During the course of the evolution of slavery in the Americas, two methods of labor organization developed within the context of the plantation system: gang labor and task labor. The gang labor system was the most popular form. Most contemporary images of slavery emerge out of this experience. The gang labor system organized field hands into work gangs. Members of the work gangs were chosen based on physical health, age, skill level, and gender. Gang labor was popular in the United States, particularly on cotton and tobacco plantations. Within this system, field hands would perform various agricultural tasks, depending on the season, throughout the day. The season would also determine the length of the day. Typically, during the summer months, field hands would work between fourteen and eighteen hours per day. This is the origin of the popular notion of working from sunup to sundown.
The task system, unlike the gang system, was not based on a set number of working hours. Within the task system, field hands were assigned certain tasks based on the production needs of a given plantation system, and the average length of time a task took to complete. For instance, because a strong male field hand could hoe eight to ten rows of cotton across a fifteen-acre field in one day, that amount of hoeing was considered both a day's work and a set task. For women, the task would require seven to eight rows per fifteen-acre field (Brown 1855, p. 196). Various work tasks on the plantation were divided in this manner. The task system was popular in the coastal areas of the United States and in the Caribbean, where rice and sugarcane were important cash crops. Coastal rice plantations, for instance, developed three distinctive systems of rice production: (1) the upland or rain-fed system; (2) the tidal water system; and (3) the swampland system. Each system required specific tasks. The upland system required the clearing of forests and the construction of fields similar to those found in most rain-fed agricultural systems. Both the tidal water and swampland systems required the building of channels and dikes as part of an elaborate flood irrigation system. Rice plantation owners paid high prices for slaves taken from the African region that would come to be known as the rice coast, where indigenous rice cultivation was extremely developed. This stretches from present-day Senegal to present-day Liberia.
Unlike the gang system, the task system in some cases gave slaves a degree of autonomy. After completing a given task, field hands would frequently have time to cultivate private fields and gardens, spend time with family, or rest. This degree of autonomy, particularly in areas where enslaved Africans were the numerical majority, led to strong retention of indigenous knowledge and cultural norms in the areas of language, religion, craft production, social organization, the arts, and agricultural production. The Gullah cultures of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands are one such example. In addition, it allowed enslaved persons to participate in market activity, which permitted them to purchase provisions and in some cases freedom and land in the post-emancipation period. Because of this, plantation owners often argued that the task system was potentially more profitable, given that it in some ways mimicked free labor (Conder 1833, p. 75). The assumption was that if field hands were happier and perceived that they had more control over their time and space, they would work harder. This would become an important argument for the elimination of chattel slavery and the promotion of wage labor under the infamous sharecropping system.
Brown, John. Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Suffering, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England. London: W. M. Watts, 1855.
Conder, Josiah. Wages or the Whip: An Essay on the Comparative Cost and Production of Free and Slave Labor. London: Hatchard and Son, 1833.