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Workforce of British Colonial America

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Johnson 1
Katherine Johnson
Rex Etheridge
HIS 131N
7 November 2014
Labor in British Colonial America
When Europeans first came to the Americas, there were no farms, houses, roads, or
other infrastructure. It all had to be built, and the colonies needed a workforce. "The labor of
choice was indentured servants imported from England... Later, slaves would replace
servants..." (Beck, 3) Colonies built up around the most fertile areas and ports, creating a
diverse array of work available to the labor force. Conditions and treatment varied largely by the
cash crop of the area coupled with the climate. As slavery replaced indentured servants, ways
of managing the new influx of workers began to vary by region.
It is important to note how the early colonial workforce was staffed. Indentured servitude
was the primary source of labor, most of whom were the poor migrants from England. These
workers signed contracts, or indentures, promising to work for the planters in set terms. Most
commonly, terms were seven years in length. In exchange for their work, servants would
receive passage to America, food, clothing, and a place to live. Servants usually received half
of what they earned and had some rights and privileges of free colonists. (Beck, 5) However,
conditions were terrible in the new land and servants died off before their terms were complete.
Once the lifespan of laborers increased and servants lived out their indentures, a new problem
arose. "The Planters needed a workforce, but the more servants they imported, the more
shiftless, property-less young men would be floating around the colony when their terms of
servitude were up. The solution was at hand: slavery." (Beck, 6) And thus, by the 1700's,
immigration from indentured servants had slowed while the number of slaves imported to the
colonies increased dramatically. In chattel slavery, a "slave was property and could only be
freed if the slave-owner paid for his or her passage out of the colony." (Beck, 131). Basically,

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Johnson 2
the colonies needed a workforce that was consistent and capable of replenishing itself. As time
passed, colonial society began to rank even the previously exploited lower class whites above
slaves:
"To further distinguish between slaves and free, slaves were prohibited from
owning property... A later law specialty prohibited masters from lashing white
servants who were naked, a punishment considered at that point suitable only for
black slaves, not white servants, no matter how poor their condition." (Beck,
131)
Once slavery had taken root in the colonies, it did not take long for each region to learn
how to utilize them to meet their needs. In the Tidewater region, tobacco was the cash crop.
Growing tobacco requires a skilled worker; planters desired to yield quality over quantity in most
cases. Furthermore, "tobacco cultivation wore the soil out very quickly, and planters periodically
moved their workforces to fresh land." (Beck, 139) Slaves in the Tidewater were more likely to
be separated from their families and worked on smaller plantations with the gang system, in
which "members were closely supervised by white overseers and black drivers and were
expected to keep up the pace." Tobacco slaves of the Tidewater were in closer proximity to
their owners as opposed to the largely independent rice plantations of the Low Country. "Rice
cultivation in the Low Country ... was closely linked with the task system. Skilled or industrious
slaves could often complete their tasks by early afternoon and have the rest of the day off for
leisure or to work for themselves." (Beck, 139) Rice did not deplete the soil as tobacco did, so
lives for slaves in the Low Country was very different. The plantations were larger and stayed in
the same spot for longer, meaning slave families had a better chance of staying together.
However, the conditions were terrible in the swampy lowland areas. Planters rarely stayed on
the plantation due to the mosquitoes and disease, contributing to highly independent slaves
traded off for shorter lifespan and lower quality of life than those of the Tidewater.

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Another big difference in the treatment and lifestyle of slaves comes from the New
England and Middle Colonies. Here, a more sophisticated form of slavery arose, "owned mostly
by ministers, doctors, and the merchant elite, enslaved men and women in the North often
performed household duties in addition to skilled jobs." (Medford Historical Society, 2) They
worked as carpenters, tailors, and blacksmiths, often becoming so skilled that they took jobs
from the free white workers. The Middle Colonies took the same route with slavery; most
households had no more than two slaves, which they preferred to import from Dutch traders
because they were accustomed to Western culture, cold weather, and were more skilled.
(Harper, 2003)
In closing, labor was a very important factor in the success and establishment of British
Colonial America. Life was hard for the slaves and servants, but the future of America
depended on the production of cash crops and the development of infrastructure which would
undoubtedly be impossible without the massive work put forth by the slaves. The most
interesting aspect of early colonial slavery was the reliance on agriculture in the south versus
more skilled trades in the north. It would seem a slave would have fared much better in the
north rather than in the stagnant and disease-ridden rice plantations of the Low Country.
Works Cited
Beck, John, Aaron J. Randall, and Wendy Jean. Frandsen. "The Agrarian South." Southern
Culture: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2007. 3-5. Print.
Beck, John, Aaron J. Randall, and Wendy Jean. Frandsen. "Race." Southern Culture: An
Introduction. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2007. N. pag. Print.

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Katherine JohnsonRex EtheridgeHIS 131N7 November 2014Labor in British Colonial AmericaWhen Europeans first came to the Americas, there were no farms, houses, roads, or other infrastructure. It all had to be built, and the colonies needed a workforce. "The labor of choice was indentured servants imported from England... Later, slaves would replace servants..." (Beck, 3) Colonies built up around the most fertile areas and ports, creating a diverse array of work available to the labor force. Conditions and treatment varied largely by the cash crop of the area coupled with the climate. As slavery replaced indentured servants, ways of managing the new influx of workers began to vary by region.It is important to note how the early colonial workforce was staffed. Indentured servitude was the primary source of labor, most of whom were the poor migrants from England. These workers signed contracts, or indentures, promising to work for the planters in set terms. Most commonly, terms were seven years in length. In exchange for their work, servants would receive passage to America, food, clothing, and a place to live. Servants usually received half of what they earned and had s ...
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