Say you were unlucky to be born a peasant prior to the Industrial revolution but after the decline of Feudal Europe and you tried hard to see what the future held for you, you might have been not very encouraged by what you saw. You were likely to see that you would spend the rest of your life like your parents before you and their parents before them, working hard but living in perpetual poverty. If you were an ambitious and clever person you might have realised the established class systems in your country of your birth would forever restrict your place in society and the only escape was to move somewhere else. Being poor would mean that the only resource you had was your labour and so you might have considered selling your labour for a pittance in return for the opportunity to start again somewhere else in the world. Somewhere you would have the chance to change what fate seems determined to hand to you.
If that was the case, then you would not have been the only one. In return for passage to the new worlds of the Americas, food, clothing and shelter, millions of poor people sold themselves for a limited period between 5 and 7 years into virtual slavery in a system called indentured servitude. Unlike traditional slavery, the employer owned the contract, not the person, which they could trade. However it was not unknown for indentured servants to be mistreated to the point of death in some cases. At the end of the contract, the servant got a small severance package that may have been land or money allowing them to start a new life as free people in their new homeland.
Indentured labour is one of the primary means by which the European populations in the new American colonies were increased and later on was one of the major reasons for the wide racial mix that exists in the Americas and the Caribbean. Only the transatlantic slave trade had a similar impact on the racial makeup of this part of the world.
In fact it was the transatlantic slave trade and to a smaller extent, the Industrial Revolution that led to a drop in the first wave of the indentured labour trade. Starting in the 1770s, the Industrial Revolution increased the incomes of the working classes, in Western Europe at least, which meant that labourers were less likely to enter into contracts, preferring to pay their own way into the new world. At the beginning of the slave trade, slaves were relatively expensive and indentured labour less so especially considering that many of the labourers came with farming and labour skills that had to be taught to the newly arrived slaves. The increasing European incomes meant that indentured labour took up the more skilled tasks and the slaves formed the ‘muscle’ of the labour market. However as indentured costs rose and second generation slave population grew, it became cheaper to use slaves until the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.
In 1838, after the forced ‘apprenticeship’ period foisted on the ex-slaves, labour became an issue in the slave dependant colonies and there was a renewed growth in the indentured labour trade. The difference this time is that it was mainly Indian and Chinese labourers that filled the gap. The result of this renewed immigration, described in my post ‘Coolies – Racism, Tradition Or Culture?’, is a fairly large Asian, mainly Indian descendant population, on many Caribbean Islands and in Northern South America, namely Guyana and Suriname.
In both waves of this type of immigration, it was mainly men who made up the bulk of the labourers which meant that some men married either local or other immigrant partners, many of whom would be from another race or community. Later on in the second wave, efforts were made by legislation to include more female servants which reduced the racial mixing that the labourers partook in ensuring they remained distinctive communities in their new adopted countries.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ which in Article 4 stated “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. Indentured service is considered a form of servitude and it would be nice to say that this system does not exist anymore but that is just not the case.
Much of the domestic help in the Middle East, many from India and the Philippines, could be considered indentured labour, owing money to those who have facilitated their employment in those areas. There are also many foreign nationals working, some partaking in fringe activities, particularly in the sex trades, in many Western European countries that could be considered indentured servants. Sometimes their situation even borders on modern slavery.
Unfortunately, like our imagined peasant in the first paragraph, many people have very little opportunity to better themselves and as long there is poverty, people will take chances to improve their lot. . It is unlikely that this practise, as with illegal immigration, will stop in the near future.