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Modern Voices
Peter Wood on the shift from indentured servitude to lifelong slavery
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Q: What do you think some of the issues are that contribute to the shift from indentured servitude to lifelong slavery?
Peter Wood

A: One of the things that goes into that, I think, is the absence of feedback within the transatlantic slave system. For the Europeans who came to the new world, they had constant feedback to the old world: they could send letters, they could return home. The reputation of a given colony like Virginia or South Carolina or New York could be established and was something that was known about. For the Africans, the situation is completely different. If I'm an African brought to Virginia, brutally mistreated, there's no way that that negative feedback can return home to alert my relatives of the problem. And that lack of communication means that the exploitation can continue.

So here's a group of people who were isolated from their old world roots, compared to the Europeans. That means they can be exploited more extensively. And there are plenty of people willing and able to do that. And the first exploitation is to extend the terms of servitude. You're going to serve for life -- I may have told you you were going to serve for fifteen years, but I'm going to tear that up and there's nothing you can do about it. And so, to suddenly find themselves involved in lifelong servitude, and then to realize that in fact their children might inherit the same status, that was a terrible blow -- I call it the terrible transformation. I mean, there is a shift that takes place in the second half of the seventeenth century, from a situation where exploitation is based more on religion to a situation by the end of the century where race has become the determining factor.
Peter Wood
Professor of History
Duke University

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