Plantation System of the South

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PLANTATION SYSTEM OF THE SOUTH. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, invoked the standard English usage of his day when he entitled his remarkable history of the colony Of Plymouth Plantation. In the seventeenth century, the process of settling colonies was commonly known as "transplantation," and individual settlements went by such names as the Jamestown plantation or, in the case of the Massachusetts Pilgrims, the Plymouth plantation. Yet by the end of the colonial period, the generic term for English settlements had given way to a new definition. A "plantation" referred to a large-scale agricultural operation on which slaves were put to work systematically producing marketable crops such as rice, tobacco, sugar, and cotton. In fact, the link between plantations and slavery had been forged over several centuries, long before William Bradford and other English settlers ever dreamed of establishing colonies in Massachusetts and Virginia.

The cotton plantations of the Old South were the lineal descendents of the sugar plantations established by Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean around 1100 a.d. For the next 750 years, sugar plantations would spread westward across the Mediterranean, darting out into the Atlantic islands hugging the west coast of Africa, then across the ocean to Brazil before jumping from one Caribbean island to another over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Not until the first half of the nineteenth century did a permanent sugar-plantation economy reach the North American mainland in the parishes of southern Louisiana. Yet long before then, sugar plantations had established the precedent for the slave society that came into existence in the eighteenth century in the southern colonies of British North America.

All of these plantations shared certain crucial features. Unlike feudal manors, plantation lands were owned outright, as absolute property, by the masters. This had two important consequences. First, it gave plantation owners an incentive to rationalize their operations to make them more productive. Thus plantations from the beginning were organized to produce as large a volume of marketable staples as possible. Second, absolute property precluded the use of serfs, who would have had some claim to rights in the land. Thus plantations early on tapped into another source of labor, slavery, which had survived along the Mediterranean margins of southern Europe, where feudalism had not taken hold. As the plantations spread from the Levant to Cyprus to Sicily, and then out into the Atlantic, owners grew increasingly dependent on African slaves as their source of labor. Thus the spread of the sugar plantations occasioned the growth of the Atlantic slave trade. By the time the English colonists at Jamestown discovered that they could grow tobacco for profit, they already knew how to build rationally organized plantations based on private property and slave labor.

Tobacco and Rice Plantations

Not all plantations were alike. In the eighteenth century, two very different systems of plantation agriculture developed in the southern colonies. In Virginia and Maryland, in the region bordering on Chesapeake Bay, and therefore known as "the Chesapeake," tobacco plantations flourished with slaves organized into gangs. In the lowcountry district of South Carolina and Georgia, slaves on rice plantations were put to work under a "task" system. The different crops and their distinctive patterns of labor organization gave rise to several other important distinctions as well.

Tobacco was the first plantation crop in North America. English settlers in the Chesapeake region recognized tobacco's profitable potential in the early seventeenth century. They built their first plantations using the labor of British indentured servants rather than African slaves. But in the late 1600s the market for English servants dried up, and Virginia planters turned instead to slavery. By 1720 a full-scale plantation system was in place throughout the Chesapeake, grounded on the labor of slaves and oriented toward the production of tobacco. By the standards of Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations, however, Chesapeake tobacco plantations were modest in size. They reached their peak efficiency with perhaps twenty or thirty slaves, whereas sugar plantations were most efficient when they had at least fifty slaves.

The rice plantations of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia more closely approximated the sugar plantations. It took at least thirty slaves to set up a rice plantation. Because rice crops needed constant irrigation, they could only be established in coastal lowlands. Yet because rice cultivation was not a particularly delicate process, it did not require intensive oversight from masters and overseers. Hence rice slaves worked on a "task" system by which each slave was assigned a specific task to complete on his or her own each day. The higher capital investment required of rice plantations, plus the reduced amount of labor supervision, made rice plantations far more profitable than tobacco plantations. And over the course of the eighteenth century, technological improvements doubled rice's profitability. This was true despite the fact that low-country rice plantations were famously unhealthy for the slaves, who suffered terrible rates of sickness and death and who were barely able to maintain a natural rate of reproduction.

So it was that tobacco, not rice, set the pattern that would be followed by the great nineteenth-century cotton plantations. On tobacco plantations, as on the wheat plantations that replaced many of them in the second half of the eighteenth century, slaves worked in gangs under the direct supervision of the master or his overseer. Tobacco, unlike rice, required extensive and careful cultivation, and it was this need for direct supervision that explains why tobacco tended to produce smaller plantations than did rice. Because tobacco could be grown inland, plantations could expand westward as eastern soils became exhausted. Away from the unhealthy climate of the lowcountry, slaves on tobacco plantations were less sickly, and they were able to achieve a relatively robust rate of natural population increase.

Cotton and Sugar Plantations

These characteristics of the tobacco plantation economy were reproduced, beginning in the late eighteenth century, on the short-staple cotton plantations for which the antebellum South became famous. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s made the growth of the cotton kingdom possible. Spreading first southward from Virginia into the upcountry regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the cotton plantations soon began expanding into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally, Texas.

Like their tobacco-producing predecessors, cotton plantations were rationalized business enterprises oriented toward the cultivation of marketable staples sold primarily to the northern and European market. Slaves were organized in gangs, their work supervised directly by a hierarchy of masters, overseers, and on larger plantations, slave drivers. The cycle of cotton growing made it efficient for planters to cultivate foodstuffs—primarily corn and pork—of sufficient nutrition and in sufficient quantities to maintain a relatively healthy slave labor force. And because cotton, like tobacco, was not grown in swampy lowlands, the slave population was able to grow on its own, without infusions from the Atlantic slave trade.

The natural growth of the slave population was one of the sources of the cotton-plantation economy's profitability. But the growth of the antebellum sugar plantations in southern Louisiana suggests that slave plantations could be profitable even when they were deadly to the slaves. Even more than rice, sugar plantations required huge capital investments and were therefore most efficient with very large numbers of slave laborers. Because they were established long after Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations, Louisiana's sugar plantations benefited from the technological advances of their predecessors. Thus by investing in the most advanced milling machinery, and by putting larger numbers of slaves to work at an inhumanly grueling pace, the sugar planters of southern Louisiana reaped huge profits from a slave population that actually died off at the rate of nearly 14 percent every decade. Thus the plantation system could be profitable even when it literally killed off its own workers.

Indeed, the famed inefficiencies commonly associated with slave—as opposed to free—labor never seemed to appear in the Old South. A highly efficient interstate slave trade compensated for the absence of a free labor market, moving tens of thousands of slaves across the South every decade; it allowed planters to sell their surplus slaves without difficulty or to purchase more slaves with similar ease. In addition, a highly rationalized pattern of plantation organization kept the slaves busy and productive throughout the year, even in the winter months after the crops had been harvested. Finally, a network of rivers, roadways, and eventually rail lines moved the cotton swiftly and efficiently from plantation to market, a trade facilitated by an elaborate network of "factors" who served as both middlemen and creditors to the plantation system. For all of these reasons, cotton plantations thwarted classical political economy's confident predictions of slavery's imminent demise. Instead, cotton plantations flourished, so much so that their relentless expansion farther and farther west helped provoke the sectional crisis that led to the Civil War.

Because the Civil War resulted in the death of slavery, it would make sense to terminate the history of the plantation system at the same point. But just as seventeenth-century tobacco plantations flourished with indentured servants rather than slaves, nineteenth-century cotton plantations persisted in the face of slavery's demise. What changed, of course, was the labor system upon which the plantation economy was based. Once the slaves became free laborers, planters were forced for the first time to negotiate contracts with their former slaves. As this contract system evolved in the years after the Civil War, cotton planters abandoned the gang system. In its place a "sharecropping" system emerged in which individual families contracted to work a plot of land on a larger plantation in return for yearly wages in the form of a share of the final crop.

Sharecropping physically transformed the layout of cotton plantations across the South. Where slaves once lived together in quarters, freed people now lived in their own cabins working on their own plots. Sharecropping similarly altered the marketing system for cotton plantations. Because sharecropping families now made their own consumption decisions, they established their own relations with merchants and creditors across the South. Thus the number of merchants proliferated and a merchant class took on newfound significance to the plantation system. The planter-merchant alliance of the postwar plantations persisted well into the twentieth century. In the meantime, huge plantations based on gangs of wage laborers reappeared in the newly settled cotton-growing areas of the Mississippi. Only after the successive shocks of the persistent drought and severe economic depression did a weakened plantation system finally succumb to the modernizing incentives created by the New Deal in the 1930s. Only then, after hundreds of years of vigorous life, did the southern plantation die its final death.


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See alsoRice Culture and Trade ; South, the: The Antebellum South ; Sugar Industry ; Tobacco Industry ; andvol. 9:Letter Describing Plantation Life in South Carolina .