The need for labor in its American colony stimulated not only the indentured servitude detailed below, but also slave trading by England’s Royal African Company. This was formed in 1662 with the king’s brother, the Duke of York, as president. It would have an outright monopoly on bringing enslaved Africans to the New World until 1697, when the British Crown permitted private traders to carry slaves to British colonies and paying a 10 percent duty.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Convicts and Indentured Servants to America
“A principal source of labor for the [American] plantations during the seventeenth century were the white indentured servants brought from England. In the mother country the farm hands and laboring classes received miserably low wages . . . [and] found it almost impossible to save [6 pounds], the average cost of passage to America. The only method by which they could transfer their labor from a cheap market in England to a dear market in America was the indenture system, really a credit, or installment system to pay the passage money of crossing the Atlantic. The servant signed a contract by which he sold his labor to a master for a period usually of four or five years.
Immigration into the colonies was vastly stimulated by the profitable business of securing servants for the American market. John Harrower, an indentured servant in Virginia, described in his diary which he kept from 1773-1776, a class of merchants called Soul Drivers, who met immigrant and convict ships at the docks to buy servants, whom they would drive through the colonies “like a parcel of Sheep” to sell to the highest bidder. Such servants were sold for prices ranging from [20 pounds] for the highest type, Scottish soldiers captured after the Jacobite revolt, to [4 pounds] for Irish vagrants.
Most of the indentured servants were young men and women under twenty-five years of age. Under some masters the indentured servitude approximated the conditions of slavery. The master had the right to punish his white servant by whipping, and the servant could not leave the plantation without permission. If a servant married without consent or if a maidservant had an illegitimate baby, the term of service was extended for one year. If a servant ran away and was arrested, he or she was punished by extending the term of service two days extra in Virginia and ten days in Maryland for every day of absence.
The labor shortage in America was so great that it led to the dark crime of kidnapping. There were professional agents in England known a “spirits” who kidnapped “drunks” in taverns and young persons on the streets to ship them to America for sale as servants. The British government used the Southern colonies as well as the islands of Jamaica and Barbados as a dumping ground for convicts.
(A History of the Old South, The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation, Clement Eaton, MacMillan Publishing, 1975, pp. 23-31)