Friday, January 15, 2021

Slaves and slavery, part 21: Eng. indenture

  [This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 21 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Other English and Spanish words related to slavery

Eng. indenture

The last word that we are going to look at in this chapter is indenture [ɪnˈdenʧəɹ], a word that was used in the past to describe certain types of a written agreement or legal contracts. One of the most common types of indentures was ‘an agreement binding an apprentice to a master’ (COED). The word indenture has also been used at times to refer to some types of land transactions. Later on, in the 17th century, indenture came to be used to refer to ‘a contract by which a person agreed to work for a set period for a colonial landowner in exchange for passage to the colony’ (COED). This word is relevant here because the conditions of colonial indentured workers have often been compared to those of slavery.

A more general, earlier meaning of the noun indenture was ‘a document in duplicate having indented edges’ (AHD), that is to say, ‘a formal agreement, contract, or list, formerly one of which copies with indented edges were made for the contracting parties’ (COED). Spanish has no cognate of this word. To translate the ‘apprenticeship contract’ sense, which is the most common one found in English-Spanish dictionaries, one may use the expression contrato de aprendizaje (OSD). This is the only translation that most English-Spanish dictionaries give for the word indenture. Some provide a translation for the ‘contract’ sense, which is simply contrato ‘contract’. For the general sense of ‘contract with indentations’, we can use the expressions acuerdo dentado or documento dentado, though these descriptive expressions are rare.[a] Why dentado, a word that means ‘with teeth’? That is because as we will see, the word indenture contains the root dent‑, the source of Sp. diente ‘tooth’ (from Lat. dĕnt‑em) and a number of other related words such as the cognates Eng. dental ~ Sp. dental and Eng. dentist ~ Sp. dentista.

The noun indenture was converted in English into the verb (to) indenture in the 17th century. The few English-Spanish dictionaries that have this verb translate it as contratar como aprendiz, using only one of the senses of the noun indenture. Harrap’s English-Spanish Dictionary tells us that this verb is old-fashioned and we are given the following example He was indentured to a carpenter Sp. Lo contrataron como aprendiz de carpintero (Harraps).

Eng. indenture is also related to the verb indent and, thus, to the noun indentation derived from that verb. Modern English indenture descends from Middle English endenture, which was a late 14th century loan from Old French endenteure or endenture, which meant literally ‘indentation, furnishing with teeth’. This word was probably based on an unattested Late Latin noun *indentātūra (same meaning), derived by means of the feminine noun-forming suffix ‑ūr‑(a) from the stem *indentāt‑, of the passive participle of the unattested Medieval Latin verb *ĭndĕntāre ‘to indent, provide with teeth’, a verb that contains the Latin root dĕnt‑ ‘tooth’ (ĭn-dĕnt-ā‑re).

This English verb indent (there is another one, as we shall see) was borrowed in the 15th century from French endenter (attested in the 12th century), which meant ‘to make a tooth-like incision or incisions in the edge or border of; to notch or jag; now, chiefly, to give a zigzag or strongly seriate outline to’ (OED).

The noun indentation, used to refer to ‘the act or result of furnishing with teeth’, synonymous with one of the senses of Lat. *indentātūra and thus related to Eng. indenture, is not found in English until the late 16th century. The OED tells us that indentation was formed in English from the verb indent by means of the Latinate suffix ‑ation, and not borrowed from Latin. Finally, English also derived a noun indent from the verb indent that could in some cases be a synonym of indenture, and in British English can also mean ‘an official order or requisition for goods or stores’ (COED).

To understand what all this stuff about teeth has to do with contracts, we have to go to an even earlier sense of the English verb indent, found in the 14th century, which was ‘to make a contract by means of documents with indentations (‘teeth’)’, or as the OED explains, ‘to sever the two halves of a document, drawn up in duplicate, by a toothed, zigzag, or wavy line, so that the two parts exactly tally with each other; to cut the top or edge of two or more copies of a legal document in such an exactly corresponding shape; hence, to draw up (a document) in two or more exactly corresponding copies’ (OED), cf. Figure 9. This way of making contracts that neither party to the contract could alter, by means of making identical or mirror-image indentations in both copies of a document, is reminiscent, no doubt, of the use of notched tally sticks to record debts used in England in the Middle Ages.[b]

Figure 9: Half of an indenture document of 1723 showing the randomly cut edge at the top[1]

The meanings just described for the verb indent and its derived nouns indentation and indent are not the ones most modern speakers are familiar with. Most speakers are familiar with the typographical of printing sense in which the verb indent means ‘position or begin (a line or block of text) further from the margin than the main part of the text’ (COED) and the noun indentation means ‘the action of indenting or the state of being indented’ (COED). The printing senses of the verb indent and thus of the noun indentation are from the late 17th century.

Another common modern sense of the verb indent is ‘make a dent or depression in’ (COED), which we might have thought to be derived from the early sense ‘to notch or serrate the edge of’ (AHD). Actually, the OED tells us that the ‘notch’ and the ‘dent’ senses are two different verbs indent in English. Thus, whereas the former was borrowed from French endenter (see above), the latter was derived by conversion in English from the verb (to) dent by means of the prefix in‑. Although the origins of these verbs may be different, the OED concedes that ‘the two are in actual use (and perhaps have always been) consciously regarded not as distinct words, but only as senses or uses of the same word’ and that ‘[t]his blending is even more apparent in the derivatives, such as indentation’ (OED).

Interestingly, Spanish does use two different words for the two senses of Eng. indentation that we just mentioned. This noun translates into Spanish as mella if made along an edge and as hendidura if it refers to a dent or depression. Spanish typically translates to the two English verbs indent by means of periphrastic expressions that use the nouns: hacer una mella and hacer una hendidura. (There is a verb mellar in Spanish but it is not common today. Actually the noun mella, which is also not very common either, as derived from the verb mellar. Most common is the idiomatic expression hacer mella ‘to make an impression’.) In the context of printing, the noun indentation, i.e., ‘the blank space between a margin and the beginning of an indented line’ (AHD), translates into Spanish as sangría (the indented space itself is just espacio) and the printing sense of the verb indent translates as sangrar, a verb that also means ‘to bleed’.

Going back to Eng. indenture, we find that much more common that the noun indenture or the verb indenture is the adjective indentured derived by conversion from the verb’s past participle. This adjective is often found in the phrase indentured servant (or, much less commonly, indentured laborer or indentured worker). This expression used to refer to ‘a man (almost never a woman) who took out a loan (an indenture), most often to pay for the cost of his transportation to a job location: from Europe to North America, for example. In order to pay off this loan, the employee (indenturee) agreed to work without salary for the lender for a specific number of years’ (Wikipedia).[c] In the early days of the American colonies, many of the newcomers from England and other places paid their way by becoming indentured workers. This system of labor has come to be known as indentured servitude.

There is no commonly accepted phrase to translate indentured servitude into Spanish, which is often translated as servidumbre (see above). Two types of indentured servitude may be specified, namely servidumbre de aprendizaje for the apprenticeship type mentioned earlier, and servidumbre por contrato for the other ones. There is also no standard way to translate indentured servant either. Among the options that one finds some simple ones such as sirviente contratado, sirviente por contrato, or trabajador contratado, whereas some are resort to explaining the institution, such as sirviente atado a un contrato de cumplimiento forzoso.[2]

Indentured workers started to arrive to the American colonies after the settling of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. An indentured worker in the North American context was not strictly speaking a slave, since in theory they became free after the period of time stipulated in their contract (indenture), which was typically four to seven years. In the early years, such workers received a ‘freedom package’ at the end of their service, which included some land. Later on, however, all the good land was taken, and these workers were pushed west towards the mountains and other less desirable areas.

In practice, however, the life of many indentured workers was not much better than that of slaves. They were often treated as harshly as slaves were treated and their contracts could be bought and sold as well. Landowners tended to prefer slaves, however, who started to come to Virginia in 1619 and eventually African slaves came to replace indentured servants in this British colony, though indentured servitude persisted to some extent until the end of the 18th century. At the beginning, however, between the early 17th century and the time of the American Revolution, between half and two thirds of all immigrants to the British colonies (south of New England) were indentured servants, mostly from England and Germany. They were most common in the region between New Jersey and Virginia. Note also that although most Europeans entered indenture willingly, a small number of them where tricked or forced into such an arrangement, which includes being kidnapped.[3] About 10% of the indentured servants were prisoners.

The length of period an indentured servant served could also be lengthened for a number of reasons, which included pregnancy for female servants. Also, we must not forget that many indentured workers died before the end of their service. The death rate of indentured servants in the Americas is not known, though it has been claimed to have been very high, between a third and half of all the indentured servants, but it seems that death was more common in the Caribbean British colonies due to sicknesses such as malaria.

Indentured servitude was a system similar to one known as debt peonage, which was used in southern New England and Long Island especially with Native Americans early on and until the American Revolution. Debt peonage, also known as just peonage, debt slavery, debt bondage, or bonded labor, is ‘a system by which debtors are bound in servitude to their creditors until their debts are paid’ (AHD).[4] These terms are usually translated into Spanish as servidumbre por deudas, lit. ‘debt servitude’. This type of servitude or slavery goes back to ancient times. A peon is primarily ‘a worker bound in servitude to a landlord creditor’ (AHD) but also, in the American context, ‘an unskilled laborer or farm worker of Latin America or the southwest United States’ (AHD). (For more on Eng. peon ~ Sp. peón, see Part II, Chapter XXX).

A special type of indentured servant in the Americas were the redemptioners, who did not sell themselves into indenture until they arrived in the US in order to pay for their passage. Since the passage was not paid up-front and they did not have a contract before they left, they were at a disadvantage since they did not have many options once they had already arrived and had to take whatever terms and conditions they could get.[5]


[a] The site Traducción Jurídica explains the different ways in which the term indenture has been used in English and the different ways in which it can be translated into Spanish, cf. (accessed on 2021.01.15).

[b] As David Graeber explains in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry’s time [Henry II (1154–1189)] were notched “tally sticks” used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called “the stock” (hence the origin of the term “stock holder”) and the debtor kept the other, called “the stub” (hence the origin of the term “ticket stub.”) Tax assessors used such twigs to calculate amounts owed by local sheriffs. Often, though, rather than wait for the taxes to come due, Henry’s exchequer would often sell the tallies at a discount, and they would circulate, as tokens of debt owed to the government, to anyone willing to trade for them.”.

[c] Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (En-En) defines indentured servant the following way: ‘Amer. Hist. a person who came to America and was placed under contract to work for another over a period of time, usually seven years, esp. during the 17th to 19th centuries. Generally, indentured servants included redemptioners, victims of religious or political persecution, persons kidnapped for the purpose, convicts, and paupers’. [1665-75] (RHWU). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary dates indentured servant to 1723 and defines it as ‘a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance’ (MWC).

The End

[1] Source: (2021.01.15) “One half of an indenture document dated 24 June 1723, the ninth year of the reign of King George I of Great Britain. Characteristic of an indenture is the randomly curved cut (or torn) edge (visible at the top on this half), capable of proving a match to the counterpart document.”

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