The Life of Indentured Servants in Colonial Barbados

The English Commonwealth in 1651 had a challenge on their hands. During the third English Civil War, their commander Oliver Cromwell defeated the forces of Charles Stuart (the future King Charles II) first at Dunbar, and then precisely a year later, at Worcester. But Parliament was left with a pressing concern: What to do with the thousands of Scottish prisoners that they had captured? 

Catch and release, even with exacting a promise not to raise arms against them again, wasn’t a viable option, and Parliament didn’t have the resources to keep thousands of Scottish prisoners indefinitely. After the Battle of Worcester, the cost to feed a prisoner was recorded as 2 1/4 pence a day, and this did not include the cost of coal to keep the cells heated. With an estimated ten thousand prisoners captured, the potential cost to a cash-strapped Parliament amounted to over twenty-five hundred pounds a month. 

Parliament’s solution was to ship these Scottish prisoners to the English colonies as indentured servants. The plantations in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Barbados desperately needed labour and this proved to be a coldly efficient solution. 

Those who found themselves in the New England colonies were better off than those who were shipped to Barbados. Though there were hardships to overcome in the New England colonies, transportation to Barbados was akin to a death sentence due to its harsh climate and demanding working conditions. Being “Barbado’ed” was one of the worst punishments Parliament could have devised. 

Colonial Barbados was an inhospitable land, quite opposite to the modern vacation destination tourists flock to today. In the mid 17th century, the island was heavily wooded while roads were rough and broken by tree stumps. Sugarcane was the major crop and provided unparalleled wealth to the planation owners, but the crop was labour intensive. The planters were heavily reliant on African slaves and indentured servants for sugar production. 

Indentured servants had found their way to Barbados since the colony was founded in 1627, some, but not all, willing. For many it was a way to seek opportunities, for others, a way to escape poverty or debtor’s prison. As the need for indentured servants exponentially increased with the onset of the sugar trade, ruthless merchants would kidnap even women and children to make their quotas. For the plantation owners in Barbados, this sudden influx of Scottish prisoners would have been a welcome development.

Indentures were usually for terms of five to seven years, although they could be extended as a form of punishment for bad behaviour. At the end of the indenture, the servant would receive a small plot of land, or in later years when land became too valuable, a pre-determined amount of sugar or passage home. 

For the Scottish prisoners arriving after Worcester, it’s unclear what their terms of bondage would have been. One of those prisoners was a German nobleman who had turned mercenary and fought for the king. Heinrich Von Uchteritz was shipped out to Barbados along with thirteen hundred other prisoners in the beginning of 1652. From his own account, he seems to have considered himself as little better than a slave and referenced his bondage as being for life: “I, like the other prisoners and those sold there, would have had to spend my life in difficult bondage and would have had to die.” Fortunately for Heinrich, he was ransomed by his countrymen and released from bondage four months after his arrival in Barbados. Others weren’t so fortunate. 

It would have been a strange sight for the Scottish prisoners when they finally reached Barbados and anchored in Bridgetown harbour. The passage would have taken approximately eight weeks and many easily died before reaching Barbados. Bridgetown was built on swampy ground and the air carried an unhealthy odour. In the 1640’s, plantation owners would have come aboard the ships to inspect and purchase newly arrived servants, but in later years when there were greater numbers of bondsmen for sale, auctions were held in the merchant’s yard in town, near the warehouses. Instead of coin changing hands, a different type of gold served as the currency on the island—sugar. In the 1640’s an indenture could be purchased for approximately four hundred pounds of sugar, but by Worcester, prisoners were sold for double that weight in sugar. This sounds like an amazing amount of sweetener, but this would have been the equivalent of the sugar produced from only half an acre of land.

A large plantation (500 acres) would have approximately 90 African slaves and 30 indentured servants (also called Christian servants), and all would have been expected to work ten hours a day, six days a week. The plantation owners were also obligated to feed and cloth them, and each servant would be issued two sets of clothes. The first task for the new servants would have been to build their own shelters as this was not always provided. St. Nicholas Abbey is an example of a 17th century plantation in Barbados.  

Though life was harsh for all fieldworkers, there were important legal distinctions between the slaves and indentured servants. The former were slaves for life as would any children born to them, while the latter had rights under the law, even if, in practice, few had access to the courts and were equally subject to the whim of poor overseers or masters. It was against the law for Christians to be slaves, which is why plantation owners would not allow African slaves to become Christians.

The typical day on the plantation would begin at 6am with the sounding of the first bell. Some indentured servants were put to work around the plantation, like the smithy, but many were expected to work in the fields alongside the African slaves. At eleven o’clock, a second bell rang, signifying a lunch break, and at six o’clock the final bell rang, halting work for the day. On Saturday, the final bell rang an hour earlier. 

Their diet consisted of a monotonous gruel called loblolly, bread made from the cassava root, and mobbie, a drink made by fermented sweet potatoes, which is unlike the more modern version of the drink. In addition to this, each week the men received two mackerel fish while only one for the women. The only time meat would be available was when one of the farm animals died, even if they were diseased. The meat was carved up and divided amongst the servants while the entrails would be given to the slaves. 

This was a dismal existence and only the heartiest survived. There were many instances when bondsmen attempted to escape from the island, and some managed it by negotiating passage on one of the outgoing vessels, however, not all made it home. If they were unfortunate to have fallen in with particularly unscrupulous captains, they may have found themselves taken to other islands and resold there. 

For those who survived the fields and remained in Barbados, they may have found paid work on the plantations as overseers, or started a new life in the trade they had before the war. To this day, their descendants are still part of the fabric of the island. 

This article was originally published on Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots.

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