After filling their starving bellies with greasy stew and quarts of ale, Andrew and Molly signed away their next four years, too sated to consider the uncertainty of the life facing them. In fact, they were signing away the certainty of poverty, degradation, and possible imprisonment had they remained. In that time, people could not expect to rise above their station. Having lost the position as farm servants to which they were born, it was unlikely they’d ever find anything more than seasonal farm employment, working mostly at planting or harvest when the workload was heavy. Starvation would likely have been their eventual lot. Should they stay in the city, it’s unlikely they’d find work. Many in their situation drifted into prostitution and crime. It is likely Molly would have dried of disease, drink, or victimization on the streets and Andrew would have ended up on the gallows or bound over as an involuntary indentured servant. Their best chance for a better life lay with the choice they’d made.
Once they’d signed, the agent wasted no time escorting them on board the Elizabeth Ann. She looked imposing from without, but her charm faded as Mr. Peabody led them deep into the bowels of the ship. Their quarters in the lowest level were dark, wet, and malodorous. There was no provision for privacy. They’d be relieving themselves in the communal slop jar, which would ostensibly be dumped periodically, unless it tipped over first. Hammocks served for sleeping. There were no other furnishings. Restricted below deck until after sailing to avoid defection, they got a measure of beer and weevilly biscuits three times a day. The smell was horrendous. After their first exhausted sleep, they awoke to find themselves a part of a growing crowd of voluntary and involuntary holdmates ranging from bonded servants like themselves to young children scooped up off the street all the way prostitutes and hardened criminals who’d barely escaped the gallows. The strong preyed on the weak. Their miserable sleep was interrupted by lighting, moaning, and the occasional fight. Periodically, the door above opened and another unfortunate joined their miserable lot.
In truth, indentured servants were enslaved for the period of their indenture, usually four to seven years, children till the age of twenty-one. Their bondage could be sold without their consent. Marriage required the master’s consent. Should women become pregnant, their period of servitude could be extended due to decreased productivity during the pregnancy. Children of unwed mothers were born free, but subject to being placed in the care of the church. Unlike slaves, the indentured could appeal to the courts to contest mistreatment and did receive twenty-five to fifty acres of land, some tools, seed, and clothing upon completing their service. Like slaves, they were most often ill-treated. Having come to the colony in this way was no impediment to their future. Many bonded servants prospered and got a good start to a free life. It definitely could be a road to a better life.