The phenomenon of indentured servitude was quite common in the 17th century colonial Virginia. Often being the only means for the less fortunate families to provide their younger members with an opportunity for a wealthier life, indentured servitude, though doubtlessly being an important experience, often resulted in mistreatment of servants, particularly, women.
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Because of the lack of control over the quality of living conditions provided by the owners of the colonial Virginian property to their British servants, the increasingly hard work conditions and unbearable living ones, combined with the impossibility to change the situation, resulted in extraordinarily high death rates among the indentured servants, as well as a high number of records of physical abuse.
The letter provided has quite a lot of pieces of evidence to support the claim concerning the unreasonably hard working conditions in the coastal Virginia. More to the point, the letter in question points exactly at the lack of decent working and living environment in several ways by approaching the problem from several standpoints.
First and most obvious, the actual evidence concerning the unsanitary conditions, which workers had to dwell in, should be mentioned: “The household is a dreadful place.”1 The existing records concerning the life of English employees in the setting of colonial Virginia show that the rates of disease contraction was terrifyingly high among the specified demographics due to the unsanitary environment that was extremely favorable for the development of various health issues, such as malaria (due to a large amount of mosquitoes).2
Speaking of which, the fact that the area was swarming with pests did not add to the safety of the indentured workers’ health. Though the letter does not mention the actual health issues, the healthcare concerns are obviously hinted at in a range of passages, including the fact that the young indentured servant has to share the house with the people, whom she defines as “low” and, therefore, having little idea of personal hygiene3.
The issue concerning the physical threats to the life of an indentured worker on the plantation in a colonial Virginia does not end there, unfortunately. According to the evidence mentioned in the letter, as well as other historical records that are available at present, both men and women, who were employed as indentured workers, suffered from severe physical abuse.4
In most cases involving female indentured employees, the issue of sexual abuse was also rather frequent; though sometimes resulting in marriage, the specified issues in most cases ended with the female servants often triggered the increase of the time of servitude. As a result, the environment, in which female workers had to carry out physically challenging work, were far from favorable.5 The male workers, in their turn, also had to deal with a lot of pressure coming from extremely poor working conditions and the poor treatment of the employers.
As the letter shows, the servants were deprived from basic human rights, including the right to rest and leisure. According to what young Johanna wrote, Mr. Pagley, the person, who was supposed to supervise her, did not allow her to take breaks and was dissatisfied with the fact that she spent her personal time on writing letters.6
This is a graphic example of the violation of the workers’ basic rights, including the right for an eight-hour working day. Indeed, a retrospect into the times of the colonial Virginia will show that the indentured workers were subjected to extremely cruel conditions, in which they had to work until they were completely exhausted.
It should be noted that the aforementioned treatment of the indentured servants was not faced with humble acceptance, as one might have thought after reading the letter mentioned above.
Even some of the details mentioned in the specified letter show that, while a range of indentured servants, particularly, women, were quite humble and rather frightened to take decisive steps, a range of men serving on the plantations showed remarkable fortitude towards the inhumane conditions and treatment that they were exposed to. Not only did a range of such works managed to survive, but also started a number of riots, as historical records show.7
The chaotic environment, in which indentured servants worked, contributed to the emergence of riots just as much as the harsh conditions did. As the letter in question portrays the live of colonial Virginia, the area was under a remarkably weak control of the local authorities; as a result, very few obstacles were created for the staff to plot rebellions.
The latter were triggered mostly by the lack of proper working and living conditions; for instance, one of the fiercest riots was started as a result of the lack of meat in the workers’ meals8. The resulting revolt, however, was quite impressive in its scale and effects, which was quite expectable from the people, whom Johanna described in her letter as “low sort.”9
When analyzing the reasons for the increased death rates among the people working on the plantations of the colonial Virginia10, and the indentured employees in particular, one must mention that identifying the reasons in question precisely is quite hard. On the one hand, it was obvious that these were poor working conditions dooming the workers to a long and painful death. On the other hand, these conditions could have been improved to an impressive degree once a better supervision and reporting system had been provided.11
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Then, however, even with a more thorough supervision, the fate of migrant workers could hardly trouble the local Virginian authorities, which means that the entire system of government left much to be desired at the time.12 The poor working conditions, in their turn, triggered major unrests among the indentured employees, who plotted riots in order to improve the environment, in which they were to work and to gain at least some basic human rights.
The letter written by young Johanna contains sufficient evidence for proving that the working conditions, which the indentured had to live in when moving to the colonial Virginia, did not leave any chances for them to survive and spurred a number of riots among the workers.
Moreover, the death toll among the specified demographics was dreadful due to the working and living conditions provided for the staff; with no major supervision and no reporting system, the staff was deprived of their basic human rights entirely and was subjected to a range of dangers, including the exposal to a number of diseases, the threat of physical exhaustion, physical violence, starvation, etc.
Though the letter does not mention every gruesome detail of the life of an indentured worker, it contains sufficient evidence for proving the fact that indentured workers were kept in extremely poor conditions.
Gray, Edward. Colonial America. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 2003. Print.
Hill, Jackie. “Case Studies in Indentured Servitude in Colonial America.” Constructing the Past 9.1 (2008), 54–62. Print.
“History of Slavery in America” University of California. n. d.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Major Problems in American Colonial History. 3rd ed. Boston, M: Houghton Mifflin. 2000. Print.
Lepore, Jill. Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000. Print.
1. Edward Gray, Colonial America, p. 104.
2. Lepore 134.
3. Edward Gray, Colonial America, p. 104.
4. Lepore 133.
5. Hill 59.
6. Edward Gray, Colonial America, p. 104.
7. Kupperman 161.
8. “History of Slavery in America” para. 2.
9. Edward Gray, Colonial America, p. 104.
10. Lepore 135–136.
11. Kupperman 159.
12. Kupperman 160.