Systems of Work: An Overview

views updated

Systems of Work: An Overview

The cultivation of tropical and semitropical crops in the seventeenth-century Caribbean required large numbers of slaves. Initially, Europeans relied on Native American labor, but smallpox decimated the indigenous population. African slaves soon became the laborers of choice in the region. Two labor systems emerged in the Caribbean, and both were eventually transferred to colonial North America, where they became the primary means of extracting labor from African and, later, African American slaves.

Slaves in the Caribbean cultivated sugarcane using gang labor. Groups of male slaves were assigned specific jobs in the process of making sugar. Each gang of slaves performed a specific function; for example, cutting sugarcane, boiling the sugarcane, or packaging the sugar for shipment to Europe. Usually performed by males, gang labor was harsh and demanding, and shortened the life expectancy of slaves. Gang labor tended to result in a disproportionate number of male slaves on sugar estates, with few female slaves present and little interaction between the sexes.

Each gang of slaves operated under the direction of a boss, or manager, who ran the plantation in the absence of the slave owners, who sometimes resided in Europe. Bosses kept careful watch on each gang. Each group of men had the potential to rebel collectively or individually, as one or more slaves could run away from the gang. Managers worked gangs in such a way as to extract the maximum labor from them in each step of the process. Sugar plantation owners migrating to the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland introduced the gang system of labor to the cultivation of tobacco in this region.

Tobacco cultivation was labor intensive, requiring a large number of slaves to produce only small quantities of the product. Groups of male slaves, sometimes numbering 200 or more, performed backbreaking labor: After clearing the land, then preparing the soil for cultivation, they planted the tobacco, weeded the crop, harvested and cured it, and finally prepared it for export to Europe. As with gang laborers in the Caribbean, slaves in the Chesapeake were tightly controlled. Bosses on tobacco plantations told slaves when to get up, what to do, when to eat, and generally micromanaged every aspect of their daily lives. Due to the omnipresent potential for slave rebellions, overseers of gang laborers maintained a watchful eye over their slaves. With the arduous labor required of slaves in gangs, there was perhaps a higher propensity for these slaves to run away or otherwise rebel against their managers.

Gang labor was also the system of choice for the cultivation of cotton in the Deep South, where short-staple cotton had been cultivated for years in small areas, providing English textile manufacturers with ample but not abundant supplies. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, however, cotton growers along the South Carolina-Georgia coastline experimented with long-staple cotton. Its primary drawback was the difficulty involved in separating the seeds from the silky cotton. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 facilitated the faster removal of seeds from long-staple cotton. This technological advance not only added speed to the production of sea-island cotton, it also resulted in the spread of cotton cultivation to other areas of the Deep South, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. As cotton spread into these regions, so did gang labor. Soon after the season's last frost, groups of slaves, including both men and women, began breaking up the ground. Cotton seeds were planted in long rows in fertile soil, and another group of slaves soon began weeding the vast cotton fields that sometimes stretched for miles. During harvest season, gangs of slaves picked the cotton, and, although the cotton gin slowly made its advance into the region, in many cases slave gangs also separated the seeds from the cotton, by hand. Although male slaves predominated in these gangs, female slaves also were involved in the production of cotton. Overall, the creation of long-staple cotton led to the expansion of cotton production, necessitating even more slaves and, with gang labor as the primary system of work, tightened control over hundreds of thousands of slaves from South Carolina to Texas.

Thus, gang laborers had little free time and generally failed to develop any significant skills outside those required for the production of tobacco and cotton. Gang labor increased the already harsh conditions under which slaves operated. Studies show that slaves in regions where gang labor was used had little chance for manumission. Most usually labored under these coerced conditions until their death.

The task labor system also had its origins in the Caribbean, and was transferred to the English North American colonies. Although the task labor system was evident throughout the Southern colonies, it was most common in South Carolina, first with the cultivation of indigo and later with rice cultivation.

During the latter decades of the seventeenth century, indigo became a major crop in the South Carolina colony. Slaves were assigned tasks such as the preparation of the fields, planting, and harvesting during a brief cycle that included the months of July, August, and September. Slaves carried tons of indigo leaves to large vats, where they were boiled, stirred, and beaten. The stench from the preparation attracted millions of flies, driving many slave masters north for the winter, but slaves were required to continue working through the smelly process. Indigo cultivation, which created a dye for export, was based on task labor and a short production cycle, and many slaves on indigo plantations had some free time once their tasks were completed.

The introduction of rice by slaves from the Guinea region of Africa into the South Carolina colony led to a need for more slaves, and it perpetuated the task system. Beginning with the first Carolina rice harvests around 1700, tasking became the labor system of choice for this crop. Once the soil was prepared, slaves usually were assigned one-fourth of an acre to plant, weed, flood, and weed again before harvesting the rice in September. Slaves then would thresh or separate the heads from the stalks, winnow the rice from the chaff, and finally pound the rice by hand before preparing it for shipment to Europe.

The task system as employed in the Carolina and Georgia Low Country gave some slaves free time once their tasks were completed. Drivers, who oftentimes were experienced slaves, gave daily tasks to each slave. Most assignments were completed by the early afternoon, leaving slaves with time to plant gardens, hunt, fish, tend to chickens, and generally relax after a difficult workday. Some slaves produced enough vegetables to sell in Charleston's marketplaces, earning small profits for themselves.

In an effort to extract even more labor from slaves, some rich planters in the decades before the Civil War switched from the task system to the gang labor system on rice plantations. Accustomed to the little bit of autonomy afforded by the task system, slaves generally resisted gang labor by working slowly, and an increasing number attempted to run away rather than endure the harsher system of labor.

Overall, the type of crop determined whether the gang or the task labor system was used. Regardless of which system slaves operated under, they tried to maintain whatever freedom they could, with slaves in the gang labor system strictly controlled and those under the task system given a minimum of free time to pursue their own activities.


Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred Moss. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000.

Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.

                                      Jackie R. Booker