chapter  12
83 Pages

Determining the method of entering servitude and modeling its performance

Historians have identified two methods of acquiring transatlantic passage through servitude and have named them “indenture” and “redemption.” Contemporaries, however, used these names rarely. Instead, contemporaries often used the term “indenture” in its generic form, which simply meant “a contract” (Tomlins 2010: 32). They did not use this term to denote the immigrant contracting method that today we call “indentured servitude.” The two methods are distinguished by whether the immigrant entered the servant labor contract at embarkation (the indenture method) or at debarkation (the redemption method). Having entered servant contracts pre-voyage, indentured immigrants upon arrival in America were called “servants . . . whose times are to be disposed of by the captain”. Indentured servants were sold or assigned to their first American master directly by the ship captain or his agent at debarkation. By contrast, because they had not yet signed servant labor contracts, redemptioner immigrants, upon arrival in America, were called “passengers” or “freights” who were “willing to serve a reasonable time for their passage (freight) money.”1 Redemptioner servants sold themselves into servitude at debarkation. Once a servant labor contract was entered into in America, redemptioners were thereafter also called “servants.” Distinguishing between the two methods is important because the method chosen affected the division of contracting risk between shippers and servants and the degree of flexibility in contracting between immigrant servants and American masters. For indentured servants, having fixed their servant contract lengths and other labor conditions pre-voyage, any unexpected changes in the value of their contracts between embarkation in Europe and debarkation in America, say due to unexpected changes in American labor market conditions or unexpected changes in the health and physical prowess of the servants during the voyage, were absorbed by the shipper. Indentured servants could not be forced by their shipper to serve longer contracts once the ship had sailed-they had guaranteed fixed contracts. As such, shippers bore all the transportation risks under the indenture method. They were the residual claimants for any unexpected changes in the value of their servant cargos between embarkation and first sale in America (Galenson 1981: 13-15, 97-113; Grubb 1985: 855-68). The tradeoff for servants was that with fixed servant contracts to be sold by shippers

in America, servants had no choice over who their masters would be and no ability after observing the servant market at arrival to negotiate any special or opportunistic conditions into their servant contracts. By contrast, redemptioner immigrants agreed to fixed debts with shippers at embarkation. These debts equaled their passage costs and other migration expenses that had been transferred or sold to the shipper. At debarkation, redemptioner immigrants negotiated their own servant contracts, including the contract’s length, directly with prospective American masters. The one requirement was that the contracts had to be long enough and valuable enough for American buyers to pay the shippers the redemptioners’ contracted passage debts. Under the redemption method, the shippers possessed guaranteed passage payments, and immigrants were the residual claimants for any unexpected changes in their value in the American servant market due to unexpected changes in American market conditions or in the immigrants’ health and physical prowess between embarkation in Europe and debarkation in America. Immigrants bore all the transportation risks under the redemption method. The tradeoff for these redemptioner immigrants was that, in exchange for foregoing the insurance of a fixed guaranteed servant contract at embarkation, they had at debarkation the ability to select their own American masters among those attending the servant auction. They could also negotiate special and opportunistic conditions into their servant contracts on the spot at debarkation, taking advantage of current revelations in the American servant market at the time of their landing. Once the servant labor contract was signed and sold in America the distinction between these two methods of entering servitude, indenture or redemption, ceased to matter. Servant law in America did not distinguish between and applied equally to both methods of entering servant labor contracts (Galenson 1981: 13-15; Grubb 2000a: 42-75).