For one, in terms of their relationship to the their mother countries, a European indentured servant could write home to love ones, perhaps receive relief, or even return home, though this was unlikely, especially since they willfully came to the colonies in search of opportunities and eventual fortunes. Indentures were legally binding agreements that obligated both sides to a number of agreed upon terms. The Afrikans who were part of "indentured servitude" were in an entirely different situation. They were victims not volunteers. They signed no pre-arranged contracts but were people forced into the system, and did not have ties to family or "mother country." As far as we know, Afrikan societies had no systems of indenture, and moreover, they did not have indenture contracts with European nations or European slavers. So Afrikan indentured servants were people ripped from their homeland, stolen persons who were experiencing culture shock. As soon as Europeans realized the Afrikan cultural disconnect, that these servants had no real legal recourse in European systems of indentured servitude, colonists passed laws to take advantaged of this situation. The distinction between indentured servant and slave is that one was a willing participant, the other was not. As a matter of fact, if a European indentured servant was kidnapped, he or she fell into the class of "white slave."
It is for these reasons I reject the notion that Afrikans were servants in the same category as European indentured servants. Historians believe that the first twenty Afrikans that arrived in the Jamestown Virginia colony in 1619 were servants, like white indentured servants brought from Europe. But given European xenophobia, their negative association with the color black, it is likely that, even if the familial English word servant was used, these servants society viewed and treated differently from white servants, and in fact were more than servants but not yet chattel. Though European colonists had a system of indentured servitude called the "headright system," it is unclear how these Afrikan servants fit into that system? The system rewarded a planter with 50 acres of land for each indenture he contracted. In provided the planter with increased landholdings and the services of the workers for indenture's duration. While the planter obviously benefited, the system seemed benefited the servant as well. According to one historian: "Each indentured servant would have their fare across the Atlantic paid in full by their master. A contract was written that stipulated the length of service — typically five years. The servant would be supplied room and board while working in the master's fields. Upon completion of the contract, the servant would receive "freedom dues," a pre-arranged termination bonus. This might include land, money, a gun, clothes or food."
But Afrikan "servants" had signed no such contracts, so whatever contracts merchants and planters created after the fact, it would lack the legal teeth of pre-arranged ones. The historical record shows that many of those first Afrikans that arrived in Jamestown served time as indentured servants until their obligations were complete and they were then freed. (The second generation would not be as fortunate.) According to the Virginia census, we know "Antonio the negro" arrived in the colony in 1621, and in 1625 documents show he was a servant not a slave. Later, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson, married an Afrikan American servant named Mary, and they had four children. Mary and Anthony became free, and he soon owned land, cattle, and had indentured servants of his own. In 1640, the year Johnson bought his first property, three servants fled a Virginia plantation. All the indentured servants the authorities captured and returned to their owner, with two having their servitude extended four years; however, the third, an Afrikan named John Punch, they sentenced to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life." Virginia made him a slave. Despite the complete lack of a slave tradition in Western Europe, serfdom, had laid somewhat of a foundation for chattel slavery, and here we see within a generation Afrikan indentured servitude was morphing into slavery, and then into chattel slavery. Virginia would become the first British colony to legally establish slavery in 1661. Maryland and the Carolinas were soon to follow. (Georgia was the only colony to resist the onset of Afrikan enslavement, it being created as an Enlightened experiment, however, 17 years after its formation, it repealed the ban on Afrikan enslavement.
In 1670, five years after Anthony Johnson death a Virginia jury decided the land Johnson left could be seized by the government because he was a "negroe and by consequence an alien." Soon other southern colonies passed laws that condemned all children of enslaved Afrikans to perpetual enslavement. Within three generations we witness the changing position of Afrikans in colonial American society. History books tell us that the change in status of Afrikan people from servant to chattel slave was gradual--I do not believe that 40 years or two generations qualify as gradual. Once ex-indentured servants found the increasing limit of land availability as large planters grab more and more of it, they formed a class of angry, impoverished pioneer farmers. Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, which saw these pioneer farmers and Afrikan indentured servants and enslaved Afrikans joined forces, had a decided effect on American slavery. It did not start the trend towards racial slavery but accelerated it. The racial unity of the rebellion frightened the ruling class, and many historians believe as a result of this fear the planter élite began hardening the associated of Afrikans with enslavement. This stress on racial slavery served to create a white identity over and against non-whites that would unify people of European descent across class and other lines that normally divided them.
Thus, a critical and rapid transition occurred in the late 1600s in the colonies' imported labor supply—from European indentured servants to enslaved Afrikans. In 1672, England officially got into the slave trade as the King of England chartered the Royal African Company, encouraging it to expand the British slave trade. In 1698, the English Parliament ruled that any British subject could trade in slaves. As British colonists became convinced that Afrikans best served their demand for labor, importation increased and by the turn of the eighteenth century Afrikan slaves numbered in the tens of thousands in the British colonies. In 1705 Virginia declared that "All servants imported and brought in this County... who were not Christians in their Native Country... shall be slaves. A Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves ... shall be held to be real estate." English suppliers responded to the increasing demand for slaves. By 1710, writes historian Jon Butler, "captured Africans outstripped indentured servants by a ratio of at least 6-1 and established a pattern of colonial labor consumption not broken until the American Revolution." From 1700 to 1775, slaveship brought more Afrikans to the colonies than all European immigrants combined. Throughout the entire colonial period, 250,000 Afrikans arrived in America, which by 1780 had a black population of 576,000. Over the first 50 years of the 18th century, the number of Afrikans brought to British colonies on British ships rose from 5,000 to 45,000 a year. England had passed Portugal and Spain as the number one trafficker of enslaved Afrikans in the world.
My point in all this is that when Afrikans first arrived it was not so much that they were servants equal in status to "white' indentured servants as much as they were outsiders and society did not know how to deal with them. Despite them being listed as servants, their true status was "other" given the following facts: They were racially and culturally different, were non-Christians, some even Muslims (the then enemies of Christendom), and that they had no home government or even a family to speak on their behalf, made them something altogether differ from European indentured servants. And once these circumstances synergized with the European worldview--its materialism, indolence, money lust and xenophobia--it would only be a matter of time, a short time, before Afrikans would become chattel slaves. It was just a question of Europeans formulating a new policy to deal with these outsiders, these cultural aliens. More than anything else, Afrikans upon arrival were in a nebulous, unclear category but given the historical dynamics and timing, Europeans had predetermined the destiny of Afrikans before they actualized it.