From the editor of Limerick’s Life.
Limerick Ireland, 29th of January, 1812. Edmond Ryan is a wanted man. One could not legally employ Edmond, nor give him shelter. His crime? Edmond, an indentured apprentice, quit his job without his employer’s permission. Edmond’s employer, or his temporary owner, George Hickey, threatened to prosecute anyone who helped Edmond.
The historical practice of indentured servitude is one in which a person is legally contracted to work for a specific period of time (usually 7 years but sometimes life). In exchange for their labor, the servant “receives” transportation to foreign soil, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during the term of indenture. [That doesn't mean the servant entered the contract voluntarily, however. Nor did they agree to the terms of their bondage.]
Similar to slaves, indentured servants could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment and realised their obligation to work enforced by the courts of law.
Transportation as a slave, or indentured servant, served as both a punishment for both major and petty crimes in Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. The pretext for this form of exile was that indentured servitude and transportation were considered to be a major deterrent to crime, though crime statistics and the numbers of those transported contradict the usefulness of this policy. Transportation was also viewed as a humane and productive alternative to execution, and many sentenced to transportation had received the death penalty before being sent. [editor's note: it seems that the courts were encouraged to give harsher sentences to petty crimes to help populate the British empire. There were also economic benefits to the practice.]
Indentured servitude was non-discriminatory, including both men and women, though usually confined to those under the age of 21. Many of these servants came from workhouses, and were the poorest on the social ladder. For them a life with guaranteed food, even without pay, could have seemed to be a light at the end of a bleak tunnel.
The lucky ones were indentured to tradesmen as apprentices, similar to the character of “Oliver Twist” in Charles Dicken’s classic novel; these would have acquired the skills at the end of their term that could lead them out of poverty.
A large number were used as farm labourers and domestic servants, manual menial labour with little or no opportunity to escape from the serving class. Others who were in the penal system required the convicts to work on government projects such as road construction or building works and mining.
Fortunately for some, a servant who had served part of their time might apply for a “ticket of leave”, permitting some freedoms, such as the right to marry and raise a family. The practice of Indentured Servitude was [partially] abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 and at the time the British government paid compensation to slave owners who had lost their source of unpaid labour.
Two hundred years ago in Limerick in 1812, there were several documented accounts of indentured servitude in practice. Although at the time in Limerick it was apparently referred to as “indentured apprentice” this indicated that these boys would, after serving their time, have the ability to escape poverty. Even so, the life of a full time unpaid servant was not for everyone and runaways were common. These runaways were reported in the local newspapers in a very amusing fashion as can be seen below.
29 Jan 1812
The Limerick Evening Post
I caution the Master Coopers of Ireland against employing Edmond Ryan, my indentured apprentice, who eloped from me (two years of his servitude being unexpired) as I am determined, upon his apprehension, to prosecute him according to the law, as well as those who have harboured or employed him. – George Hickey
-> An Apprentice wanted – One who can procure good bail and is determined to be no Night Walker.
05 Feb 1812
The Limerick Evening Post
This is to give notice to the Master Taylors of this city and elsewhere that Samuel Monsell, my indentured apprentice absconded from me (three years servitude unexpired) on the 20th Jan without just reason whatsoever and has not since returned to his business. Should he persevere in doing so I am resolved to prosecute him and all who harbour or employ him according to the law. – James Regan