The 1660s were characterized by a political tumult in England. The English queens and kings had difficulty in knowing where their power ended and the beginning of the power of their subjects. There were also numerous power struggles in Virginia based on the fact that the leaders were uncertain about the jurisdiction of the government . The strife was evident even among the religious pilgrims. The situation made things worse for indentured servants in Virginia. The study will make use of the fragmentary record of the life of Johanna, an indentured servant, in its examination of the conditions to which indentured servants were subjected in the colonial Virginia during the 1660s.
Just like in the case study of Johanna, the 1660s show that indentured servants in Virginia were forced to attend to numerous chores and responsibilities. This is also clearly evident in the life of slaves in the seventeenth-century Virginia colony. A critical analysis of the case study and the other sources considered in this study reveals no big difference between the way African slaves and indentured servants were treated by their masters in the 1660s and the 17th century.
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There are a number of factors that might have worsened the situation of indentured servants in Virginia. This is evident in the records of Virginia Company as given by Edward Waterhouse. First, he notes that there was no punishment meted on those who betrayed innocence. Second, the colonists were no longer forced to show gentleness and did not have to be fair to their servants. They were at liberty to do whatever that pleased them. Third, the colonialists were given the right to repossess the commodities which had all along been enjoyed by the Indians. Moreover, the colonialists believed that the easiest way to succeed is by conquering more colonies and putting people under their rule instead of civilizing them. The new developments saw the local Indians and indentured servants being described as “…rude, barbarous, and naked people, scattered in small companies…” .
The Indians who were initially perceived as friends were now being seen as potential servants who could offer cheap labor in the colonists’ plantations. The colonists saw this as an opportunity for them to divert their attention to their occupations and art work, which “are more generous”. On the other hand, the Sausages indentured servants were forced to carry out such inferior duties like digging in mines . The turmoil faced by the servants started in 1630, a year when Indian houses were set on fire and many of Indians were enslaved or even killed . The warring situation continued from 1630 to 1670 with the Indians being dispossessed of their land and either sent away or adopted as slaves.
The acquisition of more land by Virginian masters increased the work load on the indentured servants/apprentices as they were forced to provide labor in tobacco plantations. They had to grow and harvest the crops as well as ensure that they are dried and packed in barrels to be shipped back to England. These servants gained more importance to the extent that by the year 1625, they amounted to over 40% of the entire Virginia population. The men had to promise and bind themselves to perform their term of apprenticeship with faithfulness irrespective of any feeling of being exploited.
The hard labor that characterized tobacco farming made it very hard for the indentured servants in Virginia from 1665 when its plantation became widespread. It complicated how servants related to their masters. Some of those who had to go through the hard labor were younger women and girls who had been sold into servitude by their parents as a way of preparation for motherhood. Their duties and responsibilities were grueling, ranging from caring for children to taking care of all domestic chores, farm work, and domestic manufactures. In this arrangement, female servants, house mistresses and their daughters were involved in the manufacturing of cloth, candles, soap, and clothing among other products. Indentured servants taken as domestic servants were thus very crucial as they formed a reliable source of income for their families.
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Moreover, the author notes that “the psychological demands of adolescence combined with the physical demands of domestic labor were surprisingly overwhelming for some young servants” . In fact, he observed that servants were, in some cases, tempted to rebel. Even in such a situation, masters had the say on whether and how to punish the servants. A good example of such case was that of Priscilla who had been working for a Puritan family during the early part of the 19th century. She was treated harshly be the wife of her master, John Winter. Surprisingly, the master ganged up to support the actions of his wife against Priscilla. Such cases came with many uncertainties on the part of the indentured servants since there was little they could do. On one hand they were made to believe that they were part of their master’s family and were not going to escape to any place, but, on the other hand, the labor was too much for them.
The author notes that even the transportation of indentured servants as well as that of the African slaves, was treated as a big business. After signing an indenture agreement, these servants were bought and sold out like ordinary merchandise. Moreover, sea captains, recruiters, and merchants who were in charge of their transfer put their major focus on the amount of profit they would make and not the welfare of the servants. Thus, the crossing of the Trans-Atlantic Sea was a heavy toll on the infirm and young servants.
Even in Virginia the situation of the indentured servants improved only marginally as the agents only sought to recoup the cost they had incurred in transporting them. The personal situation of the indentured servants was of no concern to the agents. The perils that faced indentured servants in Virginia can be understood from the description of Gottlieb Mittelberger, who was a tutor in Germany. It was worse for those who became indentured servants by the virtue that they could not repay their cost of transport. The arrangements had bad consequences as the man was put into servanthood with his entire family. In certain cases, parents had no slightest of idea about the masters who which their children would be sold to. Just like in the case of Johanna, such parents were never sure of ever seeing their children again .
Worse still was the fact that those who could not pay for their way and had children below the age of five had to give away their children without receiving any compensation. The children had to serve their masters till they reach the age of 21. This was the same as the children from 5 to 10 years old had no cash to settle their transport costs. As a result, parents and their children were sold to different masters. In cases where a spouse perished during the transportation process, the surviving spouse had to settle the payment either in form of cash or by providing labor .
However, even with the harsh treatment, prior to 1670s, the Africans who were taken to Virginia could be allowed to live as the other servants with some of them even acquiring full freedom. However, the situation changed by 1700 when African slavery became prevalent in the colonies in the south. In Virginia, for example, the situation worsened for both the African slaves and the white servants. This was in the middle of the 17th century when there was a transformation of law to deny both groups legal protection. Instead, the new law made Africans permanent servile and pushed them to the state of inferiority. Moreover, the slavery gained hereditary nature, in which children of slaves automatically became slaves of their parents’ masters (Gray 93).
In conclusion, with the statutes enacted in Virginia in the period from 1662 to 1669, there was a slow hardening of the racial divide that existed in Virginia between the white servants and the African slaves. The new laws gradually worsened the situation of the indentured servants. For instance, the statutes enacted in 1662 made children born of Negro women to serve in the same condition as their mothers. The case study thus serves as a good indication of what indentured servants faced in Virginia from the 1660s to the early 17th century.
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