We like to think that all those who flocked to North America from England after the founding of Jamestown and Plymouth came eagerly and of their own accord.
That was far from the case. Many of the early colonists, especially those in Maryland and Virginia, flocking into the country which, they were told, offered such great opportunities, were unaccustomed to manual toil and needed servants and agricultural workers.
Craftsmen, skilled in trades greatly required by their fellows, needed more apprentices and labor than the villages could supply. To meet this varied demand for unskilled help, British shipowners began to offer free transportation to the new colonies in return for an agreement to work without wages for seven years.
Many thousands accepted these offers. These were known as “indentured servants.” (See INDENT.) After the seven years of service their master was required to supply them with certain agricultural implements, some clothing, and some seed, and the colony usually gave them fifty acres of land.
There was nothing debasing in such indentured service and many of these settlers were well educated and later became honored citizens. But the demand for labor exceeded this willing supply. Some shipowners then began to obtain passengers by unscrupulous measures.
At first they induced young homeless waifs from the slums of London to board their vessels, with great promises for a future in America. But later their gangs ranged the streets of English towns and cities and, using a term of the times, “spirited” the youngsters away.
In the reign of Charles II (1660-85) when this crime was at its height, the term kidnaping was coined to describe it. This was composed of the slang kid, a child, and nap, to steal. The full number of these unwilling colonists probably exceeded one hundred thousand.
One kidnaper confessed in 1671 that in the previous twelve years he had himself annually transported an average of five hundred youngsters. Another admitted that he had kidnaped eight hundred and forty in a single year.
In theory all of such kidnaped children had become voluntary indentured servants, but in 1682 the London Council forbade any person under fourteen (the age of consent at that time) to be bound into service unless with the knowledge and consent of his parents.