Monday, February 18, 2008

America Founded On Slaves And Servants

As part of Black History month let us go back to the original colonization of North America which was based upon the use of indentured servants from Europe who became rebellious and were replaced with slaves from Africa.

The history of North America, is the historical legacy of slavery. It is the dark side of American Exceptionalism.

Freemen who were black as well as European indentured servants would not win their rights until well into the 19th Century.

The myth of American freedom is that it was only freedom for those who could afford to pay for it. That is those who were forced to labour for others and paid their way out of bondage.

Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705).

Robert Beverley was a Virginia planter who wrote a favorable account of the slave society that had developed in Virginia by the beginning of the eighteenth century.]

Of the Servants and Slaves in Virginia

50. Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time.

Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother, according to the Maxim, partus sequitur ventrem [status follows the womb]. They are call'd Slaves, in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life.

Servants, are those which serve only for a few years, according to the time of their Indenture, or the Custom of the Country. The Custom of the Country takes place upon such as have no Indentures. The Law in this case is, that if such Servants be under Nineteen years of Age, they must be brought into Court, to have their Age adjudged; and from the Age they are judg'd to be of, they must serve until they reach four and twenty: But if they be adjudged upwards of Nineteen, they are then only to be Servants for the term of five Years.

51. The Male-Servants, and Slaves of both Sexes, are employed together in Tilling and Manuring the Ground, in Sowing and Planting Tobacco, Corn, &c. Some Distinction indeed is made between them in their Cloaths, and Food; but the Work of both, is no other than what the Overseers, the Freemen, and the Planters themselves do.

Sufficient Distinction is also made between the Female-Servants, and Slaves; for a White Woman is rarely or never put to work in the Ground, if she be good for any thing else: And to Discourage all Planters from using any Women so, their Law imposes the heaviest Taxes upon Female Servants working in the Ground, while it suffers all other white Women to be absolutely exempted: Whereas on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a Woman Slave out of Doors; nor does the Law make any Distinction in her Taxes, whether her Work be Abroad, or at Home.

52. Because I have heard how strangely cruel, and severe, the Service of this Country is represented in some parts of England; I can't forbear affirming, that the work of their Servants, and Slaves, is no other than what every common Freeman do's. Neither is any Servant requir'd to do more in a Day, than his Overseer. And I can assure you with a great deal of Truth, that generally their Slaves are not worked near so hard, nor so many Hours in a Day, as the Husbandmen, and Day-Labourers in England. An Overseer is a Man, that having served his time, has acquired the Skill and Character of an experienced Planter, and is therefore intrusted with the Direction of the Servants and Slaves.

But to compleat this account of Servants, I shall give you a short Relation of the care their Laws take, that they be used as tenderly as possible.

By the Laws of their Country.

1. All Servants whatsoever, have their Complaints heard without Fee, or Reward; but if the Master be found Faulty, the charge of the. Complaint is cast upon him, otherwise the business is done ex Officio.

2. Any Justice of Peace may receive the Complaint of a Servant, and order every thing relating thereto, till the next County-Court, where it will be finally determin'd.

3. All Masters are under the Correction, and Censure of the County-Courts, to provide for their Servant-, good and wholsme Diet, Clothing, and Lodging.

4. They are always to appear, upon the first Notice given of the Complaint of their Servants, otherwise to forfeit the Service of them, until they do appear.

5. All Servants Complaints are to be receiv'd at any time in Court, without Process, and shall not be delay'd for want of Form; but the Merits of the Complaint must be immediately inquir'd into by the Justices; and if the Master cause any delay therein, the Court may remove such Servants, if they see Cause, until the Master will come to Tryal.

6. If a Master shall at any time disobey an Order of Court, made upon any Complaint of a Servant; the Court is impower'd to remove such Servant forthwith to another Master, who will be kinder; Giving to the former Master the produce only, (after Fees deducted) of what such Servants shall be sold for by Publick Outcry.

7. If a Master should be so cruel, as to use his Servant ill, that is fallen Sick, or Lame in his Service, and thereby render'd unfit for Labour, be must be remov'd by the Church-Wardens out of the way of such Cruelty, and boarded in some good Planter's House, till the time of his Freedom, the charge of which must be laid before the next County-Court, which has power to levy the same from time to time, upon the Goods and Chattels of the Master; After which, the charge of such Boarding is to come upon the Parish in General.

8. All hired Servants are entitled to these Priviledges.

9. No Master of a Servant, can make a new Bargain for Service, or other Matter with his Servant, without the privity and consent of a Justice of Peace, to prevent the Master's Over-reaching, or scareing such Servant into an unreasonable Complyance.

10. The property of all Money and Goods sent over thither to Servants, or carry'd in with them; is reserv'd to themselves, and remain intirely at their disposal.

11. Each Servant at his Freedom, receives of his Master fifteen Bushels of Corn, (which is sufficient for a whole year) and two new Suits of Cloaths, both Linnen and Woollen; and then becomes as free in all respects, and as much entituled to the Liberties, and Priviledges of the Country, as any other of the Inhabitants or Natives are.

12. Each Servant has then also a Right to take up fifty Acres of Land, where he can find any unpatented: But that is no great Privilege, for any one may have as good a right for a piece of Eight.

This is what the Laws prescribe in favour of Servants, by which you may find that the Cruelties and Severities imputed to that Country, are an unjust reflection. For no People more abhor the thoughts of such Usage, than Virginians, nor take more precaution to prevent it.

Source: Robert Beverley,
The History and Present State of Virginia (London, 1705). Some spelling has been modernized.





Author of “The Plantation Negro as a Freeman,” and Corresponding Secretary of the Virginia Historical Society

In Two Volumes

New York


All rights reserved

The term “servant” has been misinterpreted in modern times in the light of the menial signification which the expression has gradually acquired.[3] The members of this class in Virginia in the seventeenth century included all who had bound themselves under the provisions of an agreement, embodied in a formal legal document, or, in the absence of an indenture, according to the universal custom of the country, which had the force and sanctity of law, to continue for a prescribed time in another’s employment. The term was applied not only to those who had contracted to work as agricultural laborers, or as artisans and mechanics, but also to those who were seeking to obtain, under articles of apprenticeship, a knowledge of one of the learned professions. In 1626, Richard Townsend, in a suit of law against Dr. John Pott on the ground that Dr. Pott had not instructed him in the apothecary’s art according to the conditions of his indenture, described himself as the servant of that physician, who was so distinguished in the early history of Virginia.[4] Nor did the term necessarily imply an humble social origin. Adam Thoroughgood, a man of wealth and influence in the Colony towards the middle of the seventeenth century, and who was referred to as “gentleman” in the patents he sued out,[5] a designation to which he was entitled not only on account of his general character and position, but by his social connections in England, came to Virginia as an apprentice or servant. In making his will in 1666, Sir Robert Peake, a well-known citizen of London, devised three hundred pounds sterling to George Lyddall, his cousin, at that time in Virginia, to whom he alludes as his “sometime servant.”[6]

The larger proportion of the servants in Virginia in the seventeenth century who were imported into the Colony after being guilty of offences against the law in England, were simply men who had taken part in various rebellious movements. This class of population, so far from always belonging to a low station in their native country, frequently represented the most useful and respectable elements in the kingdom from which they came; it was no crime for Irishmen to defend their soil against the tyrannical intrusion of Cromwell, or for disaffected Englishmen and Scotchmen to rise up against the harsh and cruel measures of Charles II and James II. It was the men who loved their homes and were devoted to their church that led these movements, and their followers, in spite of ignorance and poverty, shared their courage, their steadfastness, and their patriotism.

The fact that so few conspiracies were hatched among the laborers bound by articles of indenture is to be attributed not only to the fair treatment which, as a rule, they received from their masters, but also to the comparative brevity of the time for which all whose ages exceeded nineteen, among whom alone a plot was likely to be formed, were required to serve. It was entirely natural that the older members of this class should have been disposed to endure much that was harsh or repugnant to their wishes in the expectation of the early ending of their terms, rather than plunge into secret schemes that exposed them to the risk of certain death in the event of detection. There seems to have been a seditious feeling in York in 1661, and its display was considered to be sufficiently serious to justify the authorities in warning the magistrates and heads of families in that county to punish all discourse among those in their employment tending to a popular tumult.[56] The conspiracy of 1663, to which reference has been made already, had a religious and political object in view. Only a few servants appear to have been included among those implicated in it. The Cromwellian soldiers, reduced to the condition of common laborers, doubtless smarted with the sense of degradation, but beyond all this, there was a hope that the status of the English Protectorate might by their bravery and resolution be restored in the Colony.[57] The discovery of this plot led to the passage of severe laws in repression of the sinister meetings of servants. They were forbidden to come together in considerable numbers on Sunday, a day on which they had been allowed entire rest, and the same rule was also probably applicable to all recognized holidays. By the custom prevailing in the Colony, the laborers were granted not only the Sabbath and the usual holidays observed in England, but also the greater part of every Saturday.[58] Apart from the hours of night, there were many occasions when they were wholly at leisure, and if there had existed any disposition to conspiracy among them, the opportunity would not have been lacking. In the period of great depression following the collapse of the Rebellion of 1676, there was imminent danger of an open insurrection on the part of the servants, but if it had occurred, the motive would have been not merely impatience of the landowners’ authority but apprehension of famine. The feeling died out when relief had been obtained.

Among so large a body of laborers, it is not remarkable that there should have been many instances of resistance to masters. One of the earliest petitions presented to the General Assembly in 1619, the first legislature convening in the Colony, was that of Captain Powell, who desired to have his servant punished for falling into grossly insubordinate conduct. The petitioner was empowered to place this servant in the pillory for a period of four days, to nail his ears to the post, and to give him a public whipping on each day included in his sentence.[59] The severe punishment inflicted in this case does not appear to have been repeated in later times. The person who was found guilty of offering resistance either to his master, or to the overseer who was appointed to supervise him, was compelled to continue in the same employment two years beyond the expiration of the term for which he was bound either by indenture or the custom of the country.[60] If the spirit of insubordination which he exhibited rendered him dangerous, he could, upon complaint, be committed to jail, a bond being given by his owner that the charge would be pressed to a trial. During the imprisonment, the master was required to support the servant, five pounds of tobacco being paid to the sheriff to cover the expense of each twenty-four hours of detention.[61]

At each county seat there was a whipping-post, and this mode of punishment was frequently used as a substitute for the jail. The servant condemned to the lash was delivered to the sheriff to be publicly chastised as a warning to all who were similarly disposed, and afterwards returned to the plantation to which he or she might be attached. The master had a right to whip a delinquent with his own hands if unwilling to put himself to the inconvenience of sending him to a magistrate for that purpose.[62] When the servant had shown on any occasion the desire to inflict injury on any one not his employer, the latter might be ordered, in the discretion of the court, to furnish a bond that his servant would keep the peace.[63] Should a servant be guilty of murder or an attempt to kill, six men were summoned from the neighborhood where he lived whose names were put at the head of the panel. By the jury thus formed he was tried, and if convicted, was sentenced to be imprisoned or hanged, according to the circumstances of his crime.[64] Aggravated cases of robbery were doubtless punished with severity, but small offences like hog-stealing, especially when the person who suffered was the master, exposed the offender as a rule only to the pains of a public or private whipping.[65] In some cases, in addition to public chastisement, he was compelled by order of court to continue in the same employment for a term of two years after the expiration of the time upon which he had agreed.[66] It not infrequently happened that in condonation for the most serious forms of robbery, a servant bound himself upon the conclusion of the period covered by his indenture to enter into a second indenture by which he agreed to serve a second period.[67] Whoever induced a man of this class to dispose of his master’s property by stealth, more particularly when the tempter became the beneficiary of the theft, was compelled to suffer imprisonment for a month and to restore four times the value of the articles which had been carried off.[68]

In the Assembly of 1619, a law was passed that provided that the servant should receive a whipping for every oath he uttered, and should afterwards confess his guilt in the parish church when the congregation had convened for religious services. There is no record of this statute having been repealed.[69] The regulation imposing a fine of tobacco upon all freemen who had been heard to swear was steadily enforced, and there is no reason why there should have been any relaxation of the special punishment inflicted for the same offence upon those in their employment.



One of the most serious drawbacks to the employment of indented laborers was the inevitable frequency of change attending this form of service. In a few years, as soon as the time for which the servant had been bound under the articles of his contract or by the custom of the country had come to an end, his place had to be supplied by another person of the same class. Whenever a planter brought in a laborer at his own expense, or purchased his term from the local or foreign merchant who had transported him to the Colony, the planter was compelled to bear in mind the day when he would no longer have a right to claim the benefit of his servant’s energies because his control over him had expired by limitation. He might introduce a hundred willing laborers, who might prove invaluable to him during the time covered by their covenants, but in a few years, when experience had made them efficient, and their bodies had become thoroughly enured to the change of climate, they recovered their freedom, and, if they felt the inclination to do so, as the great majority naturally did, were at liberty to abandon his estate and begin the cultivation of tobacco on their own account, or follow the trades in which they had been educated. Unless the planter had been careful to make provision against their departure by the importation of other laborers, he was left in a helpless position without men to tend or reap his crops or to widen the area of his new grounds. It was not simply the desire to become an owner of a great extent of land that prompted the Virginian in the seventeenth century to bring in successive bands of persons whose transportation entitled him to a proportionate number of head rights. Perhaps in a majority of cases, his object was to obtain laborers whom he might substitute for those whose terms were on the point of expiring. It was this constantly recurring necessity, which must have been the source of much anxiety and annoyance as well as heavy pecuniary outlay, that led the planters to prefer youths to adults among the imported English agricultural servants, for while their physical strength might have been less, yet the periods for which they were bound extended over a longer time.

It can be readily seen that from this economic point of view, the slave was a far more desirable form of property than the white servant. His term was for life, not for a few years. There was no solicitude as to how his place was to be filled, for he belonged to his Master as long as he lived, and when he died he generally left behind him a family of children who were old enough to furnish valuable aid in the tobacco fields. In physical strength he was the equal of the white laborer of the same age, and in power of endurance he was the superior. Whilst some of the negroes imported into the Colony, more especially those snatched directly from a state of freedom in Africa, were doubtless in some measure difficult to manage, the slaves as a rule were docile and tractable, and, when natives of Virginia, not disposed to rebel against the condition of life in which they found themselves. Not only were they more easily controlled than the white servants, but they also throve on plainer fare and were satisfied with humbler lodgings. Nor were they subject to seasoning, a cause of serious loss in the instance of the white laborers. Moreover, they could not demand the grain and clothing which the custom of the country had prescribed in favor of the white servants at the close of their terms, and which constituted an important drain upon the resources of the planters. It is true that the master was required to provide for his slave in old age when he could make no return because incapable of further effort, but the expense which this entailed was insignificant.

It would appear for these reasons that even in the seventeenth century, the labor of slaves after the heavy outlay in securing it had been met, was cheaper than the labor of indented white servants,[1] although the latter class of persons stood upon the same footing as the former as long as their terms continued. This was the opinion of men who had resided in the Colony for many years, and enjoyed the fullest opportunity of observing the operation of the local system of agriculture. The wastefulness of slave labor, which has always been considered to be the most serious drawback attached to it as compared with free labor, was of smaller importance in that age than when the whole area of Virginia had been divided into separate plantations, and the extent of the untouched soil had become limited to a degree demanding more skilful and more careful methods in the cultivation of the ground. In the seventeenth century, there was no element of wealth so abundant as the new lands covered by the fertile mould which had been accumulating on their surface for many thousand years. The planter availed himself of their productiveness in reckless haste, soon reducing the rich loam to barrenness, but in doing so he was pursuing a more profitable course and a more economical plan than if he had endeavored to restore the original quality of the soil. If it had been possible to obtain domestic or imported manures at a small expense, it would still have been cheaper in the end, the volume of the annual crop being considered, to extend the clearings and to leave nature to bring back the abandoned fields to their primæval excellence. The Virginian planter of the seventeenth century was apparently the greatest of agricultural spendthrifts, but in reality he was only adapting himself to surrounding conditions, which were the reverse of those prevailing in the mother country, where art had to be called in to preserve the ground from the destructive effect of long-continued tillage. Introduced into the Colony where the first principle of agriculture was to abuse because the virgin lands were unlimited in quantity, the institution of slavery was not lessened in value from an industrial point of view by the fact that it did not promote economical methods in the use of the soil.


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