Agricultural Work

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Agricultural Work

Africans and their children slaved in agricultural production since the earliest days of colonization in the Americas. The enslavement of Africans by Europeans antedates the emergence of the sugar plantation as the dominant context of slave labor in the New World, but it was the rapid expansion of the cane fields along the northern coast of South America that established black hereditary slavery as the singular model for agricultural production and export in the broader Caribbean. Black and brown people were enslaved to work on plantations controlled by Dutch, Danish, English, French, and Portuguese planters. The plantation generation did not appear in Virginia and South Carolina until the last quarter of the seventeenth century.

Slaves in the Northern colonies might work in a wide variety of crops—such as wheat, indigo, and corn—but in the eighteenth century most Africans and African Americans toiled on rice and tobacco plantations. Cotton did not become "king" in the South until the early nineteenth century, and the only place where sugarcane grew on the continent was Louisiana.

Numerous factors drove the rice and tobacco plantation revolutions in the South. Environment was certainly one of them. In the 1690s, planters from Barbados discovered that the marshy low country of South Carolina proved good soil for rice. Tobacco required rich soil and delicate care—floodwaters easily destroyed the luxury crop. Despite attempts to grow tobacco in the low country, the Chesapeake and Piedmont regions in Virginia proved conducive to the successful growth of the leaf. Tobacco was already commonly grown in Virginia before Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. After the gentry put down the rebellion, however, they ushered in a new era of tobacco production that focused increasingly on the enslavement of Africans.

As Philip Morgan noted, South Carolina and Virginia appeared very similar to visitors in the late seventeenth century—underpopulated and "signally unimpressive" (p. 27). By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, "two distinct plantation regimes emerged that framed the building of two contrasting slave societies and cultures" (p. 29). The crops slaves cultivated did not determine their experiences. Yet rice and tobacco required two very different systems of work. Thus, understanding how these two crops were raised and processed reveals much about daily life under slavery.

Virginia and Tobacco

Tobacco was a luxury crop that required careful attention during all phases of its production. Unlike rice production in South Carolina, it was common for masters to spend much of the day in the tobacco fields with their slaves watching over them while they worked. Planters arranged slave labor into small "gangs." Large gangs of eight or more, such as those that worked Landon Carter's plantation, might be divided into two or three groups according to their skill level. Masters expected every slave in the gang to work as fast as the quickest hand. Carter divided his slaves into "good, Middling, and indifferent hands" and calculated each laborer's output relative to the fastest worker. Drivers whipped slaves they did not think were working their hardest. Sometimes the best hands, weary of the conditions in the field, purposefully slowed down the pace to aid their tired or ill counterparts. Thus, as many of the large planters strove to develop a scientific regiment of tobacco production, slaves worked to thwart the constant supervision and intense expectations of their masters (p. 188).

Each African worked nearly two acres of the large plantations. Clearing the fields began in January or February, when slaves slashed and burned land in preparation for tilling and planting. Slaves tilled the cleared soil into small mounds arranged in rows, making sure to clear them of weeds and grubs so that the newly planted seed would not be leeched of nutrients. Morgan asserted that by the middle of the eighteenth century most planters expected a slave to till 350 mounds per day (p. 167).

After the tobacco plants sprouted in April, they were weeded and then transplanted into prepared soil. The plants were subsequently "primed," "topped," and "suckered" after they reached the size of twelve to sixteen leaves. The transplantation period was perhaps the most grueling part of the season. Slaves could only successfully transplant the crop into new soil after it rained in the late spring. Masters usually diverted their entire workforce to the transplantation process in April so that they could make sure the crop was cut and cured by August. According to Morgan, most slaves in Virginia ran away in April, the most grueling period of tobacco production (p. 167).

The tobacco harvest lasted from August through September. Slaves cut the plants and allowed them to dry in the field for a day before they were hauled to the tobacco house. There, slaves drove pegs into the stalk of the plants and hoisted them to the rafters of the building so that they could dry and cure. After several weeks of drying, the plants were removed from the ceiling and the leaves were stripped away from the stalks. Slaves then rolled the leaves and packed them tightly into the hogsheads for shipping.

Slaves worked tirelessly throughout the harvesting period. Masters often justified the hard work of their slaves as something they enjoyed. One observer remarked on the labor of the slaves, noting, "It is astonishing and unaccountable to conceive what an amazing degree of fatigue these poor but happy wretches do undergo, and can support" (p. 168).

Tobacco cultivation was not restricted to slave labor, although most tobacco farmers owned slaves in Virginia. Tobacco farms and plantations along the Chesapeake exhibited higher ratios of American-born slaves to African-born when compared to South Carolina. By 1730, nearly 40 percent of the black people laboring near the Chesapeake were born in the region. Twenty years later, American-born blacks accounted for four-fifths of the slave population. At the onset of the American Revolution only 500 of the 5,000 slaves imported to Virginia came directly from Africa (Berlin 1998, p. 127). Many of the small tobacco farmers turned their interest toward cotton production in the early nineteenth century, and moved their slaves south into the Georgia hinterland in search of new profits.

South Carolina and Rice

In 1761, James Glen remarked on the low country, noting, "the only Commodity of Consequence produced in South Carolina is rice" (Morgan, p. 147). Whereas small farmers might profit from raising tobacco, rice required a large labor force and easy access to flowing water. Rice could not be grown on a whim; planters needed to have considerable access to credit if they wanted to take the risk. Rice was explicitly a plantation crop.

Longstanding connections with slave traders who plied the seas of the Lesser Antilles permitted planters in South Carolina to purchase Africans at resounding rates in the first half of the eighteenth century. Black and brown people rapidly became a majority in the colony. Between 1700 and 1740 the slave population increased from 2,400 to 39,000. Nearly 66 percent of the enslaved population was born in Africa on the eve of the 1739 Stono Rebellion. More than 75 percent of the Africans forced to work in the rice fields came from Angola and the Kingdom of Kongo during the boom years of the 1730s (Morgan, p. 61; Wood 1974).

By the 1750s, however, most Africans arriving in Charleston came from the British-controlled slave forts connected to the Gambia River. Regional differentiation aside, historians agree that rice was commonly grown along the Gambia River during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Women were the primary cultivators of rice in Senegambia, but in South Carolina the British planters forced both men and women into the fields. The impact of African knowledge on rice cultivation in South Carolina is difficult to gauge from the historical record. The heel-toe technique of planting rice, whereby the seed is planted with the feet instead of the hands, is believed to be a particularly African method of sowing the crop. Whether or not African knowledge about rice cultivation caught the attention of the planter class is unclear. The shift away from the Kongo River and toward the Senegambia slave trade remains an understudied element of the early cultural history of slavery in North America.

Slaves laboring in rice paddies were organized by task. Overseers assigned a specific quota of work to achieve. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most slaves were expected to weed and cultivate a quarter of an acre per day. In the tidewater region, cultivation required less hoeing, and slaves were expected to manage half-acre plots of rice each day. Masters in South Carolina did not loom over their slaves in the rice paddies the way their counterparts did in the Virginia tobacco fields. Task labor was not easy by any means, and conflicts between overseers and slaves about the amount of work assigned were not uncommon. Yet because individuals could speed up or slow down the rate of their work throughout the day by gauging the amount of work remaining, "slaves and their black drivers conspired to preserve a portion of the day for their own use while meeting the planters' minimum work requirements" (Berlin, p. 153).

The harvest season began in early September. The fields were drained, and slaves followed suit with sickles, cutting swaths of the rice stalks and stacking them to dry. Rice was processed without machinery for most of the eighteenth century. Slaves threshed the grain with a flail and removed the husk with a mortar and pestle. After winnowing the chaff from the grain of rice, the kernels were screened of the "rice flour" and broken pieces before being placed in barrels for shipment (Phillips, p. 90).

Rice remained a key staple in South Carolina into the nineteenth century. By the 1790s, however, planters along the coast began to use the task method in raising the long-staple variety of cotton. Cotton became the most important crop raised in the interior of South Carolina by the middle of the nineteenth century as it rapidly outpaced the production of rice. Originally, much of the rice produced by slaves in South Carolina was sent abroad, often to feed slaves who labored in the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean. By the nineteenth century, however, rice was increasingly shipped westward to feed slaves laboring in the booming cotton industry.

Plantation slavery in the United States crystallized in the form of rice and tobacco plantations in the South during the eighteenth century. These two crops required very different techniques of production that shaped the daily lives of all who were caught in grasp of market agriculture. Well before cotton became the synonymous with slavery in the South, rice and tobacco were king in South Carolina and Virginia, respectively.


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Peter Smith, 1952.

Wood, Peter. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.

                                        James F. Dator

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Agricultural Work

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