To supplement basic provisions provided by their master, some bondpeople grew their own foodstuffs and staple crops for personal consumption or sale. Enslaved men and women typically tended these gardens or "patches" after they had finished their daily or weekly work for their master.
For some slaves, these gardens provided crucial supplements to an otherwise nutrient-deprived diet. The extent to which bondpeople and their masters relied on slave gardens for basic provisioning depended on the type of labor system employed and the region in which the plantation was situated. In Jamaica, for example, slaves cultivated "provision grounds," which were, according to traveler Zachary Macaulay, their sole means of subsistence. Elaborating on this system, Macaulay explained that "[i]f, therefore, they neglected to employ in their provision-grounds a sufficient portion of the Sunday, to secure to them an adequate supply of food, they might be reduced to absolute want" (Macauly 1824, p. 39).
In the United States slave gardens were often less extensive, as slaveholders often provided basic, albeit meager, provisions. In two narratives detailing his life in bondage, the ex-slave Charles Ball (c. 1780–?) described the role such small-scale agriculture played in the slaves'" daily lives. In Fifty Years in Chains (1859), Ball assured readers that bondpeople subsisted on more than a small allotment of corn and salt from their master, by supplementing their diet with produce from their own gardens. In Slavery in the United States (1853) he elaborated further, explaining, "the people are allowed to make patches, as they are called—that is, gardens, in some remote and unprofitable part of the estate, generally in the woods, in which they plant corn, potatoes, pumpkins, melons, and others for themselves" (p. 166).
As important to slaves in both the Caribbean and in the United States were the opportunities gardens provided for market participation. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) explained that slaves on a South Carolina plantation were "at liberty to sell whatever they choose from the products of their own garden" (Olmsted 1861–1862, p. 251). Opportunities for market sale of produce were naturally greater where slaves had larger land allotments and more time to cultivate and then sell their crops. Because provision grounds were more extensive in many parts of the Caribbean, Sunday markets were an important component of slaves'" economic lives there. In Grenada, for example, the Reverend Benjamin Webster complained that slaves there rarely attended church services because Sunday was the only "day on which slaves have an opportunity of bartering the produce of the provision grounds allotted to them by their masters" (Riland 1827, p. 99). Such a practice was common in areas of the Low Country South as well, where the task system allowed slaves to spend greater time and energy in crop cultivation and market participation in cities such as Savannah and Charleston.
But foodstuffs could provide only a limited amount of cash, and many slaves were interested in earning larger amounts of money. Some slaveholders recognized such acquisitiveness and allowed slaves to grow staple crops such as cotton, rice, corn, and tobacco for sale. Henry Clay Bruce explained how this process worked on his master's Virginia plantation:
Each man was allowed one acre of ground to raise his own little crop, which, if well cultivated, would produce nine hundred pounds of tobacco. We used his horse and plow, and worked our crop as well as we did his in the daytime, and when ready for market, he sold our crop with his, giving each one his share. This was our money, to be spent for whatever we wanted aside from that given by him (1895, p. 84).
Slaves aimed to add variety to their diets and wealth to their households though the cultivation of foodstuffs and staple crops. As with other activities associated with the internal economy, however, such practice held ambivalent meaning, by both promoting opportunities for wealth and independence and simultaneously attaching slaves more firmly to the plantations.
Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, as a Slave under Various Masters, and Was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, during the Late War. New York: John S. Taylor, 1853.
Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, 1859.
Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. York, PA: P. Anstadt, 1895.
Macaulay, Zachary. Negro Slavery, or, A View of Some of the More Prominent Features of That State of Society: As It Exists in the United States of America and in the Colonies of the West Indies, Especially in Jamaica. London: Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions, 1824.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States: Based upon Three Former Volumes of Journeys and Investigations by the Same Author. New York: Mason Brothers, 1861–1862.
Riland, John. Memoirs of a West-India Planter. London: Hamilton, Adams, 1827.