History KS3 / GCSE: The story of British indentured workers emigrating to America

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.

And some 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.

In this short film David Olusoga meets writer Don Jordan, who tells the stories of some of these young people.

This short film is from the BBC series, Migration.

Teacher Notes

Key Stage 3

This story allows students to see that the plantation system exploited poor white as well as Black labour.

Students could look at where the indentured labourers ended up.

Students could look at the similarities and differences between indentured labour and chattel slavery.

Comparisons are possible with the forced emigration of British children to Canada and Australia in the 20th century and child trafficking today.

Key Stage 4

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.

Don Jordan describes the system as being about profit.

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?

Curriculum Notes

This short film is suitable for teaching history at KS3 and KS4/GCSE in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Fourth Level and National 4 and 5 in Scotland.

More from Migration:

The story of black migrants in Tudor England
The story of the Palatines who migrated to Britain in the 1700s
Black people in Britain during the Atlantic slave trade era
How British migrants made fortunes working for the East India Company
The Irish migrants who moved to Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution
Jewish migration to Manchester in the late 1800s