The Plantation System and Indentured Servitude
Tobacco saved Virginia and would shape its development for the next several
centuries. In London, the joke was that Virginia was built on smoke. Not caring
for the bitter-tasting leaf the local Indians grew, John Rolfe had experimented
with a milder West Indian brand, and shipped it to England in 1617. When demand
shot up, Virginians stopped searching for gold and began growing tobacco
everywhere, even in the streets of Jamestown.
But Virginia remained a god-awful place. Drink and sleep were the only breaks
from work in this colony where women were scarcer than corn, and brought higher
prices. Men drank themselves into stupefaction. In summer, there were as many
as 17 tavern ships at one time in the James River.
To make Virginia more attractive to settlers, a generous system of land grants
was established and an elected legislature was created - The House of
Burgesses. This was the first representative assembly in the New World. It
convened in 1619, the year the first black slaves were brought into the colony.
The seeds of slavery and freedom were sown at the same time.
But Virginia would develop its first plantation system without black slaves.
Land was cheap and plentiful; labor was scarce. But to get rich you needed both
land and labor. This abundance of land and shortage of people would shape
Virginia's, and America's, history for the next several centuries.
Unable to recruit large numbers of free workers, planters filled their labor
needs in other ways. Black bondsmen continued to be purchased, but they were
expensive and in short supply. Slave traders preferred to bring Africans to the
booming sugar islands in the Caribbean, where they commanded higher prices.
And what was the sense of buying an expensive slave when his chances of
surviving in pestilential Virginia were abysmal?
So Virginians turned to a system of white bondage called indentured servitude.
Drifters, drunks, and orphans were kidnapped or deceived by English recruiting
agents who worked for merchants and ship captains. Criminals came
cheerfully -- it was America or the gallows. But most indentured servants
willingly sold themselves into bondage for a term of five to seven years.
Their hope was that, once free, in land-rich America, they would rise in the
world. About four of every five immigrants to the Chesapeake region in the
17th century arrived as indentured servants. In no time, Virginia and
neighboring Maryland became societies of tobacco masters and bondsmen, with
white servants working in gangs of eight to ten supervised by whip-wielding
overseers. Because of disease and brutally harsh treatment, 40% of the
servants would not survive their term of service.
Most women servants worked in the masters' household, where many of them were
sexually abused. If a woman servant had an illegitimate child, she had to serve
an extra year or so for time lost for pregnancy and childbirth. There was
little sense of community or stability in Virginia. Even the family was a
precarious thing in a place where there were three times as many men as women,
where most husbands and wives died within seven years of their marriage, and
where half the children died before reaching adulthood.
Plantations were built some distance from one another along the region's
rivers. Planters set up their own docks and storehouses and dealt directly with
overseas merchants. As a result, Virginia and Maryland had almost no towns or
villages, and no merchant class of consequence. And there were few schools or