[Firefly] Nuts & Bolts of the ‘Verse – Slavery & Indentureship, Part 1

Discourses on the workings of the Verse, for those as might be looking to spend time there online.


Slavery & Indentureship


“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” — 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

In the first few minutes of the Firefly pilot (the real pilot, “Serenity”, which was famously-strangely aired last and after the show had been cancelled) we are shown proof of gravity control: Mal, Zoe, and Jayne float into the cargo airlock with their illegally salvaged crates, a button is punched, air hisses in, and the crates clonk to the deck. Gravity control. No need for discussion, no labored “Jayne, turn on the gravity control” dialogue — we just see it happen, accept it, and move on with the story.

Similarly, right from the start we are shown that slavery exists in the Verse. But slavery is so much bigger an issue, with so many permutations and effects upon life in the Verse, that it merits more discussion.

The indications that slavery exists begin a bit further on in the pilot, when the same trio go to Badger’s den to arrange delivery of the illicit cargo. As they arrive, we see Badger examining a woman as he would a horse he is considering purchasing (even checking the condition of her teeth); he gives his approval, and the woman is somewhat-roughly taken away. Obviously, business as usual, an everyday thing.

In the next episode (the quickly-written aired-as-pilot “Train Job”), Inara rescues Mal from the hands of the local law by stating that she is reclaiming her “indentured man, with three years left on his debt”, who has run away. The sheriff’s reaction indicates this is in no way an unusual situation. (More on indentureship later.)

The “Shindig” episode begins with Mal and Jayne interacting with (and ultimately, robbing) a crew who have been transporting laborers, under poor conditions but with good profit.

JAYNE
(to Wright)
You made money?

WRIGHT
Hand over fist, my friend. Border
planets need labor. Terraforming
crews got a prodigious death rate.

MAL
Labor. You mean slaves.

WRIGHT
They wasn’t volunteers, for damn sure.

Later in the same episode at the titular Shindig, a kindly older man rescues Kaylee from the catclaw attacks of some debs by wielding a memorable phrase:

MURPHY
Why Banning Miller, what a vision you
are in that fine dress. Must have
taken a dozen slaves a dozen days
just to get you into that get-up.
‘Course your daddy tells me it takes
the space of a schoolboy’s wink to
get you out of it again.

A wonderful bit that also makes casual recognition that slavery exists on Persephone, a planet within the White Sun system and close to the seat of Alliance power.

In the “Jaynestown” episode, the Foreman makes involuntary labor a selling point for his product:

FOREMAN
…got over two-thousand
workers, mostly indentured, pay ‘em
next to nothin’, so’s we can pass
them savings directly on to you-the-
customer…

And Magistrate Higgins makes passing reference to the source of his power when he is trying to charm Inara:

INARA
Magistrate Higgins, I may presume?

HIGGINS
You may. But I only make the people
I own use my title.
(chuckles)
Mr. Higgins will do fine.

It is clear that involuntary labor is common and accepted in the Verse, at least in the places we have seen our Big Damn Heroes frequent.

Slavery vs. Indentureship

While the words appear about equally in the Firefly scripts and may be seen as almost interchangeable, and while both fall under the broad umbrella of involuntary labor, slavery and indentureship are actually two different things. (Although, as history has shown and as we shall see, they sometimes are almost interchangeable in effect.)

What most people think of when they hear the term slavery is more formally considered as chattel slavery – “chattel” defined legally as “a personal possession other than real estate”. Chattel slaves are owned outright for life, to be used, loaned, sold, disciplined, or (under some legal systems and circumstances) executed, all with little governmental oversight.

Indentureship is distinguished from chattel slavery in that there is typically a term of indentureship, that is, a stated and contracted period after which the indentured is considered to have paid off a debt and will be a free agent. Indentureship also carries with it an implication of being regulated and overseen by a justice system.

An important and often overlooked point is that indentured people, even with ostensibly greater legal protection, were sometimes subject to harsher conditions than chattel slaves. Since slaves were owned for life it behooved the owner to protect their investment to insure long usefulness. By contrast, a (typically young) bondsperson could be viewed as a resource to be used up during the indentureship term.

As indentureship is much broader and more variable than chattel slavery (and less commonly encountered in discussions of history), an extensive discussion follows.

The Contract of Indentureship

In its classic form, indentureship involves a person entering into a contract signing over their labor for a specified term, in payment of a debt. The term is typically from four to seven years; those with more skills or experience in a craft are in a better position to negotiate a shorter term and better benefits, whereas those with little to offer other than unskilled labor typically draw the longer periods.

Indentureship is distinctive as versus slavery in that it involves a contract, with stated length of service and obligations on both sides. (The word itself refers to the “dents”, the teethlike patterns, left when the contract was torn in half, each party retaining one of the pieces – for the illiterate, the proof that it was the same document lay in the tear patterns matching up.) There is also the assumption that official oversight is available to assure that the terms of the contract are honored.

The classic indentureship contract not only specifies the length of service, but also any benefits that may come to the indentured during and at the end of that service. Some contracts include wages for the servant (or a lump sum, paid at the end of term) and/or property such as tools and land – “freedom dues”. This type of contract, most often offered to those with useful skills, resembled a form of apprenticeship and was designed to result in the indentured being a useful and settled member of the community.

But contracts varied widely – a situation further exaggerated by the fact that not everyone who signed a contract was able to read it. When the indentured was illiterate, the terms of the contract could be skewed against their rights or even altered later on. Contracts for minimally-skilled laborers could include the right to apply penalties for wrongdoings (typically, extension of the term of service), charges for room and board, and the ability to sell their contract to others – a situation more nearly coming to resemble chattel slavery.

Where indentureship was contracted as an alternative to imprisonment the specifications of the contract could include the right to levy strong punishments for disobedience or attempts to run away, and often stated that the indentured could be “loaned out at fee” as desired.

Bound by Law

This is a good place to discuss the nomenclature of indentureship. Just as the word “indentured” has been distinguished from “slavery” to put a softer edge on the practice, so have words arisen to color the legal status of those who are indentured. One popular term is “bound” – the indentured are bound by the terms of their contract. Thus the words “bondsman” and “bondswoman”: descriptive of status, just as are the words housemaid and apprentice.”Bound servant” or “bonded worker” are also phrases encountered in old documents.

(It is interesting to consider that the phrase “bound by law” is used in the Firefly series as we might say “under arrest”. It is a fine distinction that says something about each culture; arrest means “stop” or “curtail”, whereas bond means “join” or “attach”. To be bound in the Verse carries with it implications beyond simply being thrown in the pokey.)

The original lists of persons of quality : emigrants; religious exiles; political rebels; serving men sold for a term of years; apprentices; children stolen; maidens pressed; and others who went from Great Britain to the American plantations, 1600-1700.  – title of 1874 document

“Serving” and “service” are also sometimes used, as in the title above: “serving men sold for a term of years”. These words, beyond being simply polite euphemisms, were sometimes used to make bonded people seem more equal to paid servants in the public perception, to facilitate their melding into the local society when their indentureship was concluded.

In contrast with such gracefulness the word “pressed” was sometimes applied to those who entered service unwillingly or as an alternative to imprisonment, basically undesirables being exported to the colonies. In the title above “maidens pressed” is very likely a socially acceptable way of describing unmarried women in disgrace – in short, prostitutes.

Impressment was the practice of recruiting for a labor force, classically for a navy during time of war, most notably used by the British Royal Navy. “Press gangs” would visit “the press” upon people in port cities, looking first for those with nautical experience but sometimes simply anyone able-bodied – the gang would sweep through the port, corraling together likely-looking men. (The definition of “able-bodied” was sometimes stretched when unconscious drunks were carried away only to awaken aboard a ship.) In some places and times the pressed were able to beg off service if they could prove that they were working in a vital occupation landside, but in times of war impressment resulted in reports of likely men being cudgeled and dragged off. Merchant sailors were particularly subject to impressment, to a degree that some ships would let off their most skilled crewmen before making port; some ports had a blockade of Naval vessels to remove seamen from merchant ships.

In the Colonial period the term pressed was expanded to include anyone indentured by law rather than desire: convicts, political radicals, thieves, prostitutes, “undesirables” of all kinds.

A more insidious form of impressment was “spiriting”. Recruiting agents working to get laborers to the colonies, nicknamed “spirits”, as likely to be women as men, haunted taverns in port cities in search of those vulnerable to their stories of the grand benefits awaiting those who could get to the new lands. Typically well-dressed and prosperous-looking, they would ply their targets with food and drink while extolling the glories of life in the colonies, often presenting themselves as just returned. If their pitch (and the liquor) was strong enough, they would get a signature – or, as often as not, an X – on a contract and the new colonist would be on their way. Under terms they only vaguely understood, as the spirits often targeted the illiterate, the disadvantaged, the desperate, and the inebriated. The spirit would get a commission on every person they sent to the colonies – the source of the term “spirited away”.

Those spirited, as opposed to skilled laborers who sought out and negotiated indentureship, were the most likely to end up in an abusive situation. It was not unusual for them to wake up (with a hangover) aboard a ship en route to the colonies, to make a miserable passage to an unknown fate. Upon arrival their contracts were auctioned off and their new labors begun, with little option for return to their place of origin and little control of their destiny.

And some of those spirited away were children, baited and lured, kidnapped and transported – the “children stolen” referred to above.

Reasons for Indentureship

The basic contract of indentureship is a person signing over their labor for a specified term, as balance against a service or debt. There can be many reasons why this occurred, but historically the most common reasons were:

  • alternative to prison
  • contracting indentureship against the payment of a loan or debt
  • poverty leaving no alternatives
  • the indentured period offered against the costs of transportation
  • kidnapped

Alternative to prison. Indentureship was sometimes offered to those headed to prison, whether for debt or crimes committed. If indentureship was offered, the state benefited in several ways: the state did not have to bear the cost of imprisonment (and might actually profit from the sale of the indentureship contract), the miscreant was set to productive work, and troublemakers were exported from the home country. With a convict heritage such pressed workers were often treated as little better than slaves, facing harsh penalties for even the most minor infractions.

Paying off a debt. Whereas going to “debtor’s prison” – basically, a workhouse – carried with it a certain social stigma, entering indentureship to pay off a debt was considered more honorable. Such indentureship paid off the outstanding loan in one stroke, protecting the man’s family until his return. Thus, a man might “go to the colonies” for 4 or 5 years, to return once his term was up; occasionally, the entire family would be transported to the colonies to start a new life there.

Poverty. The desperate were sometimes driven to sell themselves into bondage as general laborers. If they had no valuable skills, the terms they received in the contract could be very disadvantageous; such laborers were the most likely to find themselves in a miserable situation.

Transportation costs. This was the “ideal” form of indentureship, often held up as the model (even/especially by those who had no intention of honoring the ideal). To build a workforce to help grow the colony, people were fronted the cost of transportation to the new opportunities in the new lands; after they worked their term, they would be free agents to pursue their lives. Bonded transportees (as distinguished from “transported”, a word often used for exiled convicts) were expected to become respectable members of the colony and typically were contracted to receive tools and land to give them their start – land being one thing most colonies had in abundance. This type of indentureship faded away as transportation costs decreased, though a form of it more resembling apprenticeship arose in its place to bring in new skilled laborers. Transportation indentureship was responsible for significant emigration to the American colonies.

Kidnapped. Most commonly applied to children, but could occur among adults as well. Similar to slaves being brought from Africa, kidnappees were imprisoned aboard ships and sold at the destination, the only difference being that a (forged) contract was being sold rather than ownership papers. It was not unusual for kidnapped children to grow old and die as bonded servants, their contracts being sold time and again, never being able to achieve any degree of freedom. A form of kidnapping was for spirits to “rescue” orphans with the story that they would be adopted in the colonies; both the spirit and the orphanage manager profited from this practice, and some orphanages provided a steady supply of future laborers.

Abuses of Indentureship

While indentureship is distinguished from slavery in that there is a legal contract with an assumption of oversight, the actual application of that oversight varied widely and the opportunity for abuse was high. The wide range of types of contracts, the wide range of interpretation of the terms of the contracts, and the question of jurisdiction all combined to allow many contract holders free range over the bound – a situation in some cases little distinguishable from outright slavery. What the contracts called the “employer” was sometimes in all reality the “owner”.

Punishable transgressions were detailed in many contracts, with most of the penalties involving the only thing the bonded had to offer:  length of service. A contract that originally specified five years might stretch to 8 or 10 years after multiple 3- or 6-month penalty periods were attached, for transgressions real or imagined. In contrast with the detailing of things that the indentured could not do, transgressions on the part of the employer were sometimes vaguely outlined – and the jurisdiction under which the contract was entered is far away, leaving the indentured unable to complain.

Another factor that could be abusively leveraged was the “transportation fee”. Since contracts often included the initial transportation, some employers chose to interpret “transportation” as meaning any time the bondsman was subsequently moved; the cost to transport a bondsperson to a new location, or to a place of loaned labor, would be added to their debt.

While room and board were often assumed or specified in the contract, “board” was not legally defined and could take the form of very poor fare. Bondsmen, and especially bondswomen serving as domestic help, could be subject to miserable living conditions; similarly, working hours were at the whim of the master/mistress.

A commonly-used clause levied penalties upon bonded women who became pregnant; an especially unjust abuse was for the master of the house to father a child upon a bondswoman, then extend the term of her service as penalty. (Bondswomen often had little recourse if the man holding their contract forced himself upon them; those who had been pressed as prostitutes were especially vulnerable.)

Punishments included not only extension of contract but also reduction in rations, confinement, and beatings; “discipline” was a term subject to a broad interpretation.

(It should be noted that the indentured were not unique in being subject to miserable conditions and harsh discipline. Paid servants and apprentices of the time were also at the mercy and whim of their masters, with little legal recourse – a “good master” was something spoken of in hushed hopeful tones. The main difference was that paid servants could leave service if they wished, though they were often forced to stay as having no other options. Apprentices were also legally contracted to serve out a certain period; if they left early, they stood to lose accreditation in the guild they had been working to join.)

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