Indentured Migration and the Servant Trade from London to America, 1618–1718: "There is Great Want of Servants." by John Wareing
The indentured servant trade to English colonial North America has attracted considerable interest from historians since at least the 1940s, when Abbott Emerson Smith published his extensive study, Colonists in Bondage.1 Interrogating the "quality" or "sort" of servants who made these voyages, ascertaining the push and pull factors that took them across the Atlantic, and examining the experiences of indentured servants in the Americas were the key areas of scholarly debate that shaped the study of servitude until the 1980s.2 More recently, scholars have focused on servitude's place in the transition to slavery in colonial settings, often framing their discussions around the "spectrum of coercion of labor" that influenced the lives of many early modern people.3 John Wareing's contribution to this arena focuses almost exclusively on the London side of the equation, revealing a good deal about the sorts of people who made up migrant populations and the factors (legal and illegal) that caused servants to find themselves aboard ships bound for the Americas. He also investigates a group largely overlooked by historians: the individuals who controlled and shaped the trade in the capital. Indentured Migration and the Servant Trade from London to America contributes to the vast scholarship on this subject by focusing on the system [End Page 187] of servitude itself through its often unsavory entrepreneurs, rather than on the experiences of servants in the Americas.
To best analyze the new economic system that arose around indentured servitude, Wareing's book is divided into three parts. The brief first section (just one chapter) explains how demands for labor in the Americas precipitated the trade in people, as well as how new migration practices infused the broader cultural milieu of early modern England. The second section explores the trade prior to the Transportation Act of 1718—when the parameters of servitude shifted in law as criminals were sentenced to indentured service in the colonies in lieu of prison time—and Wareing spends three lengthy chapters analyzing how the noncriminal system developed. Many of his findings here will be familiar to scholars of labor and migration in the early modern English Atlantic world: servants often migrated first from other parts of England to London before departing for the colonies; servants came from a range of social positions (not just the stereotypical "Rogues, whores and vagabonds"); and some servants had more freedom of choice when sailing for North America than others.4 However, Wareing does add additional nuance to the category of indentured servants, identifying four specific groups: Redemptioner, Consigned, Exchanged, and Customary servants. Focusing on the last three groups, he demonstrates the significance of these distinctions, explaining how "Consigned" (42) servants made contracts with a specific master prior to departing London and were generally better able to set the terms of their service. "Exchanged" (42) servants, however, signed general contracts and did not often have a choice in destination or master, and their contracts could be bought and sold in the Americas, while "Customary" (45) servants were transported across the Atlantic and bound by the customs of the colony in which they were sold.
Customary and Exchanged servants were also the women and men most likely to be coerced or kidnapped into servitude, the subject of the third section of Wareing's book, which concentrates on the criminal elements of the trade. The servant trade was lucrative, but only if procurers continued to supply a steady stream of migrants to ships' captains. Wareing notes that procurers and the "Spirits" (25 n. 44) who worked for them almost always used persuasion to convince their marks of the benefits of selling their labor in the Americas, but he reveals how they frequently also turned to coercion, lying, and, in some cases, kidnapping to achieve their goals. The hierarchy in the trade becomes clear in this section as Wareing uncovers how some procurers, such as William Haveland and John Dykes, climbed the socioeconomic ladder as a result of these practices, which included taking advantage of vulnerable adolescents and recent arrivals to London. Basing his analysis of such criminality on almost 250 court cases in Middlesex and London that attempted to hold procurers to account, Wareing illuminates the darker aspects of the servant trade. Though stories circulated in English ports about servants being sent across the Atlantic against their will, the court cases reveal the specific [End Page 188] strategies and approaches that procurers adopted and the ways that servants occasionally used legal means to moderate their plight. This section also delves into the various attempts made by Parliament over the course of the seventeenth century to protect indentured servants and to prevent abuses in the trade. Ultimately, most of these endeavors ended in failure as political factions and cronyism dampened enthusiasm for change. As Wareing shows, "spiriting" never attained the status of a felony, and most prosecutions ended in acquittal.
Wareing's approach to his subject is meticulous, and his source base is impressively vast. In addition to the London and Middlesex court cases, he examines data about more than 2,100 servants from registers collected in the capital in the 1680s to reveal a host of demographic information about a significant cross section of the 320,000 men and women who became indentured servants in North America and the West Indies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He has also painstakingly investigated some of the procurers, using a wide variety of sources including deeds, Court of Chancery proceedings, tax records, and legal indictments, to piece together their lives, an approach that offers a rich and original addition to the scholarship on servitude. Throughout the book, furthermore, Wareing draws on a range of statistical information gleaned from customs records and merchant accounts to buttress his findings, as well as on literary accounts of servitude and spiriting from authors such as Daniel Defoe and Aphra Behn that provide a glimpse of how this new system of labor influenced the cultural realm. Together these sources build a layered and nuanced picture of the inner workings of the trade in servants and its impact on English society.
Despite his attention to the details of the trade, the conclusions Wareing draws from these materials are less satisfying. He challenges both Smith's claim that all servants were coerced and David W. Galenson's assertion that servants were free actors who worked the system to their advantage and sold their labor to the highest bidder, but the ultimate payoff of Wareing's assessment that servants fell into both categories is less clear. Similarly, though Wareing is right not to equate indentured servitude with slavery, his assessment of the criminal elements of the trade—which he does directly compare to how traders in Africa acquired captives—raises interesting questions about the influence of racial factors on coercion and kidnapping that he does not engage. He also refrains from analyzing how the vigorous contemporary debate on the relationship between servitude and slavery that so shaped English attitudes toward African slavery affected either the discourse around servitude in England or the actual numbers of indentured servants pursuing a life in the Americas. Scholars interested in broader discussions of slavery and bondage in the English Atlantic world may be disappointed—and reasonably so—not to see Wareing examine these subjects more directly. However, for historians and graduate students interested in early modern English population movements, servant migration to the Americas, the place of London in developing the system of servitude, and above all the shadowy world of servant procurement, there is much to recommend in Wareing's book. [End Page 189]
1. Abbott Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1947).
2. See for example Mildred Campbell, "Social Origins of Some Early Americans," in Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History, ed. James Marken Smith (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959), 63–89; David Souden, "'Rogues, whores and vagabonds'? Indentured Servant Emigrants to North America, and the Case of Mid-Seventeenth-Century Bristol," Social History 3, no. 1 (January 1978): 23–41; James Horn, "Servant Emigration to the Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century," in The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, ed. Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979), 51–95; David W. Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge, 1981); Sharon V. Salinger, " To Serve Well and Faithfully": Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800 (New York, 1987); Russell R. Menard, "British Migration to the Chesapeake Colonies in the Seventeenth Century," in Colonial Chesapeake Society, ed. Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988), 99–132.
3. Simon P. Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia, 2013), 3 (quotation). Other recent works on this subject include John Donoghue, "'Out of the Land of Bondage': The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition," American Historical Review 115, no. 4 (October 2010): 943–73; Michael Guasco, Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World (Philadelphia, 2014); Jerome S. Handler, "Custom and Law: The Status of Enslaved Africans in Seventeenth-Century Barbados," Slavery and Abolition 37, no. 2 (2016): 233–55.
4. Souden, Social History 3: 23–41.