White Labour – The Indentured Servant System

White Labour – The Indentured Servant System

2. The Indentured Servant System

Bristol’s role as a supplier of labour to the American and West Indian colonies in the eighteenth century is associated with the African Slave Trade. Although Captain Thomas Wyndham set a precedent by beginning a voyage to the Barbary Coast in 1552; sailing from Bristol in command of three ships with cargoes of linen, woollen cloth, coral and amber to barter for black slaves, the African Trade was not officially open to the Bristol merchants until 1698. The indentured white servant system, operated in Bristol during the seventeenth century, therefore supported the demand for labour in the colonies until the Bristol merchants were legally able to compete in the lucrative African Trade.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the English colonies in the New World consisted of: New England, Virginia, Bermuda, Barbados, half of St Kitts (the French owned the other half), Antigua, Nevis, Monserrat and Surinam. Jamaica was only captured from the Spanish in 1655.

These colonies became a lucrative market for the Bristol merchants who made high profits from imports of tobacco and sugar. By the mid-seventeenth century, there was an escalation in trade between Bristol, the Chesapeake (Virginia) and Barbados. Such a trade necessiated a steady flow of labour to meet the demand for production. Between the 1630s and the 1660s, the colonists acquired black slaves from the Dutch, but the use of these white servants as field hands was considered a viable alternative system.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, England had assumed direct control for governing the colonies. As far as Barbados was concerned, their early agriculture economy depended on the labour of thousands of these white, many of them being indentured servants.

The official definition of a white indentured servant was a man or woman who would emigrate after signing an agreement to serve a planter in the colonies for a period of five to seven years. The contract guaranteed that their passage would be paid, and they would be maintained at the expense of the planter. When their term of contract expired, they would either receive ten pounds sterling, sugar or a piece of land equivalent in value. In the 1650s, an estimated 72,000 individuals, the majority of them indentured servants, went from England to the New World.

It was the general consensus at the time that contracted servants were unemployable labourers, vagrants and malefactors whom the mother country was glad to dispose of to the colonies. However a register, known as the Tolzey Book, introduced by the Common Council in 1654, indicates that the servants consisted of:

Yeomen 39 per cent (yeomen classified a wide range of agricultural workers)
Artisans 23 per cent
Husbandmen 16 per cent
Labourers 13 per sent
Gentlemen 2 per cent
Unknown 7 per cent 2

Until 1660, full details were entered of the servants in the book. It indicated their place of origin, status, destination, terms of service and freedom due to be paid. The entry also included the name of the merchant to whom the servant was indentured. But after the Restoration, the entries became more basic: only the name, term of service and merchant were entered. There is also the indication that most of the servants were in the 18 to 22 age group, and twenty five per cent were women.

Examples of some entries of servants who went to the foreign plantations in 1654. 3

Extract from the Register (ref:322) in Patrick McGrath,
Merchants and Merchandize in Seventeenth Century Bristol,
(Bristol Record Society, 1955), pp.237-8.

Problems sometimes arose due to the delay in transporting the servants to the plantations. Such delays could result in compensation being paid by the transporter merchant if unnecessary delay occurred. 4

Deposition of William Bullock, 14 February 1655
in McGrath, op cit, p.238.

Servants were treated as a commodity to be traded in the same terms as tobacco and sugar. 5

Deposition of George Bond, 20 October 1650
in Nott and Ralph, (Eds), Deposition Books of Bristol, 1650-1654,,
(Bristol Record Society, XIII, 1948), p.57.

The export of indentured servants was paid through the import of sugar and tobacco. It was therefore a two-way traffic: each shipment of servants resulting in a return of tobacco or sugar. The traffic was beneficial to the economies of England and the colonies. The demand for labour had to be continuously met with the expansion of production: sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in the American colonies. The plantation servant system consequently became entrenched in both these economies. However, it was the sugar based economy in the West Indies that enabled Barbados tobecome the richest English possession.

The extent of colonization in Barbados is evident in this contemporary map (note the use of camels that were imported from Africa) 6


Map of Barbados, 1650.
Source: Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados, (London, 1657). Reprinted by Cass Reprints, 1972.