RECAP: “Coercion and Contract Labor in the Early Modern English Atlantic World,” Colloquium w/ Inaugural Kinder Junior Research Fellow Sonia Tycko

Before taking her new post at University of Edinburgh, Prof. Sonia Tycko, the Kinder Institute’s inaugural Junior Research Fellow at Oxford, paid a final visit to Columbia to present her research on coercion and contract labor in, as she described it, the England of Shakespeare, Milton, Locke, and Hobbes. We began in a 17th-century courtroom where William Haverland was being indicted on charges that he plied fellow countryman Thomas Stone with brandy and brought him to the Thames, where the Martha was waiting to ferry him to a life of indentured servitude in Britain’s North American colonies. If the fact that Haverland was indicted was an aberration, the exploitation at the heart of his ploy—known at the time as spiriting—was anything but aberrant. Spiriting was one of a number of common practices Prof. Tycko covered in her talk that embodied the degree to which force and consent co-existed in the contract labor market of early modern England.

To account for the ways in which freedom and coercion weren’t reflexively invalidating concepts in the landscape of early modern labor, scholars have gravitated away from the free/un-free binary and toward a spectrum of unfreedom. As Prof. Tycko explained, however, neither separating freedom and coercion by type (the binary) nor by degree (the spectrum) does quite enough to capture the ways in which consent, in theory an expression of one’s freely choosing to enter into a contract, was used as a form of coercion. We see this, for example, in court records which show how consent was judicially ascribed to people who entered into contracts unknowingly or, in the most absurd cases, who did so without any alternative option—the ship captive who legally bound himself to service because he accepted food. The construction of consent-as-coercion can likewise be seen if we consider how contracts were less a function of free choice and more a marker of submission to entrenched social hierarchies, an interpretation of exploitative power dynamics wholly supported by 17th-century elites’ perception of the poor as natural laborers whose lack of means made them eager to work.

In providing specific examples from her own research, which focuses on the period from ca. 1610-1680—an era that saw the advent, growth, and decline of the first iteration of English colonial servitude—Prof. Tycko first turned toward the distinction between medieval guild apprenticeships and the parish apprenticeships of the 17th century. Consent factors very little in records kept of the former, likely because of how it [consent] could be reasonably derived from the fact that participation resulted in privileged access to trade guilds. On the other hand, “free and willing entry” clauses were a fixture in parish apprenticeship contracts, through which children of the poor were bound to the homes of wealthy neighbors to serve, sometimes until the age of 25, as unpaid domestic and agricultural servants. “Free” and “willing,” in spite of these clauses, should be taken as relative terms, as the administrative unit of the parish held one proof of agreement and the masters the other, an arrangement which reveals not a concern with the consent of the indentured child but rather a preoccupation with ensuring that the masters carried out their duty to the parish.

Similarly, as colonization and commerce increasingly came to dovetail with one another in the mid-17th century, transatlantic servitude spiked throughout both the Caribbean and the North American British colonies, though these indentures, like parish apprentices, had no legal role or counterapart in determining the validity of their contract status. Often targeted because of their social, political, and economic vulnerability—many of them, in fact, victims of the spiriting schemes with which the talk opened—arrival was, in most cases, treated as tantamount to consent. It’s here, Prof. Tycko added, that we also began to see the intersection of racial ideology and labor status. Even with the expansion of the institution of slavery during this time, masters continued to seek out indentured servants from Europe as a way to populate militias capable of suppressing the rebellion of enslaved peoples, for example, or in anticipation of a subsequent need to build race-based coalitions with former servants.

That this was happening as the gap between indentured servants and enslaved people was widening underscores the fundamental distinctions between these two labor statuses, namely the protections and provisions that came with contracts: that indenture was not heritable; that one could sue if assaulted beyond “acceptable correction” or if one was held in service beyond contract dates; that one could expect adequate food, shelter, and medical care. Still, Prof. Tycko argued in wrapping up her talk, attending to the forms of coercion that indentured servants were consistently subjected to roots the birth (and dearth) of freedom of contract squarely in the 17th century in a manner that might significantly inform our understanding of this freedom’s complicated, uneven history in post-emancipation societies.