Plantation Life

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Plantation Life

Life on an American antebellum plantation was framed by social forces such as one's race and social caste; by environmental forces such as the plantation's region, the season of the year, the plantation owner's choice of crop or dominant economic activity; and by the nature of the interaction between the owners, managers, and laborers. Winthrop Jordan offers sound footing for understanding the national context of plantation slavery: "The major factor making for sectional division in the U.S. was the proportion of Negroes in the population" (1968, p. 315). As Jordan points out, the "very tone of society" on plantations differed between the Upper South and the Lower South, based upon the proportion of enslaved Africans and the profitability of slave-based agriculture in the regions (1968, p. 316).

The Owners

The etiology of American antebellum plantation life lies within a western European worldview framed and informed by a mercantilist economic vision. John Locke's ideas on labor, liberty, and natural rights provide a context for understanding the structure of plantation culture—a way of life informed by the dialectic between the owners and enslaved, yet overdetermined by the ideological superstructure of Enlightenment-era political economy. One of the rights that Locke prefigured was the right to own enslaved Africans. Antebellum South Carolina benefited greatly from Locke's involvement in the slave trade. In Charleston Harbor are two rivers, the Ashley and Cooper, which take their names from Locke's employer—the Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1621–1683). The Earl of Shaf-tesbury and Locke were among nineteen founding stockholders in the Royal Africa Company. Locke's ideas about the suitability of enslaving Africans are described in his Second Treatise on Government: "A king of a large and fruitful (non-European) territory… feeds, lodges, and Is clad worse than a day-laborer in England" (Car-ruthers 1999, p. 49). Locke held that Africans were primitive men who did not deserve "unrestrain'd Liberty, before [they] had Reason to guide them…" (Blackburn 1997, p. 263). As Carruthers clarifies, Locke's ideas about Liberty are grounded in his notion of the work ethic (the management of labor), its connection to wealth, and the notion of noblesse oblige and virtue: "The labor of (a man's) body and the work of his hands… are properly his. Whatsoever… he removes out of… nature… is his own… it is his Property" (Car-ruthers 1999, p. 47). Locke declared that the English alone were possessed of true freedom, based on the Protestant ideal rather than Catholicism, which he deemed a form of religious slavery. And in effect, English values were the values of antebellum plantation owners.

The most important aspect of the planter's life on the plantation was his—or more seldom, her—relationship with employees and property. The overwhelming sense of paternalism described by Eugene Genovese (1974) connects Locke's Enlightenment ideas on labor and liberty to the plantation life experienced by the planter. Paternalism required that order be maintained from the upper echelon of the plantation through three functions: meting out basic provisions, directing labor in a sensible manner, and punishing infractions of the order. The ability to operate as a local autocrat was supported by prohibitions against educating the enslaved, and by the Southern state legislatures, which by the antebellum period had developed a web of laws pioneered by Virginia and South Carolina to secure the dominance of white over black.

The lives of the owners were determined by a number of factors, including the primary crop under cultivation and the requisite labor system, what may be described as the management style of the owner, the relationship with the enslaved Africans and the white drivers, and the season of the year. Mark Smith (1997) provides an interesting discussion of the slave owner's plantation life relative to the concept of clock time, which he and his class copied from their Northern capitalist peers. Smith quotes a writer in the Southern Agriculturalist describing the habits of a Southern plantation owner in 1832 who drew up a schedule and

strictly enjoined its observance upon his people. He ordained that the cook should have breakfast at a suitable hour to which the people were to be punctual in attendance… The hour of attendance was to be declared by the sound of the horn, and the time for taking their last meal, was so regulated, that the workers always had ample space for completing their tasks before the call. If any one had not finished at the appointed hour, he was disgraced and went without his dinner for that day. (Smith 1997, p. 93)

Of course, this schedule was determined by the labor system forced upon the enslaved, which was either gang-based (for tobacco and cotton) or task-based (for rice). In both labor systems, most planters hired poor whites and forced some enslaved Africans to encourage efficiency amongst the enslaved. The manufactured distance provided by these managers allowed the planter to direct his attention to a social life for his family or to the pursuit of more gain.

The Enslaved

Plantation life for the enslaved was shaped by several factors, including their birthplace, living conditions, and work regimen. Although Michael Conniff and Thomas Davis are correct in their assertion that "by 1720 more blacks were being born in the colonies than were being imported there, and by 1740 most blacks there were American-born," there is no direct correlation between the percentage of the enslaved population born in America and either the strength of resistance to oppression or the Africanity of the cultures practiced in those regions (Conniff and Davis 1994, pp. 132–133). This assertion, held aloft by Frazierians old and new, has contributed to great distortions and omissions in African American historiography (Frazier 1930; Park 1918; Mintz 1992; Sid-bury 2007). In fact, newly imported Africans often were viewed as links to an ancestral heritage offering a way of life and set of values different from the antebellum American South (Stuckey 1987; Gomez 1998). At least one observer of the day noted that enslaved Africans were advocates of an animistic type of religion that included goblins, godlings, witches, and "supernatural agencies generally" (Boston Emancipator and Republican, December 5, 1850).

This description was stereotypical, of course, but plantation life for slaves was dominated by the effort to create a meaningful culture despite the duress of the world of work. In cotton-and tobacco-growing regions, the gang-labor system dictated a community unified in its drudgery, sharing the burden of the collective rising upon the sounding of the conch or bell. The primacy of the enslaved community was the result of this forced unity. Although being sold "down the river" in the internal slave trade has been discussed in terms of its effect on the slave family, the enslaved African community was affected significantly as well. The laboring class that an enslaved person was assigned or born into dictated the course of his or her day. John Blassingame's account of the daily routine of the enslaved is instructive. He maintains that field laborers "rose before dawn, prepared their meals, fed the livestock, and then rushed to the fields before sunrise" (Blassingame 1972, p. 155). Often, those who were late would be whipped. After working in the fields, the slaves performed other tasks to support the cultivation of the crop and maintain the plantation, such as building fences, cutting down trees, constructing dikes, and clearing new land. In the evening enslaved Africans had to care for "the livestock, put away tools, and cook their meals before the horn sounded bedtime in the quarters" (Blassingame 1972, p. 155). One correspondent for the Boston Emancipator and Republican in 1850 described the yearly ration of clothing for the enslaved African as consisting of a pair of shoes, two shirts, a pair of pantaloons, and one jacket. The lives of house slaves were little better. House slaves "ate better food and wore better clothes than the field slaves," but were completely at the beck and call of the slave master and his family. They rose before the slave-masters and went to bed after them (Blassingame 1972, pp. 155–156).

White Managers and Drivers

The class of white overseers was primarily comprised of poor whites, some mulattos, and very few middle-class whites. The role of these whites was prescribed by the laws of the Old South. For example, A. Leon Higginbotham discusses a 1705 amendment to the Virginia House of Burgesses 1669 Slave Act that created clear racial lines by deputizing all Christians (i.e., whites) to police and intimidate the servile African population (Higginbotham 1996, pp. 30–31). This was the legal and social context for poor whites in the antebellum South: They were dragged along into a political economy that devalued labor through the very nature of slavery, and they could not expect to share in the planter class's bountiful profits derived from plantation agriculture. Blassingame records that poor whites who made up the overseer class were in a degraded state: "Better fed, housed, and clothed than the poor whites, the slaves considered them far from superior beings. Instead, [the whites] were the objects of ridicule, pity, and scorn in the quarters" (1972, p. 202). Blassingame also quotes Henry Bibb, a former slave who became an eloquent and effective abolitionist and who viewed poor whites as "generally ignorant, intemperate, licentious, and profane" (1972, p. 202). One news correspondent of the day concurred, describing "the uneducated lower class of whites" as "the most indolent, ignorant, and degraded class of beings I have ever seen. They lead a kind of Gipsy (sic) life; here to-day and gone to-morrow" (Boston Emancipator and Republican, December 5, 1850). The relationship between the poor whites and enslaved Africans is observable in the commerce they pursue: "The negroes steal from their masters and traffic with (the poor whites), and are not a whit beneath them in their condition or sphere of life. This miserable and degraded people form no inconsiderable part of the population of Carolina, and this state" (Boston Emancipator and Republican, December 5, 1850).

Antebellum plantation life represented a give-and-take relationship between African slaves, the degraded class of poor whites, and the white planter class. Although this relationship largely depended upon a form of patriarchy described aptly by Genovese, it was hardly a peaceful hegemony. Violence was encoded in the slave law of the antebellum South, and periodic rumors and actual outbursts of rebellious violence bloodied the scene of slavery. The warped social fabric of antebellum plantation life provided the backdrop for both the defenders and detractors of slavery. Both groups saw in it the root cause of their complaint and the catalyst of their convictions.


Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997.

Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Boston Emancipator and Republican, December 5, 1850.

Carruthers, Jacob H. Intellectual Warfare. Chicago: Third World Press, 1999.

Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Frazier, E. Franklin. "The Negro Slave Family." Journal of Negro History 15, no. 2 (1930): 62.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Gomez, Michael. Exchanging Our Countrymarks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonialand Antebellum South. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Higginbotham, A. Leon. Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jordan, Winthrop. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968.

Mintz, Sidney, and Richard Price. The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Park, Robert E. "The Conflict and Fusion of Cultures with Special Reference to the Negro." Journal of Negro History 4, no. 2 (1918): 23.

Sidbury, James. Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Smith, Mark M. Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Kwasi Densu

Samuel Livingston