“That Odious Name Sold”: Narratives of the Servant Trade

Matthew Pursell

Abstract


This article traces mostly British attitudes toward indentured servitude in the colonial era. In scores of historical and imaginative narratives a coherent image of servitude as an onerous condition was articulated, with the traffic in servants garnering the most public interest and censure. Reports of dubious recruitment, an impersonal and degrading human traffic, and the difficulty of gaining redress in a distant and servile condition all circulated widely. Such views were only loosely based on practice and were always contested by promoters and others. Nevertheless, they reveal the contours of an immensely important institution’s unfavorable reputation, one that cast doubt on the liberty and civility of both Briton and its colonies and may well have informed not just Europeans’ decisions to migrate but also an incipient abolitionism.

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