Until the late 18th century, indentured servitude was very common in British North America. It was often a way for poor Europeans to immigrate to the American colonies: they signed an indenture in return for a costly passage. After their indenture expired, the immigrants were free to work for themselves or another employer. It has been argued by at least one economist that indentured servitude occurred largely as "an institutional response to a capital market imperfection".
In some cases, the indenture was made with a ship's master, who sold on the indenture to an employer in the colonies. Most indentured servants worked as farm laborers or domestic servants, although some were apprenticed to craftsmen.
The terms of an indenture were not always enforced by American courts, although runaways were usually sought out and returned to their employer.
Between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and American Revolution had come under indentures. However, while almost half the European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies were indentured servants, at any one time they were outnumbered by workers who had never been indentured, or whose indenture had expired, and thus free wage labor was the more prevalent for Europeans in the colonies. Indentured people were numerically important mostly in the region from Virginia north to New Jersey. Other colonies saw far fewer of them. The total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was about 500,000; of these 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, Tomlins estimates that 48% were indentured. About 75% of these were under the age of 25. The age of adulthood for men was 24 years (not 21); those over 24 generally came on contracts lasting about 3 years. Regarding the children who came, Gary Nash reports that "many of the servants were actually nephews, nieces, cousins and children of friends of emigrating Englishmen, who paid their passage in return for their labor once in America."
Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded such as that of Peter Williamson (1730–1799). As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, "Although efforts were made to regulate or check their activities, and they diminished in importance in the eighteenth century, it remains true that a certain small part of the white colonial population of America was brought by force, and a much larger portion came in response to deceit and misrepresentation on the part of the spirits [recruiting agents]." One "spirit" named William Thiene was known to have spirited away 840 people from Britain to the colonies in a single year. Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. notes that "Masters given to flogging often did not care whether their victims were black or white."
Indentured servitude was also used by various English and British governments as a punishment for defeated foes in rebellions and civil wars. Oliver Cromwell sent into enforced indentured service thousands of prisoners captured in the 1648 Battle of Preston and the 1651 Battle of Worcester. King James II acted similarly after the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, and use of such measures continued also in the 18th Century.
Indentured servants could not marry without the permission of their master, were sometimes subject to physical punishment and did not receive legal favor from the courts. To ensure that the indenture contract was satisfied completely with the allotted amount of time, the term of indenture was lengthened for female servants if they became pregnant. Upon finishing their term they received "freedom dues" and were set free.
The American Revolution severely limited immigration to the United States, but economic historians dispute its long-term impact. Sharon Salinger argues that the economic crisis that followed the war made long-term labor contracts unattractive. His analysis of Philadelphia's population shows how the percentage of bound citizens fell from 17% to 6.4% over the course of the war. William Miller posits a more moderate theory, stating that "the Revolution (…) wrought disturbances upon white servitude. But these were temporary rather than lasting". David Galenson supports this theory by proposing that the numbers of British indentured servants never recovered, and that Europeans from other nationalities replaced them.
The American and British governments passed several laws that helped foster the decline of indentures. The UK Parliament's Passenger Vessels Act 1803 regulated travel conditions aboard ships to make transportation more expensive, so as to hinder landlords' tenants seeking a better life. An American law passed in 1833 abolished imprisonment of debtors, which made prosecuting runaway servants more difficult, increasing the risk of indenture contract purchases. The 13th Amendment, passed in the wake of the American Civil War, made indentured servitude illegal in the United States.
Through its introduction, the details regarding indentured labor varied across import and export regions and most overseas contracts were made before the voyage with the understanding that prospective migrants were competent enough to make overseas contracts on their own account and that they preferred to have a contract before the voyage.
Most labor contracts made were in increments of five years, with the opportunity to extend another five years. Many contracts also provided free passage home after the dictated labor was completed. However, there were generally no policies regulating employers once the labor hours were completed, which led to frequent ill-treatment.
Coolie woman in traditional dress
In 1838, with the abolition of slavery at its onset, the British were in the process of transporting a million Indians out of India and into the Caribbean to take the place of the African slaves in indenture-ship. Women specifically, looking for what they believed would be a better life in the colonies, were sought after and recruited at a much higher rate than men due to the high population of men already in the colonies. However women had to prove their status as a single and eligible to emigrate, as married women could not leave without their husbands. Many women seeking escape from abusive relationships were willing to take that chance. The Indian Immigration Act of 1883 prevented women from exiting India as widowed or single in order to escape. Arrival in the colonies brought unexpected conditions of poverty, homelessness, and little to no food as the high numbers of emigrants overwhelmed the small villages and flooded the labor market. Many were forced into signing labor contracts that exposed them to the hard field labor on the plantation. Additionally, on arrival to the plantation, single women were 'assigned' a man as they were not allowed to live alone. The subtle difference between slavery and indenture-ship is best seen here as women were still subjected to the control of the plantation owners as well as their newly assigned 'partner'. Their status was closer to chattel property than human being.
A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean (primarily the south Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, French Guiana, and Suriname) before 1840.
In 1643, the white population of Barbados was 37,200 (86% of the population). During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, at least 10,000 Scottish and Irish prisoners of war were transported as indentured laborers to the colonies.
There were also reports of kidnappings of Europeans to work as servants. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, children from England and France were kidnapped and sold into indentured labor in the Caribbean.