Irish, indentured and chattel slavery

March 16, 2017 (International Freedom Day) It has become almost a rite of passage. Every year we see stories shared on Facebook and other social media. We had another group of slaves in Colonial America. These are the Irish, many who were forcefully brought to the New World as indentured servants. It has a modern subtext in many cases, tightly tied to the African experience.

This story has many variations of this simple storyline. “My uncle, aunt, first relative, was an indentured servant. They were slaves, why can’t blacks get over it?” This has become very popular with the far right because it helps create a toxic narrative.

It does two things, it denies blacks a core aspect of their history, while at the same time it proves, in their eyes, that they are superior. This is why this was adopted by the far right who is pushing a form of white nationalism.

Before we can even get into whether indentured servitude was slavery, we first need to define the terms.

Merriam Websters defines slavery as follows:

Definition of slavery

  • 1: drudgery, toil
  • 2: submission to a dominating influence
  • 3a : the state of a person who is a chattel of another b : the practice of slaveholding.

The definition of slavery does not include indentured servitude. This is defined as follows: “: a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.”

However, under International Law both are considered a form of bondage and human trafficking. Both also have a very long history in not just western history, but human history. In order to determine how we call this, we first need to examine some of this long history. For the sake of brevity, I will just stay with Western sources.


So how old is slavery? if you want to be crass about it, slavery started in one form or another ten minutes after humanity learned how to till the land. It rose side by side with agriculture.

The earliest sources of information for this in western culture are two fold, the Bible, in the form of Deuteronomy, which has rules on how to treat slaves, and critically, freeing slaves during the year of Jubilee.

These texts will become critical to both justify slavery, and systems of slavery. Indentured servitude, which is limited in time, and by contract, is patterned after this text. However, chattel slavery was justified using Biblical exegesis.

The second critical Bronze Age source is the Code of Hammurabi. It is in this ancient text that we find the first description of both forms of slavery. You could sell yourself into bondage, as in indentured servant, for a determined number of years, or you could end up a slave for life. In the latter form, chattel slavery, could and did lead to passing of the status to descendants. It was not unlike African slavery of the 17th to 19th century.. This applied mostly to prisoners of war, or criminals.

Most importantly, the Code specified rights and duties, partly to avoid abuse. So did the Biblical texts,, which also remind us that the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt and were freed by God.

Greece and Rome also had slaves. It was cheap labor and many were prisoners of war. Captives taken in foreign wars, who, in particular built the Roman Empire. For Rome we are talking of as high as 80 percent of the population could have been considered slaves. However, those who were near the bottom of the social order, could sell themselves into the bottom of the social order. Slaves were not seen as less than human, but had no right to vote in Ancient Athens. Nor did they have the right for citizenship under Roman law. Many slaves were treated very well, and educated the children of the elite. Others toiled in the fields of Greece and Rome, and more than a few ended up in the Gladiatorial arenas for the entertainment of the people.

The Middle Ages

The dissolution of Rome did not mean the end of Slavery. It remained in Western Europe. However, it is in the Middle Ages that we see the first shadows of the form it would take during colonial times in the United States. According to Alice Rio in the early Middle Ages one way to pay one’s debt to society was penal enslavement. There was no penal system in early Middle Ages Europe. Nor was this system to appear for many centuries. So if you did not commit a crime that required the death penalty, but you had no means to pay your debt with property, you could become a slave for a determined period of time. It was, for all intents and purposes, indentured servitude.

Incidentally, chattel slavery did exist in the medieval period, however, it was present in Viking raids more than with Christianized lands. For many reasons, Europe developed a distaste for the chattel form of slavery, and a good working theory is to why has to do with Biblical texts, the same texts that would be used centuries later to justify African slavery. It also led to another form of cheap labor, and this was the development of a serf class, tied to the land. While serfs were not slaves, they were considered part of the land.

England and Ireland: A Complicated Story

There is a long history of bad blood between Ireland and England. They had the misfortune to be among the first colonies of a nascent British empire. The English did not see the Irish as equal. For that matter, the British did not treat the Scotts well either, or the Welsh.

It is in these early conquests the British practiced divide and conquer tactics that would make then one of the most powerful empires since Rome. Once the British crown expanded north, there were a few things that happened. The first is that by the 14th century the first Enclosure Acts were enacted. These acts put barriers in open fields that until then serfs were able to access. These enclosures meant that herds could not be fed, and lands could not be tilled, without the permit of the lord of the manor. Many of the new nobility did not give those permissions, and people were forced off the land, or into servitude.

The earliest indentures though were not for working the land. They were meant for military service. In early 14th century England, indentures were used to hire military officers for a period of time. Until 1642 there was no standing army. So armies were raised ad how, and disbanded soon after.

Later indentures for service in the New World maintained this aspect. They were not permanent, and had a limit in time. By the 16th century people who were poor, or committed a crime, could be sentenced to a set number of years into indentured servitude. In this sense the early medieval system came back, full circle.

One of the reasons, made in books such as White Cargo, was that workers were needed to clear the land in the newly chartered land of Virginia. The Virginia company initially bought these contracts from the crown, but later, held them in trust until they were sold to new owners in the New World. This is a critical point. The early indentured servants sent to the new world, came from royal prisons in London. They were subject to the poor laws passed by Elizabeth I and Parliament. They were meant to take away the pressure generated by vagrants moving from the country side to the cities. This was a direct consequence of the Enclosure Acts.

The Acts drove many peasants off the land. It was either leave, or starve. In the legend pushed by the far right it was only the Irish who were subjected to Indentures. No, it was not. Not only where Welsh and Scotts sent to the New World, but people were needed. The New Canaan was a nice piece of propaganda that made its way though Europe, and French, Belgians, Germans and Poles made their way to the New World. It is not like they could afford the fee for the crossing. So while the earliest indentures were criminals and prisoners of war, soon people willingly sold themselves, in the hope of a new life in a new world where land was plentiful. There was no way that early modern period Europeans could afford to buy land in Europe, but they were promised land grants in the vast emptiness of the New World. Somehow these other people disappeared from the historic record. Or at least they were ignored. Once one asks what is going on it is transparent.

What is This About?

First, lets get this out of the way. Under international law, both Chattel Slavery and Indentured Servitude are considered a form of slavery and human trafficking. Nor are they gone from the modern world. Not just in places like Dubai, or Libya, but they exist in the shadows in the United States. In our modern world it exists both in the sex trade, and in the labor trade.

Those who push this story line and ignore all else seek to erase the present, but also erase the past. African Americans make an argument that matters,. It is an effort to erase their history and experience, by telling them that they are somehow inferior because they have “not gotten over it.” While indentured servitude was a form of slavery, for the duration of the contract you could be sold and bought, it is clear that families were not forcibly separated, for the most part.

However, this story has a certain place of origin. It is the Bacon revolt of 1676. This was led by Nathaniel Bacon, who gathered people who were both indentured and slaves under his flag. Until that moment, both groups were treated the same under the law. Why? They were seen as property with no rights. The revolt showed to the British the need to divide and conquer. To do so, they gave some rights to indentured slaves. This did better their condition, and made them better than the African slaves in the eyes of society. This is a pattern that has existed since.

Poor whites have it slightly better than the poor of any other racial group. There is another danger to this. It seeks to engage in what a poster on Facebook referred to as oppression olympics. It is a cousin of if I acknowledge your civil rights, somehow mine are diminished, This belief is deep in the American psyche and has become a difficult one to break. Is indentured servitude a form of slavery? It has been recognized as such not just in recent International law, but all the way to Babylonian law. Is it comparable to other forms of slavery? Only in a legalistic way.

It is wrong to try to appropriate somebody else’s experience, or to deny their experience it by claiming yours is worst, or better. What is true is that slavery continues even though it is not legal. We know people are bought and sold in places like Libya thanks to CNN. We also know that workers are treated as slaves in the Arabian peninsula. Moreover, we know that human trafficking is happening right under our noses in the United States.

This is the discussion we should be having. We also should acknowledge another very uncomfortable reality. Slavery not being legal is new in the human experience. It started in Britain in the early 19th century. On International Freedom Day it is important to acknowledge the past, but also the present. Slavery persists, and we all should strive to stamp it from the earth and human experience. It takes many forms, and it persists.



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