The Indentured Atlantic: Bound Servitude and the Literature of American Colonization (Part Two)

[The British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online have joined together to publish a series of posts celebrating the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series. The articles are based on talks given by a range of writers and scholars conducting research at the British Library thanks to generous research fellowships and grants awarded by the Eccles Centre. The deadline for applications for the 2016 awards is 30th January 2016. In a special three part post Matthew Pethers (University of Nottingham) sheds light on colonial working class experiences by examining the often overlooked transatlantic narratives of indentured servants, taken from his talk which took place on 10th August.]

Frontispiece and title page from The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew, Commonly Called the King of the Beggars (London: Thomas Martin, 1788)

In concluding the first post in this three-part series I asked how scholars can begin to address the challenge of recovering the transient and elusive oral culture of colonial-era indentured servants. One answer, perhaps, lies in dedicating greater attention to the conceptual rubric of singing, as a mode of communal vocalization that can be connected to the distinctively cohesive and mobile culture of circum-Atlantic performance delineated by theatre scholars such as Joseph Roach, Peter Reed and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon.1 Accordingly, one fruitful interpretive avenue into James Revel’s popular ballad The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon’s Sorrowful Account of his Fourteen Years at Virginia (c.1656-92?) can be pursued through John Gay’s Polly: An Opera (1729), the sequel to his phenomenally successful Beggar’s Opera (1728). Innovatively subverting the grand musical styles and subject matters of the Italian opera by borrowing airs from broadsheet ballads and folk songs, as did its predecessor, Polly in addition transplants its anti-hero, the highwayman Macheath, to the West Indies, where he has been sent as an indentured felon. Self-consciously using its collectivized arias to allow “the lower People [to] reflect on the Follies and Vices of the Rich,” Polly even goes so far as to imagine a revolutionary alliance between white bound laborers, refugee slaves and Native American princes.2 In this respect, the defiant charge of the indentees’ singing bears out the conviction of the “Player” who appears in Gay’s acted prologue: “Musick might tame and civilize wild beasts, but ‘tis evident it never yet could tame and civilize musicians.”3 A work of fiction Polly may well be, but its emergence from a specific performative milieu, its ties to a marginalized cultural demographic and its radical political import (it was soon banned by the Lord Chamberlain and not staged until 1777), all offer rich sources for theorizing about the location and circulation of working-class lyrics dealing with indenture.

In thinking about Polly as a way into the oral culture of the Indentured Atlantic multiple notes of caution must inevitably be struck, not least in terms of a concept closely aligned to singing – that of ventriloquizing. The indentees given voice in Gay’s opera were, after all, being spoken for by actors and actresses who had no first-hand experience of suffering “a Sentence of Transportation.”4 Yet if the public speech of bound laborers was invariably imitated or controlled by individuals from outside their specific class, this fact does not preclude later listeners from ascertaining glimpses of an authentic selfhood, nor did it prevent indentees themselves from inverting the terms of their verbal subordination. When the pervasive poverty and illiteracy of indentees is set alongside the early modern legal system’s overwhelming emphasis on crimes against property, it should come as no surprise that the voice of the bound labourer was historically most often recorded through legal documents. Nowhere, for instance, do we hear from indentees more often and in a more highly mediated way than in the criminal confessions and execution sermons that became enormously popular in both Britain and America during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Predominantly concerned with presenting the lives of the working classes as parables of sin and repentance, the journalists and ministers who compiled these texts were determined – and often explicit – in their reshaping of reality to match ideology. But through this process of narrative realignment, revealing tensions and contradictions could also emerge. Thus, The Vain Prodigal Life, and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier (1680), which relates the “loose, dissolute, careless course” of a Virginian servant executed for killing his master, offers subtly competing explanations (of the nature versus nurture variety) for this immorality in its paratexts and main content.5 And Robert Goadby’s best-selling 1749 biography of the transported vagrant Bampfylde-Moore Carew goes even further, by openly acknowledging that “it is often the same Person who represents the Villain and the Hero.”6 Indeed, Carew, who ultimately comes across as the latter rather than the former, proves to be exemplary precisely because of his facility for resisting the verbal impositions of others – his special skill as a beggar being the ability to imitate anyone he chooses, whether ruined sailor or decadent aristocrat. In its imputation of folkloric status to its protagonist, and its courting of factual uncertainty, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew once again sheds useful light on the opacities of The Poor Unhappy Felon.

“Mr. Peter Williamson in the Dress of a Delaware Indian” (1759). Source:

“Mr. Peter Williamson in the Dress of a Delaware Indian” (1759). Source:

Crucially, one of those uncertainties in An Apology pertains to Carew’s first reported escape from indenture, when he flees the “cruel and ignominious Stripes” dealt out by his master to spend time residing “among the friendly Indians” in the backwoods of Maryland.7 If it seems rather unlikely that Carew was greeted by a Native American chief as a “Brother King of England,” the invocation of indigenous life as an alternative or equivalent to bound labor is nonetheless common to many indenture narratives.8 In this respect, then, it is also salient to examine this body of literature under the rubric of captivities. At times, the juxtaposition of indenture and Indian captivity can be starkly negative, as in the popular memoir that Peter Williamson published in 1757. Williamson, who had been kidnapped from Aberdeen by unscrupulous merchants while still a small boy and sold into servitude in Philadelphia, eventually rose to be a prosperous farmer on the Pennsylvanian frontier only to be taken prisoner by the Cherokee for several months at the start of the Seven Years War – so he knew of what he spoke. The behaviour of those “monsters of impiety” involved in the illegal indenture trade, Williamson insisted, “may be compared to the practice of the savages … who, to gratify their propensity to mischief, cut, mangle, burn, and destroy all the innocent people they can catch.”9 But in addition it is important to observe that the system of indenture was positioned within an Atlantic world of multiple possible constraints – ranging from patriarchal or military internment to detention by Catholic or Islamic captors, all set against the backdrop of African bondage. As Joe Snader has argued, although literary scholars have “largely … defined the captivity genre in terms of Anglo-American captives and Native American captors” such texts constitute only “one important strand within a larger Anglophone tradition of captivity narratives that began with the earliest British ventures into alien seas,” and that “grew out of the tensions surrounding … the expansion of European colonialism and trade.”10

Thus Williamson, for his part, is also taken hostage by the French, who were opposing Britain in the Seven Years War, while the eponymous heroine of Virtue Triumphant, or Elizabeth Canning in America (1757) moves through an even more dizzying series of confinements. A partly fictionalized account of one of the most famous criminal cases of the eighteenth century, Virtue Triumphant details how Canning, a London maidservant, is sentenced to deportation for perjury after alleging that she had been held captive in a brothel, before variously enduring, in the New World, the attentions of a sexually predatory master, capture by a party of French-sympathizing Indians, and incarceration in a Quebecan nunnery. If Virtue Triumphant, like An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew, veers into the fanciful once it sets foot in America, it too nonetheless underlines how indenture narratives commonly measured the experience of bound labor against a host of other captivities inflected with different gendered, racial, religious, and national emphases. And, moreover, Virtue Triumphant also indicates how such comparators could be positive as well as negative. For Canning decides that life with “those ferocious Indians” is preferable to remaining with her white master, where she is “liable to the frequent attacks of his brutal passion” – the Native Americans at least exhibit “a mild disposition toward her.”11

Almost the only mode of captivity that Virtue Triumphant does not invoke is the one that now most concerns historians of the colonial and early national periods – African slavery. But as I have already suggested, this comparison is prominent in a great number of other indenture narratives. James Revel, for instance, records that “My fellow slaves were five transports more / With eighteen negroes, which is twenty-four,” while Peter Williamson argues that as soon as American planters “can raise £20 or £30 they purchase servants from the European merchants, whom they make slaves.”12 Importantly, the fact that the words “servant” and “slave” were being used interchangeably when describing white bound laborers until well into the mid-eighteenth century is no mere semiotic convention. The status of white indentured workers and African chattel slaves was, in its most fundamental respects, radically different – for the latter lacked the physical sovereignty, legal rights and limited service assigned to the former. Yet in practice the theoretical autonomy granted to indentees all too often disappeared – masters tended to regard themselves as owning their servants’ bodies as well as their labor, redress for mistreatment was very hard to come by, and whites and blacks often toiled in the same conditions. Just as we must consider the operation of multiple captivities when analysing the Indentured Atlantic, then, so we must also consider the existence of multiple slaveries. As John Donoghue has succinctly put it: “The standard method used to evaluate slavery in the English Atlantic … has proceeded from a definition of what the practice became in the eighteenth century: an institution of racialized, perpetual bondage. Yet this is a mistaken approach that removes [indentured] people such as Charles Bayly and tens of thousands of others like him from the literal history of colonial slavery. … Instead of trying to study ‘slavery’ in the … English Atlantic, we ought to begin grappling with how the drive to maximize profits in the early plantation complex gave rise to different ‘slaveries.’”13

Significantly, in this way, the repeated comparison that white bound servants drew between themselves and black plantation hands points to a gradual historical transition toward a racialized labor market in the British colonies. Read in a mid-seventeenth-century context, when white indentees outnumbered African importees, the identification of bound labor with slavery tends to smack of shared grievances. But when read in a mid-eighteenth-century context, by which time African slaves were entering the country in huge quantities, the same identification tends to intimate a desire for differentiation. Indeed, as plantation work increasingly became associated with a degraded caste of black perpetual servants after the 1690s, the Southern elite actively encouraged poor whites to consider themselves as a separate class in order to forestall cross-racial insurrection. There are, in short, as many telling distinctions as there are similarities to be teased out between an indenture narrator like Revel, who sympathetically declares that “We and the negroes both alike did fare,” and one like Williamson, who affrontedly declares that the making of Englishmen into “poor, deluded slaves” violates the “liberty that the constitution of this country considers as its favourite object.”14

One of the most striking of these distinctions is the greater emphasis that was being placed on the ethnicity of downwardly mobile indentees by the middle of the eighteenth century. In this respect, Williamson’s route into “enslavement” through abduction from a respectable home needs to be positioned within a broader narrative pattern of falling. Since criminal transportation originated primarily as a means of dealing with political dissidents, and to some extent retained this function even after its remit expanded in the early seventeenth century, professional, moderately wealthy and genteel individuals had all long been exposed to the Atlantic indenture system. But crucially, those who were forced to leave Britain because they found themselves on the wrong side of the Civil War, the Restoration, the Jacobite risings or the Irish troubles were ideological aliens who tended to direct the language of “liberty” against the government or the monarchy. When Henry Pitman, for example, who was deported to Barbados for his part in the Monmouth Rebellion, claims that “the buying and selling of Free-men into slavery, … [has] a necessary dependence on arbitrary power,” the latter phrase implies a pervasive political critique of the mother country.15 When Williamson, on the other hand, invokes similar rhetoric his target is the failure of the British legal system to secure his rights rather than the absence of those rights altogether.

Indeed, by the 1750s a general fascination with kidnapped indentees had taken root that stressed the inherent dignity and freedom of all Englishmen. Easily the most famous real-life indentee of the eighteenth century was James Annesley, an heir to one of the largest estates in Ireland, who was abducted and sent to work on a Delaware plantation at the age of twelve, before returning to England in 1741 to try and reclaim his title from the uncle who had dispatched him. And tellingly, the mass of popular literature that grew up around Annesley’s sensational court case repeatedly emphasizes what The Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman Returned from a Thirteen Years Slavery in America (1743) calls his “Establishment in those Rights derived to [him] from God and Nature.”16 Such a focus on once-privileged servants within the corpus of indenture narratives obscures the historical fact that penurious backgrounds were the norm, of course, and is another testament to how the possession of literacy has skewed our archive, yet these texts can still help us to make sense of the generally shared transformations taking place across the colonial labor market. Thus, a novel like Edward Kimber’s The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson (1754), with its kidnapped-into-indenture protagonist, effectively underlines how mid-eighteenth century discourses of English “liberty” were being explicitly formed through a complex process of differentiation from African slavery. For while the eponymous hero may argue that black workers are more effectively “engaged by Mercy and Lenity, than by … Whips,” his own redemption from “the condition of a slave” is predicated on a conviction that “we are all naturally born free … as Englishmen” which cannot be applied to the African-Americans he eventually comes to be an overseer of.17 As Anderson’s conceptualization of benighted Africanness – as well as Peter Williamson’s self-opposition to Native Americans – shows, the pluralizing of “slavery” or “captivity” in the eighteenth-century indenture narrative tends to be used to calibrate racialized distinctions rather than assert racial congruity. Equally too, though, the falling arc of many indenture narratives indicates how this body of texts were prey to cross-class discrimination and management. And it is this issue that I will turn to in the final post of this series.


  1. See: Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Peter Reed, Rogue Performances: Staging the Underclass in Early American Theatre Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
  2. John Gay, Polly: An Opera, Being the Second Part of the Beggar’s Opera (London: T. Thomson, 1729), viii.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 6.
  5. Thomas Hellier, The Vain Prodigal Life, and Tragical Penitent Death of Thomas Hellier (London: Samuel Crouch, 1680), 9.
  6. Robert Goadby, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew (London: R. Goadby and W. Owen, 1749), iv.
  7. Ibid., 125, 128.
  8. Ibid., 154.
  9. Peter Williamson, French and Indian Cruelty: Exemplified in the Life and Various Viccistudes of Fortune of Peter Williamson (Edinburgh:, 1762), 132.
  10. Joe Snader, Caught Between Worlds: British Captivity Narratives in Fact and Fiction (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 1.
  11. Anonymous, Virtue Triumphant, or Elizabeth Canning in America (London: J. Cooke, 1757), 61.
  12. James Revel, The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon’s Sorrowful Account of his Fourteen Years Transportation, in American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. David S. Shields (New York: Library of America, 2007), 159; Williamson, French and Indian Cruelty, 136.
  13. John Donoghue, “‘Out of the Land of Bondage’: The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition,” The American Historical Review 115 (2010): 945.
  14. Revel, The Poor Unhappy Transported Felon, 159; Williamson, French and Indian Cruelty, 139.
  15. Henry Pitman, A Relation of the Great Sufferings and Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman (London: Andrew Searle, 1689), 5.
  16. Anonymous, Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman, Return’d from a Thirteen Years Slavery in America (London: J. Freeman, 1743), 179.
  17. Edward Kimber, The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson, eds. Matthew Mason and Nicholas Mason (Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009), 145, 60.

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About Matthew Pethers

Matthew Pethers is an Assistant Professor of American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Nottingham. He has published widely on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature, history and print culture, including articles in Early American Literature, History of Science, and American Studies, and book chapters in John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture (Bucknell University Press, 2012), The Materials of Exchange Between Britain and North East America, 1750-1900 (Ashgate, 2013), and New Directions in the History of the Novel (Palgrave, 2014). He is currently co-editing The Edinburgh Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Letters and Letter-Writing, and has a chapter on indenture narratives forthcoming in The Cambridge History of American Working-Class Literature.
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