Peter Wood on the meaning of indentured sevants
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Q: What does it mean to be indentured? What are you selling, how are you treated, what happens once you reach the New World?
A: Many people in North America in the seventeenth century were unfree in some form. That is, their labor was not their own. If you were indentured, it meant that you had signed away your working life for a set number of years. You would work for someone else. They would feed you. At the end of your term of indenture, you would become a free person and have a right to land. And the issue always was, how long that indenture would be, and under what conditions you would be forced to work. At its best, it was a short, friendly apprenticeship. At its worst, it was a long and exploitative situation in which you might die before you ever obtained your freedom. And in the seventeenth century, most workers, whether they were originally from Africa or from Europe, fell somewhere into this very uncertain system of, "If I work for you, you will exploit me as long and as hard as you can. But you don't have too much control over me. This is a frontier province, I can run away pretty easily. If you treat me too harshly, you may pay a price for it. There's no institutionalized controls to help you enforce that contract."
Professor of History
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