From the PBS series Africans in America: The goal of the Virginia Company was clear enough: establish a permanent colony in America that would make a profit for the Company. The company, chartered by King James I in April, 1606, was comprised of two divisions. The Plymouth Company would establish a short-lived colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River near what is now Phippsburg, Maine. The London Company would establish Jamestown in Virginia, England's first permanent settlement in the New World.
There were two ways to become a member of the London Company. If you had money to buy shares in the Company but were inclined to remain safe and snug in England, you could invest as an "Adventurer." If you really were adventurous and didn't mind travelling to the new colony, you could become a member of the Company as a "Planter."
Planters were required to work for the Company for a set number of years. In exchange for this work -- or, more precisely, servitude -- the company provided housing, clothing, and food. At the end of the servitude the planter would be granted a piece of land and be free of obligations to the company. In addition, the planter would be entitled to a share of the profits made by the company. (The company also recruited indentured servants, who would work for a set number of years, typically seven, in exchange for passage to the colony.)
Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it? It really wasn't. The lives of these colonists were difficult and unpleasant, to say the least.
The planters were really servants of the company. They had no real freedom and were kept by force in the company. They had no choice but to accept any changes that the Governor or company decided to make, including an extension of their contracts. (Three-year contracts were sometimes extended to ten years.) Any letters sent to or received from England were destroyed if they contained any disparaging remarks about the company. Relatively minor offences could result in severe punishments. According to some colonists' accounts, there were continual whippings, as well as punishments such as hanging, shooting, breaking on the wheel, and even being burnt alive.
The Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624. Virginia then became a royal colony. (source: PBS)