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Indentured Servants and First English Colony

Gottlieb Mittelberger, The Passage of Indentured Servants (1750)

Bonded or indentured servants provided an important source of labor in the colonial period. Individuals pledged a number of years of service in return for passage to the new world and a new life. Gottlieb Mittelberger was an indentured servant who came to Philadelphia where he served as an organist and teacher. Most were not so fortunate and all had to endure the horrific journey that is described in this reading.

Both in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam the people are packed densely, like herrings so to say, in the large sea-vessels. One person receives a place of scarcely 2 feet width and 6 feet length in the bedstead, while many a ship carries four to six hundred souls; not to mention the innumerable implements, tools, provisions, water-barrels and other things which likewise occupy such space. 

On account of contrary winds it takes the ships sometimes 2, 3, and 4 weeks to make the trip from Holland to . . . England. But when the wind is good, they get there in 8 days or even sooner. Everything is examined there and the custom-duties paid, whence it comes that the ships ride there 8, 10 or 14 days and even longer at anchor, till they have taken in their full cargoes. During that time every one is compelled to spend his last remaining money and to consume his little stock of provisions which had been reserved for the sea; so that most passengers, finding themselves on the ocean where they would be in greater need of them, must greatly suffer from hunger and want. Many suffer want already on the water between Holland and Old England.

When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors near the city of Kaupp [Cowes] in Old England, the real misery begins with the long voyage. For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail 8, 9, 10 to 12 weeks before they reach Philadelphia. But even with the best wind the voyage lasts 7 weeks. But during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably. Add to this want of provisions, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, anxiety, want, afflictions and lamentations, together with other trouble, as . . . the lice abound so frightfully, especially on sick people, that they can be scraped off the body. The misery reaches the climax when a gale rages for 2 or 3 nights and days, so that every one believes that the ship will go to the bottom with all human beings on board. In such a visitation the people cry and pray most piteously. Children from 1 to 7 years rarely survive the voyage. I witnessed . . . misery in no less than 32 children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea. The parents grieve all the more since their children find no resting-place in the earth, but are devoured by the monsters of the sea.

Economic Domination and the Rise of Slave Trade

That most of the people get sick is not surprising, because, in addition to all other trials and hardships, warm food is served only three times a week, the rations being very poor and very little. Such meals can hardly be eaten, on account of being so unclean. The water which is served out of the ships is often very black, thick and full of worms, so that one cannot drink it without loathing, even with the greatest thirst. Toward the end we were compelled to eat the ship’s biscuit which had been spoiled long ago; though in a whole biscuit there was scarcely a piece the size of a dollar that had not been full of red worms and spiders’ nests

At length, when, after a long and tedious voyage, the ships come in sight of land, so that the promontories can be seen, which the people were so eager and anxious to see, all creep from below on deck to see the land from afar, and they weep for joy, and pray and sing, thanking and praising God. The sight of the land makes the people on board the ship, especially the sick and the half dead, alive again, so that their hearts leap within them; they shout and rejoice, and are content to bear their misery in patience, in the hope that they may soon reach the land in safety. But alas! When the ships have landed at Philadelphia after their long voyage, no one is permitted to leave them except those who pay for their passage or can give good security; the others, who cannot pay, must remain on board the ships till they are purchased, and are released from the ships by their purchasers. The sick always fare the worst, for the healthy are naturally preferred and purchased first; and so the sick and wretched must often remain on board in front of the city for 2 or 3 weeks, and frequently die, whereas many a one, if he could pay his debt and were permitted to leave the ship immediately, might recover and remain alive

The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried out thus: Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen and High-German people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places, in part from a great distance, say 20, 30, or 40 hours away, and go on board the newly arrived ship that has brought and offers for sale passengers from Europe, and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage money, which most of them are still in debt for. When they have come to an agreement, it happens that adult persons bind themselves in writing to serve 3, 4, 5 or 6 years for the amount due by them, according to their age and strength. But very young people, from 10 to 15 years, must serve till they are 21 years old.

Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle; for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained; but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going, it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.

It often happens that whole families, husband, wife and children, are separated by being sold to different purchasers, especially when they have not paid any part of their passage money. When a husband or wife has died a sea, when the ship has made more than half of her trip, the survivor must pay or serve not only for himself or herself but also for the deceased. When both parents have died over half-way at sea, their children, especially when they are young and have nothing to pawn or pay, must stand for their own and their parents’ passage, and serve till they are 21 years old. When one has served his or her term, he or she is entitled to a new suit of clothes at parting; and if it has been so stipulated, a man gets in addition a horse, a woman, a cow. When a serf has an opportunity to marry in this country, he or she must pay for each year which he or she would have yet to serve, 5 or 6 pounds.

1. Summarize the hardships of the passage from Old England to Philadelphia as they are described by the author.

2. How are the hardships of the sea exacerbated upon reaching land?

3. Describe the various possible arrangements related to the purchase of newly arrived servants from Europe.

Indentured Servants and First English Colony

1.Indentured servitude was a common practice in the 18th Century when a person entered into a contractual slavery for a fixed period of time in lieu of something, in this case in lieu of passage from Old England to the United States for a search of a better life (Shaw, 2018). North America was mainly a British dominated region and this was a way how Europeans suffering from extreme poverty and without any dreams and opportunities of a better life travelled to colonies in America. The historical context is important as the world was not yet ordered with democratic governments and concepts of individualism. Imperialistic forces were ruling most of the earth and Britain was one of the leaders in imperialist ambitions. Most of the people left England through the ports of London and Liverpool and arrived at Pennsylvania, Barbados and Virginia. In the places they arrived at, the buyers would wait for the arrivals and bought healthy and young slaves for contractual period from the shippers (Schneider & Schneider, 2014).

The first batch of the indentured servants probably arrived in 1607, this after the Virginia Company had caused the settlement of Jamestown, presently which is known as Virginia, the town was the first permanent English Colony. It is noteworthy, in what critically bad conditions the indentured slaves were shipped to the Americas, they got food infested with worms and water that was not drinkable. Many of them died on way, however the kith and kin of the dead ha to pay for their transportation by serving longer time in slavery.

Economically America was colonized by the British and the market was dominated by the imperial authorities. In the 1750’s almost one in 4 people of America was a slave, that amounts 25% of the population. Slave business was one of the primary ways of earning by the Europeans. The American economy of the time was not industrialized and mainly dominated by peasantry, whereas Britain had been the greatest forerunner in Industrial Revolution and was leading the world in economic perspective. It is unfortunate that in spite of such economic prosperity and educational advancement such cruel practices were not abolished and continued unhindered.

2.African countries were the largest source of slaves to America and the European slave traders use to ship the slaves to American colonies. The author Olaudah Equiano was one such slave who was enslaved in his childhood in Nigeria and was then transported to the plantations in Virginia. Large cargo ships were specially altered with chains and cells to transport slaves (Childs, 2015). These ships were known as the Slave ships or the “Guineamen”. The 18th and the 19th Centuries saw rapid developments of plantations in America by the imperial countries of Europe, these plantations required a large number of human workers and hence the demand for slaves increased to considerable extent during that time.

Economic Domination and the Rise of Slave Trade

As it is evident from the writing the slave ships were designed in inhuman setups and the slaves transported were terribly treated. Often they were beaten mercilessly for not eating as the buyers would not buy slaves if they were not healthy, for this purpose eating sufficiently was required. The ships were designed to accommodate maximum number of slaves at one go therefore there were little cells with almost no head rooms which accommodated the individual slaves.

The economic activity of slave trade was growing at a large rate and historically it is known as the “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” as the process required the slaves to be transported from the African nations to the Americas through the Atlantic. The time period of this activity was from 16th to 19th Century. There were a number of European countries like England, France, Portugal and Spain competing for increasing their imperial control and trade, this required acquiring larger number of slaves who were engaged in the plantations, industries and various other sectors of manual labor. The slave traders treated the slaves as cargos and ensured the cheapest and quickest possible way to transport them.

The experience that was shared by Olaudah Equiano was different than the account of Gottlieb Mittelberger, in whose case the most evident crisis was worm infested and rotten food along with sickness of worst kind. In Equiano’s case the situation was much worse where the slaves were flogged, beaten, tortured and often killed. The difference was mainly because in Mittelberger’s case they were indenture slaves who wanted to escape from Europe for a better life in the Americas and voluntarily went. However, in Equiano’s case the slaves were kidnapped or forced to be shipped.

3.The author in this piece of writing has excellently and sarcastically described the stark contrast of the mindset and lifestyle of the native people of America and that of the Europeans. The colonial Europeans had been travelling to all the American, African and Asian countries to colonize and establish their market control in these countries.

The imperialistic forces completely destroyed the balance of the world and ignored all ethical standards like human rights, fraternity and sovereignty, to economically and politically establish control all over the world. The European countries like England, France, Spain and Portugal were competing against each other to increase the number of colonies. Torturing of the native inhabitants of the colonized countries and selling people as slaves to the newly established colonies to work in the factories and plantations became normal practice.

The author has excellently contrasted this cruel and inhuman mindset of the imperial countries with that of the native Americans, where people lived a simple life of brotherhood and no one seemed to control the rest. Small villages and towns featuring peaceful people living and coexisting was what American style of population was. Before the imperial people came here and killed hundreds of native Americans, the land was beautiful, peaceful and sufficiently fertile to feed everyone living on it. It was beautiful and people had emotions and love for each other.

The pre-imperial economy of America was not industrialized but rather dependent on agricultural activities. People lived closed to nature and closed to each other as well. Emotion and care for each other was the dominating factor of the society, more than fierce competition to gain monetary profits. In this background the European settlers came in to establish their political and economic control on this fertile land which completely changed the situation, people were killed, enslaved and their rights of their own land was snatched away (Ziegler-McPherson, 2017).

The author very rightly points out that these imperial people who came in and their successors will regard America more as their motherland than from the land they came from, because the land they came from did not provide them enough which forced them to intrude  in a different country.

References

Childs, D. (2015). Slaves of the state: Black incarceration from the chain gang to the penitentiary. University of Minnesota Press.

Schneider, D., & Schneider, C. J. (2014). Slavery in America. Infobase Publishing.

Shaw, J. (2018). Indentured Migration and the Servant Trade from London to America, 1618–1718:“There is Great Want of Servants.”.

Ziegler-McPherson, C. A. (2017). Selling America: Immigration Promotion and the Settlement of the American Continent, 1607–1914. ABC-CLIO

Crèvecoeur, J. (1782). Hector St. John de. Letters from an American farmer, 1784, 1787.

Equiano, O. (2001). The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano. Broadview Press.

Mittelberger, G. (1960). Journey to Pennsylvania. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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