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Slavery vs. Indentured Servants

How and Why Slavery Developed in American Colonies

Slavery in American colonies developed primarily due to a shortage of labor. By the start of the 16th century, after Christopher Columbus discovered America, Portugal and Spain were in the business of buying or kidnapping slaves from Africa and transporting them to South America to offer free or cheap labor in various plantations (Galenson, 1981). American colonies picked this practice in the 17th century starting with Virginia were English colonists brought in Africans to work in tobacco plantations. Slaves were brought to American colonies through various means. Some were captured in wars, others sold by their fellow Africans who participated in the slave trade, while others were kidnapped. White merchants would buy these slaves and transport them across the Atlantic before selling them to plantation owners in various places in colonial America. Initially, slaves were being treated as servants and thus they would be released after working for several years when the owner felt that he or she had recouped his or her initial investment that went into buying the slave. However, later on, the laws changed and people became life-long slaves to their masters including their children, both living and unborn.

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Slavery in the North vs. in the South

Slavery in American colonies could be divided into two broad categories – the northern and southern colonies. In the south, slavery mainly served the purpose of providing cheap or free labor in plantations. The common plantations in this region were for rice and tobacco (Bean, 1972). However, there were no plantations in the north and thus slaves were mainly working in households working individually or in twos. This was contrary to the situation in the south where one person could own hundreds of slaves. Additionally, in the north, slaves would be trained to gain specialized skills in a bid to help their masters in their professions. For instance, ministers, merchants, and tradesmen would work with slaves in their duties. This aspect was lacking in the south where slaves were specifically needed to engage in heavy agricultural works. Similarly, in the north, female slaves were mainly needed to work as household servants, which was different from the south where they provided agricultural labor. These differences explain why later after the abolishment of slavery, the practice continued for longer periods in the south as compared to the north.

Differences between Slaves and Indentured Servants

Slaves and indentured servants differed in many ways. To understand the differences between these two, it is important to discuss the underlying concepts of these terms. Slaves were bought and used as properties. Therefore, like any other asset, slaves would be sold, bought, traded, bargained for, and exchanged (Galenson, 1981). They were also included in the owners’ assets. On the other hand, indentured servants were people who would sign a contract with their masters to work for a specified period after which they could become free. Therefore, the main difference is that while slaves were not free as they were their masters’ property, indentured servants enjoyed some freedom. Additionally, indentured servants could not be sold or exchanged because they only worked under contractual terms, unlike slaves who belonged to their owners as assets. Another major difference between the two is that indentured servants were mainly white or Native Americans, while the majority of slaves were Africans.


Bean, R. N. (1972). The British trans-Atlantic slave trade 1650-1775. The Journal of Economic History, 409-411.

Galenson, D. W. (1981). White servitude and the growth of black slavery in colonial America. Journal of Economic History, 39-47.

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