Eric Williams on the differences between white servitude and black slavery

from Capitalism and Slavery (1944), 18

“Defoe bluntly stated that the white servant was a slave. He was not. The servant’s loss of liberty was of limited duration, the Negro was [a] slave for life. The servant’s status could not descend to his offspring, Negro children took the status of the mother.

The master at no time had absolute control over the person and liberty of his servant as he had over his slave. The servant had rights, limited but recognised by law and inserted into a contract. He enjoyed, for instance, a limited right to property. In actual law the conception of the servant as a piece of property never went beyond that of personal estate and never reached the stage of a chattel or real estate. The laws in the colonies maintained this rigid distinction and visited co-habitation between the races with severe penalties.

The servant could aspire, at the end of his term, to a plot of land, though, as Wertenbaker points out for Virginia, it was not a legal right, and conditions varied from colony to colony. The serf in Europe could therefore hope for an early freedom in America which villeinage could not afford. The freed servants became small yeoman farmers, settled in the back country, a democratic force in a society of large aristocratic plantation owners, and were pioneers in westward expansion.”

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