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White Servitude and the Growth of Black Slavery in Colonial America

  • David W. Galenson (a1)

The role of white servitude evolved in a similar way during the American colonial period in those West Indian and southern mainland colonies where slavery became quantitatively important. The change from primary reliance on bound white labor to the use of slaves occurred in two steps, with an initial transition from servants to slaves in unskilled field work, followed some time later by widespread training of blacks and substitution of slaves for servants in skilled occupations. The timing of the two steps can be explained as a function of the changing relative costs of indentured and slave labor in the markets for unskilled and skilled labor.

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The argument and evidence summarized in this discussion have been presented more fully in Galenson, David Walter, “The Indenture System and the Colonial Labor Market: An Economic History of White Servitude in Colonial British America” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1979), a revised version of which will appear as White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (forthcoming). I am grateful to Stanley Engerman, Morgan Kousser, and Russell Menard for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

1 Peter Fontaine to Moses Fontaine, March 30, 1757, quoted in Mullin, Gerald W., Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (London, 1972), p. 9.

2 William Hay to Archibald Hay, Barbados, September 10, 1645, Scottish Haystoun Papers, GD 34/945.

3 William Gordon to Gilbert Gordon, Glasgow, August 4, 1732, and December 7, 1732, Scottish Record Office, Bught Papers, GD 23/6/9, nos. 6, 14

4 “An Inventory of all the … personal Estate of the Honble. Robert Carter, County of Lancaster Esqr. Deceased, taken as directed in his last Will,” Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.

5 Edward Atcherley to William Helyar, Jamaica, July 23, 1677, quoted in Bennett, J. Harry, “William Whaley, Planter of Seventeenth-Century Jamaica,” Agricultural History, 40 (04 1966), 121.

6 There is no necessary implication of rising skill levels of the servant population as a whole over time because of the possibility of shifts in servant supply conditions, either to a particular region or to the colonies in general. Thus, Table 2 shows that a decline in servant supply in the final quarter of the seventeenth century led to lower skill levels of servants bound for all destinations in the 1680s than in the 1650s.

7 The sample includes all collections of English servant registrations surviving in significant numbers. Estimates suggest these may cover 5 percent of total servant immigration to the colonies, yet what is more important is an understanding of any biases the sample might contain. It does not include involuntary servants, principally convicts, and underrepresents servants without contracts, bound by the custom of the country. Both of the latter groups probably were less skilled on average than those registered. In the eighteenth century, convicts were bound chiefly for the Chesapeake, and their inclusion would probably increase the differentials of Table 2 between the Chesapeake and the West Indies. Information on the distribution of destinations of servants bound by the custom is insufficient to suggest the effects of their inclusion.

8 The differences in proportions of skilled workers between Barbados and the Chesapeake and between Jamaica and the Chesapeake are significantly greater than zero for two-tailed t-tests at the.10 level.

9 The difference in proportions is significant at the.001 level.

10 The difference in proportions is significant at the.001 level.

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The Journal of Economic History
  • ISSN: 0022-0507
  • EISSN: 1471-6372
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-economic-history
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