show More
Show More

In July​ 1657 William Wood, a young immigrant to Maryland, was paddling along a creek of the Patuxent River when he found a body floating in the water. Dragging the corpse to land, he discovered it was Harry Gouge, a servant of John Dandy’s, whose watermill Wood had just left. He fetched Dandy, who came with two other men. Witnesses at the inquest testified that Dandy had often beaten Gouge, who had no water in his lungs, meaning that he hadn’t drowned. Other evidence came from the men first on the scene. They claimed the dead boy was bleeding from a healed head wound once inflicted by Dandy – an Old World custom held that victims would incriminate their murderers by bleeding in their presence. Ann Dandy said she’d urged her husband to sell the boy, since Dandy was forever saying that one day he’d hang for him. In the end, the prophecy came true: Dandy was convicted of murder and executed at the mouth of the creek, near the scene of his crime.

This episode suggests some general truths about early colonial society: an instinct to monitor the behaviour of others; an inclination to admit supernatural legal evidence; even, if one looks closer, a lack of faith, expressed in this instance by Dandy, in the government of Maryland after the civil wars. Mainly, however, it reveals how badly many indentured servants were treated by their masters and mistresses, and reminds us that they were unfree, trapped by bondage and traded like chattels. Gouge could have run away – but to where? A few servants managed to reach a port and sneak back to England, resulting in lawsuits in the English courts, but escape required nerve, stamina and luck. Watchful householders would raise the alarm, and recapture had dreadful consequences. Flight was punishable by flogging or, even worse, extension of the term of service.

In the 17th century the typical migrant from the British Isles to the Americas was not a Bible-bashing Pilgrim, and New England wasn’t the principal destination. Many more went to Chesapeake Bay (which straddled Virginia and Maryland) and more still to the West Indies – more than 90 per cent of the 350,000 migrants who arrived in that century went to these places. About 70 per cent of the migrants were young indentured servants, a quarter of them female, who were in search of economic opportunity not religious freedom. After spending months traipsing along Britain’s highways looking for work, some felt compelled to leave; others had no choice, shipped off as petty criminals or ‘idle and disorderly persons’, or as civil war prisoners and rebels (this category included the supporters of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685). Banishment was an act of clemency in a legal system where hanging was the standard punishment. Get rid of these miscreants and make them useful elsewhere – that was the principle.

Transportation, like the colonial experience more generally, became part of popular culture and parlance. There were plays, songs and jokes. To be barbadosed was to be forcibly transported to the Caribbean. Human traffickers known as ‘spirits’ grabbed children off the streets and bundled them onto transatlantic vessels. There are painful stories of parents rushing to the docks, pleading to buy their children back before the ships weighed anchor. At least nineteen parliamentary measures sought to curtail child kidnapping in this era, but with limited success. The ‘barbarous and wicked’ trade persisted – and loomed large in the fears of urban parents.

Like many key developments in the history of early modern England, emigration had its origins in the dramatic population growth that began in the mid-16th century. Poverty, inflation and civil disorder prompted legislation like the Statute of Artificers in 1563, which empowered magistrates to regulate wages and the labour market, including the compulsory placement of the able-bodied unemployed in other people’s households, where they would serve for seven years. Elizabeth I, whose statute this was, had little interest in overseas solutions to economic problems; her successor, James VI and I, was more amenable, as long as it didn’t cost him anything. The foundation of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 fed unrealistic dreams of improving England’s balance of payments by settling lands where commodities such as minerals, furs and timber could be sourced, and existing imports like wine, silk and tobacco produced.

Plantations, some thought, could be dumping grounds for the poor, who instead of being a burden on their parishes at home might remedy chronic shortages of labour in America. This would also create a new market for English cloth and other manufactured goods, thus stimulating demand in the domestic economy. In 1621 Sir Edwin Sandys, the Virginia Company’s treasurer, exalted the colony as a way for the ‘nation to disburden itself [of] … the abundance of people’. John Donne, preaching to the company the following year, likened Virginia to ‘a spleen to drain the ill humours of the body’.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. For one thing, many of the migrants lacked the skills colonies needed and didn’t represent the cream of unskilled English labour. The state – crown, privy council, Parliament, magistracy and judiciary – strove to ensure that contracts were fair to servant as well as master. Indentures were drawn up, often at the port of embarkation, between the servant (or his or her master) and a merchant or sea captain or an agent representing a plantation owner in America. Many agreements were set out on printed pro formas, with the details inserted in ink; each party received a copy or some portion that might be married to the other part. In return for free passage, clothing, bed and board, a certain term of service was required. This ranged between two and seven years; in Virginia, four was typical – although a servant might, with the agreement of the colonial master, be redeemed for a fee or sold on to another planter like any other movable asset. None of this meant that the person was fit for the tasks he or she was obligated to perform. On arrival in America, servants – often reeling from the heat – toiled without pay, survived (or not) on meagre rations and lived in primitive conditions: haylofts and cattle sheds if they were lucky. They were whipped for mistakes and lack of industry; women were sexually assaulted and raped, usually without the culprit being brought to justice. Some fared better than others: Richard Ligon, a royalist fugitive to Barbados, observed that much depended on the master. Tender-hearted men gave servants work ‘as is not unfit for Christians to do’; but the cruel ones made their lives ‘very wearisome and miserable’.

More than a few servants regretted ever getting on the boat. Richard Frethorne, an adolescent in Virginia in the 1620s, wrote to his parents begging them to pay off his indenture so he could come home. He said he couldn’t believe they’d sent him to such a place, that he would have been better off if he’d been knocked on the head. Scurvy and dysentery were rife, his cloak had been stolen, and his diet for a whole week was what he might eat in a day in England. At pains to make them realise how bad things were, he listed the people he knew who had died recently – and we know he wasn’t exaggerating. In these early years of the colony, the mortality rate among servants in Virginia was about 40 per cent (it fell to 5 per cent by the end of the century). It isn’t recorded whether Frethorne’s parents tried to redeem their son after reading his tear-stained letter. If they did, they were too late.

Britons often worked alongside enslaved Africans – James Revel, a transported thief, wrote a popular ballad warning listeners to avoid a life of crime or be ‘forc’d from your country for to go/Among the negroes to work the hoe’. Revel was sent to Virginia, but interracial workforces were more common in the Caribbean, where over the course of the 17th century black slaves gradually replaced indentured servants, and indeed most of the white population. There were also some Indigenous slaves, mostly prisoners from ethnic wars, who were stereotyped by planters as wilful and lazy (English colonists thought the same of the Catholic Irish, but not the Scots, with their Calvinist work ethic). The supply of indentured workers was neither regular nor plentiful. Compare this with the mercantile brio of the Royal African Company, which seventy years after its foundation in 1660 had transported more than 200,000 slaves, mainly from West Central Africa to Jamaica and Barbados, a fifth of whom, travelling as shackled freight, did not survive the voyage. By 1750 more than a million people had been imported from Africa, and by 1800 made up 69 per cent of all arrivals in the Americas.

Indentured servants were in the end vastly outnumbered by the enslaved – by the 1680s the RAC was delivering five thousand Africans a year – but white labourers had always been in a class apart. Servants were freed after several years, but slaves were not, especially after colonial governments took a legislative chisel to any vestigial rights slaves had, such as the possibility of freedom at the end of a term of service (or on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, of being redeemed by one of a small number of propertied free Africans), chipping away until there was nothing left. The watershed was the moment when slavery became an inheritable condition: in 1662 the Virginian general assembly ruled that ‘a negro woman’s children’ were ‘to serve according to the condition of the mother’. Servants and apprentices, on the other hand, were provided with ‘freedom dues’ after concluding their service, following the guidance of Deuteronomy: ‘And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty.’ The bounty could be land, clothes, tools, seedcorn, perhaps a few pounds, enough to get a young man started in adult life and to give him a political stake in the colony. Women were also provided for, albeit more modestly, with the result that they had something of their own to bring to a marriage (which they wouldn’t have done at home). However grim the early years, migrants in their mid-twenties acquired prospects that attracted spouses, earned respect and delivered liberty and the possibility of happiness, the pursuit of which would come to dominate visions of American self-fulfilment.

If indentured service was a type of slavery, as has often been maintained, it followed the classical model according to which, through manumission, unfree Romans might level up to full citizenship. In any case, unlike black slaves, white servants, no matter how low born, remained freeborn subjects blessed with liberties enshrined in English common law and the ‘ancient constitution’. They could plead a case at law, swear oaths and marry (with permission). Crucially, they were also allowed to worship alongside free folk. In Virginia, masters were responsible for their servants’ attendance at church and fined for absences.

These benefits were intended as a contribution to the wellbeing of the commonwealth. The idea was that happy servants made for healthy households; healthy households unified communities; and unified communities coalesced into strong states. Indentured servants were exhorted to attend church because churchgoers were loyal subjects, or, in puritan New England, obedient members of the pious congregations on which godly townships built their authority. Servants’ privileges, which could be and were defended at law, didn’t develop from a concept of individual ‘human rights’, but from a belief that patriarchy worked best when it was considerate and consensual. Anything else was domestic tyranny, and mistreatment by a master or mistress signified a larger failing of governance. Hierarchical, yet governed by mutual obligation, households should be exemplars of political order. If a servant (or a wife) needed beating, something was wrong with the patriarch wielding the stick. As the New England divine Cotton Mather warned, masters should shun despotism, which could only make their servants’ ‘lives embittered, healths impaired, their bodies macerated’.

The habit of defining one sort of person in relation to another extended beyond ideals of political and religious conformity and into the essentials of being. English society understood itself in terms of order and degree, yet there was movement between social strata. Husbandmen made good and styled themselves yeomen; yeomen became gentry. Tudor and Stuart nobles sneered at the self-made man, but also feared him, as the wealth and power that had belonged uniquely to gentle blood came within his grasp. In America and the Caribbean, however, the subordinating power of race surpassed that of class or gender. Servants and apprentices were ‘Christians’ not just because they learned the catechism and said their prayers but because they were not ‘Negroes’. This is what was implied by Richard Ligon on Barbados: work not fit for free Christians was fit for enslaved Africans. By the 1660s, this had become a handy contradistinction, with implications for the definition of liberty itself.

Liberty meant more than being free: it also involved a comparative evaluation of human existence. John Dandy of Maryland was hanged because the life of his servant Henry Gouge was as precious as that of any Englishman, and so the law demanded justice for his death. Gouge may not have known it, or felt it as protection, but living under Dandy’s roof his inalienable self was shielded by the sovereignty of England, which encompassed its colonies. Those servants who were not beaten to death, or held in a state of abject terror, seized opportunities to seek redress for their treatment in the courts and through acts of resistance. There were strikes and rebellions, but subtler strategies were more common. Debory Webb, another Maryland servant, schemed to make her mistress sell her by behaving objectionably, confiding to a man whose household she preferred: ‘I will give her all the bad language I can to get clear of her.’ In the Old World and the New, servants were part of a contractual equation with their masters. They had an unequal part, but one that gave them some leverage.

The same could not be said of enslaved Africans, perceptions of whose inferior race and stateless condition put them closer to beasts than men. The Barbados slave code of 1661, admired by other plantations, described ‘Negroes’, on whose labour the sugar barons increasingly relied, as ‘a heathenish, brutish and an uncertain dangerous kind of people’. They could expect draconian punishment for any misconduct. In 1654 an Irish overseer thrashed an enslaved man half to death for stealing a pig, then cut off his ear and made him eat it. Ringleaders of uprisings were burned alive. For every privation inflicted on an indentured servant, there was worse for a slave. In Barbados in the 1650s servants ate sweet potatoes and cassava, but enslaved workers had only cassava; servants wore thin clothes, slaves just loincloths.

Religion was no obstacle to this codification of cruelty. Africans could, as a gesture of their owners’ ‘charity and piety’, be christened – Quaker missionaries argued that slaves had mortal souls and were loved by God – but, as a Virginian law of 1667 made clear, baptism did not confer any degree of liberty on a slave. The law’s concern, as ever, was for the slave owner, who, ‘freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of Christianity’ – that is, he could be a good Christian and not risk devaluing his property. If a chastising Virginian colonist went too far, the law was there to help him. ‘An Act about the Casual Killing of Slaves’, ratified by the assembly in 1669, downgraded lethal violence from murder to a costly inconvenience – costly for the slave owner. In 1696 Mather, who had views on most moral subjects, differentiated servants from slaves on the grounds that the latter were better off being owned and would in any case be free for eternity after death. Slaveowners were restrained from hurting their slaves mainly by self-interest: compared to purchasing a few years of a servant’s youth, investment in chattel slaves represented a significant capital outlay – but then the owner possessed their entire lives, and their progeny, in perpetuity.

Anna Suranyi argues in her book that the experience and regulation of service contributed to the growth of American citizenship, taken to mean the constitutional identity of the individual relative to the state. By defining the rights of servants, colonial governments ‘demonstrated that … although in a temporary state of unequal dependence’, they ‘were part of the body politic’. Suranyi’s research is impeccable and her writing lucid – but this reading of the evidence is unintentionally exceptionalist, seeing, from her side of the Atlantic, US origins rather than, as a historian of England might, English consequences. Her main claim feels anachronistic, as do her references to ‘Britain’ and to ‘British’ things, where she might have made important distinctions between the three kingdoms (one reference to the opinion of ‘the British public’ is a step too far). She offers the disclaimer that 17th-century people considered themselves ‘subjects’ – whereas the term ‘citizen’ tended to denote an urban freeman – but then asserts that ‘the countless servants claiming justice in the courts demonstrate that many recognised themselves as individuals with standing and rights within the community – in other words, as citizens.’ This needlessly anticipates the American Revolution, and fails accurately to describe the feelings of English people in America a century earlier.

The point is surely that, as Patrick Collinson argued in a famous essay about the Elizabethan ‘monarchical republic’ (absent from Suranyi’s bibliography), it was possible to have expectations of one’s superiors, defend oneself by law and custom, and feel like a citizen – as in a classical republic – without invoking the language of citizenship itself. When Collinson said that ‘citizens’ were ‘concealed within subjects’, he didn’t mean they were struggling to get out. The key was office-holding, mostly at parish level. As Mark Goldie has shown, an array of unpaid offices across English society conferred localised political autonomy on tens of thousands of male subjects. If constables, churchwardens and overseers of the poor felt like citizens, they never said so. If they did, then outside the locality the feeling grew weaker while that of being a subject grew stronger. This was similar to the day-to-day administration of the townships of 17th-century New England. In modestly sized Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, the same few men served in rotation as selectmen, jurors, warders and fence inspectors. Any citizen-like sensations would not have accompanied them on a journey to Boston a hundred miles away.

Before 1800, the idea of liberty was not an absolute state of being to which most individuals aspired, but a set of privileges and obligations better pluralised as ‘liberties’. Men enjoyed these liberties, or freedoms, because they belonged to a collective body, like a town guild or a corporation, or held a public office. Far from challenging royal rule – the usual work of republicanism – this devolved bottom-up government ensured its vitality. The humdrum work of parish officers endorsed crown ideology by diffusing sovereign power from Whitehall to the furthest corners of the land. The efficacy of this practice may even, after 1688, have saved Britain from the kind of revolution that gave explicit meaning to the term ‘citizen’. In the end, however, America was too distant for this relationship to be sustained: the bonds of loyalty were too weak and the habit of self-determination too strong. When it broke down, a republic and real citizenship (though only for white settlers and their descendants) was born.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences