Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indentured Servants - Getting to Freedom Can Be Tough

Many Europeans wanted to come to America to enjoy liberty. Yet the trip was expensive, and some could not afford the cost of the ticket. One way to make the trip was to become an indentured servant: to borrow the money to buy the ticket, and then work to repay the price after arriving in America. Thomas Sowell recounts how a number of people from central Europe went through this process:
Usually, a boat trip of several weeks on the Rhine to Holland preceded their transatlantic voyage. Then began their ocean travel, on wind-driven ships, averageing between eight and ten weeks on the water. Indentured servants were packed into small, ill-ventilated quarters on small ships perpetually pitching on the Atlantic waves - producing widespread seasickness among the passengers. The weakness and dehydration produced by seasickness made the ill-fed passengers particularly vulnerable to disease. Contemporary observers described the scenes below decks, "some sleeping, some spewing," some "devoured with live," some "beset with boils, scurvy, dysentery, many cursing themselves and others." At night, there were "fearful crys" and the groaning of "sick and distracted persons," some of whom were "tumbling over the rest, and distracting the whole company. . . ." These were the more or less normal conditions. In extreme cases of ships delayed at sea by weather, the suffering and the casualties could be worse. In 1749, two thousand Germans died at sea on voyages to Philadelphia alone.
It is shocking to realize the dangers and difficulties of the journey, and reveals how strong was the desire on the part of some people to come to America - and how desirable American liberty was at that time.
After a vessel docked in an American port, potential buyers of the passengers' indenture contracts came aboard. The indentured servants were brought out of their quarters, walked up and down to let the buyers see them, and sometimes feel their muscles and talk to them to form some opinion of their intelligence and submissiveness. Sometimes a middleman called a "soul driver" would buy a group of servants and then walk them through the countryside, selling their contracts here and there as opportunity allowed. The society of the time attached no moral stigma to this trade in human beings, and it was openly engaged in by individuals of the highest rank and renown. George Washington purchased the contracts of indentured servants to work at Mt. Vernon, just as he owned slaves. As late as 1792, the new American government devised a plan to import indentured German labor to help construct the city of Washington.
It is important to remember that, once the debt had been paid, an indentured servant was released into full civil liberty - he became an equal to the other colonists. Many of them rose to positions of economic prominence, merchants owning their own businesses.
Deaths on the ocean voyage were so widespread among the Germans that many children were orphaned by the time the ships finally reached America. These orphans were either adopted by relatives in America or apprenticed out to someone to learn a trade. One of these German orphans, John Peter Zenger, was apprenticed to a printer and in later years went on to establish his own newspaper. In 1734, his editorial criticisms of the governor of New York led to his being arrested and tried for libel. His acquittal was one of the landmarks in the development of the doctrine of freedom of the press.
This early German involvement with freedom of the press is no accident: since the time of Martin Luther, Germans had understood the value of expression. Limits on expression, or inabilities to express, directly affect civil liberties:
Like helpless people everywhere, the indentured servants were preyed upon by the dishonest. Some ship captains provided inadequate food or sold them into longer periods of bondage than actually required to work off the cost of their transportation. Germans who could not understand English were especially vulnerable.
Some individuals planned to become indentured servants, as an economic plan to arrive in the land of liberty; others would up as indentured servants by accident:
Many Germans left their homes with no plans to become indentured servants, but found that the mounting costs of travel to Holland and then across the Atlantic were more than they had bargained for. Others had family or friends in America whom they expected (or hoped) would pay their fare, and when this failed to happen, they were sold into indentureship. The term "redemptioner" was used to describe the kind of person who came looking to have his fare redeemed in one way or another, although there was no distinction made between such people and other indentured servants after both found themselves in that status.
The attraction of America was strong: certain regions of Europe suffered from bad rulers, from bad weather, or from struggling economies.
And yet, they kept coming - and generally in ever larger numbers. The Germans arriving in the port of Philadelphia alone in the 1740s and 1750s added up to more than 60.000 people, conservatively estimated. An estimated one-half to two-thirds of these were indentured servants. Although indentured servants were subject to many of the restrictions and punishments that applied to slaves - including corporal punishment - they did have a few legal rights during their years of indentureship, and those years did come to a conclusion. Often indentured servants received a modest payment in cash or in kind upon reaching the time for freedom, and many were given land. This was not always the best or the safest land. In the Mohawk Valley or in western Pennsylvania, for example, it was land in frontier areas, near Indians unhappy at seeing their ancestral lands invaded. Many whites who settled in such areas were killed or carried off into bondage by the Indians.
The pain and danger endured by these early settlers shows the strength of their resolve to creative religious and political freedom, and to seek economic opportunity; had they not settled here, America would have been a barely tolerable place - their cultural contributions cannot be overestimated.