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Page 12345

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The Plantation System and Indentured Servitude

[Picture of a tobacco plant]

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?

[Picture of typical indentured servants]

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.

[Picture of a plantation along a river]

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 churches.

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