61 Pages

A. Patterns of servitude among the immigrants

Introduction The New World held out the prospects of a better life to many Europeans. However, even by the eighteenth century the cost of transatlantic migration was still quite substantial. The price of ocean passage alone might easily have exceeded the value of half a year’s income for the typical British emigrant and the value of a year’s income for the typical German immigrant.1 It should not be surprising then to find that many prospective emigrants could not meet the cost of passage from their accumulated savings. Throughout the colonial period many of these emigrants purchased passage to America by voluntarily selling some of their future labor, this being the only other asset at their disposal. Some emigrants became indentured servants by signing fixed-term future labor agreements before embarkation, exchanging this contract for transportation. Others borrowed the passage fare from their respective shippers pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, if necessary, to repay the loan. This process was known as redemptioner servitude. These institutions of immigrant servitude were the private market’s solution to financing the voyage of those who could not pay in advance. It gave the poorer part of the population the ability to finance moving from low-productivity areas to high-productivity areas, thereby improving their own welfare as well as the overall welfare of society. Without these labor markets it is unlikely that pre-nineteenth-century America would have been populated as fast or grown as rapidly as it did. Little has been done quantitatively to determine the importance of immigrant servitude, i.e., to establish the incidence of servitude among immigrants, or to discover what influenced the likelihood that an immigrant would resort to servitude for financing transatlantic migration. Virtually nothing is known about the variance in the incidence of servitude over time, by age or family status, or across colonies or national groups. A couple of authors have presented broad estimates of the proportion of servants among the immigrants. These estimates are summarized in the often quoted assessment of Abbot E. Smith, “If we exclude the Puritan migration of the 1630’s, it is safe to say that not less than one-half, nor more than two thirds, of all white immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants or redemptioners or convicts.”2 The aggregative generality and imprecision of this

measure comes from the estimating procedure which compares aggregate migration estimates to estimates of the number of servants recorded in colonial government records.3 Nevertheless, this estimate has formed the authoritative basis for subsequent studies of the flow of immigrant servants into Colonial America.4