To be successful, all segments of the colonial economy depended upon the effective utilization of a variety of labor systems. The staples thesis clearly explains the importance of labor to the colonial economy. While some labor systems proved more effective for specific regions and within specific types of production, all forms of labor existed throughout British North America and involved a change over time of the types of labor needed. Virginia was the first colony to encounter a major labor shortage and the first to experiment with a variety of labor sources.
The introduction of West Indian tobacco in Virginia, coupled with Edwin Sandys's reorganization of the Virginia colony, created the proper elements for a tobacco boom. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, and the colony lacked labor. Sandys's headright system solved this problem by providing the incentive, in the form of land, to bring laborers to Virginia.
Under the system, planters paid for the passage of indentured servants in exchange for land grants. From this developed the indentured servant system, which stemmed from traditional English contractual systems of labor. Agricultural, demographic, and social changes within England created a growing population of displaced men and women searching for work but lacking the means to travel to the Americas.
The indentured servant system provided a way to transfer these laborers from Europe to the colonies. Servants entered into a contract, whereby the passage from England to North America was paid for by their master. In exchange, the servant agreed to labor for a set number of years; upon serving this term, he or she became free.
The contracts stipulated length of service, servant behavior, and master responsibilities. Some contracts also included freedom dues (in the form of money, goods, or land) payable to the servant upon the termination of his or her contract. Early in Virginia's settlement, landowners generally utilized indentured servants only as tobacco producers.
As indentured servants could only be held for a limited number of years, and as tobacco was extraordinarily profitable, the system led to brutal exploitation of these servants. The indentured servitude system existed in all colonies, however, and, while it mainly fulfilled agricultural laboring needs, such servants could be found laboring in urban areas in a variety of occupations. Over time, indentured servants were used less for farming and more for skilled and unskilled labor.
Eventually, the system brought people from throughout the British Isles and continental Europe, consequently diversifying the colonial population. As German immigration into North America increased in the eighteenth century, the so-called redemptioner system developed. This system was similar to indentured servitude, except that many Germans could afford to pay some of their passage, leading to shorter periods of indenture or better compensation.
Generally, on arrival, they would contract for a term of indenture to pay for the rest of the amount owed; if no contract was obtained, their services would be sold to the highest bidder. This developed as a way to bring new immigrants, again under a defined obligation, from the German territories into North America. As the indentured servant system grew and developed, so did an alternative.
Early European forays into the Atlantic discovered that West Africa possessed not only gold but also human commodities in the form of slaves. These fifteenth- and sixteenth-century voyages set the foundations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but it was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the slave trade flourished in the Americas. Of all the labor systems available for use, African slavery provided the cheapest and most permanent form of labor.
While American slavery is most often associated with the plantation complex, slavery existed in all thirteen colonies, and masters utilized their slaves in a variety of occupations. The majority supported agricultural production on small and large plantations and farms, but slaves contributed to colonial economic development in all segments. Some slaves became skilled laborers, others engaged in physical labor in the developing colonial ports, others went to sea as sailors, and some served as domestic servants.
Slavery was important to economic development because of the profits it created. In addition, the use of slaves created economic demands that other regions filled. The Southern plantations purchased food and goods for plantation consumption, creating a market for food from the Mid-Atlantic colonies and the carrying trade for New England.
A final form of unfree or contractual labor developed early in the eighteenth century because of rising crime, stemming from social and economic changes, in England. As Parliament created more laws to protect private property, and the situation of the laboring poor worsened, increasing numbers of people faced trial for crimes against property. The majority of these laws carried the death penalty, but judges and juries found it difficult to execute someone for stealing to survive.
Because of this, Parliament created the alternative punishment of deportation and enforced labor: those found guilty could be transported to the colonies to serve their sentences as laborers. Georgia was created not only as a buffer colony between British colonies to the north and Spanish Florida to the south, but also as a penal colony. While the convicts served as a cheap source of labor, they were not a labor supply looked upon favorably by the colonists.
The final form of labor, which developed over the course of the eighteenth century, was wage labor. It was the situation of these wage laborers that created the idea of America as the best poor man's land. ? As the colonial population grew, so did colonial refinement and consumption. Growing prosperity, especially in cities and towns, but also in rural areas, called for the construction of brick houses, fine furniture, and various other displays of wealth and status.
This growing demand required skilled labor, which, over time, was largely filled by wage laborers. Many indentured servants, once freed, became wage laborers until they accumulated enough money to purchase land and become farmers. Early Virginia tobacco harvests demonstrated the profit potential of North American colonization, laid the foundation for the plantation system, and drove demand for African slave labor.
This lithograph depicts slaves preparing Virginia tobacco in the late 1700s. (The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Art Library) American Slavery: English slave transports Women and Labor in Early America Work, Work, and More Work: The Colonial Williamsburg Official …