An evaluation of the transition from European indentured servants to African slaves on the plantations of mainland America and the British West Indies.

Before the widespread use of slavery in mainland America and the British West Indies, the predominant form of labour was that of white indentured servitude. These were mostly unskilled workers who had emigrated from Britain and Ireland who entered into a contract usually lasting between 2 and 10 years of labouring in the colonies. First appearing in use in Virginia by around 1620 and spreading across most of colonial America and the West Indies, indentured servitude ‘emerged as a new institutional arrangement … devised to increase labor mobility from England to America,’ and became a key component in the economies and societies of those colonies.

Indentured servitude made up the majority of labourers in the West Indies until around 1660 when slavery became predominant, whereas the mainland American colonies adopted slave labour some decades later. But what was the reason behind this transfer from white indentured servitude to African slaves? Historians have provided two alternative explanations for this development. The first and generally most popular is the economic argument, pioneered in the work of Eric Williams. The second places emphasis on the role of culture and ideology––the theory that ‘planters, for racist, cultural, and other non-economic reasons, preferred black to white labor.’

Through an analysis of a range of historiographical accounts, this essay will conclude that whilst ideological and cultural arguments have value in explaining the persistence of racism, they have failed to sufficiently explain the transition from European indentured servants to African slaves on the plantations of mainland America and the British West Indies. Despite the various attempts to discredit Williams’ thesis, its fundamental emphasis on the centrality of rational, economic decisions by planters still remains the dominant and most convincing explanation.

Eric Williams, in his seminal work Capitalism & Slavery (1944), explains how the system of indentured servitude began as a mutually beneficial arrangement for both England and the colonies; the former’s seventeenth century anxieties about overpopulation and unemployment dovetailed with the need to populate and provide labour for the New World. But by the eighteenth century this anxiety had swung in the opposite direction, as underpopulation and a shortage of labour came to be viewed as a threat to economic development in England. As Williams explains,

the stress had shifted from the accumulation of the precious metals as the aim of national economic policy to the development of industry within the country, the promotion of employment and the encouragement of exports.

Key to Williams’ argument is the changing economic structure prompted by the development in the cultivation of sugar, tobacco and cotton in the colonies. The need for vast plantations in order to produce on a much wider scale at minimal cost meant changing the ‘flourishing commonwealths of small farmers into vast sugar factories owned by a camarilla of absentee capitalist magnates’ that required large amounts of cheap labour. For the small farmers who managed to survive, such as those in Virginia, they simply could not compete without adopting slave labour.

As Williams summarises,

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. … The features of the man, his hair, colour and dentifrice, … were only the later rationalizations to justify a simply economic fact: that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro labour because it was cheapest and best. This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor.

Williams’ thesis has been extended by Oscar and Mary Handlin, who wrote in 1950 that the transition to slavery emerged as the adjustment of traditional European institutions to American conditions. Their work emphasised the development of legal and definitional boundaries between the servant and slave. Once merely a derogatory term referring to a lowly servant, a slave only came to eventually be legally defined through the derogation of the status of the white indentured servant. They explain how, ‘[a]lthough the colonists assumed at the start that all servants would “fare alike in the colony,” the social realities of their situation early gave rise to differences of treatment.’ Most importantly, the growing reluctance to emigrate due to ‘reports in England and Scotland that servants were harshly treated and bound in perpetual slavery’, resulted in the colonies embarking ‘upon a line of legislation designed to improve servants’ conditions and to enlarge the prospect of a meaningful release’. But this need not apply to the African––‘Since his coming was involuntary, nothing that happened to him would increase or decrease his numbers.’ This would be the beginning in a series of laws which increasingly differentiated between the European servant and the black slave, and eventually ‘[c]olor … emerged as the token of the slave status’. Kenneth Stamp (1956) supported the Handlins’ thesis, writing that ‘slavery and prejudice had become mutually reinforcing’ as a result of these processes.

Not all economic historians have agreed on the nature of this drive towards slavery. Bean and Thomas (1979), for example, argued that it was caused by changes in the supply of workers, as opposed to growing demand for labour. Looking at Barbados in particular, they suggest that the rise of sugar plantations was not as important as Williams and others have asserted, pointing to a ‘lag of several years between the beginning of sugar production … and the emergence of slaves as a majority of the unfree workforce.’

However, Richard Dunn (1972) has provided evidence to show that the period between 1640 and 1643 was in fact accompanied with ‘a sharp rise in the demand for labour … and not, … a decline in the supply of servants.’ But still, demand and supply do have a symbiotic relationship. Certainly, planters would not make such huge investments in plantations without the knowledge that there was a plentiful supply of labourers available, but inversely a large supply of labour would be of no use without the demand prompted by the development of plantations and the market for their products.

Writing in 1973, Raymond Starr insisted that the economic explanation ‘began to crumble in the 1950s’ because of ‘a new awareness of the depth  … of racial prejudice’ due to increased racial conflict in America. However, nothing about the economic theory of Williams and his contemporaries is disproved by contemporary America’s prevalent racism, and there is no evidence that historians of this period were unaware its prevalence. In fact Williams’ work was done in order to explain contemporary racism. ‘Economic determinists’ and ‘extreme Marxists’, as Starr labels these historians, neglect the racist ideology used to rationalise and sustain slavery. Starr appears to be unaware that this is precisely the economic argument: in Eric Williams’ own words, ‘[t]he features of the man, his hair, color, and dentifrice, his “subhuman” characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalisation to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labour and … Negro labor … was cheapest’.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s the role of economics in understanding the transition to slavery was losing popularity in favour of cultural and ideological explanations. Starr argued that the economic interpretation of the transition to slavery ‘did not seriously question whether … racial prejudice had existed before slavery was instituted’, and Carl Degler (1959) notably claimed that  ‘Anglo-American racism was a more complex psycho-historical problem’.

Winthrop Jordan came to dominate this discourse with the publishing of White Over Black (1968), arguing that New Englanders had been influenced by West Indians to view the Negro differently; ‘English “first impressions” had been prejudicial to the people from the exotic continent’ and as such, made the ‘unthinking decision’ to enslave Africans due to their ‘preconceived notion of inferiority’. Katherine George and Dante A. Puzo were other exponents of this view, emphasising that ‘racial prejudice had been an established facet of Western tradition before the Englishman came to Virginia.’

However, Russel Menard later contended that ‘such attitudes appear only after the low country had become a thoroughly Africanised slave society.’  Menard rightly points out that the attitudes of planters fails to ‘account for the timing of changes in the workforce, … that can be understood only by the close attention to markets, to the supply of workers from various sources and the demand for labour.’

J. H. Plumb (1969), while accepting the evidence of English racism, argued that this alone fails to prove its role in causing the adoption of slavery. Plumb asserted that prejudice towards slaves in America was not based on race but on the exploitation of workers, in the same way in which the white English working class were debased. William Mckee Evans (1980) also criticised these attempts to explain slavery as ‘an “irrational” psychological phenomenon rather than a concrete historical one,’ instead stressing the role of power relationships and the way in which capitalists deliberately used this power to encourage prejudice for their own gain.

Plumb and Evans’ work formed part of the resurgence of the economic argument. Also contributing to this revival was Edmund Morgan (1975), who highlighted ‘that the laws of servitude anticipated the laws of slavery in procuring an unfree work force from which profits could be maximized by extracting a maximum of coercible labor power.’ This was complemented by the work of David W. Galenson (1984), who reinforced the role of ‘changing relative costs of the two types of labor’, Menard, and Beckles and Downes (1987), who asserted that the transition to slavery was not simply the adoption of a new, ‘qualitatively different labor system’, but rather ‘a move along a continuum of further labor subjection’, in the way in which the Handlins had previously explained.

David Eltis (1993) later challenged the economic explanation from a different angle, proposing that the enslavement of Africans was done on the basis of European attitudes and culture, writing that ‘enslavement remained a fate for which only non-Europeans were qualified.’ He underlines this by insisting that, by the 1600s, ‘the most cursory examination of relative costs suggests that European slaves should have been preferred to either European indentured labor or African slaves.’

But David Eltis is interpreting the economic argument as simply meaning the least cost-option; disregarding the wider implications of the capitalist economic system which fundamentally relied on domestic free labour. To opt for the least-cost option of enslaving citizens at home would negate itself by abolishing the very economic system such a policy would seek to satisfy. Free labour at home is key to the development of capitalism, and furthermore, as Eric Williams highlighted nearly forty years earlier, the funds from slavery formed the basis for the development of capitalist industry at home. And yet, in presenting his case against it, Eltis vindicates the argument that slavery and capitalism were symbiotic in this period:

In the long run, these social and economic patterns were hostile to enslavement of Europeans … [in] their tendency to stress the value of the individual, at least compared to the non-European world … [and] the opportunity they provided for the pervasive growth of market behavior. The trading of land, labor, and capital, as well as goods and services, was far more extensive in early modern Europe than in any other continent.


Historians may have shown that discriminatory and racist attitudes could have predated the introduction of slavery, yet the evidence fails to adequately explain why slavery replaced indentured servitude. Moreover, the slave trade on a mass, industrialised scale required a justificatory cultural assimilation of racial inferiority of a different quality. Ideology and culture are products of and sustainers of the foundational economic forces. To insist on the economic model as the fundamental driving force behind the origins of slavery is not to argue that other factors cannot play a role –– it is simply to stress that these other factors are only able to exist and work in the context of their economic basis. For this reason, the underpinnings of Williams’ thesis and its later adherents remain just as valid to this day.


Beckles, H. M. and A. Downes, ‘The Economic Transition to the Black Labor System in Barbados, 1630-1680’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1987), pp. 225-247

Blackburn, R. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492–1800 (London: Verso, 2010)

Breen, T. H. ‘A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660–1710’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Autumn 1973) pp 3-25

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Gray, R. and B. Wood, ’The Transition from Indentured to Involuntary Servitude in Colonial Georgia’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 13 (1976) pp. 353-370.

Handlin, O. and M. F. Handlin, ‘Origins of the Southern Labor System’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr. 1950) pp. 199-222.

Jordan, W. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 [2nd edition] (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012)

Leiman, M. ‘The Political Economy of Racism: Radical Perspectives and New Directions’, The Insurgent Sociologist, Volume 14, Issue 3 (1987) pp 73 -110.

Menard, R. ‘Transitions to African slavery in British America, 1630-1730: Barbados, Virginia and South Carolina’, Indian Historical Review, Vol. 15 (1988-9) pp. 33-49.

Salinger, S. V. ‘Colonial Labor in Transition: The Decline of Indentured Servitude in Late Eighteenth Century Philadelphia’, Labor History, 01/1981, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp. 165-191

Solow, B. L and S. Engerman, eds., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1986)

Starr, R. ‘Historians and the Origins of British North American Slavery’, Historian, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Nov. 1973) pp. 1-18.

Tomlins, C. ‘Reconsidering Indentured Servitude: European Migration and Early American Labor Force, 1600–1775’, Labor History, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2001) pp. 5-43.

Williams, E. Capitalism & Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944)


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