...The Decline of Indentured Servitude...

Indentured servitude lasted for differing lengths of time in the various regions where it was initially most prevalent (The West Indies, the Chesapeake, South Carolina and Georgia (Galenson, 10) as a transition from indentured servitude to slave labor took place. Reasons for the decline included the rise of slave labor, changing patterns of immigration and eventually laws against bound servitude and the rise of wage labor. The decline of servitude took place mainly in three time periods: in the 1650s with the rise of slavery in the New World, from 1818-1840 in the United States, and in 1917 when indentured servitude was outlawed in the Americas.


The 1650s

     Climate conditions in the Caribbean and other warm colonies that were conducive to growing crops such as sugar or rice were unhealthy for Europeans. At the time, living in Africa “was a `death sentence’ for Europeans, and that the Caribbean was decidedly unhealthful” (Coelho and McGuire, 95). The high mortality rates among Europeans, combined with harsh working conditions that many Europeans wished to avoid (Galenson, 11) made it more expensive for the labor of indentured servants to be used, and in the 1650s a shift to African slave labor occurred (Coelho and McGuire, 93).

     At first, indentured laborers were kept as skilled workers on plantations, but over time the cost of indentured servants rose and slaves were trained to perform those jobs (Galenson, 12). By the American Revolution, the colonies in the British West Indies had stopped importing large numbers of white servants, and most of the servants were taken to Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake region (Galenson, 12).

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A sugar plantation

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A tobacco plantation




    Indentured servitude lasted until roughly 1840 in mainland North America (Galenson,13-14), but experienced a sharp decline between 1818 and 1821 (Grubb, 806). By the 1830s, indentured servitude among immigrants had almost entirely ended in mainland North America (Galenson, 14).

    Increases in transatlantic shipping helped to lower the cost of passage, enabling more   immigrants to pay their own fares with their accumulated savings (Grubb, 815). As time passed, immigrant communities in the United States were growing and creating networks that could aid family and friends who wished to emigrate from their native country. Furthermore, as reliability of transatlantic banking increased, it became possible for family members or friends to send money for an immigrant's passage, which could then be repaid in a less formal fashion upon arrival (Grubb, 809). This replaced the uncertainty of the earlier system, in which it was risky to send money overseas, when an immigrant might be sold as a servant or jailed as a debtor if a friend or relative financing their passage was not present when they debarked (Grubb, 815).
     As servitude grew rarer the relative cost of employing an indentured servant rose, contributing to the decline of the practice (Grubb, 804). By the nineteenth century employers considered wage labor and servitude to be interchangeable, so the increasing scarcity of servants simply encouraged employers to hire wage laborers (Grubb, 806). Eventually though, the increase on the pool of wage earners made them cheaper to hire than indentured servants, which lessened the demand for servants even further (Salinger, 9).



     In the 1830s, slavery was abolished in the British West Indies, creating a need for a new labor force. In order to meet this need and to encourage immigration, servants were recruited from India and China and brought to colonies such as British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba and Peru (Galenson, 14). Later, in the 1880s bound laborers from China were taken to Hawaii and California, under contracts that varied in their demands. The group bound for Hawaii were under "true indentures" that called for a specific term of service under a planter, whereas the group taken to California were under "debt contracts" that in theory allowed them to become free when they had repaid their debt, though it is unclear whether the workers were able to take advantage of their mobility. In some cases servants were actually paid wages during their contracts and provided with passage back to their native country at the end of their term (Galenson, 15).


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Railroad construction in California

     The end of indentured servitude finally came in 1917, when the British government prohibited the transportation of debtors from India as servants. The abolition of imprisonment of debtors had occurred earlier elsewhere and has been considered a "decisive blow" for indentured servitude (Heavner, 701) though the total influence of this event is not clear (Galenson, 13). The system had been under attack by the same groups that had fought for the abolition of slavery, as well causing the governments of the countries sending the servants to become concerned (Galenson, 25). Indentured servitude ended in Hawaii when it was annexed by the United States, and the end of the systems in California and elsewhere resulted in the death of indentured servitude (Galenson, 26).



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