During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the English colonies were in great demand of laborers to work labor intensive crops such as tobacco, cotton, and rice. Planters met this need originally by hiring indentured servants - those who had their passage to the New World paid with the promise that they would work off that passage for a set number of years. Some convicts were also able to escape execution or imprisonment by agreeing to work off their crimes across the Atlantic. In the 1600s, 80% of all settlers in Virginia were originally servants. Yet indentured servitude could not meet the voracious labor demands that the colonies required - and so in 1619 the first black slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and many planters soon turned to slavery as a better investment in the creation of a long-term labor force. It was not until late in the 17th century, however, that distinctions started to be made to differentiate servants and slaves. Robert Beverly, a public official within the House of Burgesses, explains in the following passage what the differences between servants and slaves were in 1705 Virginia.
Questions to Consider
Their servants they distinguish by the names of slaves for life, and servants for a time.
Slaves are the negroes and their posterity, following the condition of the mother....They are called slaves, in respect of the time of their servitude, because it is for life.
Servants, are those which serve only for a few years, according to the time of their indenture, or the custom of the country. The custom of the country takes place upon such as have no indentures. The law in this case is, that if such servants be under nineteen years of age...they must serve until they reach four and twenty; but if they be adjudged upwards of nineteen, they are then only to be servants for the term of five years.
...The male servants, and slaves of both sexes, are employed together in tilling and manuring the ground, in sowing and planting tobacco, corn, &c. Some distinction indeed is made between them in their clothes, and food; but the work of both is no other than what the overseers, the freemen, and the planters themselves do.
Sufficient distinction is also made between the female servants, and slaves; for a white woman is rarely or never put to work in the ground, if she be good for anything else; and to discourage all planters from using any women so, their law makes female servants working in the ground tithables, while it suffers all other white women to be absolutely exempted; whereas, on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a woman slave out of doors, nor does the law make any distinction in her taxes, whether her work be abroad or at home.
...Because I have heard how strangely cruel and severe the service of this country is represented in some parts of England, I can't forebear affirming, that the work of their servants and slaves is no other than what every common freeman does; neither is any servant required to do more in a day than his overseer; and I can assure you, with great truth, that generally their slaves are not worked near so hard, nor so many hours in a day, as the husbandmen, and day laborers in England. An overseer is a man, that having served his time, has acquired the skill and character of an experienced planter, and is therefore entrusted with the direction of the servants and slaves.
But to complete this account of servants, I shall give you a short relation of the care their laws take, that they be used as tenderly as possible:
BY THE LAWS OF THEIR COUNTRY,