As Bartholomew Stovall stood on the banks of the River Thames in London and signed the document obligating himself to four years of servitude in the New World of America, I feel positive he had second thoughts before the ink dried on the parchment. When he climbed aboard the flat bottom boat that shuttled him from the shore to the Booth, he set into motion a chain of events that would shape the destiny of twelve plus generations and a lineage that numbers well over one hundred thousand people.
But let us leave the world of historic fiction and enter into the reality of why a man or a woman would become an indentured servant. What would make life so difficult for someone to leave their homeland and trade years with no guarantee of living a prosperous life, should they met the contract obligations? Nations all across Europe sent their downtrodden to the New World, but let us examine what life was like in England during the seventeenth century. Specifically, let’s discuss the conditions for those like Bartholomew Stovall.
Entering the seventeenth century England had established itself as a world power, but civil unrest was at an all-time high. England’s table had been set, and for almost an entire century it languished through wars with Spain and France, struggled with exorbitant taxes and mandatory tithes, fought through religious persecution, endured a civil war, and grieved over multiple plagues that killed tens of thousands. There was a surplus of labor, and wages had hit rock bottom. Large land owners leased plots to farmers but a plowman or a laborer could only earn forty or fifty shillings a year. When those land owners decided they could make more money raising sheep, farming and the residual jobs vanished. With no work and a family to feed the displaced fled to the cities; searching for opportunity. But they were also considering other options. They could become an indenture. Families could stay together and their future would be fixed for four years of servitude and then they would receive land, but an overwhelming majority was the adventurous young men, born into poverty.
London: The Wait
They came from small towns or rural areas but had to depart from port cities, causing them to live a life of want until their ship sailed. Most had to scurry for food in trash heaps but inevitably they resorted to begging. Many were faced with the decision to steal or starve, but as unbelievable as it may sound, the paupers were better off on the streets than the countryside they left.
Royalty stayed out of the fray, but member of the Gentry class demanded that the begging and thievery be stopped, thus public floggings were used as examples for unruly behavior and oftentimes vagrants were held unfairly.
But money, or lack of it, was not the sole cause of hopelessness for the displaced. When Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England he assumed the added responsibility of Religious leader for the entire populace. Consequently, when one ruler left and another took their place it set up a scenario where the core foundation for one’s beliefs was shaken. Religious tolerance became more the norm, nonetheless attendance and tithe were still mandated by the Church of England.
Elizabeth I: The Foresight of Exploration
But an event was taking place concurrent to all of the seemingly chaotic events in England during the sixteenth century’s midpoint. In the mid 1500’s, approximately one hundred years prior to Oliver Cromwell’s abolishment of the Monarchy, Elizabeth I was encouraging exploration. Some think she was the greatest ruler England has known when she brought civility after the turbulent rule of Henry VIII. She supported the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, and he responded by being the first Englishman to circumnavigating the globe. But more important was the exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh, who followed the trade winds south, crossed the Atlantic and founded the lands currently known as Virginia. Although his settlement efforts failed; history records that he paved the way for the colonization of America.
By the early part of the seventeenth century England had devised a system where mid-sized sailing vessels were scurry young men, and often times families, to the New World with the dual intentions to increase colonization as well as clearing it’s streets of the surplus.
Headrights, or indentured servants were given free passage, food and clothing, and guaranteed freedom upon completion of servitude. Word spread rapidly among England’s downtrodden and by 1630 its harbors were filled with those seeking opportunities away from their hopeless conditions.
Much has been written about the dreaded passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World as well as the horrid conditions awaiting an indentured laborer, but the fact remained that there was little hope for them in their current situation. A large percentage didn’t survive the passage and only a few acquired the status Bartholomew eventually achieved.
But if we fast forward 350 years, the great nation of America owes a debt of gratitude to those indentures who took a leap of faith and left hopelessness for a chance at prosperity.