What are Indentured Workers?

In the review of the ending of slavery I mentioned that indentured workers, mainly from India took over the labour that had been allotted to slaves in the Americas.

In order to answer the question, what are indentured workers, we must start by asking where they came from and why they chose to go to the Americas.

For this purpose I will solely look at the British colonies.

Indentured workers came for different reasons, however, within the British Empire you need to go back before the trans-Atlantic slave trade started.

Britain first settled in America in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Initially, the British came looking for riches, but were unsuccessful. After trying to enslave the natives to farm tobacco and failing, they looked back to Britain for workers.

Keep in mind that the British slave trade didn’t actually start until 1698.

Poverty was rife in Britain, with many living in the lower classes living in abject poverty on the streets. So, when an offer came to travel to the Americas for work, many desperate and optimistic parents sent their children in the hope that they would have a better life.

As these children could not pay for their travel to the New world, they would pay it back in work. The British saw this as a way of clearing the streets of the poor and the colonisers saw it as free labour. This beneficial arrangement meant that some individuals were taken by force to boost the number of workers being sent.

Next, came the impoverished Irish and the prisoners, who could earn a chance at a new life.

The work was hard and many dies in the first year after their arrival, mostly from tropical diseases compounded by exposure and poor nutrition.

When the African slave trade started, everything changed. The British colonialists could then own their workers and treat them however they pleased.

When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and in 1833 ended slavery.

Therefore Indentured workers were again needed in British colonies.

In 1833, many of the African slaves were then employed as indentured workers after the abolition of slavery, whilst many others were able to embrace their freedom.

The East India Company was prominent in transporting, mainly by force, indentured workers, who mostly came from India.

Indentured workers died out after a while for different reasons in different colonies.

So, now we know about the history of Indentured workers. To start, let me explain the what the indentured workers went through. I’ll do this by comparing the it with slavery.

In most cases indentured workers chose to or were coerced into the work.

Whereas, with slavery, they were shackled and forced into labour.

Most indentured workers worked alongside the slaves, but the Chinese and the whites, in many cases, were taught a skill and a few became overseers.

The indentured were contracted labourers, who would, in most cases, have a time span during which their labour could be sold to others. Slaves were owned and considered chattel or non-human.

The labour for many indentured workers was the same as that which the slaves performed, which is why many died in labour. However, the indentured did have some rights, even though in many cases the employer would not inform them of those rights.

It is widely believed that over 40 million people are enslaved today in what is categorised as “modern slavery”.

What’s interesting is that today the indentured workers are categorised as slaves.


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