Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Cultural Look at Indentured Servitude and Student Loans.

In the latter half of the 17th century over 10,000 indentured servants were contracted for destinations that included the colonies and the Caribbean. They came from throughout England with occupations ranging from barbers and brewers to cabinetmakers, boat builders, gunsmiths, and plowboys.[1] Around two-thirds of the emigrating population was shipped to the colonies. This created some colonies with up to 75% of the population indentured.[2] Being under contract meant that the servant agreed to work for usually 7 to 8 years to cover the voyage to the new location. Any additional pay, as such, would be scant and included only room and board. Those who needed it would receive a minimum of training.[3] Although the work was hard the system worked rather well in the early colonial period. However, when large farms and plantations started being viable the system became similar to serfdom.

When investigating indentured servitude more closely we find a group of people who were willing to take a chance to better themselves. These were people who were willing to leave their comfort zone and yet were not only taken advantage of but were treated at times as little more than intelligent animals. True they were brought to their destination as promised and it was no secret that they would have to work the expenses off, pay back the lender as it were. But their treatment, their quality of life, was horrendous. Richard Frethorne wrote to his parents in 1623 and told them of his experiences as an indentured servant. He complained of eating nothing but peas and water gruel on board ship. After arriving he found all he received to eat after a long day of work was a mouthful of bread and water gruel. Meat was almost non-existent and the little they did see they were not allowed to hunt. Frethorne relates that he ate more in a day back home in England than in a week where he was living. In the letter he writes that another person had stolen his coat and all he had were some clothes that were little better then rags and a pair of shoes.[4] As for the others that were with Frethorne, he said any of them would willing give a literal arm or leg to get back to England. Living disabled was worth the price of getting out of their predicament. The work was hard and had none of the modern contrivances of breaks and a lunch hour.[5]

How did it all end? What was the catalyst for change? Bacon’s Rebellion. In Tidewater Virginia large plantations had sprung up on the large expanse of good farmland. These plantations were controlled by an almost aristocratic class and farmed by indentured servants. The problem that eventually surfaced was that no land was available for indentured servants who had paid off their contract, the freeman. In some cases they became worse off than as an indentured servant. Their only option was to move west into Indian Territory. Naturally this did not go over well with the Native Americans in the area and they, as would be expected, evicted the new comers. Killings between the Natives, and the freeman and plantation owners became more prevalent.[6]

Nathaniel Bacon, cousin of the Governor of Virginia by marriage, arrived from England in 1674 and acquired a plantation. After one of his servants was killed by an Indian 1676 he became an Indian fighter and did not discriminate between friendly tribes and violent tribes. After being rebuffed by the Colonial Assembly, Bacon took it upon himself, on July 30, 1676, to unilaterally present the "Declaration of the People” that proclaimed him leader of a provincial band of men who consisted of indentured servants, freemen, and slaves. They attacked plantations and battled Indians for land. Bacon died in October and British troops arrived and brought back order.[7]

The outcome was that Virginia began an expansion policy to gain land for freemen and to accelerate the eradication of Native presence in the west. It also accelerated the implementation of slavery in the plantation system and the codification of chattel laws. It was decided by the plantation owners that slaves were less trouble and in the long run cheaper than the freeman and indentured servant system. The slaves would still work off their transportation cost and then be kept on to make a profit off them.[8]

When I teach I always try to relate an historical situation using a modern example. Naturally all illustrations break down somewhere. So, as I was thinking about this I could see some similarities between this situation and the student loan problems that have become so prevalent since the financial crisis hit.

As in any contract the parties are bound by the agreement. In the case of student loans the financial institution agreed to give the student a certain amount of money to achieve a college education. The amounts vary but it is not impossible to have over $200K in student loans by the time you reach your desired field. In the 1960s & 1970s, a four-year degree from a state school was around $20,000. Students were able, upon graduation, to go out and obtain a fairly good job. Over time they would pay off their student loans. However, this began to change. Schools began to raise their tuition. Of course part of this was daily inflation that had to be contended with and infrastructure repair. But as the tuition went up so did the amount of money loaned out. Included in this scenario is the enticement to get an education and not to worry about the cost. It was possible to borrow $20K to $40K a semester through federal and private loans every year to pay for school. Lenders would ask you if you were borrowing enough.

The system worked well for quite some time. True there was the occasional person who flunked out of school or could not get a job and go into default just as some indentured servants would have a difficult time. However, we begin to see some similarities here with indentured servitude. Just as the servant would acquire funds to get across the ocean the student acquires loans to get through college.

After a period of time with so many in school and most getting at least a bachelor’s degree employers started demanding a B.A. or B.S. for a job. When a minor recession hit or your field seemed to be full, jobs would become scarce. There was still the need to repay the loan. The only solution for some was to go back to school. School would incur more loans but it would post-pone payment until the student was finished. The idea was that eventually the job market would open back up and then those with a master’s degree would have a leg up. This worked at times. In some fields students finished their doctorates and terminated academically hoping that this would increase their chances of getting a position somewhere. Unfortunately the same situation started to occur that we find with the abundance of freeman in the late 1600s. The lack of jobs and the abundance of graduates brought increasing numbers of defaults on loans.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008-2009 schools were churning out graduates in fields that were becoming overloaded. The financial institutions clamped down on loans and many students were caught, unable to get loans. Students were left with only 6 months to find financing or they would have to take a leave of absence to get a job to pay off the loan on an unfinished degree. Those who graduated faced a job market that was trimming redundant jobs and not creating new ones. There are ways of extending payments, or deferring payments but these are of a limited duration. Those who have good jobs and are able to pay on their loans find the payments becoming a larger percentage of their budget as the cost of living increases and their pay doesn’t. Those who can’t find a job or are underemployed have rescheduled loans that will be looming for up to 30 years. Then there are those who were caught in mid-program and have the loans but not the degree because capital dried up.

Although not of the same type or degree we see more similarities between the indentured servant/freeman of the late 1600s and the highly financially encumbered college graduate of 2009. Both lived in a society that had an over abundance of labor with few jobs and a poor outlook for the near future. Both groups had potential and were hard workers, both had a goal for the future. The indentured servant hoped to pay off his/her debt and with his own farm one day, build a life and have a family. So too is the student and college graduate. Both groups find themselves hampered by not their abilities but by external forces. The people of the 1600s lacked land and room to grow inhibiting them from moving forward but still having the debt over their head, or if a freeman, just mere existence. The modern student lacks a job, and in some instances the ability to even finish his/her degree. On top of this there is a looming debt that many are willing to pay off but can’t. If not paid off, the debt will ruin them and eventually limit their growth and the growth of society.

In the 1600s a rebellion, the opening of more land, and a reordering of society solved the immediate problem. The Native Americans suffered the brunt of this new order with many of them dying and their land taken. The pressures for the freeman were relieved and the future of indentured servants was secured. However, it also condemned millions in the future who did the job of the indentured servant to work as slaves.

One wonders what the solution will be to the student loan problem and the ability of students and graduates to repay these loans in the future. Whatever the solution we need to be careful how it is processed. A rebellion seems a little excessive, but we also do not need a solution that will just take care of the present situation but condemns millions in the future. As different as the culture of the late1600s is to 2009, there are a number of similarities between them.

[1] Schifflett, Crandal. Search the Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations, 1654 - 1686. Virtual Jamestown, 2000. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from

[2] Barker, Deanna. Indentured Servitude in Colonial America. National Association for Interpretation Cultural Interpretation and Living History Section, March 10, 2004. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from

[3] Schlafly, Andrew. Indentured Servitude. Conservapedia, November 21, 2006. Accessed October 3, 2009. Available from

[4] Frethorne, Richard. Indentured Servants. Joyce A. Hanson, 2005. Accessed October 1, 2009. Available from /slavery/pages/indentured.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gisolfi, Monica R. Bacon's Rebellion: Colonial Society and Politics. Columbia American History Online, 2004. Accessed October 2, 2009. Available from

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.


  1. Good article.. I think one of the greatest tragedies of American history is what we did to the native americans..

  2. I have always found the correlation between indentured servants and the student loan industry very obvious. It's sad that it's being so ignored. I really can't wait to get out of this country.

  3. Nice piece, Rich. Solid discussion of the early history of indentured servants, etc.