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History of Indentured Servitude Between the 18th and 19th Centuries

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Asian Indian servants in British Guyana

Asian Indian servants in British Guyana

Indentured Servitude Was Common

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the system of indentured servitude was revived in Europe. Indentured servitude is a form of slavery in which the servant enters into a labor agreement willingly, by contract, and works for a specified number of years with pay, housing, and food supplied. We can understand this period more in-depth by examining the causes of the revival of indentured servitude. We'll look at the abolition of the slave trade and British involvement in India, the consequences of the revival, poor quality of life for servants, and servant’s dependency, in Europe, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Causes of Indentured Servitude

Abolition of the slave trade and British involvement in India were among the reasons for the revival of indentured servitude. After the long, hard-fought battle to extinguish the slave trade in the majority of the world was won, plantation owners, particularly in British colonies, were left without the means to work their land. Sir George Grey, a British colonial governor in 1855, said, “Next year, the quantity of labor that will be required to bring, to a profitable result, the large and increasing sugar cultivation now going on will be great beyond the possibility of its being supplied by our own natives.” Plantation colonies needed workers but couldn’t use the slave trade to get them. However, indentured servitude was a loophole that allowed plantation colonies to secure workers for years at a time while paying them so as not to be breaking the law by keeping slaves. British plantation colonies had a resource for indentured servants in India, one of the many countries within their empire. As shown in a graph from Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, more Asian Indian workers were transported to various plantation colonies than Chinese and Japanese workers combined. Pictures taken during this time show images of large crowds, solely comprised of Asian Indian laborers working on sugar plantations, particularly in Dutch Guiana. Workers in other countries, like China and Japan, were also used as indentured servants, particularly in Hawaii and Peru. However, because India had a direct connection with the British government, and because of their position geographically, India was both figuratively and literally closer to the British Empire’s plantation colonies. Therefore, Asian Indian workers were more common than workers from other countries. Other sources of work included former slaves, who made up a large demographic of indentured servants, according to a statement published by the British Government in 1949. After slavery was abolished, poor and uneducated slaves had little opportunity for work, so indentured servitude, which at the very least offered meals and housing, was the best option. The abolition of slavery and British involvement in India created the circumstances and resources that caused the revival of indentured servitude.

Consequences of Indentured Servitude

Although indentured servitude seems like a viable option for those who lack the opportunity to earn a living, the system had consequences, including poor quality of life for servants and a potential for creating dependency for the workers. A man named Ramana, in a document regarding indentured slave labor in South Africa, during 1851-1917, gave his testimony as an indentured servant, explaining, “I complain that I am not allowed proper time toe at my meals during the day. I have to commence work at about 5:30 in the morning and finish off at about 8:30 p.m. daily. I work on Sundays up to 2 o’clock. I am overworked and the wages paid me is not sufficient. Whenever I stop away for a day in the month, it is deducted from my pay, and I am told by my master that I will have to make up these days at the expiration of my indenture.” It is apparent from Ramana’s complaints that the life of an indentured servant was a poor one, including hard work with little to no reward. Although indentured servants were not slaves, aside from their meager pay, they were still treated as such. Indentured servitude also created an environment of dependency of the worker on the master. Herman Merivale, British Undersecretary of the Colonies, during the 1850s, stated, “Indentured laborers are not voluntary immigrants in the ordinary sense, led by the spontaneous desire of bettering their conditions; they are not slaves, seized by violence, brought over in fetters, and working under the lash. They have been raised, not without effort, like recruits for the military service.” Essentially, indentured servitude was not like the American Gold Rush, consisting of men willing to travel to seek out new opportunities. Yes, workers still came to plantation colonies of their own accord but at the same time, the British government was seeking out and choosing workers, as well. It was intentional recruitment rather than an opportunity left open to whoever chose to take advantage. Furthermore, stating that indentured servants have been raised like soldiers implies that workers were heavily trained in their positions. This creates an environment where cultivating a sugar plantation is all that the worker knows how to do. It is what he is best at. He has been recruited and trained for this position only, and he is not paid enough to travel elsewhere for different work. Where else can he go? In this way, indentured servitude creates an environment for dependency. Despite the fact that indentured servitude is not technically slavery, servants were treated like slaves and were dependent like slaves, consequences of the revival of indentured servitude.

Caused by the abolition of the slave trade and Britain’s presence in India, the system of indentured servitude had consequences for its workers, including poor quality of life and dependency. Although indentured servitude offered a place for former slaves to go after their emancipation, the consequences and ideologies behind it caused its eventual decline, by the twentieth century.


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William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on December 03, 2013:

My Brightwell live entered America as an indentured servant, and moved on successfully. Thanks for additional useful information! ;-)