Four hundred years ago all manner of children, teenagers, and young men and women, mainly from the poorest families, were sent, often against their will, to board ships leaving from Bristol across the Irish Sea, and into the Atlantic Ocean. They were sent to meet the growing demand for cheap labour in Britain’s newly created colonies in North America. From 1610 to American independence in 1776, half a million people left Britain for North America. Some were political and religious dissenters, like the Puritans, Quakers and the Irish and Scottish Presbyterians. While others were convicts, sent by the British government to clear out its overcrowded prisons. But around half - that’s a quarter of a million - were indentured servants. And most were sent against their will. Historian David Olusoga meets writer Don Jordan, who tells the stories of some of these young people.
Students could study various indenture contracts (available by searching online) and use them to build up an idea of the people involved. Were they religious or political refugees, convicts, those who chose indenture in the hope of a better life when they were later freed, or kidnapped children forced into a form of slavery? This could lead into a study of plantation life in North America and the Caribbean. The experiences of indentured servants and enslaved Africans, often working on the same plantations, could be compared: how were they similar, and how different? Or the focus could be back in Britain: what were the conditions forcing many to leave and leaving others vulnerable to kidnap?