14 January 2008

Daily Life: Indentured Servitude

By Anna C. Bowling

I've always wanted to open a colonial story with two characters debating the merits and pitfalls of purchasing an indentured servant rather than owning a slave. A family of sufficient means in the era might have had either, or both as well as hired employees.

Indenture was different from slavery, in that the indentured servant would only serve a specific term. Usually, seven years was standard, though the term could be extended for any number of reasons, fair or foul. During that time, the servant would work for the master, receive food, lodging, and clothing and even learn new skills they could use when their term was over.

For poor people in the British Isles who wanted a new start in the colonies, but couldn't afford passage, indenture was literally their ticket out. A man or woman could sell their indenture, (or parents could sell one for their child) to a colonial master, who would pay their passage, and then work it off as part of their duties. For the poor already across the Atlantic, indenture might be the best way to get a start on the hope of an independent life. While a viable option for many, it could also separate families, with no guarantee of reunion.

An indentured servant would not be allowed to marry during their term, and records exists of women who became pregnant while indentured (even if the father was their master) having their term extended to repay the master time lost when they were unable to perform their duties due to pregnancy and infant care.

With a good master, the arrangement could be beneficial indeed. Upon completion of a term, the former servant could receive money, tools, clothing, or even livestock as part of their pay. With a less scrupulous master, any number of infractions could be used to extend the term, and if the servant ran away, they or their family could even be fined the cost of retrieving them. Young Adult author M.P. Barker used this as the inspiration for her debut novel, A Difficult Boy, set in 1830s Massachusetts. While the date may seem modern for such an arrangement, the practice did continue into the nineteenth century.

Other novels which contain realistic depictions of lives indentured servants and their masters may have led include Sweet Release by Pamela Clare and Roanoke: The Lost Colony by Angela Elwell Hunt.