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Indentured servitude was a labour system whereby young people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a certain number of years. It was widely employed in the 18th century in the British colonies in North America and elsewhere. It was especially used as a way for poor youth in Britain and the German states to get passage to the American colonies. They would work for a fixed number of years, then be free to work on their own. The employer purchased the indenture from the sea captain who brought the youths over; he did so because he needed labour. Some worked as farmers or helpers for farm wives, some were apprenticed to craftsmen. Both sides were legally obligated to meet the terms, which were enforced by local American courts. Runaways were sought out and returned. About half of the white immigrants to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries were indentured. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries poor children from England and France were kidnapped and sold into indentured labor in the Caribbean for a minimum of five years, but most times their contracts were bought and sold repeatedly and some laborers never attained their freedom.
Between one-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and American Revolution had come under indentures. However, while half the European migrants to the 13 colonies were indentured servants, at any one time they were outnumbered by workers who had never been indentured, or whose indenture had expired. Free wage labor was the more common (in this sense) for Europeans in the colonies. Indentured persons were numerically important mostly in the region from Virginia north to New Jersey. Other colonies saw far fewer of them. The total number of European immigrants to all 13 colonies before 1775 was about 500,000; of these 55,000 were involuntary prisoners. (A separate 300,000 were enslaved Africans.) Of the 450,000 or so European arrivals who came voluntarily, Tomlins estimates that 48% were indentured. About 75% were under the age of 25. The age of adulthood for men was 24 years (not 21); those over 24 generally came on contracts lasting about 3 years. Regarding the children who came, Gary Nash reports that, "many of the servants were actually nephews, nieces, cousins and children of friends of emigrating Englishmen, who paid their passage in return for their labor once in America."
Farmers, planters, merchants, and shopkeepers in the American colonies found it very difficult to hire free workers, primarily because it was so easy for potential workers to set up their own farms. Consequently, a common solution was to transport a young worker from Britain or a German state, who would work for several years to pay off the debt of their travel costs. During the indenture period the servants were not paid cash wages, but were provided with food, accommodation, clothing and training. The indenture document specified how many years the servant would be required to work, after which they would be free. Terms of indenture ranged from one to seven years with typical terms of four or five years. In southern New England, a variant form of indentured servitude, which controlled the labor of Native Americans through an exploitative debt-peonage system, developed in the late 17th century and continued through to the period of the American Revolution.
Not all European servants were sent willingly. Several instances of kidnapping for transportation to the Americas are recorded and this falls more clearly into the category of "white slavery". While these white slaves were often indentured in the same way as their willing counterparts it is an important distinction. An illustrative example is that of Peter Williamson (1730–1799). As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, "Although efforts were made to regulate or check their activities, and they diminished in importance in the eighteenth century, it remains true that a certain small part of the white colonial population of America was brought by force, and a much larger portion came in response to deceit and misrepresentation on the part of the spirits [recruiting agents]."
Most white immigrants arrived in Colonial America as indentured servants, usually as young men and women from Britain or Germany, under the age of 21. Typically, the father of a teenager would sign the legal papers, and work out an arrangement with a ship captain, who would not charge the father any money. The captain would transport the indentured servants to the American colonies, and sell their legal papers to someone who needed workers. At the end of the indenture, the young person was given a new suit of clothes and was free to leave. Many immediately set out to begin their own farms, while others used their newly acquired skills to pursue a trade.
Given the high death rate, many servants did not live to the end of their terms. In the 18th and early 19th century, numerous Europeans traveled to the colonies as redemptioners, a form of indenture.
Indentured servants were a separate category from bound apprentices. The latter were American-born children, usually orphans or from an impoverished family who could not care for them. They were under the control of courts and were bound out to work as an apprentice until a certain age. Two famous bound apprentices were Benjamin Franklin who illegally fled his apprenticeship to his brother, and Andrew Johnson, who later became President of the United States.
Before the rise of indentured servitude, a large demand for labor existed in the colonies to help build settlements, farm crops and serve as tradesmen, but laborers in Europe could not afford transatlantic crossing, which could cost roughly half a worker’s annual wage.
In the 18th century, wages in Great Britain were low because of a surplus of labor. The average was about 50 shillings (£2.50, equivalent to £327 in 2014) a year for a plowman, and 40 shillings (£2) a year for an ordinary unskilled worker. Ships' captains negotiated prices for transporting and feeding a passenger on the seven- or eight-week journey across the ocean, averaging about £5 to £7, the equivalent of four or five years of work back in England.
European institutions could not lend to the workers since there was no effective way to enforce a loan from across the Atlantic, rendering labor immobile via the Atlantic because of capital market imperfections.
To address this imperfection, the Virginia Company would allow laborers to borrow against their future earnings at the Virginia Company for a fixed number of years in order to raise enough capital to pay for their voyage. Evidence shows this practice was in use by 1609, only two years after the founding of the Virginia Company's original Jamestown settlement. However, this practice created a financial risk for the Virginia Company. If workers died or refused to work, the investment would be lost.
By 1620, the Virginia Company switched to selling contracts of "one hundred servants to be disposed amongst the old Planters" as soon as the servants reached the colonies. This minimized risk on its investment to the 2–3 months of transatlantic voyage. As the system gained in popularity, individual farmers and tradesmen would eventually begin investing in indentured servants as well.
Still, demand for indentured labor remained relatively low until the adoption of staple crops, such as sugarcane in the West Indies or tobacco in the American South. With economies largely based on these crops, the West Indies and American South would see the vast majority of indentured labor.
Author and historian Richard Hofstadter has written:
The most unenviable situation was that of servants on Southern plantations, living alongside but never with Negro slaves, both groups doing much the same work, often under the supervision of a relentless overseer… Even as late as 1770, William Eddis, the English surveyor of customs at Annapolis, thought that the Maryland Negroes were better off than "the Europeans, over whom the rigid planter exercises an inflexible severity." The Negroes, Eddis thought, were a lifelong property so were treated with a certain care, but the whites were "strained to the utmost to perform their allotted labor."
Over time the market for indentured servitude developed, with length of contracts showing close correlations to indicators of health and productivity. Tall, strong, healthy, literate or skilled servants would often serve shorter terms than less productive or more sickly servants. Similarly, harsh destinations such as the West Indies would offer shorter contracts compared to the more hospitable colonies.
The majority of indentured servants ended in the American South, where cash crops necessitated labor-intensive farming. As the Northern colonies moved to more industrialization and trade, they got significantly less indentured immigration. For example, 96.28% of English emigrants to Virginia and Maryland from 1773 to 1776 were indentured servants. During the same time period, only 1.85% of English emigrants to New England were indentured.
An indenture was a legal contract enforced by the courts. One indenture reads as follows:
This INDENTURE Witnesseth that James Best a Laborer doth Voluntarily put himself Servant to Captain Stephen Jones Master of the Snow Sally to serve the said Stephen Jones and his Assigns, for and during the full Space, Time and Term of three Years from the first Day of the said James’ arrival in Philadelphia in AMERICA, during which Time or Term the said Master or his Assigns shall and will find and supply the said James with sufficient Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging and all other necessaries befitting such a Servant, and at the end and expiration of said Term, the said James to be made Free, and receive according to the Custom of the Country. Provided nevertheless, and these Presents are on this Condition, that if the said James shall pay the said Stephen Jones or his Assigns 15 Pounds British in twenty one Days after his arrival he shall be Free, and the above Indenture and every Clause therein, absolutely Void and of no Effect. In Witness whereof the said Parties have hereunto interchangeably put their Hands and Seals the 6th Day of July in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Three in the Presence of the Right Worshipful Mayor of the City of London. (signatures)
When the ship arrived, the captain would often advertise in a newspaper that indentured servants were for sale:
Just imported, on board the Snow Sally, Captain Stephen Jones, Master, from England, A number of healthy, stout English and Welsh Servants and Redemptioners, and a few Palatines [Germans], amongst whom are the following tradesmen, viz. Blacksmiths, watch-makers, coppersmiths, taylors, shoemakers, ship-carpenters and caulkers, weavers, cabinet-makers, ship-joiners, nailers, engravers, copperplate printers, plasterers, bricklayers, sawyers and painters. Also schoolmasters, clerks and book-keepers, farmers and labourers, and some lively smart boys, fit for various other employments, whose times are to be disposed of. Enquire of the Captain on board the vessel, off Walnut-street wharff, or of MEASE and CALDWELL.
When a buyer was found, the sale would be recorded at the city court. The Philadelphia Mayor’s Court Indenture Book, page 742, for September 18, 1773 has the following entry:
James Best, who was under Indenture of Redemption to Captain Stephen Jones now cancelled in consideration of £ 15, paid for his Passage from London bound a servant to David Rittenhouse of the City of Philadelphia & assigns three years to be found all necessaries.
Indentures could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment (like many young ordinary servants), and saw their obligation to labor enforced by the courts. To ensure uninterrupted work by the female servants, the law lengthened the term of their indenture if they became pregnant. But unlike slaves, servants were guaranteed to be eventually released from bondage. At the end of their term they received a payment known as "freedom dues" and become free members of society. One could buy and sell indentured servants' contracts, and the right to their labor would change hands, but not the person as a piece of property.
Both male and female laborers could be subject to violence, occasionally even resulting in death. Richard Hofstadter notes that, as slaves arrived in greater numbers after 1700, white laborers in Virginia became a "privileged stratum, assigned to lighter work and more skilled tasks". He also notes that "Runaways were regularly advertised in the newspapers, rewards were offered, and both sheriffs and the general public were enlisted to secure their return. ... The standard penalty in the North, not always rigorously enforced, was extra service of twice the time the master had lost, though whipping was also common."
Indentured servitude was a method of increasing the number of colonists, especially in the English and later British colonies. Voluntary migration and convict labor only provided so many people, and since the journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, other means of encouraging settlement were necessary. Contract-laborers became an important group of people and so numerous that the United States Constitution counted them specifically in appointing representatives:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years....
Displaced from their land and unable to find work in the cities, many of these people signed contracts of indenture and took passage to the Americas. In Massachusetts, religious instruction in the Puritan way of life was often part of the condition of indenture, and people tended to live in towns.
The labor-intensive cash crop of tobacco was farmed in the American South by indentured laborers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Indentured servitude was not the same as the apprenticeship system by which skilled trades were taught, but similarities do exist between the two, since both require a set period of work. The majority of Virginians were Anglican, not Puritan, and while religion did play a large role in everyday lives, the culture was more commercially based. In the Chesapeake and North Carolina, tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output. (In the Deep South (mainly Georgia and South Carolina), cotton and rice plantations dominated.) In the lower Atlantic colonies where tobacco was the main cash crop, the majority of labor that indentured servants performed was related to field work. In this situation, social isolation could increase the possibilities for both direct and indirect abuse, as could lengthy, demanding labor in the tobacco fields.
The system was still widely practiced in the 1780s, picking up immediately after a hiatus during the American Revolution. Fernand Braudel (The Perspective of the World 1984, pp 405f) instances a 1783 report on "the import trade from Ireland" and its large profits to a ship owner or a captain, who:
"puts his conditions to the emigrants in Dublin or some other Irish port. Those who can pay for their passage—usually about 100 or 80 [livres tournois]—arrive in America free to take any engagement that suits them. Those who cannot pay are carried at the expense of the shipowner, who in order to recoup his money, advertises on arrival that he has imported artisans, laborers and domestic servants and that he has agreed with them on his own account to hire their services for a period normally of three, four, or five years for men and women and 6 or 7 years for children."
In modern terms, the shipowner was acting as an contractor, hiring out his laborers. Such circumstances affected the treatment a captain gave his valuable human cargo. After indentures were forbidden, the passage had to be prepaid, giving rise to the inhumane conditions of Irish 'coffin ships' in the second half of the 19th century.
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Starting in the late 17th century, in southern New England and parts of Long Island, Indians were increasingly pulled into an exploitative debt-peonage system designed to control and assimilate Indian people into the dominant culture as well as channel their labor into the market-based Atlantic economy. Following King Philip's War (1675–1676) most Indians in the region were resigned to reservations or lived in increasingly marginal enclaves on the edges of colonial towns. Due to restricted access to resources, land loss, and changes to the environment caused by European settlement, many Indians, especially coastal groups, could no longer practice traditional subsistence activities and therefore became increasingly dependent on European trade goods—cloth, tools, guns, alcohol, and increasingly, food. Merchants trading these items to Indians often inflated the cost and, based on a predatory lending scheme, advanced them credit for these purchases, knowing full well most Indians would not be able to repay the debts. Eventually when debts mounted, Indians were hauled into court by their creditors. When they could not pay either their lands, or more commonly their labor, was seized to settle the debt. Indian debtors were then indentured to their creditors for terms ranging from a few months to sometimes years. Rare cases exist when Indians were indentured for a decade or more and a few were enslaved for life (this was quite rare however). Many Indians experienced repeated indentures over the course of their lifetimes, amounting to a phenomenon of 'serial indenture' or debt peonage—multiple short indentures alternating with brief periods of 'freedom.' The 'time' Indian servants owed could be sold or willed to heirs if a creditor died. There was an active trade in Indian servant labor in the first half of the 18th century. Children were also indentured to pay their parents debts, often from aged six to eighteen (for girls) or twenty-one (for boys).
Assessing how many Indians experienced indenture is difficult as exact Indian populations during the colonial period are unknown. However, Historian John Sainsbury was able to document that by the mid-18th century about a third of all Indians in Rhode Island were indentured servants living and working in white households. Also, the Massachusetts state archives contains numerous petitions, written from the 1730s to 1760s from Indian tribes in their jurisdiction complaining about abuses in the indenture system and predatory lending by whites. Statutes were eventually passed attempting to regulate practices. Colonial military records do provide some data on Indian indenture as well. Enlistment records from 1704 to 1726 show that almost two-thirds of Indians who joined the army were indentured at the time of their enlistment. Records from 1748 to 1760 show a decline in this rate, but still show almost a third of Native American recruits being bound to white masters at the time of their enlistment. One Connecticut regiment raised in 1746 during King George's War (containing 980 men total) contained 139 Indian men. Almost half of them had signed their wages over to white creditors before being deployed.
While many Indians, men, women and children, became servants in New England households, the labor of many adult men was funneled into the whaling industry on Long Island, Rhode Island, Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, as well as the coast of eastern Connecticut. These whaling indentures were somewhat distinct from normal indenture contracts, and stipulated that Indians serve not as servants in white households but instead as crew members on a certain number of whaling voyages or 'seasons' of whaling (typically November through April). Throughout most of the colonial period indentured or heavily indebted Indian whalers were the primary labor force in the early whaling industry. They remained an important source of labor into the Revolutionary and early national era, but as their numbers dwindled and the industry expanded exponentially, they make up an increasingly smaller portion of the labor force.
Indentured servitude appeared in the Americas in the 1620s and remained in use as late as 1917. The causes behind its decline are a contentious domain in economic history.
The end of debtors' prisons may have created a limited commitment pitfall in which indentured servants could agree to contracts with ship captains and then refuse to sell themselves once they arrived in the colonies. Increased lobbying from immigrant aid societies led to increased regulation of the indentured labor market, further increasing the difficulty of enforcing contracts. With less ability to enforce the contracts, demand for indentured servants may have fallen. However, most debtor prisons were still in service when indentured servitude disappeared and many regulations on indentured servitude were put in place well before the disappearance.
A rise in European per-capita income compared to passage fare during the nineteenth century may also explain the disappearance of indentured servitude. While passage from England to the colonies in 1668 would cost roughly 51 percent of English per-capita income, that ratio would decrease to between 20 and 30 percent by 1841. This increase in relative income may have been further supplemented by a demonstrated increase in savings among European laborers, meaning European emigrants would have the capital on hand to pay for their own passage. With no need for transit capital, fewer laborers would have become indentured, and the supply of indentured servants would have decreased.
Labor substitutions may have led employers away from indentured servants and towards slaves or paid employees. In many places, African slaves became cheaper for unskilled and then eventually skilled labor, and most farmhand positions previously filled by indentured servants were ultimately filled by slaves. Wage laborers may have been more productive, since employers were more willing to terminate waged employment. In comparison, firing an indentured servant would mean a loss on the original capital investment spent purchasing the servant’s contract. Either substitution would lead to a decrease in demand for indentured servitude.
Indentured servitude's decline for white servants was also largely a result of changing attitudes that accrued over the 18th century and culminated in the early 19th century. Over the 18th century, the penal sanctions that were used against all workers were slowly going away from colonial codes, leaving indentured servants the only adult white labor subject to penal sanctions (with the notable exception of seaman, whose contracts could be criminally enforced up to the 20th century). These penal sanctions for indentured laborers continued in the United States until the 1830s, and by this point treatment of European laborers under contract became the same as the treatment of wage laborers (however, this change in treatment didn't apply to workers of color). This change in treatment can be attributed to a number of factors, such as the growing identification of white indented labor with slavery at a time when slavery was coming under attack in the Northern states, the growing radicalism of workers influenced with the rhetoric of the American Revolution, and the expansion of suffrage in many states which empowered workers politically. Penal sanctions, previously considered perfectly in line with free labor, became in the 19th century a way to transform ordinary labor into "contracts of slavery."
Given the rapid expansion of colonial export industries in the 17th and 18th Century, natural population growth and immigration were unable to meet the increasing demand for workers. As a result, the cost of indentured servants rose substantially. In the Chesapeake Bay, for example, the cost of indentures rose as much as 60% in the 1680s. The increase in the price of indentures did not however act as an incentive for European workers to emigrate for they were not affected by the price at which they were sold in American ports. As a result, the companies that generated indentures disrupted the price signaling effect and thus the supply of immigrants did not expand sufficiently to meet demand. Some actors in the market attempted to generate incentives for workers by shortening the length of indenture contracts based on the productivity of the prospective emigrant. Some American firms also opted to incentivize workers by paying small wages or by negotiating early expiration of indentures. The rising cost of indentured labor and its inelastic supply pushed American producers towards other forms of labor. Slaves were substantially cheaper and the supply of them was more abundant for it was not constrained by the slaves’ willingness to emigrate. Additionally, slave traders were directly incentivized by the price mechanism to expand “production” (in the form of raiding expeditions), so supply was relatively elastic. Slavery thus was better able to satisfy labor demands in colonies requiring large quantities of unskilled workers (for example plantation colonies in the Caribbean). Indentures however prevailed in colonies that required skilled workers (in which the cost of training a slave was higher than the price differential between a slave and an indentured servant). Alison Smith and Abbott E Smith’s analysis of London port records shows how destination of indentured emigrants shifted from the West Indies towards New England as early as the 1660s, supporting the theory that indentured servitude might have declined in some regions because of labor market dynamics.
The rise in the affordability of emigration reduced emigrants’ need for external financing in the form of indentures. David Galenson’s analysis on affordability shows that the cost of emigration from Britain to the United States over the course of the 18th Century dropped from 50% of per capita income to less than 10%.[clarification needed] This is attributable to higher levels of real income in Europe (a result of economic growth in the 18th Century) and to a sharp decline in transportation costs. Innovation had a strong impact on the ease and cost of passenger transportation, reducing the need of indentures. The railroad made non-port cities a much cheaper destination for emigrants. The steamboat was not necessarily cheaper than older sailing technologies, but it made transatlantic travel much easier and comfortable, an attractive factor for high-income classes (that could easily afford emigration without indentures). The British Navy’s efforts against piracy also reduced transportation costs. Safer seas implied smaller crews (for there was no need to man weapons on board) and also reduced insurance costs (ships were at lower risk of being captured). The composition of emigrants also shifted from single males towards entire families. Single males usually left their homes with little if any savings. Instead, families generally liquidated assets in Europe to finance their venture.
The American Revolution severely limited immigration to the United States. Economic historians differ however on the long-term impact of the Revolution. Sharon Salinger argues that the economic crisis that followed the war made long-term labor contracts unattractive. His analysis of Philadelphia’s population shows how the percentage of bound citizens fell from 17% to 6.4% over the course of the war. William Miller posits a more moderate theory, stating “the Revolution (…) wrought disturbances upon white servitude. But these were temporary rather than lasting”. David Galenson supports this theory by proposing that British indentures never recovered, but Europeans from other nationalities replaced them.
Several acts passed by the American and the British government fostered the decline of indentures. The English Passenger Vessels Act of 1803, which regulated travel conditions aboard ships, attempted to make transportation more expensive as to stop emigration. The American abolishment of imprisonment of debtors by federal law (passed in 1833) made prosecution of runaway servants more difficult, increasing the risk of indenture contract purchases.
Robert J. Steinfeld traces the legal history of the permissibility of indentures of this nature in the 19th century, most of which occurred in the old Northwest Territory, centring around the interpretation of what "involuntary servitude" consisted of in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which declared "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the Party shall have been duly convicted." The permissibility (or not) of penal sanctions in labor became an issue of "fundamental law," in which it was questioned whether those sanctions or specific performance enforcements turned indentured servitude into "involuntary servitude." At the time when the Northwest Ordinance was constructed, white adult servants were still being imported into the United States, and thus, historically, it seems likely that the Ordinance's framers considered indenture to be a form of "voluntary" servitude.
A half million Europeans went as indentured servants to the Caribbean (primarily the south Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, French Guiana, and Suriname) before 1840. Most were young men, with dreams of owning their land or striking it rich quick would essentially sell years of their labor in exchange for passage to the islands. However, forceful indenture also provided part of the servants: contemporaries report that youngsters were sometimes tricked into servitude in order to be exploited in the colonies. The landowners on the islands would pay for a servant’s passage and then provide them with food, clothes, shelter and instruction during the agreed upon term. The servant would then be required to work in the landowner’s (master) field for a term of bondage (usually four to seven years). During this term of bondage the servant had a status similar to a son of the master. For example they were not allowed to marry without the master’s permission. They could own personal property. They could also complain to a local magistrate about mistreatment that exceeded community norms. However, his contract could be sold or given away by his master. After the servant’s term was complete he became independent and was paid “freedom dues”. These payments could take the form of land which would give the servant the opportunity to become an independent farmer or a free laborer. As free men with little money they became a political force that stood in opposition to the rich planters.
Indentured servitude was a common part of the social landscape in England and Ireland during the 17th century. During the 17th century, many Irish were also taken to Barbados.[clarification needed] In 1643, there were 37,200 whites[clarification needed] in Barbados (86% of the population). During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms many Scottish and Irish prisoners of war were sold as indentured labors to the colonies. There were also reports of kidnappings of youngsters to work as servants.
After 1660, fewer indentured servants came from Europe to the Caribbean. Newly freed servant farmers, given 25–50 acres of land, were unable to make a living because profitable sugar plantations needed to cover hundreds of acres. However, profit could still be made through the tobacco trade, which was what these small 25 acre farms did to live comfortably. The landowners’ reputation as cruel masters became a deterrence to the potential indentured servant. In the 17th century, the islands became known as death traps, as between 33 to 50 percent of indentured servants died before they were freed, many from Yellow fever, malaria and other diseases.
When slavery ended in the British Empire in 1833, plantation owners turned to indentured servitude for inexpensive labor. These servants arrived from across the globe; the majority came from India where many Indians departed as indentured laborers to work in colonies requiring manual labor. As a result, today Indo-Caribbeans form a majority in Guyana, a plurality in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, and a substantial minority in Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, St lucia and other Caribbean islands.
During the 1860s planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of laborers, encouraged a trade in long-term indentured labor called "blackbirding". At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad.
Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labor for the sugar-cane fields of Queensland, Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders. The workers came mainly from Melanesia – mainly from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu – with a small number from Polynesian and Micronesian areas such as Samoa, the Gilbert Islands (subsequently known as Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (subsequently known as Tuvalu). They became collectively known as "Kanakas".
It remains unknown how many Islanders the trade controversially kidnapped (or blackbirded). Whether the system legally recruited Islanders, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced them to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland remains difficult to determine. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade.
A significant number of construction projects, principally British, in East Africa and South Africa, required vast quantities of labor, exceeding the availability or willingness of local tribesmen. Coolies from India were imported, frequently under indenture, for such projects as the Uganda Railway, as farm labor, and as miners. They and their descendants formed a significant portion of the population and economy of Kenya and Uganda, although not without engendering resentment from others. Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" from Uganda in 1972 was an expulsion of Indo-Africans.
The islands of the Indian Ocean, especially Mauritius, with extensive sugar cane plantations sought a cheaper workforce than emancipated workers negotiating for higher wages. Mauritius was the country of coolitude, the 'Great Experiment' of widespread recourse to indentured labor having started there. Mauritius acted as a hub or plaque tournante for this indentured population of coolies, receiving and onward dispatching hundreds of thousands of coolies to Africa and the Indies through the Aapravasi ghat.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) declares in Article 4 "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". However, only national legislation can establish its unlawfulness. In the United States, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 extended servitude to cover peonage as well as Involuntary Servitude.