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The Use of Indentured Servants and Slaves in Colonial America

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After America’s discovery, most of Europe has started settling towards the coast, claiming anything that they could find. With insufficient discoveries of wealth, slavery and land grants became more prominent. During the 17th century, the transport and use of white indentured servants, natives, and African slaves have begun becoming consequential at that time. What makes slaves so favorable is not just the assistance they provide but the economic increases they supply for their master’s and society as a whole. Although land was free through headrights in the New World, profiting was fairly difficult without the use of slaves or servants, especially in a joint-stock state. The use of slaves from the past have not only affected the economy but the standard of society as well. Discrimination and the belief of racial superiority that was very common in the 17th century still exist as of the 21st century.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the majority of forced labor were poor white immigrants who exchanged their freedom by abiding by an indenture just to get to the New World. Indentured servants will work for a particular individual at a certain given time. When that time is up, the servants become free and who they worked for owes them dues. Slaves, on the other hand, are just like indentured servants except they are priced higher and most never attain freedom. With this many servants or slaves in a given area, it is only a matter of time before they become uncontrollable.

In the 1600s, laws were passed to settle disputes, some of them benefitting the master economically. For example, according to the Virginia Laws Governing Servants and Slaves, this law passed in 1662 states, “that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond [slave] or free only according to the condition of the mother” (Virginia Servant and Slave Laws,” in Handout Set p. 2). This law provides profit to the master because if a female slave becomes pregnant, consensual or not, the child will become a slave to the holder as well, adding more heads to the labor force. Another example would be the law passed in 1661 punishing runaway servants where it explains that due to missed labor, indentured will be serving twice their servitude towards their holder. Moreover, lost servants or slaves, in turn, leads to lost profits.

It’s no doubt forced labor contributes to profit according to this quote, “The slaveholding gentry dominated the politics and economy of the southern colonies”. What can be said about this, in general, is that the economic boom and profiting could have never been possible without slavery. However, those who did not enjoy being enslaved revolted, thus leading to more laws being passed.

In Colonial America, masters had a specific goal which was to make a profit. Slaves, on the other hand, wanted to obtain freedom. With both of these together, rebellions against masters sparked, resulting in additional laws to be passed. In 1669, a law enacted states, “if any slave resist his master (or other by his master order correcting him)… that his death shall not be accompted a ffelony”. This, in general, exclaims that it is legal to kill slaves. What could be said from this is it portrays signs of slaves resisting their holders. This resist is what lead to another law passed three years later which discloses that many slaves, Indians, or servants have begun rebelling throughout the country posing threats in parts of the area. To suppress this, it is lawful for any person to challenge and pursue the resistance by either wounding or killing them. Both of these laws don’t only correspond with each other but they also reveal the contentions between servants or slaves and their masters at the time. They all are also a way to prevent any uprisings from happening as much as possible.

An example of this in effect would be the Stono Rebellion in 1739 that happened in South Carolina. It occurred when around twenty slaves attacked a country store, taking weapons and ammunition. Other slaves joined resulting in the killing of twenty people. This rebellion was able to be restrained according to this sentence, “The Stono Rebellion illustrated that eighteenth-century slaves had no chance of overturning slavery and very little chance of defending themselves in any bold strike for freedom”. No revolts ever happened again through that period. Overall, this demonstrates that although the Stono Rebellion was unsuccessful, servants and slaves did not want to be forced to do labor any longer causing them to run away or rebel. It also shows the dominance portrayed by holders in suppressing resisters.

What’s significant about all of this is that, as stated before, due to slavery discrimination and the belief that a race dominates the other still persists throughout the 21st century. According to a recent report that happened in July 2018 titled Protests continue in Pittsburgh over police killing of unarmed black teen, it explains of a police killing an unarmed 17-year-old student, Antwon Rose Jr. This resulted in supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest in front of the East Pittsburgh police station demanding retribution. This is but one of the examples that persist to this date. Unfortunately, there is still a long path ahead in having these issues resolved.

In conclusion, the discovery of Colonial America gave more land to Europeans. In hopes of gaining profits, settlers turned to slavery as a viable option. The use of servants and slaves became the very essence of profiting among investors. However, slaves and servants who no longer did not want to work tried to rebel but it usually does not work out in the end giving off this notion that holders were quite dominant. Not only did slaves affect the economy during the 17th century but also how we view others in a way that’s discriminatory and racist, still persisting today in the 21st century. 

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