Indentured Servants, Slave Trade, And Diversity In Colonial America

The Passage of Indentured Servants

The first document is “The Passage of Indentured Servants” written by Gottlieb Mittelberger, bonded servants or indentured servants during the 17th and 18th century was an important source of labour in America (Mittelberger). The word “indentured” usually refers to the migrants who while travelling to America from Europe had been working there for a long period of time after the completion of which they will be set free. Another chief source of labour in the colonies were the convicts; several criminals were sent to the colonies to work there after the period of their sentence they were freed. Cottlieb Mittelberger came from Germany to Pennsylvania in the year 1750 he stayed there for 4 years and after that returned to Europe. Mittelberger was luckier than his shipmates were; many of them suffered terrible fates in the colonies (Mittelberger). He taught in a school in Philadelphia for three years and also was an organist before he returned to Germany.  Indentured servants arrived in the country of America in the years following the establishment of Jamestown by Virginia Company in the year 1670.

The theme of indentured service came into existence due to the requirement of cheap labour. The settlers realized that they had nobody to look after the huge acres of land that they had, the Virginia Company devised a way of gaining labour through the indentured labour. This method was easily affordable by the wealthy people and it proved to be beneficial for both the company as well as the wealthy landowners, these labours gained chief importance in building the economy of the colonies (Mittelberger). The war, which continued for 30 years in Europe left their economy in ruins thus there, were several skilled workers and the unskilled ones as well who had no means of earning, for them the colonies prove to be highly useful. To these emigrants the new world promised them of bright prospects and thus they entered the Virginia colonies as indentured servants.

The servants normally worked in the colonies for 4 to 7 years and in exchange, they were provided passage into the country, lodging and dues of freedom. The life of the indentured servants was tough but it was in a way better than slavery, there were some laws for them to protect their interests. Still their lives were worse than the non-servants as they were punished in more harsh ways (Mittelberger). The contract of an indentured servant was extended in order to punish them if they broke a law, like running away, or becoming pregnant in the case of the female servants. According to many historians the indentured servants lived under better conditions than those immigrants who did not have any form of employment in the country, several of the indentured servants earned their freedom at the end of their contract (Mittelberger). The contracts of some servants may have contained some acres of land, corn of a year’s worth, cattle and new clothing. Some servants even became a part of the colonial elites, but for most of the indentured servants who survived the dangerous journey through the sea and adapted with the severe conditions of life the colonies, for them heir achievement included the satisfaction of living the life of a free man with modest finances in the blooming colonial economy.

The Middle Passage

In the second document, “The Middle Passage” written by Olaudah Equiano records his experiences as n ex-slave and a British citizen of the 1780s, he later became an abolitionist leader. His autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” written by him was at first published in London in the year 1789 and in the next five years was printed in nine editions (Equiano). The book contributed in turning the opinions of the British public against the idea of slave trade. Equiano was believed to have an understanding on the subject of slave trade for most of the part as he wrote that was born in Eboe, a part of the kingdom of Benin, which has become a part of Southern Nigeria in present times. In his childhood, he was captured and sold as a slave as described by him.

In 1790s, the supporters of slave trade started undermining Equiano’s credibility and his support in abolition of slave trade they claimed that he was born in the West Indies . Such arguments became invalid when a scholar named Vincent Carretta found eighteenth-century documents, which supported the fact that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina a part of the British colony (Equiano). Fifteenth century marked the beginning of Atlantic Slave Trade; the Portuguese who came to Africa seeking riches in the forms of gold and spices merchants found that human trafficking was profitable and they were the first to bring slaves from Africa to Europe. Soon after that other European countries like Dutch, British Spanish, and French, followed the same path. A triangular trade route was formed over centuries; the Europeans exchanged the manufactured goods like guns, textiles and other goods for slaves. These slaves were taken away to America in order to work in the plantations growing cotton, indigo, and sugarcane. The raw materials were taken to Europe where it was turned into consumable goods and used by the people or the rest of the manufactured goods were again transported to Africa to trade for slaves again. Slavery and the practice was not a new concept, there are various historical documents, which proves the existence of slavery among various cultures and in different countries (Equiano). Although before Atlantic slave trade began, slave trade was not as popular as it became later. The slaves shared a similar status in the hierarchical societies of Europe, Africa, and in America, this status was not very different from that of servitude. There are two major differences between the primitive save trade and the Atlantic slave trade, the recent one was based solely on race and was large in scale.

What Is an American?

 In the year of 1750s, when Equiano was transported in a slave ship, almost 50,000 slaves were being taken to America from Africa. In the later part of 1780s, when his autobiographical narrative was published, the figure of slaves being transported became 80,000. However, by that time, in England, abolition of slave trade was gaining a huge amount of support (Equiano). In 1772, slavery was declared to be illegal on the British soil although it existed in the colonies. The abolitionists began urging the British Parliament to end the trading of slaves completely and they succeeded in the year 1807 finally after trying for years.

Michel-Guillaume De Crèvecoeur the writer of the third document “What Is an American?” was a Frenchman who came to settle in the American colonies during the 1770s (Crevecoeur). After he landed in the colonies, he was unable to believe that so many diverse could exist together. While living in a single area he met people of English, Welsh, Scots-Irish, German, French, Irish, Swedish, Native American, and African descent all living together at one place. “What then is the American, this new man?” he was confused but he knew that this was different from any other countries of Europe. During the time of the American Revolution, English citizens consisted of only two thirds of the population in the colonies, Native Americans being excluded (Crevecoeur). The people of African origins were almost one fifth of the total population. In the white population, the diversity of races was tremendous in Pennsylvania particularly, which is called America’s first Melting Pot. Among the non-English settler population, the Germans and the Scots-Irish were most abundant in number. In answer to the advertisements in Germany made by William Penn the Germans landed in Pennsylvania at the turn of the 18th century. The Germans were promised several opportunities on the economic front, freedom of religion, and was promised that they will enjoy peace not war all these prospects attracted the Germans even more. The English-speaking Americans misinterpreted the word “Deutsch” — the German word for German the settlers got the name Pennsylvanian Dutch. The Germans brought linguistic and cultural diversity, at the same time they brought different forms of religion with them, the most notable among which was Lutheranism (Crevecoeur). The Germans the Scottish people and the Irish all these cultures started blending with one another, the Americans were culturally different from the British people. The language, customs, religion and the way of life of the Americans differed from that of the British.

To conclude, all the three documents provide a clear picture of the colonial social and economic development during the 1700-1800s.The documents also shed light on the beginning of the slave trade which was popularized by the Atlantic slave trade. The chief factors which led to the growth of the colonial America was the practice of indentured servants, the economy only started booming after settlers from various parts of Europe came and brought with them their unique ways of life. Due to this amalgamation of many diversities America has reached to the point now where it enjoys one of the most prestigious economic and social status in the world.

Reference List:

de Crevecoeur, J. Hector St John. “What is an American?.” Released by Forum Associates, 1969.

Equiano, Olaudah. The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.

Mittelberger, Gottlieb. Journey to Pennsylvania. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.

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