THE DECLINE OF INDENTURED SERVITUDE AS A LABOR MODEL IN SEVENTEENTH CENTURY CHESAPEAKE
Mentor:Michaela Reeves, Chair, Department of History, California Lutheran University
For the better part of the seventeenth century indentured servitude was a major source of labor for the Chesapeake region in the British colonies, but in the late seventeenth century African slaves replaced servants as the main source of labor. This paper explores the underlying social and economic causes for the labor shift by analyzing data from port records, letters, news articles, economic data and census data. For the first half of the seventeenth century exporting undesirables such as street waifs, convicts, beggars and orphans to the colonies to serve as a labor force was an acceptable practice in England and the illegal practice of tricking or spiriting workers into signing servitude contracts was overlooked. Ultimately, a significant portion of servants imported to the colonies in the first half of the seventeenth century did not go willingly. However, economic conditions in England slowly improved and by the mid-century fewer workers were inclined to risk their lives by signing an indentured servitude contract. Simultaneously, a social shift occurred in England time making the practice of ‘spiriting’ socially unacceptable. Judges imposed stiff sentences and fines on anyone found guilty of spiriting, discouraging labor exporters from the practice. No longer was it acceptable to round up undesirables and send them to the colonies to “give them something to do” and by 1670 the Chesapeake was faced with an unexpected and severe labor shortage. This labor shortage served as an unwitting stimulus for the slave trade and encouraged the importation of new workers from Africa.