Article excerpt

Indentured servants played an important role in the economy of the early colonial Chesapeake Bay region. In exchange for transportation to the new world and the eventual opportunity to establish themselves in the colonies, they supplied much-needed labor to struggling tobacco farmers. Studies of indentured servitude traditionally have viewed the master-servant relationship as a simple exchange of service for transportation, upkeep, and freedom dues--payments in corn, clothing, and sometimes tools and land made to servants at the end of their service. Most studies address such issues as the nature of the servant trade and contract; the economic contribution of servants to the tobacco-growing regimen; the economic impulses that encouraged the transition from servant to slave labor in the late seventeenth century; the incidence of skilled artisans among servants; and the demographic significance of servants to population growth, settlement patterns, and family formation. Other analyses consider social and behavioral aspects of the servant experience, such as the social background of servants, the opportunity for upward social mobility, and as brief references to the problem of runaway servants and servant suits for freedom and freedom dues.(1)

These studies, however, fail to address how the mutual dependence of servants and their masters and mistresses affected their quality of life. Relations between free colonial settlers and their bonded laborers were, in fact, contested and emotionally charged as both masters and servants struggled to shape and define the power relations between them. In some cases servants and master reached agreement themselves, but frequently the courts passed judgment upon both master and servant in cases of thievery, flight, physical abuse, rape, and even murder. Examination of legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly and the records of the county and provincial Maryland courts during the seventeenth century reveals that the master-servant relationship was much more complex than the simple contract embodied in the indenture. As recent studies of slavery have shown that slaves were able to carve out a certain degree of autonomy in their relationships with their masters, indentured servants also negotiated with their masters to improve their position in colonial society using a variety of methods available to them.

The seventeenth-century Chesapeake settler, whether free or indentured, faced an uncomfortable and uncertain existence. The "seasoning" period following arrival, during which disease endemic to the region could easily cause death, and the difficulty in carving out a self-sufficient tobacco plantation in relative wilderness made the seventeenth-century experience particularly arduous. Further, a chronic shortage of labor and slow demographic growth hindered the development of a mature society. Maryland's first proprietor from 1632 to 1675, Lord Baltimore, quickly abandoned his dream of forming stable communities based on manorial relations of lord and tenant farmers, recognizing instead that the slow growth of Maryland's population, like Virginia's, required a more generous land grant system and laws to encourage both freemen and indentured servants to immigrate. Land grants initially of 100 acres and later of 50 acres were awarded to every adult and child over 16 who immigrated into the colony, including servants; and, until 1663, freedom dues for male servants included 50 acres of land. This grant system encouraged settlers to transport themselves and their families to the new world and to bring servants to help them survive, thus creating an even larger population.(2)

Despite the steady immigration inspired by these land grants, the population grew very slowly in Maryland and the Chesapeake region, as high mortality rates from diseases such as malaria combined with slow reproduction rates hindered population growth. Between 1634 and 1680 an estimated 34,000 people immigrated to Maryland, roughly two-thirds of them indentured servants; yet by 1680, Maryland's population numbered only about 20,000. …