Monday, June 24, 2013

"...doth voluntarily put himself a servant" - indentured labour in the colonies

by Anna Belfrage

Cpt Phillips in Sydney - well before the deportees arrived...
Very many years ago, I watched a TV series called Against the Wind which described the deportation of Irish women to Australia. (It also had Jon English singing Six Ribbons, and being young and romantic I developed a major crush, but that is neither here nor there.) Most of these women were sent off from their homes and families for petty crimes such as stealing food, and once they arrived in Australia they were sold off as unpaid servants for periods between four to seven years. It goes without saying that they never made it back to Ireland - apart from the expense, they were forbidden to return by law, the authorities having a vested interest in ensuring they remained in their new homeland.

Most of the former British colonies have been populated in similar ways, with the labour required to build a prosperous community being supplied through a system called indentured labour. Not quite the same as the deportation described in the TV series I mentioned above, but the end result was the same: labourers marooned in the colonies with no possibility of ever going back home.

Indenture is a type of contract whereby one person voluntarily becomes the servant of someone else. Usually the contract specifies the length of contract and the pay - but for most of the indentured servants that went out into the world there was no pay. Instead, they had to work off the debt they'd accumulated by having their new master pay for the sea-crossing to, for example, Maryland or Virginia.

Virginia was presented as a land of bounty. open your mouth and birds flew straight in...Not really!
For people wanting a new life far from home despite being destitute, becoming an indentured servant was an option. Younger sons, childless widows, orphaned children - they could all achieve a new start in a new, faraway place by working as unpaid labour for some years. But it was a harsh life they were signing up for...

A truer depiction of life as an indenture
Due to a severe lack of labour in the colonies, rules were set in place whereby landowners were encouraged to bring over servants at their own expense. For every servant landed, the landowner would receive up to 50 acres in compensation. the problem with this little set up was that the need for indentured labour exceeded the supply - most people were reluctant to cross the sea to an unknown wilderness from which they might never return.

We all know that if the mountain won't come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain, right? If people didn't queue up for the fantastic opportunity of expanding their horizons at no cost but their hard toil, maybe some light coercion would help, and what better way to achieve this than by snatching unsuspecting - often illiterate - people off the street and have them set their mark on a document they didn't understand. Quite a number of people were carried overseas against their will, but once on the other side there was nothing they could do but submit to the inevitable and work off their years.

To further swell the ranks of available labour, the powers that were quickly caught on to the fact that deporting people (like the Irish women above) was an excellent way of delivering able-bodied workers to the struggling colonies while at the same time ridding the homeland of such undesirables as criminals and political or religious protesters. During the first eighty years or so of its existence, the Colony of Virginia would regularly receive complements of deported people, very many of whom were Scots who clung to the Scottish Kirk, refusing to kowtow to the Anglican faith.

Whether forced or voluntary, the life of an indentured servant was no walk in the park. For a woman, there was the constant risk of being raped - these were societies with a chronic shortage of women - and should she be so unlucky as to end up pregnant, her term of service would be extended for a further year. The men ended up in the fields, disposable beasts of burden that were worked until they dropped. Food was not exactly plentiful, the living conditions were primitive, and on top of all this there were unknown ailments and 'savages' living in the woods who would gladly dismember you should they get the chance. (Hmm. Preconceived notions about the original owners of the land were rife...)

A disobedient (or 'wilful') servant was punished - in some cases so severely as to permanently maim the servant. Trying to run away was a serious offence that could lead to a beating so brutal the person in question died. In the 17th century, on average, four out of ten indentured servants in Virginia died, many of them in the tobacco fields that consumed workers at a horrifying speed.

A romantic depiction of tobacco farming
Once the term of indenture had been completed, the master was under obligation to pay 'freedom dues' to his former servant. This could be anything from some acres of land, money, clothes, a musket or food. The ex-servant was then put out into the world to make his/her way in a colony where they were the lowest of the low. Initially, quite a few indentures overcame this handicap, acquiring land of their own and on rare occasions even rising to become a member of the local gentry. This upward mobility disappeared as the colonies' social hierarchies solidified and in the latter half of the 17th century the most a former indentured could hope for was to become a tenant farmer, unless he was willing to go inland, into unchartered lands further away from settled areas.

Many of them did. With nothing but the belongings they could carry, these intrepid men and women set off to carve themselves new existences, new lives, in territories that were at best describes as 'remote', at worst as 'savage'. Unfamiliar fauna, just as unfamiliar flora, endless wilderness that had to be tamed bit by bit, every square foot of tillable land coming at the expense of toil, more toil, even more toil. I can't help but raise my glass to these early explorers, toasting them for their courage and perseverance. I hope they lived long enough to see the fruits of their labour - sadly I think most of them died relatively young.


In my book Like Chaff in the Wind, Matthew Graham experiences first-hand what it is like to be an indentured servant. Abducted off the streets in Edinburgh and carried overseas, Matthew experiences the worst years of his life on the plantation Suffolk Rose. Like Chaff in the Wind is the second book in The Graham Saga, the first being A Rip in the Veil and the latest, just published, being The Prodigal Son. Set in 17th century Scotland (and the colonies), the books tell the story of Matthew and his wife, Alex, two people who should never have met - not when she was born three centuries after him. For more information about my books, visit


  1. Ah, Against The Wind! I remember that, beautifully shot and with a gorgeous musical score and some of Australia's top actors in it.

    Fascinating post!

  2. Oh Anna. An excellent and sobering look at that strange sort of bondage in which one is not free and not quite a total slave. We need constant reminding (well - not WE who frequent this blog!-I mean society as a whole)that modern civilization and democracy was built upon the backs of so many unfortunates. Thanks for this post,and your books sound thrilling!

  3. Thanks ladies! And yes, Against the Wind is indeed beautifully shot. As to the music, picture me crooning "If I were a minstrel I'd sing you six lovesongs, to tell the whole world of the love that we share(...) But I am a simple man, a poor common farmer, so take my six ribbons to tie back your hair." Sheesh; now I'm all emotional. As to the building of societies on the backs of our brethren, sadly that is a characteristic all human civilizations share.

  4. Just as an aside, they were called "Indentures" because these documents, usually on parchment, were "indented" ie so that there was a margin down the left hand side. This allowed for the clerk to sew (usually green) thread down the side to hold any second or subsequent page in place, The thread would then be sealed with wax and a wavy line cut across the top of the document so that you could immediately tell if anyone had tried to tamper with the document or add any additional pages. The margin also allowed space for any stamp duty paid to be recorded - usually with a tiny sliver of silver threaded through an official stamp. An indentured servant was therefore simply one whose rights were incorporated in an Indenture.

  5. I stumbled on your post by chance and I have to say thank you! I'm English but I have lived in Australia for many years. I now live in a time warp village in NSW called Wollombi which is very much as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I had completely forgotten about Against the Wind! I started writing contemporary romances and they have morphed into Australian historical fiction mostly because of where I live!!
    Thank you so much for reminding me - I am going to take my six ribbons and hunt out the DVD!!
    Oh and by the way Wollombi grew lots of tobacco in the early days and when we flood the odd plant occasionally reappears down by the brook!


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