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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Growth

sales of slaves and servants, Virginia Gazette, 22 Dec. 1768
sales of slaves and servants,
Virginia Gazette, 22 Dec. 1768
Servants & Slaves
- Indentured servants from Europe

William Moraley, servant in Pennsylvania, 1730s, memoir excerpt

Elizabeth Ashbridge, servant in New York, 1730s, memoir excerpt (PDF)

Elizabeth Sprigs, servant in Maryland, letter to her father in England, 1756

John Grimes, servant in middle colonies, statement before being hanged, 1765 (PDF)

- Slaves from Africa
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon), slave in Maryland, 1730s, memoir excerpt (PDF)

Venture Smith, slave in Rhode Island, 1750s, memoir excerpt

As British America grew beyond a coastal slice of small farms and smaller towns (and a few "cities"), more workers were needed than its own population could provide, especially in the southern tobacco and rice fields. Poor English emigrants had filled most of the need in the 1600s, arriving as indentured servants to work under a "master" for a specified amount of time. But after 1680, the mainland colonists depended more on the slave trade. Indeed, if this section were part of an economic history, it would be titled "The Colonies' Labor Supply." (To learn more about the role of servants and slaves in the colonial economy, see Theme III: ECONOMIES).

We will consider servants and slaves together in this section, since both were laborers in bondage. Both would be sold upon arrival to "masters" who controlled them with little to no limits by the law. Most toiled in harsh degrading conditions. Many tried to escape; newspapers ran daily notices of runaway servants and slaves. The critical difference, of course, was that freedom was in the future of the servant, not the slave, a reality explored in Theme II: PEOPLES. (19 pages.)

  • European indentured servants. Impoverished men and women, many young and unemployed, took their chances on a better life by signing "indenture contracts," committing to work for a specified number of years in return for sea passage plus lodging and provisions in America. (Some also received provisions on being "freed" to help them begin their new lives.) Here we read two memoir excerpts and a letter written by English indentured servants, followed by an Irish servant's statement before being hanged for burglary.
    • - William Moraley, having been "reduc'd to Poverty" in England, contracted in 1729 to go to America in "View of bettering my Condition of Life." He worked as a "voluntary slave" in Philadelphia for five years before returning to England and writing his memoir, titled The Infortunate.
    • - Elizabeth Ashbridge arrived in New York City in 1732, a "Stranger in a Strange Land." Forced to sign an indenture to pay for her passage, she worked as a house servant in conditions that "would make the most strong heart pity the Misfortunes of a young creature as I was." After three years she bought out the remainder of her contract and supported herself as a seamstress.
    • - Elizabeth Sprigs, a houseservant in Maryland, wrote an anguished letter in 1756 to her father in England, describing "what we unfortunate English people suffer here" and begging him to send her "some relief," especially clothes.
    • - John Grimes was one of 50,000 convicts shipped to America by the British government to be "sold" as indentured servants (they cost about a third of the price of slaves).1 He and two other Irish servants were convicted of burglary in 1765 and sentenced to death by hanging. Felons' final statements (often published as pamphlets during this time, partly as morality lessons), lay out their life histories that led them to crime and execution in America, a fate suffered by many convict-servants.
    What aspects of indentured servitude do these four people share? How do their experiences differ? Why? Compare them with servants' journeys and experiences in the 1600s, in the toolbox American Beginnings.
    • - William Moraley, The Infortunate: or, the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley. Written by Himself, 1743, excerpt.
    • - Elizabeth Ashbridge, Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge . . . Written by Herself, ca. 1746?, publ. 1774, excerpts.
    • - Elizabeth Sprigs, Maryland, Letter to her father, John Sprigs, London, England, 22 September 1756.
    • - John Grimes, statement before being hanged, in The Last Speech, Confession, Birth, Parentage and Education, of John Grimes, John Fagan, and John Johnson . . . who were executed at Gallows-Hill, in the City of Burlington [New Jersey], on Wednesday the 28th of August, 1765, for Burglary and Felony . . . , 1765, excerpt.

  • African slaves. A critical and rapid transition occurred in the late 1600s in the colonies' imported labor supply—from indentured servants to slaves. In human terms, that means that more English chose to stay in England (which had become more economically stable) and many thousands more Africans were enslaved and transported to America. Numbers tell the story. By 1710, writes historian Jon Butler, "captured Africans outstripped indentured servants by a ratio of at least 6-1 and established a pattern of colonial labor consumption not broken until the American Revolution."2 From 1700 to 1775, more Africans were brought to the colonies than all European immigrants combined.3 Throughout the entire colonial period, 250,000 Africans were brought to America, which by 1780 had a black population of 576,000.4

    In contrast to the letters and journals of indentured servants, we have few first-person accounts of enslavement before 1800. Here we read from two of the rare accounts, both by elite west Africans who were captured in the 1730s and enslaved in America.
    • - Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (named Job ben Solomon in England) was an educated Muslim from west Africa who was captured in 1730, enslaved for two years in Maryland, then freed through the efforts of attorney Thomas Bluett, who compiled and published Job's narrative in 1734. Bluett helped Job ben Solomon return to his homeland in Africa "where we hope he is safely arrived to the great joy of his friends, and the honour of the English nation."
    • - Venture Smith (whose father's name was Saungm Furro) earned enough money as a slave in Rhode Island to free himself in the 1760s. After purchasing his wife and children, he bought land in New York and remained there until his death in 1809. Earlier, he narrated his memoir to Elisha Niles who published the Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture in 1798.
    How are these narratives similar? different? How would they differ from the narrative of an African who died enslaved, if such existed? See also the texts in the toolbox The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865, Themes I and II, FREEDOM and ENSLAVEMENT.
    • - Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon), Some Memories of the Life of Job, the Son of the Solomon High Priest of Boonda in Africa . . . , as written by Thomas Bluett, 1734, excerpt.
    • - Venture Smith, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa, But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself, compiled by Elisha Niles, 1798, Ch. II, excerpts.

Discussion questions
  1. What varieties of experiences are represented in these memoirs?
  2. What features of bonded life were shared by slaves and indentured servants?
  3. What features most differentiated their experiences?
  4. What motivated young English men and women to become indentured servants?
  5. How did the servants resist harsh treatment by their masters? What were the consequences?
  6. How did the slaves resist harsh treatment by their masters? What were the consequences?
  7. Compare the experiences of William Moraley and John Grimes, both imprisoned for their conduct. What led to their different outcomes?
  8. Compare the experiences of Elizabeth Sprigs and Elizabeth Ashbridge. How did their relationships with their fathers influence their decisions in Europe and in the colonies?
  9. How did William Moraley and Elizabeth Ashbridge achieve freedom from their indentures?
  10. Why, do you think, did John Grimes not experience the same outcome as Moraley and Ashbridge?
  11. Compare the experiences of Job ben Solomon and Venture Smith (perhaps including the experiences of Boyrereau Brinch and Olaudah Equiano in #3: Coming to America). How are they similar? different?
  12. How did each man achieve freedom? How did they create new lives after emancipation?
  13. Although both memoirs were compiled by white writers, Venture Smith's is presented in the first person ("I") and Job ben Solomon's in the third person ("he"). How does the difference influence the reader's response to the memoirs?
  14. Create a chart comparing slaves and indentured servants. Add three categories to the chart below that most illuminate the differences between the two groups of bonded laborers.

    Home continent       
    Modes of capture or recruitment       
    Length of servitude       
    Legal status in colonies       
    Types of labor       
    Primary hardships       
    Relationship with "master"       
    Relationship with relatives       
    Relationship with other slaves or servants      
    Extent of self-determination       
    Opportunities for self-expression       
    Sources of aid and comfort       
    Primary goals for the future       
    Mode of emancipation       
    Life after emancipation (if achieved)       

Framing Questions
  •  What factors fostered or hindered the growth of the British Atlantic colonies (that later became the United States of America) from 1690 to 1763?
  •  How did the European colonists respond to the growing diversity among them—by religion, ethnicity, economic status, and country of origin?
  •  How did the colonies’ growth affect Native Americans and enslaved Africans?
  •  How were the inhabitants’ concepts of liberty and rights affected by the colonies’ growth?
  •  List the power relationships that influenced the colonies in this period, e.g., between the colonies and England, the colonies and the French and Spanish on their borders, the settlers and the Native Americans, the clergy and their congregants, the southern planters and their servants and slaves, etc. How did the totality of these power relationships affect the colonies’ growth and self-perception?

Moraley:  3  servant in Pennsylvania
Ashbridge:  3  servant in New York
Sprigs:  2  servant in Maryland
Grimes:  1  servant in middle colonies
Diallo:  4  slave in Maryland
Smith:  6  slave in Rhode Island
TOTAL 19 pages
Supplemental Sites

1 Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 315.

2 Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 38.

3 T. H. Breen & Timothy Hall, Colonial America in an Atlantic World: A Story of Creative Interaction (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004), p. 259.

4 Taylor, p. 324.

Image: Virginia Gazette, 22 December 1768, p. 3, detail (advertisements for the sale of slaves and servants). John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Library, Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Colonies: 1690-1715   2. Cities & Towns   3. Coming to America
4. New Settlers   5. Servants & Slaves   6. New Colonies
7. Indian Lands   8. The Land   9. The Colonies: 1720-1763

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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