White Servitude in Colonial South Carolina

By Warren B. Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
Life of the Servant

LEGISLATION APPLICABLE to white servants furnishes a substantial guide to the determination of their social status, but however harsh the treatment actually accorded this lower stratum, it was usually in advance of the statutory provisions for their regulation and punishment. This was true in England itself till well into the nineteenth century. The laws, as they appear at any given time, are apt to suggest a more desperate condition than actually existed. Yet those of "South Carolina" reflect a decided public interest in the welfare of the white servant class.

Discussion of the legislation bearing immediately upon this element of population has brought out the fact that while their liberty was circumscribed, the conditions under which they served were not especially onerous. In fact, they were doubtless often an improvement over those under which free inhabitants of the same classes lived in their native countries.1 Moreover, not only was provision made for the legal safeguarding of the rights of the servant, but evidence is not wanting to prove that the protection of the law was actually accorded them. This refers only to their legal rights. Consideration must also be given the kind of treatment accorded them by their masters and mistresses.

Turning again, for comparative discussion, to Barbados, Governor Atkins in 1680 wrote the Lords of Trade and Plantations: "It is forbidden under a considerable penalty of sugar to bury any Christian servant until so many freeholders of the neighborhood have viewed the corpse to make sure that he may not have met a violent death at the hands of his master."2 This is contemporary with the cases cited where servants in Carolina were suing at law because of failure of their masters to accord them the treatment they were entitled to.3 At the period when the use of white servants was at its height in South Carolina, the public attitude toward their treatment was fairly reflected in the report of the committee appointed to investigate

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