In the mid-1700s, a German schoolteacher named Gottlieb Mittelberger boarded a ship bound for the colony of Pennsylvania, in far-off North America. Mittelberger had borrowed the cost of his passage by signing on as an indentured servant. He would have to settle his debt by working for several years for the master who bought his services.
The voyage across the Atlantic was horrible. Most passengers suffered from illness and hunger. “The people are packed densely,” Mittelberger wrote, “like herrings so to say, in the large sea vessels. One person receives a place of scarcely 2 feet width and 6 feet length . . . There is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water.”
When the nightmarish voyage ended, Mittelberger had to stay on board until his service was bought. Most indentured servants had to work for their masters for three to six years, but commitments varied according to the servants’ age and strength. As Mittelberger noted, “young people, from 10 to 15 years, must serve till they are 21 years old.”
Why were people willing to go through such hardships to come to the colonies?