Difference Between Slaves & Indentured Servants

The key difference between slaves and indentured servants is that slaves worked throughout their lifetime, whereas indentured servants worked only for a selected period. Slavery is a status that slaves gained for their life. They had to remain as slaves during their whole lives, and their offspring also become slaves. But indentured servants worked for a few years according to a business arrangement. After that period, they gained their freedom and were allowed to enjoy life as they desired.

Key Takeaways

  • Slaves were considered property and had very limited rights, while indentured servants had more freedom and rights.
  • Indentured servants worked under a contract for a specific number of years, after which they gained their freedom and could live a normal life.
  • Slavery was both voluntary and involuntary, whereas indentured servitude was based on a contractual agreement between the servant and the master.

Who are Slaves?

The word ‘slave’ originated from the old French word ‘sclave’. The usage of this word came when central and eastern European slaves were enslaved by Moors in the North American peninsula during the Medieval period. Slaves were treated as property and also poorly treated. They were owned by people and therefore could be sold at their will. Slaves had very few rights and were even considered individuals without any relations or kins by law. Because of this, nobody could stand up on their behalf.
They were considered as ‘marginal individuals’, ‘outsiders’ or ‘socially dead persons’. Due to this limited personal liberty and freedom, their participation in decision making, travelling and other activities were restricted.
Figure 01: Slaves Working on a Plantation
Slaves were even restricted in selecting sexual partners and reproduction as well.  They were uneducated and remained slaves throughout their lifetime. Hardly a few gained freedom from slavery.  Even during the transportation from their hometown/ country to the area where they were required to work, slaves faced ill-treatment. They were packed together and chained and were given scraps to eat. People came to slavery to pay debts, earn money or as punishments. Some were captured and forced into slavery against their will. Therefore, slavery was voluntary as well as involuntary. Offspring of slaves too were considered as slaves.

Who are Indentured Servants?

Indentured servants can be recognized as men and women who agree to work for a definite number of years through a contract. They enjoyed more freedom than slaves. They were also provided with transportation to the relevant country/place, food, accommodation, and clothing. Usually, adults serve about seven years, while children may serve more than that. But many were under 21 years of age. Most of these indentured servants served in the tobacco fields and farms in the colonial countries. They were not paid for their hard labour and the manual work.  Some worked as housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, while some were even skilled in bricklaying, plastering and blacksmithing.
After the agreement, the workers were allowed to have a liberal life. When they completed this contract period, some even received a monetary incentive that was known as ‘freedom dues’.  After this contract, they are also allowed to own land, find a good job and vote.
Figure 01: Certificate of Indenture
However, after this contract period, in some instances, the masters could extend the contract period on account of violation of rules and regulations (for example, running away, getting pregnant) by the servant. This made the contract period, which is generally four years, become seven years or more. Most of the Virginia planters filled their fields with these labourers during the seventeenth century.
In the beginning, the Virginia Company paid for the servants’ transportation across the Atlantic, but later the company promised them lands instead of paying for the transportation. This made more indentured servants arrive in the United States in search of jobs. But due to their mistreatment in the hands of cruel masters, laws and regulations were formed slightly in favour of these servants. They were able to make complaints if necessary in courts because of these laws.

What is the Difference Between Slaves and Indentured Servants?

Slaves are people who are the legal property of others and are forced to obey and work for them. Indentured servants are workers who signed a contract by which they agreed to work for a certain number of years in exchange for transportation, food, clothing, and shelter. The key difference between slaves and indentured servants is that slaves worked throughout their lifetime, whereas indentured servants worked only for a selected period according to a business arrangement.
The following figure presents the differences between slaves and indentured servants in tabular form..

Summary – Slaves vs Indentured Servants

Slaves are owned by masters throughout their lifetime. Therefore, slavery is a lifetime status. Children of slaves also become slaves. They are given no liberty, remuneration, rights, nor freedom to make any kind of decision. They are almost always poorly treated and can be bought and sold according to their masters’ wishes. Indentured servants work for a specific number of years based on an agreement. After this contract period, they are free and are allowed to live a normal life. They are given a remuneration or land in exchange for their work according to their agreement. Moreover, they have rights and are treated considerably well. Thus, this is the summary of the difference between slaves and indentured servants.
Reference:1. “Slavery.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 July 2021.
2. Tardi, Carla. “Indentured Servitude Definition.” Investopedia, 29 June 2021.Image Courtesy:1. “Slaves working on a plantation – Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate III – BL” By Creator:William Clark – provided by the British Library from its digital collections. (CC0) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Certificate of Indenture Wellcome L0042118” By Welcome Images (CC BY 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia

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Dmitri Ivanov
Dmitri Ivanovhttps://whats-different.com
Dmitri Ivanov, a writer and managing editor, was educated in Canada and holds a BS in Science. Dmitri loves doing research, writing, and teaching various courses.


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