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Historian here. Historian of the early modern Atlantic world, even.

Yes, Cromwell deported large numbers of people to the New World where they existed in brutal servitude, alongside many others who laboured in less-than-free conditions. Were they "slaves"? That's a thorny linguistic and legal problem.

In theory, England had no unfree labourers, serfdom having died out very early in the medieval period. All labourers were routinely called "servants" in the 17th century.

In practise, indenture temporarily robbed labourers of almost all legal rights, and was used extensively to solve the labour shortage in England's colonies. They might be kidnaped from the streets or duped into signing a contract. Orphans and the landless might be shipped out (to a tidy profit for parish authorities).
Or, in the case of Cromwell's retributions, they might be shipped out in punishment for  a crime (although the volume of the Cromwell cases are really exceptional).

Their contracts could be bought and sold, and their legal rights were few. Sometimes they rebelled, spectacularly. A group of servants bound for Virginia were shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609. The settlers and the working sailors of the ship mutinied against their masters in the Virginia company, refusing to leave Bermuda. Virginia Company leaders had to  hang one man and execute another by firing squad in order to get them to leave and carry on to Virginia.

(Beware, by the way, of geography. In the 17th century, "New England" and "Virginia" were used vaguely by English sources, often simply meaning "the mainland continent." "America" to Englishmen and women often meant the Caribbean insular colonies, not the continent. People sold "to Virginia" might end up anywhere from Surinam to Nova Scotia.)

The first Africans sold in Virginia (the actual colony)in 1619 were probably treated as indentured servants; a black man, Antonio Johnson, is recorded as such. By the 1640s, he was a free man with his own "servants."

Race-based slavery of lifetime servitude reserved for non-whites alreay existed in the 17th century, having developed in the Iberian colonies with a basis in various Iberian laws. Gradually, various English-speaking colonies adopted a race-based definition of slavery, which made forced servitude both inheritable and lifetime, was a gradual process  over the course of the 17th century. (Unitary Moonbat and I did a brief history of this at dKos, btw.
http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2006/11/19/203156/38 ) By 1750, there's a hug difference between indentured servant and slave in England's colonies. In 1650, it's not so clear.

Much colonial labour was less than free(whether "slave" or "servant"); a nice consideration of some of the meanings of unfreedom in the English Atlantic world (and the resistance to such unfreedom by labouring peoples) can be found in
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Maruc Rediker.

 I'm sorry, this has turned into an overlong comment.
I also want to add the caveat that French, Dutch, and Iberian definitions and practises all have their own unique histories; I'm restricting myself to the English cases here.

Progressive Historians and The Next Agenda

by aphra behn (aphra (underscore) behn (at) bigfoot (dot) com) on Tue Mar 20th, 2007 at 07:24:29 PM EST

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