The Atlantic

America Cannot Bear to Bring Back Indentured Servitude

It’s a history lesson worth remembering: The exploitation of immigrant workers only encourages more—and worse—abuse.
Source: Wikimedia

In 1624, Jane Dickenson petitioned the governor of Virginia for relief from bondage. Four years earlier, her husband had signed a contract of indenture to pay for his immigration from England; it obliged him to labor for a man named Nicholas Hide for a period of seven years.

Before the indenture was up, however, Jane’s husband was killed in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War, and she was taken captive by the Pamunkey Indians. Held for 10 months, she was finally ransomed for two pounds of beads by one of the Virginia Company’s grandees. Jane now found herself bound to labor “with a towefold Chaine,” one “for her late husband’s obligation,” the other “for her ransome.” Seeking her own release, Jane testified that her indentured service “differeth not from her slavery [with] the Indians.”

Stories similar to Jane’s abounded in the colony, where labor for growing cash crops was perpetually scarce and turning a profit required keeping tight control over immigrant workers. English law provided indentured servants some avenues for redress, but local Virginian courts—like the one Jane appealed to—were run by their employers. Masters traded laborers and disciplined them with more servants to Virginia because they were sold there “like horses.”

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