Unfree Labor

6 June 2016

Labor in colonial American society meant long, hard hours of toil, working from dusk to dawn to make an honest living. In the beginning, the workers were the original colonists themselves, but as more and more people began to cross the Atlantic and more and more land began to be used for agriculture and homesteads, this changed.

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The labor force in the American colonies began to evolve until it consisted mainly of indentured servants and slaves who worked for the settlers in exchange for little to nothing. This system of unfree labor was crucial in shaping both the society and economy of the American colonies.

Indentured servants from Britain were generally the jobless poor of the country’s citizens. Needing work, they essentially signed up to toil for a certain length of time, generally four to nine years, for colonial masters in America, particularly around the Chesapeake region.

In exchange for their labor they received transatlantic passage and “freedom dues,” such as a few barrels of corn, a set of clothes, and a small amount of land to live on and care for. The “head-right” system was used by Virginia and Maryland to increase the importation of indentured servants. Under this system, the individual who paid the passage of a laborer received the right to obtain fifty acres of land. Thus, the masters, not the servants, were benefited by this system.

In the 1600s, the indentured servants represented over three-quarters of all European immigrants to Maryland and Virginia. By the brink of the eighteenth century, about 100,000 of these laborers had been imported to the Chesapeake area.

These servants led a hard life, but looked forward to their eventual freedom and gaining their own land after finishing their term of servitude. As land became scarcer, though, the masters became reluctant to include land in the “freedom dues.” Life became even harsher for the indentured servants as the years went by, the smallest infractions being punished with an extended term of service.

After freedom was finally granted, the workers were so poor they had no choice but to apply for employment with poor wages with their original masters. Although for these people life was a struggle, the masters and plantations benefited greatly from the cheap labor, with production rates of tobacco and other exports increasing as the years went by and more indentured servants arrived.

After a couple of decades of the cheap labor that indentured servants provided for the colonies, another labor source was brought in to toil on the plantations. More convenient and cheap than paying for the importation of the “white slaves,” black slaves were brought across the Atlantic on human cargo ships, the majority of them arriving after 1700.

Thousands upon thousands arrived in the fifty years following; by 1750 they accounted for practically half the population of Virginia, and in South Carolina they outnumbered the white colonists two to one. These slaves now provided the brunt of the labor in the colonies, as the indentured servants were becoming less and less available.

Slaves were generally treated horribly by the colonists, who feared the new “racial threat” that the multitudes of black laborers supposedly posed. “Slave codes” were formed, making the slave’s lives, and even their children’s, the property of the white masters. Economic reasons had fueled the slave trade in the beginning, but by the 1700s racial discrimination had an evident hold on the shaping of the slave system.

The South, especially, both relied on and mistreated the slaves more than any other region. New importations of the laborers were constantly needed to replace the many who died in the harsh climate and draining work. The Chesapeake region was somewhat easier on the slave population, as tobacco was a less demanding crop than those of the South, and the large, close plantations allowed the slaves to have contact with their family and friends more often.

This population also grew on its own (not counting new imports), as there were more females and family life was a possibility in this region. Though slaves were brought to the colonies to provide free labor, their cultures and traditions were eventually imported, becoming important parts of the American society. For example, the ringshout, a West African religious dance, was brought to the colonies and eventually contributed to the development of the jazz genre.

The banjo and the bongo drum, African instruments, were also insinuated into American culture. Quite a few stories and folklore, such as the Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Chicken Little tales originated in Africa, and were absorbed into America’s culture of childhood, laying a foundation for American nursery culture.

The white indentured servants and African slaves played an important role in the economy and society of colonial America through their roles as what was essentially cheap labor. Providing the brunt of the workforce for the colonists, the imported laborers helped increase the exportation of crops from the colonies and contributed to the growing population.

These workers, especially the African slaves, contributed to the overall culture, bringing in new traditions and helping to form the American society into what it is today.

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