Indentured Servants and Slaves: the State of Society in Colonial America

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Colonial America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 when the British came to the New World to escape religious persecution. In 1619, the first “20 and odd” Africans arrived in Jamestown on a Dutch trading ship as indentured servants, which are people who agree to work for another person for a fixed period of time. In 1661, Virginia legally established slavery, which took away any freedoms or rights people may have had as servants. Slavery was established because Africans were a strong labor force that brought forth an abundance of profit. The development, growth, and evolution of slavery in Colonial America had an enormous impact on Colonial North American culture and society and left a lasting impression that is still taught today.

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Slavery developed into a complex system in Colonial America. In the early stages of slavery, the Spanish and Portuguese brought slaves across the Atlantic Ocean into the colonies. Plantation owners captured Africans from West Africa and separated them from their families and friends. African tribe leaders sold Africans to the European powers. African warlords often traded or sold their people to Colonial America for goods or some form of currency. At first, people who worked for other people were indentured servants. Indentured servitude was an agreement, under a contract, where people would work for other people until a debt was paid. As a cheap source of labor, indentured servitude became an ideal way to immigrate to the New World. Whether someone was black or white, anyone under a contract was an indentured servant. 

Over time, servitude became slavery. The demand for workers increased as the servants served their time and paid their dues. Because the need for labor grew, the time an indentured servant worked became for life. Not only this, but landowners felt threatened by freed servants. This is how slavery began. Slavery differs greatly from indentured servitude. While indentured servants were temporarily indebted, slaves served a lifetime sentence. Instead of being granted freedom, slaves were stuck working for their owners. Being reliant on servants to perform manual labor caused owners to be dependent upon them to get work done for profit. This means not only were owners dependent, the economy became dependent on slaves. Servants were expensive, but slave labor was cheap. Plantations, or large farms, needed slaves to have successful crops; these crops were traded for even more profit. The demand for slaves increased so high that in 1663, Virginia enacted a law where any child born to a slave would automatically become a slave as well. Inheriting slave status ensured that there would not be a lack of workers to complete tasks. This shows that temporary servitude developed into a slave system that was a renewable source for cheap labor. Because of these developments, slavery had many influences on the growth of Colonial North America.

The impacts that slavery had on Colonial North America allowed for growth. Because slavery was so prevalent in the colonies, it was linked to ideas of racial superiority. Slavery was limited to those of African descent. The idea of racial superiority set the colonies apart from other countries where slaves were also owned. Other countries believed they were doing slaves a favor by showing them the faith of Christianity as well as other European ways. Some of the English colonies believed they were superior to black slaves, which was racism; this impacted society. To intensify the sense of authority, slave codes were passed to legalize the ownership of slaves. These slave codes were strict laws defining the restrictions put on slaves and touched on how owners could treat slaves. Slave codes gave slave owners, or masters, entire control over their slaves, which added to their feelings of dominance. Slaves were no longer people; rather, they were property. Laws outlined within the slave codes included slaves being unable to meet in large numbers, leave plantations, or learn to read or write. To make slaves even less human, it was also not considered murder if a slaveowner killed one of their slaves. Although these laws were placed, revolts still occurred, and slaves still found a way to meet. These meets instilled hope and gave the slaves a sense of community.

Bringing people of African descent as slaves, the culture of Colonial America was affected. Slaves did their best to maintain their cultural customs by telling stories, remembering songs, and dancing. Crafts such as quilting, sticks, and furniture was shared. Food was also from the slavery era such as southern foods. Slavery left an important impression in history.  

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