Indentured Servitude


Warfare is brutish – the longer war rages, the more objectionable it becomes.  One example of this was the Thirty Years’ War.  It was fought primarily in the area of central Europe in the 17th century and remains one of history’s longest and more ruthless conflicts.  Beyond the series of bloody military confrontations, consequential famine, pestilence, and disease cost the lives of over eight million people between 1618-1648 — and contributed to a massive shift in social norms, local traditions, and the distribution of populations.

Events such as the Thirty Years’ War did not occur as isolated events — there were contributing factors and events that led to horror and human tragedy lasting three decades, and substantial effects of those events.  One consequence of the war is that it marked the beginning of the end of European monarchies. Another was the practice of indentured servitude.  Indenture was significant because, as we fast-forward through time, we observe that somewhere around sixty percent of all immigrants to the British colonies traveled to North America as indentured servants.

Some Background

Our story begins in 1483 when Margarethe Lindemann Ludher gave birth to a son, whom she named Martin.  Twenty-four years later, young Martin entered the ordained priesthood.  Ten years after that, Martin became a professor of religious and moral philosophy.  In this capacity, he wondered about the morality (or lack of it) surrounding Pope Leo X’s exploitation of the common people.[1]  In particular, Luther objected to the Vatican’s policy of selling indulgences (charging money for the forgiveness of sins) to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.  It was not Father Martin’s intent to call into question any Papal authority — he was merely asking for a debate on the ethics of such policies.  He asked, for example, why the Holy Father, who was, at the time, one of the richest men in the world, should require money from the poor in order to build his Basilica.  For his efforts, the Church excommunicated Martin Ludher and, by edict of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, condemned him as an outlaw of the Church.

Martin Ludher (later, Luther) had unwittingly ignited the Protestant Reformation — a movement that started a series of political, intellectual, religious, and societal conflicts that ended up splintering Catholic Europe.  Following Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII of England openly challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic church’s authority to define and proscribe Christian practices.

In 1531, two of the most powerful Protestant rulers in the Holy Roman Empire formed the so-called Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of militaristic Lutheran princes dedicated to the prospect that they had the right of defending their lands from the dictates of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor – a staunch Catholic/anti-reformer.  In 1555, Charles V and the Schmalkaldic princes signed the Peace of Augsburg, which ended the religious struggle between them and made the division of Christianity permanent within the Holy Roman Empire.  Thereafter, Charles V adopted the policy known as Cuius Regio Eius Religio (meaning, whose realm, their religion); princes could choose for themselves which form of Christianity to pursue as the official confession of their state.

Still, the turmoil over the question of religious preference continued for many years.  When Charles V abdicated (for health reasons) the Habsburg territories were divided between his brother Ferdinand, who ruled over the Austrian lands, and Charles’ fervently Catholic son Philip II, who ruled over Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, and parts of Italy.

When Emperor Ferdinand II ascended to power in 1619, he required every subject to adhere to Roman Catholicism, which was a violation of the Augsburg treaty.  By this time, while the Holy Roman Empire controlled much of Europe, Ferdinand II’s empire was actually little more than a collection of semi-autonomous states controlled by princes whose loyalty was never set in stone.  Ferdinand II’s dictates were met with hostility by the Bohemian states, which (backed by Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) went into open revolt.  Thus began the Thirty Years War.

The Aftermath of War

The war concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 — a series of agreements involving Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France.  In human costs, forty percent of the population of Central Europe died.  The war also resulted in mass migrations away from the areas affected, in some locations, as many as fifty percent of their populations.  The collapse of local governments resulted in a large spike in landless peasants, many of whom banded together in rebellious, or if one prefers, outlaw groups.  With so many dead bodies lying unburied, rodent populations exploded, wolves moved in, and wild pigs destroyed meager crops.  The political consequences of these realities were substantial because the Peace of Westphalia changed the relationship between subjects and their rulers.

To place these calamities in perspective, the wars, uprisings, and political turmoil produced by the Thirty Years’ War created other disturbances, such as a series of civil wars in France (1648-1653), and the English Civil War (1642-1651).  Uprisings also occurred in Catalonia, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Russia.  The effects were worsened by the so-called Little Ice Age.

When people are troubled, they turn to their core religious beliefs.  In the mid-1650s, pietism developed within Lutheranism, which emphasized a virtuous existence — greatly influenced by English Puritanism.  The Puritans were dissatisfied with the effects of the English Reformation and the Church of England’s ritual similarities with Catholicism.  People dissatisfied with their quality of life at home look outward to other areas where they might discover new beginnings.


Indenture is a legal agreement, contract, or document that binds (someone) as an apprentice or laborer.  Indentured servitude is a source of labor, sometimes voluntarily undertaken (at other times forced), which we today call debt bondage or domestic servitude.  In voluntary indenture, a person borrows money and agrees to work for the lender without a salary or other payment for a specific period of time until the loan is repaid.  Indenture was used to help pay for apprenticeships (working for a master craftsman in exchange for learning his trade).  The period (number of years) of indenture depended on how much money was borrowed, the number of years it would take to learn a trade, and/or the amount of labor agreed upon (in advance) in order to pay it off.  Indenture, as it applied to British colonial immigration, involved all costs associated with transportation from England to a North American seaport.

James VI, King of Scotland (serving on the throne for 36 years) became James I of England in 1603.  In 1607, a group of around 100 adventurers of the Virginia Company founded the first permanent English settlement in North America.  The settlement was named Jamestown, established along the river named in King James’ honor.  What made Jamestown an uphill struggle was famine, disease, and conflicts with local Indians.  What saved the colony was the arrival of a new group of settlers in 1610, many of whom were indentured.  What these early settlers soon realized was that while the new world offered bountiful lands “free for the taking,” they would need sufficient numbers of laborers to make the land productive.

It was an issue of supply and demand.  Tens of thousands of Europeans were migrating away from their homelands; they needed a place to go — they needed something to do once arrived.  It was a financial dilemma: passage to the new world was expensive and few people with families could afford transportation.  There was no money to live on once they arrived.  Few people had any idea what they would do in the British colonies.

What evolved was a system that facilitated both supply and demand.  Sea captains who made frequent voyages to the new world had knowledge of the demands, and they were also in a position to make contracts to meet those demands.  At Jamestown, indenture arrived at the right moment, both for those who were pushed out of Europe and for those in the colonies who desperately needed sources of labor.  The prospects for a new life with greater opportunities offered thoroughly traumatized Europeans a glimmer of hope.

Once begun, indenture was common in the British colonies through the late 18th century.  Of all European immigrants arriving on America’s shores between 1630 and 1774, one-half to two-thirds came as indentured servants — most employed in the region between southern Virginia and northern New Jersey.  In total, the number of Europeans living in the thirteen colonies before 1750 was around 500,000.  Of those, around 55,000 were prisoners sent to the penal colony in Georgia.  Seventy-five percent of all immigrants were under the age of 25 years.  During the colonial period, the age of consent was 24; indenture among those over the age of consent generally lasted for a period of three years.[2]

Shenanigans and Abuses

Indenture did satisfy colonial demands, but systemically it was far from perfect.  Disreputable sea captains kidnapped more than a few people from areas around European seaports and carried them to the new world as indentured servants.  Other immigrants fell prey to deceitful recruiters who told them fairy tales about life in America.  One such recruiter, a fellow named William Thiene, convinced 840 people in one year that the British Colonies were heaven on earth.  Of course, once indentured persons arrived in the colonies, they were trapped there until some future time when they could pay their way back to England or some other European port, or die.

There was also some brutality associated with indenture.  Ships’ masters did not hesitate to flog those who refused to obey ship’s rules, but this was the standard of discipline applied to every male without regard to immigrant status or skin color. 

The owners of the indenture (the masters) also punished misbehavior (insolence, laziness, etc.) by flogging.  Several factors explain this behavior.  First, normal society regarded indentured immigrants as low-class people; few such persons had access to courts.  Second, since indentured persons were quasi-property and subject to the prerogatives of their masters, British courts paid little attention to accusations of abuse.

Flogging indentured servants was bad, but the sexual abuse foisted upon indentured women was far worse.  Sometimes, abused women became pregnant — which entitled their masters to extend their contract by two years.  Polite society assumed that pregnancy was the indentured woman’s fault; low-class women, they believed, had an inclination toward depraved behavior.

It was also common in the British military to force indenture on rebel leaders and ruffians engaged in civil disturbances.  Oliver Cromwell sent thousands into indentured service after the battles of Preston and Worcester.  This practice continued well into the late 18th century.

Between 1830 and 1920, more than 3.7 million Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and Melanesians migrated away from their homelands to perform as laborers under short and long-term indentures.  In 1974, one scholar argued that indentured labor was no more than the re-imposition of slavery.  Part of what makes this a cogent argument is the fact that runaway indentures were almost always returned to their “masters.”[3]

The first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619.  With no slave laws at the time, they were initially treated as indentured servants and afforded the same opportunities for their eventual freedom as white indentures.  When Massachusetts and Virginia enacted slave laws in 1641 and 1661 (respectively) black indentures forfeited their right to eventual freedom.  As the demand for labor increased, so too did the cost of indentured labor.  The cost factor led landowners to prefer African slaves to indentured whites.


After the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, immigration to the United States trickled to almost nothing, and the economic crisis that followed the Revolution made long-term labor contracts undesirable.  According to some historians, the number of indentured servants living in Philadelphia fell from around 17% in 1776 to around 5% in 1783.  This may be true, others argue, but in many cases, indentured immigrants from Central Europe replaced those from the British Isles after 1792.


  1. Ballagh, J. C.  White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia: A Study of Indentured Labor In The American Colonies. 1895.
  2. Galenson, D.  The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in America: An Economic Analysis.  Journal of Economic History, 1984.
  3. Grubb, F.  The Incidence of Servitude in Trans-Atlantic Migration, 1771-1804.  Explorations in Economic History, 1985.
  4. Tomlins, C.  Reconsidering Indentured Servitude: European Migration and the Early American Labor Force.  Labor History, 2001.


[1] Pope Leo X was Giovanni di Lorenzo de ’Medici who led the Church for eight years beginning in 1513 (died at the age of 45 in 1521).  The Medici family rose to prominence in the 13th century through their success in commerce, banking, and political power.  The family produced four popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leo XI), none of whom had much empathy for the plight of the average person.  Leo X wasn’t necessarily a scurrilous individual for imposing indulgences; he was simply a banker by tradition and training looking for ways to finance the Basilica.  In fairness to him, he probably had no concept of the effects of his decisions. 

[2] The European population of North America is at best an estimate and the numbers often cited by historians vary from around 500,000 to 2.4 million. 

[3] This practice continues even now.  Thousands of people from the Philippine Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Vietnam enter (or are forced) into indentured service to wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Middle Eastern states.  Women are especially desirable in these locations for all the wrong reasons.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in COLONIAL PERIOD, FRONTIER, HISTORY, INDENTURE & SLAVERY, THE LADIES. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Indentured Servitude

  1. Baysider says:

    I haven’t come by in awhile. Your longer pieces are always interesting. I just find I need more time to study and reflect than recent weeks allowed. Glad I saw this one. It could be a sub-section in a book I just finished, Debunking the 1619 Project Exposing the Plan to Divide America.

    There was quite a discussion of indenture there to which you’ve added more. I’ll just add that free blacks could sue in court. 17th century Virginia had free blacks who either met their indenture period (more likely) or bought their freedom. A case is detailed of Anthony Johnson who set up his own farm, had a black servant, and the servant ran away to shelter with a white neighbor claiming his 7-year indenture was up and Johnson wasn’t releasing him. It all ended up in court. The court found Johnson owned the man as a slave, returned him and fined the white neighbor for sheltering Mr. Johnson’s property from productive work.

    In the 17th century 70-85% of European immigrants to the Chesapeake region were indentured servants. In fact, until the founding of the country something like 97% of people in servitude were white. This is truly a nuanced subject, and I appreciate your putting it in better perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I understand that your plate is full; I’m happy to see you here whenever you have a chance. My “longer articles” reflect my inability to provide brief overviews of history. I understand they are a challenge and, to some, impossible to read.

      The people who associate themselves with the 1619 project aren’t historians; they are activists. I don’t have a problem with that as long as they don’t begin to claim that they’re historians. And, they are free to interpret actual events in any way they choose … so long as they don’t present fiction as a verifiable fact.

      I find that there is plenty about our early history to cause us angst without having to make stuff up that sounds even worse. I am always amazed by the insight of those who know so much about things that simply aren’t true. We cannot and must not replace verifiable fact with ideology. The American Revolution, for example, was never about slavery. I am curious about Nikole Hannah-Jones, however … the so-called civil rights journalist who focuses on events that happened more than 400 years ago while ignoring the rape of black communities today by the Democratic Party apparatus and who, as an activist, imagines that Independence Day celebrations are government conspiracies designed to dampen the Black Lives Matter movement.

      Jones is no historian.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Baysider says:

    Well said!! How to bring a society to its knees?
    1) Control vocabulary so only allowed thoughts can be thought. CHECK!
    2) Restrict freedom of movement. CHECK! – in progress now
    3) Control food. CHECK! – in progress now


  3. Andy says:

    An interesting background on the indentured service in the New World. Its rise and its demise.

    Keep writing, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. -FJ says:

    I remember when I “signed articles” on merchant ships for every voyage, I suppose I was “bound” to my ship as a servant to his “master”. But I didn’t think of it as “indentured servitude”. Should I have?

    How about an “enlistment”? You do surrender constitutional rights for the UCMJ…


    • Mustang says:

      Ship’s articles, to my understanding, are somewhat similar to enlistment contracts, which in the case of maritime crewmen, obligate the swearer to abide by the rules and articles of maritime service for some period of time.

      Military enlistments oblige the enlistee to subscribe to the rules and regulations governing military or naval service and the articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for a specified period of service.

      Do enlistees surrender their rights according to the Bill of Rights? Yes and no. Most military posts restrict the right to bear arms (in the same way as all federal buildings, post offices, and court houses), and there are restrictions on one’s right of assembly (military personnel may not attend political rallies in uniform), there is no Fourth Amendment right to privacy if one is using government-owned property (barracks, family housing, desks, wall lockers, footlockers, etc.) … but most other rights accorded to citizens (Fifth through Eighth) apply equally to persons in the military.

      Indentures, on the other hand, are instruments of debt and promissory notes of repayment through labor for a certain number of years, usually seven (as I understand it). At one time, apprenticeships were arranged through indenture. This sort of thing is still practiced in Asian culture, usually involving a father who sells his daughter to a barman where she will work for the man for a certain number of years. Should this young woman later meet the man of her dreams, and if the barman is willing to release her from her obligation, the groom-to-be is responsible for cashing the girl out. Arab countries routinely indenture Asians (mostly women) for service as house servants, cooks, babysitters, and tutors.

      Thanks for stopping by, F.J.


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