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Indentured Servitude Versus Slavery In Colonial America

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Life for slaves and indentured servants in colonial America was different from anything modern Americans have experienced. Not only did their lives differ from Americans’ lives today, the lifestyles of servants and slaves also differed from one another. Many colonists came to America as indentured servants in search of a new and better life, while slaves were often captured and forced into slavery. In Professor Twitty’s lecture “The Atlantic Slave Trade,” she discussed that British merchants sold slaves from West, West Central, and South East Africa. They were then loaded onto ships and transported to either the Old World, the Caribbean, British North America, Spanish America, or Brazil (Twitty). Indentured servants entered into servitude willingly to gain their freedom. Indentured servants and slaves in colonial America were more different than alike because indentured servants chose to come to America while slaves were forced to come to America, treatment of slaves was harsher than treatment of indentured servants, and freedom for slaves was less likely than freedom for indentured servants.

First, Africans were captured or abducted from their countries of origin and sold into slavery sometimes by other Africans and by white merchants. They were inhumanely loaded onto slave ships and sailed via the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the Americas. The living conditions on the ships were unsanitary, so many slaves died before they ever reached the New World. Tight packing was a technique of loading slaves onto slave ships utilized during the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was from 1450 to 1870. Millions of slaves were transported during this time. As a result of the large number of transports, on ships, slaves would be given a coffin-sized space for the long journey. Laws were eventually passed to prohibit these harsh travel conditions, but not until thousands had suffered and died. Those who survived were often sick. According to author and historian James L. Roark, their only hope for freedom was to escape their captors or somehow buy their freedom from their masters. Otherwise, it was a life with little or no chance of advancement requiring working long hours in poor conditions.

Secondly, indentured servants and redemptioners chose to come to the New World looking for a better life. The indentured service guaranteed service to their masters for a specific time in exchange for passage to the New World. There were laws passed regulating the treatment of indentured servants. As the historian Roark asserts, “When the indenture expired, the planter owed the former servant ‘freedom dues,’ usually a few barrels of corn and a suit of clothes” (Roark 2015, 58) . They could even charge their masters if they did not live up to their contract. Roark’s words show that indentured servants actually were paid in corn and clothes, whereas slaves were working against their will without any form of payment.

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Third, slaves were treated horribly. Slaves were often whipped, beaten, or suffered some type of abuse. They were also often verbally abused: this fact was especially true when looking at runaway advertisements. Slaves were malnourished and easily contracted diseases. Roark explained, “On average, about 15 percent of the slaves died, but sometimes half or more perished” (Roark 2015, 115) . In making this argument, Roark reveals that the conditions that slaves faced were inhumane. There were not as many laws set into place, if there were any at all, to protect these people. In Professor Twitty’s lecture, “The Atlantic Slave Trade,” she discussed that the gang system was common for slavery in the Chesapeake region, which is modern day Virginia and Maryland, in the seventeenth century. In this system, slaves would work from sunup to sundown. In this region, slaves experienced limited stability: they were often sold off and ripped away from their families. However, for slavery in the low country or deep south, the task system was more common, meaning that slaves only had to complete a certain number of tasks before their working day was over. Slaves in this region experienced more stability: they usually remained near their place of birth. Slaves did not have the same rights as the average American did. They did not have the same rights as indentured servants did.

Opportunities were also rarer for slaves than indentured servants. Slaves were born into the system, so there were generations of slaves. Families were often sold and separated. Slavery was permanent: there was no room for betterment. However, if a slave managed to escape and avoid capture, the opportunities increased. Runaway slaves and servants forged passes and changed their appearances and names in their attempt to escape, if they chose to do so. Some would head for the seaports hoping to find work, and others would join the Indians in their travels. Some sympathizers would help slaves run and hide. In some cases, there was hope to be had. For example, Olaudah Equiano was a slave for ten years before he bought his freedom in 1766. He then went on to write an account of his experiences as a slave in his Interesting Narrative (Roark 2015, 114) . Equiano’s experience shows that slavery can result in power or success in some cases.

Protection under the law for slaves and indentured servants differed. Masters preferred black slaves to indentured servants because colonial laws did not prohibit the force masters could use against slaves (Roark 2015, 116) . Slaves were also slaves for life, where indentured servants were only indentured for a designated time. With reproduction, slaves produced more slaves, and by the end of the seventeenth century, slaves replaced indentured servants as laborers of choice. Roark quotes Thomas Jefferson saying, “I consider the labor of a breeding [slave] woman as no object, that a [slave] child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring [slave] man” (Roark 2015, 115) . Simply put, Jefferson meant that the children the slave woman produced were more valuable than her labor.

In conclusion, there were many differences between indentured servitude and slavery. Both drove the cultural explosion, rapid growth and expansion of the colonies, but slaves were bound with little hope of freedom. The indentured servants went on to become merchants and farmers with opportunities to pursue what became the American dream. Slaves continued providing cheap labor for generations under difficult conditions with no chance for advancement.


  1. Brown, Victoria Bissel and Timothy J. Shannon, Going to the Source. Vol 1. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.
  2. Roark, James L., Michael P. Johnson, Patricia Cline Cohen, Sarah Stage, and Susan M. Hartmann. The American Promise: A History of the United States. Value edition. Vol. 1. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.
  3. Twitty, Anne. “The Atlantic Slave Trade.” Lecture, University of Mississippi. University, Miss., September 9, 2019.

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