The rise of the plantation complex was both a major economic force in commercial agricultural production and a major social and socializing institution. In the Americas, plantations were organized and managed through the maintenance and enforcement of strict social codes steeped in a racial doctrine of white supremacy and black inferiority. The implementation of chattel slavery as a form of absolute control over enslaved African people served to further codify and solidify social hierarchies, myths, and perceptions based on race. A critical examination of the plantation system reveals a pervasive dependence on the labor, services, and skills of enslaved Africans and their descendents. Starting with a definition and general description of plantations, followed by an overview of some of the major types of plantations, and concluding with a detailed analysis of a specific antebellum plantation, this article challenges myths and fixed perceptions about race as defined by the plantation experience.
Although the plantation as a form of agriculture has existed in a variety of places over a range of time periods, the term has become distinctly associated with European expansion. Nineteenth century plantations were typically large tracts of land owned and operated by a planter and his family. They were primarily developed and cultivated by groups of laborers under the autocratic control of the plantation owner, who generally concentrated on the production of a single “cash” crop that was exported and distributed globally. In the Americas, cash crops included sugar, cotton, tobacco, rice, and indigo.
At the start of the sixteenth century, an explosive and unprecedented demand for sugar in Europe resulted in the establishment of sugar plantations in South America and the Caribbean, most notably in Brazil. By the first two decades of the seventeenth century, sugar cultivation on European-owned plantations in places such as Anti-gua and Barbados had become the cash-crop production model of choice.
In North America, plantations dominated southern agriculture, and the premier cash crop was cotton. Throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cotton plantations could be found across the South. In addition, during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries an increased demand for tobacco in European markets led to a rise in tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake colonies, particularly in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia. Beginning in the seventeenth century, rice plantations were abundant in low-lying areas near a significant water source in South Carolina and parts of Georgia and East Florida.
The growth of the plantation system as an agricultural unit of production and commercial enterprise was fueled by a massive dispersion of people. From the late fifteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, enslaved Africans became an increasingly significant factor in Europe’s (especially Britain’s) and America’s growth and development. Slavery became the labor solution of choice for advancing economic and sociopolitical ambitions within the context of agricultural land units known as plantations.
Discussions of plantations are important in the early twenty-first century for a variety of reasons. Colonial and antebellum accounts of plantation life typically caricature persons of African descent solely as slaves, with no merit beyond the contributions of their physical labor. But to reduce the discussion of Africans on plantations to “slave life portraits” is to perpetuate a narrow vision of American history. In South Carolina, census records from as early as 1790 confirm that enslaved Africans and their descendents made up the majority of the population within plantation communities, and that they performed a wide range of jobs and tasks, enabling plantation-based agricultural centers to function relatively self-sufficiently. In addition, public history and National Heritage interpretations often provide merely one perspective of antebellum plantations—with a primary focus on life as experienced by plantation owners and their families and a generic profile of slave life. This leaves out important issues of race and power as experienced by the Africans on the plantations.
The sociologist Edgar T. Thompson, in selected papers published in Plantation Societies, Race Relations, and the South (1975), provides a rigorous analysis of some of the distinguishing aspects of the plantation as a unit of production. Thus, the plantation was: (1) a settlement institution actively involved in the process of occupying space, acquiring territory, and organizing people, land, and material structures; (2) an economic institution actively involved in the selection and production of a specific agricultural product mix for external market distribution and wealth generation; (3) a political institution with territorial autonomy and autocratic levels of control over its jurisdiction; and (4) a cultural institution with distinct norms and rules governing behavior and ways of interacting, with hierarchical assumptions about race being particularly pervasive.
Plantation enterprises not only differed from other land-use enterprises in distinguishable ways, they also differed with respect to each other. The historical anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot concludes that “the plantation, as such, never existed historically, not even in the Americas of slavery” (1998, p. 22). Instead, thousands of plantations existed, each offering challenges to the plantation ideal. One of the primary areas of distinction between different plantations involved labor requirements and socialcultural orientation—particularly the degree of autonomy and interdependence that existed between enslaved Africans (and their descendents) and plantation owners. What follows is a brief look at the labor requirements and social organization of four of the major plantation types (sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rice).
Sugar Production. Sugar plantations were typically large, privately owned enterprises in which enslaved African populations outnumbered whites in significant proportions. According to Ira Berlin and Philip Morgan, nearly two-thirds of all Africans arriving in the Americas ended up working on sugar plantations. In addition, women played a significant role in sugar production and accounted for more than 50 percent of the labor force on British-controlled sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean. In places where sugar was an important commodity, such as Barbados, Antigua, Martinique, St. Kitts, St. Croix, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and Haiti, the African-descendent population continues to remains significant.
In the cash-crop production hierarchy, sugar plantations were generally regarded as being the most labor intensive and demanding. Sugar production contains both an agricultural and industrial component, commanding a range of skills and a complex division of labor. The production of granulated sugar, molasses, rum, and other sugar end products consists of a series of steps, including planting and harvesting; the grinding of harvested cane to extract cane juice; boiling the juice at extremely high temperatures to produce crystallized sugar; the curing of crystallized sugar; and distilling molasses and other sugar by-products into rum, a very popular and lucrative export item. The cane, once harvested, had to be processed immediately to avoid spoiling. During this aspect of the cycle, labor was required around the clock for up to a month or more. In addition to the very specific labor requirements involved in sugar production, Africans were required to perform an inexhaustible list of other labor and service activities in support of sugar plantation maintenance, including cooking, childcare, laundry, artisan services (e.g., masonry and carpentry), machine operation, and sexual services.
On a social level, because Africans made up an overwhelming majority of the population on sugar plantations, planters generally focused less attention on the assimilation and acculturation of slave populations and more attention on preserving their own identity. They instituted policies, rules, and laws aimed primarily at segregation, intimidation, and control. These segregation policies severely restricted the freedom of movement of the slave population. However, as a response, a greater focus on and commitment to African ways of being, independent of European norms, was fostered among the slaves. Africans formed and sustained their own communities outside the direct control of plantation owners, and a range of cultural practices—such as ways of obtaining, growing, cooking, and sharing food; spiritual practices, and patterns of speech—were encouraged.
A defining feature of the British and French plantation systems was their dependence on African labor and services. The work required to grow, harvest, process, and manage the production of sugar throughout the Americas reveals the importance of African labor and knowledge to European plantation owners and the success of their plantation ventures, but it also underscores the heavy toll exacted on the lives of Africans in the process.
Tobacco Cultivation. By the start of the eighteenth century, an increased demand for tobacco in European markets, particularly France, resulted in an expanded focus by planter families on tobacco in the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The rise in tobacco production and its expansion inland from the Tidewater into the Piedmont region was coupled with an increase in the purchase of enslaved Africans by planters. This was followed by an increase in laws, legal practices, and other forms of control aimed at restricting and discouraging African autonomy (enslaved and free) and protecting and expanding white power and control. Such restrictive practices were applied on the basis of skin color alone, and all blacks, both free and enslaved, were collapsed into one category and treated the same, leading to an exodus of sizable numbers of free blacks from the Chesapeake region.
Tobacco was generally regarded as being less demanding and less labor intensive to produce than sugar, rice, or cotton. Tobacco plantations were generally small (with larger plantations being defined as having more than thirty slaves). Sugar plantations, by comparison, were typically described as having enslaved populations totaling into the hundreds at one plantation site.
Tobacco planters were also able to avoid major seasonal fluctuations in labor requirements because tobacco cultivation retained a consistent flow throughout the year. Tobacco leaves ripened seasonally and had to be picked at the right moment for optimal value. Work on tobacco plantations centered entirely on the planting and harvesting of tobacco leaves, which required constant attention throughout the year, but limited additional processing after harvesting was required. However, tobacco production did require a steady supply of good soil (soil that had never been planted or soil that had been left unplanted for several years). This dictated that enslaved Africans and their families adhere to a cycle that required them to move from location to location every two to three years in order to take advantage of fresh or unexhausted soils for planting.
African cultural autonomy from European norms in tobacco plantation environments was often harder to sustain because many enslaved Africans lived in close proximity to European planter families. As a result, opportunities to adapt to or share cultural practices such as language, foods, and religion with Europeans were greater. Although the degree of freedom gained from constant migration and resettlement, as dictated by the tobacco-plantation production cycle, was something many Africans valued, household and family stability was compromised with each required
move. However, this arrangement enabled Africans to form extended communities, learn more about locations and opportunities outside their plantation setting, and obtain knowledge about a range of cultural practices. Thus, a larger mixture of old and new cultural ways and ideas was integrated into family and community practices by Africans in the Chesapeake region.
During the middle part of the eighteenth century, a decline in tobacco productivity coupled with a rise in small-grain production (such as wheat, rye, and oats) began to alter life and the nature of agricultural labor in the region. A demand for skilled laborers and artisans to support grain production resulted in the flow of enslaved African males to work outside the tobacco industry. The tobacco plantation economy in the Chesapeake region became increasingly dominated by women and their children, who were often considered ideal laborers by tobacco plantation owners.
Cotton. While tobacco production relied on fresh soils and encouraged short-range migration, the expansion of cotton and its status as the dominant crop in southern agriculture, was responsible for a massive migration of enslaved Africans from the coast to interior regions of America. Between 1790 and 1860, more than 800,000 blacks moved to cotton-producing states, whose boundaries extended from South Carolina to Texas and from Florida to Tennessee. Many of these Africans were from tobacco areas in the Chesapeake region or from rice areas in South Carolina and Florida.
On the cash-crop production hierarchy, cotton was considered more demanding to cultivate than tobacco, although it was far more regimented in terms of labor requirements. The growing market for cotton in the early 1800s led to a rise in the establishment of large cotton plantations (greater than twenty slaves) in regions of fertile soils and easy access to markets. Plantations that produced cotton (and little if anything else) ranged in land area from forty acres to one thousand acres.
Cotton plantations required two types of labor—an initial labor force dedicated to clearing uncultivated land and making it ready for cultivation (a rigorous and exhausting task), and an established workforce dedicated to planting and harvesting cotton according to its yearly cycle. After the initial clearing of the fields, which was dominated by the labor of young males, field labor on mature cotton plantations required no special strength or skills thought to advantage males over females. Women ranked among the most productive workers, especially during the harvesting period. The harvest period for cotton extended from as early as August into late February. During this time, production quotas were imposed on enslaved Africans and they were typically required to labor in tightly supervised units known as “work gangs” from sun-up to sundown. Because cotton production had limited requirements in terms of processing following the harvest period, workers were called upon to utilize a narrow range of skills in order to maintain plantation operations. Many Africans forced to labor on cotton plantations had lives more restricted and regimented than those on tobacco or rice plantations, and their ability to utilize their skill and knowledge in negotiating various liberties was severely diminished.
The gang system of labor, with its tight supervision requirements, created a relationship that pitted enslaved African workers against plantation owners. Africans fought to minimize exhausting labor demands, while owners sought to maximize production, often employing brutal methods of punishment and control in the process. These tensions escalated to a greater degree on cotton plantations in the southern agricultural region of the United States because of the number of people involved—including the high ratio of blacks to whites, the regimented production demands and high production quotas, and the diversity of African experiences with other labor systems.
Increasingly large populations of enslaved Africans in concentrated areas typically resulted in the institution of restricted laws, (black) codes of conduct, and prohibitions against social interaction between whites and blacks. White citizens in communities dominated by cotton plantations continually sought measures, passed laws, and participated in acts of violence aimed at limiting the autonomy of blacks. On cotton plantations, African autonomy was often compromised as plantation owners worked to limit worker focus and discourage outside activities. Owners of cotton plantations tended to be more driven to supply food and clothing rations to enslaved Africans, partly to maximize slave dependence and minimize outside distractions on their time.
Cotton dominated markets in the South between the Civil War and World War I. Because cotton plantations commanded such large land areas and employed such large numbers of people, a common culture and basis of connection formed among laborers. On mature cotton plantations, almost everyone engaged in the same tasks, participated in the same routines, and faced the same challenges and threats to freedom exacted by racist laws. In general, enslaved Africans created new traditions, honored old ones, and developed ways of being that emphasized ways of living and surviving.
Rice Production. In comparison to cotton, tobacco, and sugar production, rice was a small enterprise, but for more than 200 years (between 1690 and 1890) it was important for the U.S. Sea Island plantations along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Successful rice planter families and merchants created an elite social and political society, and they exercised a high degree of autonomy within and beyond plantation borders. After the Revolutionary War, many individuals in this society served as key figures in American nation-building. In 1843, the rice planter Robert F. W. Allston wrote the following regarding the significance of rice planting in South Carolina: “The cultivation of Rice in South Carolina has added materially to the wealth of the Province— the Colony—the State; and has enhanced, in no inconsiderable degree the value of the active commerce of both the kingdom of Great Britain, and the Federal Republic of the United States” (Allston 1843, pp. 5–6).
Water management is crucial in rice production because rice thrives on land that is saturated in water during all or part of its growth cycle. In much the same ways as cotton, the production of rice on U.S. Sea Island plantations required a tremendous amount of work, both in terms of the initial development of rice fields and the ongoing maintenance of the fields. The historian Mart Stewart concluded that a “massive application of human energy” went into the initial clearing of swamplands in order to transform them into commercial rice enterprises (1996, p. 147). In many instances, swampland contained cypress forests that had to be cleared, after which miles of ditches, dikes, and canals were constructed in order to provision the huge irrigation system on which tidal-swamp rice production depended. Once created, these artificial systems required constant maintenance to remain productive, and a steady influx of African labor made the creation of these rice ecosystems possible.
Africans dominated the geographic landscape in which the production of rice took place, and population figures affirm the significance of the African presence in commercial agriculture production in the U.S. Sea Islands. In South Carolina, African population growth paralleled the rise in rice production, with over two-thirds of the population being classified as black between 1740 and 1760. Additionally, between 1720 and 1765 the majority of Africans in South Carolina were imported directly from West Africa in European slaving ships. In Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball notes that Europeans, such as his ancestors, knew little about rice at first, and thus relied on the knowledge of enslaved Africans who worked for them:
The cultivation of rice was, at least initially, something Elias and his peers knew nothing about. In parts of West Africa, however, rice was an old staple, grown along the Gambia River, for instance, and in Sierra Leone. It wasn’t long before the planters recognized that some of the Africans they owned possessed a knowledge that could earn them profits. The strain of rice grown by Carolina slaves, refined through years of experiment, became known as Carolina Gold. (Ball 1998, p. 108)
The global movement of rice and African people links West African, European, and the U.S. Sea Island cultures in ways not typically discussed.
Imagine an island off the coast of South Carolina on which more than 95 percent of the people are Africans or descendants of Africans. Imagine as well a successful rice business being run on this very same island. The Jehossee Island Plantation off the Edisto and Dawho rivers, about twenty-five miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, in what was then St. John Colleton Parish, was such a place. The site of a thriving rice plantation in the 1800s, Jehossee was a community planned and managed around the cultivation and exportation of rice. Between the periods 1830 and 1887, it was owned by William Aiken, a one-time governor of South Carolina.
In the early twenty-first century, Jehossee was owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and was part of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. The wetlands of Jehossee Island are considered of national and international importance, primarily because of alterations to the landscape that took place during the period of commercial rice production. Jehossee’s undeveloped estuaries are home to a variety of flora and fauna.
Public discussion and knowledge of Jehossee generally revolve around the life, wealth, and social and political prominence of the Aiken family, primarily William Aiken Jr. (1806–1887), a respected planter and well-known political figure. However, Jehossee was mainly an African community. When Aiken inherited his share of the family’s wealth, he began to focus his attention on agricultural pursuits, particularly rice. In 1830 he began his acquisition of Jehossee. According to U.S. Census records for St. Johns-Colleton County, by 1850 there were 897 enslaved Africans living on the island, and by 1860 there were still 699. These demographics suggest that Aiken actively purchased and retained the labor and services of large numbers of enslaved Africans.
Aiken’s notoriety as a major producer and exporter of rice, coupled with his success in the political arena, placed Jehossee in public view. It was the destination of many visitors, who have supplied portraits of their experiences and glimpses into the daily life of Africans living on the island. Solon Robinson, a well-known writer and the agricultural editor for the American Agriculturist magazine, made a series of tours throughout rural America, most extensively between 1840 and 1860. After arriving at Jehossee in 1850, by way of a twelve-hour steamboat journey from Charleston (located thirty miles away), Robinson provided the following description of the island:
This island contains about 3,300 acres, no part of which is over ten or fifteen feet above tide, and not more than 200 to 300 acres but what was subject to overflow until diked out by an amount of labor almost inconceivable to be performed by individual enterprise, when we take into account the many miles of navigable canals and smaller ditches. There [are] 1,500 acres of rice lands, divided into convenient compartments for flooding, by substantial banks, and all laid off in beds between ditches 3 feet deep, only 35 feet apart. Part of the land was tide-water marsh, and part of it timber swamp. Besides this, Gov. A. cultivates 500 acres in corn, oats, and potatoes. (Kellar 1936, pp. 364–365)
Robinson also explicitly highlights Jehossee’s majority African community as being responsible for every aspect of rice production and plantation maintenance throughout the year, even during the months in which the threat of contracting malaria was especially high. According to Robinson enslaved Africans performed most of the jobs on the plantation from engineers to sailors:
The average annual sales of the place do not vary materially from $25,000, and the average annual expenses not far from $10,000, of which sum $2,000 is paid the overseer, who is the only white man upon the place, besides the owner, who is always absent during the sickly months of the summer. All the engineers, millers, smiths, carpenters, and sailors are black. A vessel belonging to the island goes twice a week to Charleston, and carries a cargo of 100 casks. The last crop was 1,500 casks. (Kellar 1936, p. 367)
Solon Robinson, like many other visitors, described Jehossee Island plantation under the ownership of Governor William Aiken as having provided the best living and working conditions afforded enslaved persons during that time—primarily with respect to housing, medical care, daily labor demands, and quality of overseer management. He wrote that Governor Aiken’s primary concern was making his people “comfortable and happy” (Kellar 1936, p. 368).
However, the severity of the toll exacted on the health of those forced to engage in tidal-swamp rice production, though seldom emphasized, cannot be ignored. For human populations, rice plantation ecosystems present a variety of environmental hazards and stresses, the primary problem being the threat of malaria. Countless numbers of people in rice plantation environs died from diseases resulting from living and working in conditions of high humidity and standing water—considered prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Most planters and their families lived away from their plantations, especially between the months of May and November, when malaria was especially prevalent. Many argued that Africans were protected against malaria because they possessed the gene that causes sickle-cell, which provides substantial protection from malaria. The gene is not restricted to Africans, however, and not all Africans carry this gene. In the Sea Islands, sizable portions of the population of enslaved Africans remained vulnerable to malaria and died as a result of living in malaria-infested areas.
The historian William Dusinberre’s explicit analysis of the child mortality rate on rice plantations serves to further temper portrayals of Jehossee as a business enterprise in which the owner’s interests in the comfort and happiness of the workforce superseded the goal of generating wealth and profit. According to Dusinberre, “A conservative modern estimate suggests that a least 55 percent of the children born on nineteenth century rice plantations died by age fifteen” (1995, p. 80). In addition to malaria, other conditions (such as sunstroke, dysentery, cholera), escalated by overwork and the requirements of
standing in ankle deep mud and water during periods when the fields were flooded, contributed to the high number of deaths amongst Africans on rice plantations.
According to research conducted by the historian Edda Fields, the sole reliance on tidal-swamp rice production by planters in South Carolina proved counter to the broad range of strategies for producing rice and other agricultural products practiced by coastal rice planters in many West African societies. The reluctance of many planter families in West Africa to focus exclusively on swamp-rice production because of unhealthy conditions was a sentiment that was recognized by Sea Island planters, but only with respect to their own health and safety.
An analysis of rice production on Jehossee plantation provides a specific example of plantation-owner dependence on majority African communities to sustain plantation-based economies and lifestyles. In spite of a social order based on race that dictated their place as chattel—thus subjecting them to adverse environmental conditions, health disparities, and unequal treatment— enslaved Africans were a dominant force in rice plantation environments in terms of cultural knowledge, population size, and the scope and range of labor and services performed.
In rice-plantation environments, African autonomy was another salient characteristic. Nowhere is the evidence for both the interdependence between whites and blacks and the autonomy of enslaved Africans more evident than in the kitchen and food-provisioning practices exhibited throughout southern plantations, particularly on Sea Island rice plantations. Here, enslaved Africans not only prepared food for plantation owners and their families, they also proactively secured and prepared food for their own survival above and beyond what was appropriated to them. They often maintained supplementary garden plots; consumed lesser grade foods or foods deemed less marketable by plantation owners; hunted local game; fished; and gathered wild plants for food and medicine. Solon Robinson observed that, in addition to rations, Africans on Jehossee Island grew and ate a great many vegetables; caught large numbers of fish, oysters, and crabs; and raised pigs and poultry (primarily to sell). Edmund Ruffin, another visitor to Jehossee Island in 1843, described the place where Africans resided as a “negro village,” noting that each house had a garden ground attached. This type of culinary initiative stands in stark contrast to the notion that enslaved Africans waited to be fed and survived only on plantation-provided rations.
It can thus be seen that while Africans may have been assigned the status of “slave” on plantations in America, a closer look at plantation life and management reveals something far different. It shows instead how Europeans and Africans were economically and culturally connected within plantation environments around cash-crop production. In addition, it shows how crops such as rice served not only as a cash crops for European planters, but also as a means of securing cultural autonomy for Africans living in plantation environments. Highlighting the dependence of plantation owners on African skill, labor, and services for their economic autonomy is important because it destabilizes fixed notions about race in plantation spaces.
Allston, Robert F. W. 1843. Memoir of the Introduction and Planting of Rice in South Carolina: A Description of the Grass. Charleston, SC: Miller and Browne.
Ball, Edward. 1998. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
_____, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. 1993. Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
Bieber, Judy, ed. 1997. Plantation Societies in the Era of European Expansion, Vol. 18. Brookfield, VT: Variorum.
Carney, Judith A. 2001. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fields, Edda L. 2001. “Rice Farmers in the Rio Nunez Region: A Social History of Agricultural Technology and Identity in Coastal Guinea, ca. 2000 BCE to 1880 CE.” Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, College Station.
Kellar, Herbert A., ed. 1936. Solon Robinson, Pioneer and Agriculturist: Selected Writings, Vol. II. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1968.
Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Stewart, Mart A. 1996. “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Thompson, Edgar T. 1975. Plantation Societies, Race Relations, and the South: The Regimentation of Populations. Selected Papers of Edgar T. Thompson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1998. “Culture on the Edges:Creolization in the Plantation Context.” Plantation Society in the Americas 5 (1): 8–28.
Antoinette T. Jackson
A plantation is an economic unit producing agricultural commodities (field crops or horticultural products, but not livestock) for sale and employing a relatively large number of unskilled laborers whose activities are closely supervised. Plantations usually employ a year-round labor crew of some size, and they usually specialize in the production of only one or two marketable products. They differ from other kinds of farms in the way in which the factors of production, primarily management and labor, are combined.
Typically, the plantation is large as farm organizations go, but it does not derive its essential character from size alone. Many so-called family farms are larger in area and often in value of product than some plantations, and the larger mechanized wheat and cotton farms of the American West are the equal of plantations in these measures and in capital employed as well.
Plantation organization of agricultural production is not a necessary consequence of large ownership units, nor does it require large land ownership. When extensive methods of cultivation are appropriate, the large holding may be farmed as a unit by highly mechanized methods and with a small labor force. When more labor-intensive methods are economical, the landlord may lease out his property to tenants who make most or all of the management decisions. On the other hand, a plantation may lease a number of small ownership units to form an economic unit, or numerous landowners may pool their land to form a cooperative plantation.
Another characteristic frequently associated with plantations is a relatively high degree of vertical integration, even of self-sufficiency. This may result when required inputs or processing facilities are not available locally and hence must be supplied by the plantation itself; or when processing plants built to supply an international market establish their own plantations in order to insure an adequate supply of raw-material inputs. Vertical integration and self-sufficiency are, of course, not limited to plantations.
Privately operated plantations are most prominent in the growing of tropical tree crops and other perennials, particularly if sugar can be included in this category. Of the principal export crops of the tropics, coffee, tea, bananas, sugar, and rubber come primarily from plantations; and plantations are major factors in the production of palm products. But small holders produce about one-half of the world’s oil palm products and are the principal producers of cocoa, rice, and, in the tropics, of peanuts and cotton. Small holders in the tropics also produce significant supplies of bananas, coffee, sugar, rubber, and copra. Plantations, moreover, are not confined to tree crops or to tropical crops. In the tropics, for example, they have been important producers of manioc (tapioca), and in the temperate zones, of cotton. The apparent association of plantations with perennials results, at least in part, from the difficulty of mechanizing the production of these crops; in the tropics this difficulty stems largely from the shortage of skilled labor. Degree of mechanization, quality of the labor supply, and the importance of tree crops may, of course, all be interrelated.
Private plantations were the principal source of increasing supplies of tropical agricultural commodities throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The early twentieth century brought a great expansion of tropical plantations to supply European and American demand for such exotic commodities as coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, palm and coconut oil, and rubber. The private plantation was still a major source of tropical commodities in the 1950s, especially in Asia and Latin America.
Post-World War II developments. The plantation depends on a plentiful supply of cheap labor, not in the sense that its cost is low in relation to its productivity but in the absolute sense that wages are low because skills are few. For the plantation derives whatever economic advantage it has from its ability to mobilize unskilled labor to achieve greater economic return. Other special advantages of the plantation derive not from its greater efficiency in production but from the ability to exploit market imperfections or to manipulate them to its advantage. As the range of economic opportunities for rural labor in the underdeveloped world has increased with economic progress and the relaxing of administrative restrictions that closed various occupations to specified ethnic groups, it has seemed probable that plentiful supplies of unskilled labor might no longer be available to plantations at wages they could afford to pay. However, pessimistic predictions of the economic future of plantations made after World War II have not been fulfilled, and their number and importance have not been much altered by market forces; political factors, on the other hand, have been a major influence.
As most of the colonial territories of the world achieved political independence in the first two decades after World War II, the economic power inherent in large foreign-owned plantations was frequently regarded as a threat to the autonomy of the new national governments. As a consequence, new restraints were imposed on private plantations, when they were not expropriated outright, and political favors that they had enjoyed in the past were withdrawn.
While the new governments’ concern for independence in the realm of economic decisions made profitable plantation operation increasingly difficult, another set of circumstances threatened their existence as integral units. For a variety of reasons, including the desire to assure continued popular support, nostalgia for earlier ways of rural life, and a desire to reduce the excessive movement from farm to city with its consequent high rate of urban unemployment and civil unrest, there was a strong sentiment in many of the new governments for subdivision of large plantations into small, individual farming units. Subdivision might also, of course, be a device for destroying the threat to national sovereignty that private plantations were thought to offer.
At the same time that the shift in political power made the future of private plantations more precarious, the publicly owned plantation and semipublic plantation found increasing favor as devices for consolidating political power and for accelerating economic growth. Plans for establishing state farms, collectives, and cooperatives after the Soviet or Israeli model were widely advocated and frequently adopted. Those large farming units that were established to introduce laborsaving mechanical cultivation and harvesting fall outside our classification to the extent that mechanization was achieved. Often, however, the reduction of labor inputs fell far short of anticipations, and the new government farms, like private plantations, continued to employ relatively large numbers of unskilled laborers working under close supervision. In concept, government plantations of tree crops and perennials were very much like the private ones.
A type of quasi-plantation, sometimes called group farming, also enjoyed a certain vogue in the years immediately after World War II. Outstanding examples are the Gezira Scheme in the Sudan, which had its beginnings in the 1920s, and the paysannats indigènes of the Belgian Congo, which had their greatest expansion in the 1950s. In both, actual farming operations were carried on by large numbers of individual farmers—share tenants in the Sudan, holders under customary tenure in the Congo—whose activities were so regulated as to permit the economic employment of resources beyond the means of individual farmers.
Economic advantages. Under certain circumstances the plantation, either private or public, enjoys distinct economic advantages over other types of farm organization. When it is desirable to introduce a new technology requiring a radical change in cultural practices, the plantation substitutes supervision—supervisory and administrative skills—for skilled, adaptive labor, combining the supervision with labor whose principal skill is to follow orders. The new technology may center on a new crop, as for example, rubber in Malaya, or it may simply enhance new methods for producing a familiar crop, as with palm oil in the Congo. Among a literate and educated population with knowledge of a wide range of farming methods and high receptivity to innovation, new techniques can spread fairly rapidly in response to economic incentives, extension services, and the efforts of commercial suppliers of inputs and buyers of products. New techniques and new crops have also been adopted in this way when the farm population was illiterate and supporting services were few but economic incentives were strong and the new techniques not difficult to understand. It was in just this way that the cocoa industry of southern Ghana was established. This method of generating new supplies takes time—how long depends on circumstances outside the control of any individual.
Under the same circumstances, the plantation employs a few highly skilled managers who command the full technology and supervisory skills as well. By combining as many unskilled farm laborers as possible with each skilled supervisor–manager, the plantation can initiate the desired change at once.
A somewhat analogous situation obtains when the agricultural population is only partially committed to the market economy. Then money income may be desired only in order to meet specific responsibilities, such as taxes or bridewealth, or to purchase individual items that cannot be obtained otherwise; amounts greater than are needed for a specific payment or purchase are likely to be little valued. This phenomenon, sometimes called target demand, is most likely to occur in a society with only rudimentary development of the market system. Where it is found, it may be difficult to secure a steady flow of raw materials from farms within easy reach of processing plants or ports as one group of farmers after another satisfies its immediate need for cash. A plantation located near the demand point can employ a succession of laborers who come at their own expense in search of employment to satisfy their specific needs. Plantation laborers so engaged may be tied by contract to assure employers of their services for a minimum period of time.
Given the widespread familiarity with the uses of money that has been acquired in the twentieth century and the increasing familiarity with, and demand for, manufactured goods that has marked the years since World War II, it is unlikely that target demand continues to provide the plantation with special advantages.
When introduction of a new technique requires heavy investment of soil or water conservation and the expected period of amortization is long, the recapture of economic benefits requires an economic unit larger than the small farm. The plantation is one way to achieve this. Other devices are available. Projects of this sort have been carried through by community effort, with costs borne by owners of land that gains from the investment or by development districts, with power to tax. Land taxes, however, are ineffectual when land is not owned in fee simple; they are impracticable, because of the cost of collection, when landholdings are excessively small. Group farming schemes like those mentioned, under which occupation is at the pleasure of a central authority, facilitate the imposition of the burden of such large investments on those who benefit directly from them.
Installations of the type discussed here can be, and have been, constructed by private companies that rely entirely, as the typical development district relies in part, on the sale of services to recover costs and to realize an economic return. But unless the legal code sanctions debt slavery, the sales contract is likely to be difficult to enforce where farmers have few assets other than their own labor and that of their families.
The complementarity between agricultural processing plants and farm producing units has been one consideration in the establishment of plantations. Many of the major tropical export crops must undergo preliminary processing shortly after harvesting; for some of them—sugar, for example— processing plants large enough to achieve minimum costs require a relatively heavy capital investment and volume flow of output. Others, like black tea, demand careful handling and strict control of processing if a quality product is to be obtained.
It is possible, of course, to obtain adequate supplies of raw product for such processing plants from independent farmers if they are sufficiently skilled and commercially motivated and if the price offered is sufficiently high. If not, the processor may find advantage in direct production through a plantation organization. In some instances, an attempt to recapture costs sunk in an inconvertible, fixed plant may lead the processor to engage in plantation production that would be uneconomic otherwise, particularly if income tax laws permit him to pool returns from the two enterprises.
Market imperfections favoring the plantation may result either because merchants in the normal channels of trade cannot handle the necessary volume of product and maintain its quality as it moves from producer to processor or port or because, through collusion or monopoly, merchants are able to enforce their prices on a multitude of small farmers.
Imperfections of the first kind are critical when the quality of the product is highly sensitive to the way in which it is handled after the harvest. This may explain the prominent part that plantations play in production of bananas for export. When imperfections of the second kind are present, plantations that control a sufficiently large supply can bargain on equal terms with collusive buyers. These, of course, are advantages of size that may be shared by large mechanized farms. They are most likely to be found, however, in the same economic environment that favors the plantation organization; imperfect development of the market mechanism and an uninformed rural population tend to be found together.
Large supplies of high quality can be obtained from small producers by paying appropriate premiums for products that meet the desired standards. The most striking illustration of what can be done is the achievement of the Nigerian marketing board in upgrading supplies of palm oil coming from small producers simply by paying a sufficient premium (perhaps an uneconomic premium) for oil of the desired grade. Proper handling of the product after it leaves the farm can be encouraged by taking measures to improve the general marketing system or by removing the product from normal channels of trade and entrusting it to a cooperative marketing association or government agency.
Imperfections in the capital market probably bias economic opportunities in favor of plantations more than do imperfections in the product market. They are particularly acute in societies where small holders cannot offer their farms or groves as security for loans, either because they are forbidden to do so by law or because customary land tenure makes no provision for alienation. The plantation has access to international capital markets that cannot be drawn on by small operators and would probably not be available to farm credit banks or perhaps even to national governments seeking funds for small holders.
Economies of scale in the advanced agriculture of the United States result primarily from the use of laborsaving machinery that can be most effectively employed on moderately large areas. But even mechanized farms reach a point of constant costs at moderate size; for production of most crops it is markedly smaller than the larger plantation. Where plantations are important, the limited alternative occupations open to the rural population make laborsaving devices less attractive. Indivisibility of machine-capital dictates a minimum size of efficient operation in the industrialized countries. In economies where the plantation finds an advantage in combining large amounts of unskilled labor with skilled supervisor-managers, it is the indivisibility and high cost of skilled supervision that make small operations unprofitable.
Economies of size also result from other causes, essentially from the ability of the large unit to provide itself with services that are supplied by other agencies in the economically advanced countries. In the industrialized countries agricultural research is liberally financed by government; in the poorer countries of the world it may be undertaken by private corporations for the direct benefit of their own plantations, an expenditure that would not be feasible if the operation were small. Where roads and bridges are not provided by the state, the plantation may build them, just as it may find profitable the provision of rail transport, communication systems, docks and warehouses, and supplies of water, electricity, and other utilities that are available from the state or from regulated companies in the developed countries. This category may also include such services as soil analysis and application of fertilizers and pesticides, which in North America and western Europe can be obtained from vendors of the products used, from independent specialists, or from the government.
It is apparent that economies of size which the plantation enjoys and the competitive advantages it is able to seize in the product and factor markets, all derive from the same circumstances that make employment of large gangs of supervised laborers economically attractive—the rudimentary nature of the economic order and the limited dissemination of knowledge to the population. Imperfect knowledge, restricted access to the factors of production, and restricted access to product markets create a climate in which this particular form of farm organization thrives.
Political advantages. Other reasons besides efficiency in production have caused political administrators to look on plantations with favor. They have been encouraged as a means of pacifying colonial areas and territories being brought under a central authority because their capacity to sustain themselves in economically isolated areas and to create the essential elements of infrastructure have enabled them to assume some of the responsibilities of internal security, communication, and public services that would otherwise fall on government. Plantation concessions intended to serve these purposes of economic development and extension of political power have sometimes included police and juridical authority as well. Thus plantations may serve as an arm of the central government, sometimes the only arm of government in frontier areas. In some instances, the exercise of political authority has been the principal, and farming only the nominal, activity of plantations.
The plantation type of organization may also be attractive to governments seeking revenues to be used for fostering economic growth, for enforcing or extending political authority, or for the personal aggrandizement of the chief of state. It is much more difficult for the plantation to resist taxation than it is for the small farmer among so many or for the shifting cultivator buried in the bush country. The taxes to be wrung from a single plantation are also much greater than those to be gotten from the small peasant cultivator who consumes the greater part of what he grows and whose small cash income may be spent as soon as it is received, or buried in the ground.
Criticisms of the system. A principal criticism made of the plantation, as contrasted with a farming system dependent on small, independent farms, has been that wage laborers on plantations have less incentive to perform their tasks well than does the independent farmer, whether owner or tenant. To the extent that this is true, the obvious explanation would seem to be that reward corresponds more closely to effort when the farmer operates his own farm than when he enters into wage employment. It is also argued, however, that the small farmer exerts greater care in the cultivation of his own land because of his emotional attachment to it and that the biological character of farming and the lack of uniformity of the natural resources it employs require that decisions be made currently in the field by farmers who have intimate knowledge of their own farms, of the microclimates in which they lie, and of the crops they grow and injuries to which they may be susceptible.
Attachment to the land and to a particular parcel of land is a widespread, though not universal, characteristic of human society. But the economic advance of all the industrial countries has been marked by migration from farm to town and by a decline in the farm labor force. In the developing countries today, this movement to the cities is no less marked. Obviously, attachment to the land, however real, has not been strong enough to overcome for many the appeal of higher income, greater amenities, and sociability that city life can offer. The plantation can, and often does, offer to its employees many of the advantages sought in the town—schools, medical services, shops, entertainment, modern housing and utilities, even a certain social life—and they sometimes provide individual farmsteads on which the laborer and his family can work for their own interest when not engaged in work for wages in the field. Nevertheless, the problem of the relationship between effort and reward remains, just as it does in all wage employment.
Even on the small independent farm, however, the connection between the work the farmer does and the income he receives is not as simple or as certain as the incentive argument suggests. For sons and daughters in the farm household it need not be close at all if tasks and rewards are assigned by the parents. Small wonder, then, that farm children are often attracted into wage employment where payment always bears some relationship to the laborer’s contribution.
For the farmer himself, effort and skill may be assumed to correlate with income over the years, but uncertainties of weather, of pests and disease, and of price often cause the year-to-year correlation to be erratic. Wage employment can be an attractive alternative if it provides a similar average level of income, if wages are related to the worker’s productive contribution, and if reasonable security of employment can be assured. It is where this has not been the case that the incentive argument carries weight; and far too often plantation wages have been absolutely low and wages of individuals not much influenced by productivity. The poor performance of collective and state farms in the Soviet Union seems to be a case in point. The Soviet government, in its drive to build the industrial sector of the economy, made heavy demands on its large farms, with consequent low returns to farm workers. Wages of workers on many private plantations, too, have often been no more than enough to support the laborer himself, with no provision for wife and family, and contract employment has tended to divorce effort from reward.
There seems to be no inherent reason why plantation wages cannot be as effective an incentive as industrial wages. If the plantation is unable to pay at rates comparable to those that can be earned in other employment, there must be considerable doubt that it is an efficient way of organizing farm production.
The criticism of plantations that rests on the need for the individual farmer’s recognition of microvariation of soil and climate and the ability to identify the condition of growing crops is similarly unconvincing. On the plantation this is the responsibility of the skilled supervisor, and the area over which he can have this knowledge, though limited, is considerably larger than that of the small farm with which the plantation usually competes. If he can implement his production decisions, there would seem to be no reason why he cannot obtain results as good as or better than the small farmer’s.
Prospects for the system. From the standpoint of national welfare, the plantation can make a positive contribution to economic and technical change at that stage of economic growth at which it has in fact enjoyed its greatest prosperity—when an ill-informed peasantry in an elementary market system is faced with the need for rapid transformation of farming practices. The plantation brings forth desired increases in production more rapidly, and it can transmit the new technology to the agricultural population generally through the experience of farm laborers in its employ. The experience of the southeastern Ivory Coast, where African farmers now dominate a coffee industry originally established by private European planters, despite discriminatory legislation favoring the European, is a case in point. As a device for rapid transmission of knowledge about new production methods at low cost, the plantation will continue to play a useful role in the developing countries until the marketing and communication system is much more efficient and until the mass of independent farmers are in a position to tap directly the store of agricultural and economic knowledge.
Plantations can achieve these results because they rely primarily on the wage contract to obtain compliance in societies where compliance with a sales or purchase contract is difficult to enforce. As the society is progressively modified through the spread of the market system, and restrictions on access to factors, markets, and information weaken, the economic justification declines. But the plantation may persist beyond the time when it is economically more efficient than other forms of farm organization because of the political and economic power it wields. This same power, plus the pressure of sunk costs, may make the output of the plantation less responsive to new economic and technical changes than would be a comparable output from a large number of smaller independent farms. Like all large organizations, its size permits broad implementation of decisions: when these are wise decisions, the appropriate response can be more rapid than that of a number of independent firms; when unwise, they can inhibit response and delay adjustment. A farming system made up of a large number of small farmers experiences a multitude of decisions, some wise and some foolish, and relies on the market to reward those who have chosen well and punish those who have not. When the plantation prospers, it is because the capacity of its management to make and implement wise decisions is very much greater than that of independent farmers.
William O. Jones
Bauer, Peter T. 1948 The Rubber Industry: A Study in Competition and Monopoly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
Courtenay, Philip P. 1965 Plantation Agriculture. New York: Praeger.
Coene, R. De 1956 Agricultural Settlement Schemes in the Belgian Congo. Tropical Agriculture 33:1–12.
Commonwealth Economic CommitteePlantation Crops.→ Published since 1932.
Greaves, Ida C. 1935 Modern Production Among Backward Peoples. London: Allen & Unwin.
International labour Organisation, committee on work on plantations, 5th Session, Geneva, 1966 1966 [Reports.] Geneva: The Organisation.
Pim, Alan W. 1946 Colonial Agricultural Production: The Contribution Made by Native Peasants and by Foreign Enterprise. Oxford Univ. Press.
Wickizer, Vernon D. 1958 The Plantation System in the Development of Tropical Economies. Journal of Farm Economics 40:63–77.
Wickizer, Vernon D. 1960 The Smallholder in Tropical Export Crop Production. Stanford University, Food Research Institute, Food Research Institute Studies 1:49–99.
Plantations, estates established for large-scale agricultural production. The plantation developed in the Americas as part of the region's incorporation into the European world economy beginning in the sixteenth century. A distinctive form of agricultural enterprise, it combined specialized production of tropical and subtropical crops intended for large-scale external markets with the use of various forms of dependent or coerced labor. Over the course of its historical evolution, plantation production transformed tobacco, coffee, bananas, cacao, indigo, cotton, and above all, sugarcane from luxury items into articles of mass consumption. While the development of plantation agriculture was linked to the emergence of world markets for tropical staples, its viability derived from an abundant, cheap, and disciplined labor force secured by direct or indirect compulsion. Slavery, indentured servitude, contract labor, sharecropping, and tenancy concentrated laborers for commercial crop production, reduced their bargaining power, subjected them to lowered standards of living, and imposed upon them a strict labor discipline enforced by a hierarchical staff of supervisors and overseers. A clear distinction obtained between powerful owners, who generally claimed European descent, and a subordinate, and racially and culturally distinct, labor force. The planters' coercive control over the recruitment, allocation, and conditions of labor, guaranteed by the colonial state, established the conditions for profitable, large-scale commodity production in the American plantation zone.
Wherever it took hold, the plantation system disrupted or destroyed preexisting cultural norms and eliminated competing forms of economic and social organization. What anthropologist Charles Wagley termed "plantation America" formed in an area extending from the coastal lowlands of Brazil, through the Guyanas and the coast and islands of the Caribbean, to Chesapeake Bay in the United States, where soil, climate, and ease of transport facilitated the large-scale production of tropical and semitropical crops. The sparse indigenous populations in this region, unaccustomed to settled agriculture and European diseases, provided insufficient labor and were eventually replaced by imported workers. Later, with changes in transportation, in production technologies, and in market patterns, plantation production spread along the coastal lowlands of Peru, Ecuador, and Central America and to inland regions of Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina.
The plantation in the Americas formed as part of a broader political and economic complex within the European world economy. Specialized production of plantation staples depended upon overseas markets for the sale of the crop, while capital, technology, consumer goods, and even labor were imported from abroad. The evolution of the plantation in the Americas was shaped by colonial rivalries between European powers, the expansion and diversification of markets, growing productive capacities, changing sources of labor supply, and shifts in forms of labor organization throughout this international complex and their political and economic consolidation into a world division of labor.
Historically, sugar was the most important plantation crop and the one that developed this productive form to the fullest. Beginning in the eleventh century, growing European demand stimulated the spread of sugar production westward across the Mediterranean to the European Atlantic coast. By 1470 refineries in Venice, Bologna, and Antwerp had established a colonial relationship between producing regions and dominant importers. The adoption of Arab production techniques, especially irrigation, transformed cultivation and enabled intensification of land use. Nonetheless, the sugar industry in the European Mediterranean was characterized by small-scale production and diverse ways of organizing land and labor. This pattern of sugar cultivation was extended to Madeira and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Thus sugar remained a costly luxury product until well into the age of colonization.
During the sixteenth century the emergence in Spanish Hispaniola and, above all, in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé, of large plantations using African slaves to produce cheap, low-quality sugar for metropolitan refiners signaled the transition from Mediterranean polyculture to American sugar monoculture. However, the decisive break with the Mediterranean pattern came in Brazil. There, ideal climate combined with unlimited supplies of fuel, land, and the use at first of indigenous and then of imported African servile labor to create larger-scale operations that established the characteristic pattern of American plantation agriculture. In Pernambuco and the Bahian Recôncavo powerful senhores de engenho (mill masters) monopolized access to river courses in order to grind their own cane and that of dependent lavradores de cana (cane farmers), who themselves often employed large numbers of slaves. African slavery, the fertile massapé soil (a heavy clay soil preferred for sugarcane), and technical innovations in milling and boiling promoted large-scale production. The plantation linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas to form an Atlantic economy. Brazil dominated world production as sugar reached growing numbers of European consumers and became a significant source of wealth in the colonies.
The development of the plantation system in the Americas was tied to intercolonial rivalries between European powers. With the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil in 1654, the center of the plantation economy shifted to the Caribbean. Rather than directly organizing production, the Dutch now offered slaves, technology, credit, and access to Dutch markets to planters in the British and French Caribbean. Between the mid-seventeenth century and the 1720s, the consolidation of large estates and massive importation of slaves to grow sugar eliminated the preexisting European yeomanry and indentured servants as sources of labor. The West Indies were transformed into "sugar islands," with majority populations of slave workers of African descent.
The eighteenth century was the classic period of sugar and slavery in the Caribbean. The West Indian colonies were the cornerstone of imperial politics and the development of an Atlantic economy. The mercantile policies of France and Britain finally eliminated the Dutch influence and enabled them to assert control over their respective colonies. Rising demand stimulated by falling prices created a profitable but highly competitive sugar market. In the Caribbean, these conditions resulted in concentrated landownership, intensive cultivation, heavy dependence upon slave labor, and the introduction of various innovations designed to reduce labor costs, improve yields, ameliorate manufacture, and mitigate the effects of deforestation and soil exhaustion. The West Indian sugar plantation was at the heart of the transatlantic commercial complex linking the African slave trade, European manufactures, and North American exports of livestock, lumber, fish, and grain. Perhaps 29 percent of the slaves transported during the course of the entire African slave trade were imported to the British and French Caribbean between 1701 and 1810. In Saint Domingue, the richest colony in the world, nearly half a million slaves produced more wealth than all the British West Indies and enabled France to compete with Britain in international politics and trade.
Between 1790 and 1914 industrialization and urbanization in Europe and North America, slave emancipation, and the end of formal colonialism throughout the hemisphere, together with the expansion and reintegration of markets, led to the decline of the old sugar colonies and the emergence of modern plantation agriculture. Increasing world consumer and industrial demand for sugar, coffee, cotton, cacao, and bananas resulted in the extension and diversification of plantation production. Railroads and steamships opened new areas to cultivation and linked them more firmly to international trade.
By the mid-nineteenth century Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer. Its sugar industry, along with those of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, was totally transformed by massive United States investment during the twentieth century. Peru too emerged as a significant sugar producer, and production for local markets developed in Morelos, Mexico, and Tucumán, Argentina. In new sugar zones, the usina central (central refinery), incorporating modern milling and refining technologies, increased the scale of production and transformed the relation between land, labor, and capital in diverse ways. Plantations in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo made Brazil the world's foremost coffee producer. Coffee was also cultivated as a plantation crop in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Later, after the introduction of the refrigerator ship, bananas became an important plantation crop in Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador.
The abolition of slavery throughout the hemisphere during the nineteenth century, combined with growing demand for plantation products, initiated a search for new sources of labor and new forms of labor control. In the old slave zones, planters and the colonial state struggled, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to reimpose estate labor on freed populations. In many places state-sponsored immigration, particularly from Asia, provided an alternative source of labor. Contract laborers from India, China, Indochina, Japan, Africa, Madeira, and the Canary Islands were variously distributed to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil. In the Brazilian coffee zone Italian Colonos replaced African slaves. In the tropical lowlands and piedmont areas of the Andes and Central America, labor was recruited from highland peasant communities. The demand for labor sharpened conflicts between plantation owners and smallholders and shaped racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity throughout the American plantation zones.
By the 1920s large-scale international migration had come to an end. A variety of forms of sharecropping, tenancy, contract labor, and wage labor prevailed. Even where workers were juridically free, however, the plantation owners controlled labor by monopolizing resources and eliminating alternative economic activities. Workers were exposed to seasonal employment, and, where local labor was insufficient, especially during planting and harvest times, regional inequalities provided sources of migrant labor. Conversely, by the twentieth century, technical innovation, the growing scale of production and capital investment, and the expansion and integration of markets resulted in a shift to corporate ownership and financing of plantations. Local planter classes were increasingly subordinated to or eliminated by corporate capital as plantation economies were integrated into production, marketing, and financial networks dominated by transnational corporations, particularly those from the United States. Thus the plantation began to lose its distinctive identity and came to resemble other forms of large-scale capitalist agriculture. Yet pockets of debt peonage still remain in the twenty-first century. In 2007, the Brazilian government freed 1,108 forced workers trapped on a sugar plantation in the state of Para.
Richard B. Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775 (1974).
Manuel Moreno Fragináls, El ingenio: Complejo económico social cubano del azúcar (1978).
Francisco A. Scarano, Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico: The Plantation Economy of Ponce, 1800–1850 (1984).
Manuel Moreno Fragináls, Frank Moya Pons, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century (1985).
Michael J. Gonzales, Plantation Agriculture and Social Control in Northern Peru, 1875–1933 (1985).
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985).
Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (1985).
Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba (1985).
Verena Stolcke, Coffee Planters, Workers, and Wives: Class Conflict and Gender Relations on São Paulo Plantations, 1850–1980 (1988).
J. H. Galloway, The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from Its Origins to 1914 (1989).
Laird W. Bergad, Cuban Rural Society in the Nineteenth Century: The Social and Economic History of Monoculture in Matanzas (1990).
Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (1990).
Barickman, B. J. A Bahian Counterpoint: Sugar, Tobacco, Cassava, and Slavery in the Recôncavo, 1780–1860. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Wolford, Wendy. "Of Land and Labor: Agrarian Reform on the Sugarcane Plantations of Northeast Brazil." Latin American Perspectives 31:2 (March 2004), 147-170.
Dale W. Tomich
Often defined as a “total institution,” even as a prison camp, the plantation has been represented as both a type of social institution and an agricultural organization. The historical significance of this socioeconomic complex stems largely from its function in capitalist agricultural production, where it has been considered instrumental both in the creation and persistence of economic under-development of those tropical areas where it dominated, and in the industrialization of northern Atlantic economies. In his influential text Persistent Poverty (1972), agricultural economist George Beckford, building on the seminal ideas of Lloyd Best (1968), argued that while the plantation incorporated all regions where it dominated in the larger developing world economy, as a type of economic organization it did so unevenly, driving the modernization of regions of the northern Atlantic, particularly Britain, at the expense of those in the south, including the U.S. South. However, other scholars, notably Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman (1974), countered this perspective and held that U.S. southern plantation economies were a variant of capitalism. Such plantations, they argued, were highly productive and profitable, and the U.S. South’s comparative advantages as an agricultural zone accounted for its limited or nonindustrialization.
The plantation economies of the Americas incorporated thousands of mainly African laborers, unskilled and enslaved, both free and indentured, who produced for the home and/or export market, as occurred in the U.S. South, the Caribbean, and South America. They labored on both small plantations as in the U.S. South with enslaved labor locked into paternalistic or overtly coercive relationships and large-scale, highly regimented, exploitative factory-like labor-force control. Plantation agriculture thus bespoke a peculiar mix of capital and labor processes. Consequently, debates emerged over its economic modus operandi and labor organization. These “modes of production” debates, prevalent during the mid-1970s through the 1980s, turned on whether slaves were proletarians or an in-between labor form, and whether the plantation was capitalist or not. While no scholar disputed the triangulated relationship between plantations and areas of the protoindustrializing Atlantic, differences emerged about how to characterize its relationship to the emergent capitalist economic system. Generally, several analysts saw the plantation as articulated with capitalism but distinct from it, while primarily non-Marxists viewed the emergent global market (then mercantile) as the critical defining element of the capitalist world system, given slavery’s facilitation of wage labor and the circulation of commodities primarily from then-emergent industrialized countries. This view was particularly prevalent among world-system theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein (1979), who stressed relational historical developments.
Hotly debated also were questions centering on the cultures and personalities found on plantations. For example, Eric Williams (1944) saw racialization as an outcome of plantation slavery. Others averred that plantation slavery was itself a product of racialized thinking. These provocative positions were joined by questions about the social consequences of slavery’s economic and racial divisions. Comparing Latin America and the U.S. South in his influential 1959 text, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, Stanley Elkins compared the “closed” authoritarian system of the plantation to Nazism’s psychic destruction and concluded that plantation slavery resulted in a psychological stripping of the slave, thereby producing an infantile Sambo mentality or personality. Elkins’s Sambo-type personality resonated with stereotypical representations of blacks found in earlier American classics, such as the films Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, the latter adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 best seller. In the former, freed and outof-control Sambos visited disorder and chaos upon a highly racialized, gendered, and segregated South ostensibly preoccupied with protecting the virtues of white womanhood, while in the latter, blacks were stereotyped props for a melodramatic Southern romance. But these representations of the docile slave were swiftly undercut by other studies documenting modes of resistance that spelled agency rather than passivity, and later there emerged other perspectives that complicated those notions as well.
Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1976) would shift the discussion toward more detailed research on the sociocultural nature of plantation life and its impact on the U.S. South. In this seminal work, Genovese explored the master–slave relationship, arguing that masters’ and slaves’ transactions were paternalist in nature. For him such a hegemonic relation yielded a tacit realization and acceptance by both slave and master of their symbiotic roles within the slavery complex. In other words, slaves and masters realized their dependence on each other, and the so-called exploitative relation stressed by other analysts was shaped essentially by familial practices that tempered the incidence of slave revolts.
Several scholars have contested Genovese’s conclusions and highlighted the need to distinguish between physical domination and hegemony, thereby undermining his romanticization of the planter class and his thesis of slaves’ willful participation in the plantation-slavery complex. Moreover, analysts point to the pitfalls of reading slaves’ practices within the slave system from generalized conclusions culled from too few planters in a large-scale plantation-slave complex that covered the U.S. South. Such perspectives suggest that dependent connections do not negate the incidence of exploitative relationships, nor do they prohibit the development of spaces for creating and articulating futures that are different from those the planters may have envisioned. Subsequent scholarship, which has focused on strategies of maneuver and on processes of culture building by the enslaved, tends to bear this out.
SEE ALSO Slave Trade; Slavery Industry
Anderson, James D. 1976. Aunt Jemima in Dialectics: Genovese on Slave Culture. Review of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, by Eugene D. Genovese. Journal of Negro History 61 (1): 99–114.
Best, Lloyd. 1968. The Mechanism of Plantation Type Economies: Outlines of a Model of Pure Plantation Economy. Social and Economic Studies 17 (3): 283–326.
Elkins, Stanley. 1959. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. 1974. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown.
Genovese, Eugene, D. 1976. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage.
Mintz, Sidney. 1978. Was the Plantation Slave a Proletarian? Review 2 (1): 81–98.
Thompson, Edgar T. 1975. Plantation Societies, Race Relations, and the South: The Regimentation of Populations: Selected Papers of Edgar T. Thompson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Tomich, Dale. 2004. Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and World Economy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1979. The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Eric. 1944. Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch, 1967.
Michaeline A. Crichlow
Tobacco has been one of the major plantation crops of the Americas. It has been especially important in North America and at different times in other parts of the Americas, including Cuba and Venezuela. In contrast to other plantation crops, especially sugar, tobacco plantations tended to be relatively small; tobacco was also grown on smaller holdings as well. While enslaved Africans and Amerindians were used as workers on tobacco plantations and farms, they often worked alongside their masters, indentured workers, and others. The crop required careful tending of the tobacco leaves and thus close supervision.
Europeans had acquired their knowledge of tobacco cultivation from Amerindians. This apprenticeship was rapid and short, and in places like Trinidad and Venezuela it seems that both groups worked side by side. Tobacco was often raised in fields that were separate from other crops. In some fishing and hunting communities, tobacco was the only crop actually cultivated. Very quickly, however, tobacco was transformed into a European commodity. In the region of the Chesapeake, for example, Amerindian ties with tobacco were undermined, and even the memory of an association was erased from the traditions. At the same time, European settlers transformed production as they began to supply European tobacco and smoking devices, such as clay pipes, to the native population.
Expansion of output essentially required knowledge of the crop, suitable land, and sufficient labor, which did not necessarily mean that the crop would be grown on plantations. Unlike sugar and some other crops, the differences in productivity on relatively large holdings were not dramatically different from production on small holdings, but there were nonetheless some economies of scale. In fact, during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, tobacco was grown in Europe, with production almost exclusively confined to peasants and small farmers. Similarly, in the seventeenth century, the Dutch tried unsuccessfully to introduce this style of peasant production in their South American colonies.
Despite these isolated examples, the plantation model for production, as adopted in the Tidewater region of the Chesapeake, became the model for the Americas, with little variation among European colonies. There, as in many other places where the combination of open land and the lack of free labor defined the possibilities of expansion, bonded labor, whether under indenture or as slaves, became the basis of labor supply. In North America, for example, the Virginia Company sponsored the migration of indentured workers, both men and women, who were expected to work off the price of their passage across the Atlantic and other debts that had been accumulated through a system of quasicoerced labor. Normally, such indentures lasted from four to seven years, after which the workers were free to establish themselves as independent farmers or otherwise work on their own account. Hence indentured labor eased the early stages of production during the clearing of land and the expansion in production, but such labor was inadequate as a long-term source of labor. Once the indenture was finished, there was little reason for individuals to continue to work for their masters; with the wide availability of land, it was more usual for people to become independent producers themselves or find other employment. The use of slave labor, particularly enslaved Africans, was a response to this labor shortage.
Culture and Methods of Cultivation
The cultivation and care of tobacco involved a well-defined sequence of steps from seed to market. Successful production depended on the management of the interaction between human activity and the natural conditions. Tobacco cultivation required a constant input of different skills through each stage, each one requiring a great deal of care.
In the first stage, the seed was planted in a seedbed. This method was common practice, the persistence of which to the present shows its superiority over planting in the open field. The seedbed increased the survival opportunities for the young plants, allowing for more careful use of fertilizers. Careful scientific study has determined that the act of transplanting has the beneficial side effect of enhancing growth. Apparently, Chesapeake planters had come to understand this effect, although the extent of experimentation needed to reach these results is unknown. However, the use of seedbeds marked an important difference between the way tobacco had been cultivated by Amerindians and on plantations.
The seedbed stage was not onerous in work, but the transplanting to the open fields was labor-intensive. Furthermore, determining when transplanting should take place was a crucial decision of management. The shift had to be done in favorable conditions, usually after a heavy rain. The complete operation of transplanting usually took many weeks. This stage demanded a lot of people at the precise time, because the field needed to be prepared and the transplanting performed quickly in order to prevent the plants from drying out; each plant had to be transplanted individually. It is likely that some of the biggest Virginian planters cultivated more than 100,000 plants, with several thousand per acre.
In the next stage, weeding, the fields were cleaned of any growth that menaced the development the tobacco plants. Weeding required a great deal of time and energy. As the plants grew, they had to be topped, which prevented the plant from producing flowers and thus permitted the growth of the leaves. Secondary branches were trimmed in order to allow the plant to concentrate all growth in the principal leaves. This selective action was called suckering and was done plant by plant. Suckering and topping were crucial for the final quality of the leaves and hence to the yield. However, when the plants became mature, the most difficult decision of the planters was to choose the exact time to cut. In the end, the attention shifted from the plant itself to the individual leaves, which could be easily damaged.
The cutting of the leaves was the point at which the tobacco was transformed from a botanical item into a salable commodity. After cutting, the leaves had to be cured, which entailed allowing the tobacco stalks with their leaves to dry out naturally in barns specially built for this purpose. After the tobacco was cured, the leaves were stripped from the stalks, and the main stem of each leaf was removed. Depending on the number of plants, stalking and stemming could be done in twenty-four hours. Once finished, the leaves were packed into barrels in a process called prizing. By the time prizing was completed, the seedbeds for the next calendar year needed to be underway and the production cycle begun anew.
However, time was not the only aspect of the Chesapeake culture that was influenced by the rhythms of the tobacco plant. The human and material geography of the region were also shaped by the demands of the plantations. In North America, the combination of open land and short labor force necessary to supply the necessities of the farming developed a decentralized spatial organization. From the settlements on the James River, the English colonies extended to the north, where rivers like the York, the Rappahannock, and the Potomac created rich wetlands could be brought into production at low cost. The spread of tobacco cultivation was also favored by the fact that the Chesapeake Bay region is a myriad of rivers, inlets, and tributaries penetrating the maritime plain. And this water system was deep enough to allow the entrance of the largest vessels of the colonial trade.
In fact, the river system was the usual means of transportation within this region. The river system enabled planters to move tobacco to market and ultimately to England without major expense or risk. Moreover, because of the geography of the region, people lived in rural areas, scattered along the rivers. Until the first quarter of the eighteenth century, despite legislation passed by the Virginia and Maryland Assemblies to encourage settlement in towns and villages, there were fewer than ten small villages containing between fifty and a hundred residents in the region.
In the seventeenth century, the Chesapeake colonies remained essentially European, and the number of Africans remained small. Despite changes in the organization of labor, tobacco defined the particular expressions of Chesapeake culture. Until the second half of the seventeenth century, most of the tobacco farms were small properties and often had no more than one bound worker. On the larger estates, five workers were able to take care of ninety or a hundred acres planted in tobacco. Nevertheless, this age of the small planter lasted only until the end of the seventeenth century.
After 1680, Chesapeake society was completely transformed. The labor regime changed from indentured servitude to slavery and from a European to an African base. The social hierarchy, which had been characterized by relatively minor class differences, became an elitist system based on wealth, race, and power.
The population of the Chesapeake colonies increased dramatically in the eighteenth century. Although the black population at the end of the seventeenth century was small in comparison to the white population, the number of blacks increased rapidly, both absolutely and relatively. Whereas blacks accounted for only 13 per cent of the population in 1700, by the end of the century the figure reached 40 per cent in a total population of almost 800,000 people. Tobacco farms were transformed into tobacco plantations. Planters turned to slave labor instead of servant labor, and wealth became measured by the number of slaves on the plantation. Among several alterations introduced in the organization of tobacco cultivation, the most important were the increasing size of the unit and the growing complexity of administration on the plantations. This process led to the formation of a gentry, a new class of planters. For them, the combination of slavery and tobacco cemented a social system of dominance that came to shape their material welfare and the symbols of power.
At the same time that the plantations grew in size, the slave labor force expanded, and the demand for supervision increased, the gentry became the repository of the almost mystical understanding of the tobacco business. If the possession of slaves became the measure of wealth, the quality of the tobacco was a measure of self-esteem. The techniques of harvesting became a well-kept secret passed from father to son. Some of these rich men were obsessed by tobacco. It was the basis of their culture of debt, which linked them with the English merchants in a consignment system that allowed them to accumulate manufactured goods and European foodstuffs.
Plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil
With the exception of Jamaica, tobacco was the first or one of the first crops grown in the British and French Caribbean. As was the case in the Chesapeake, the islands initially relied on indentured European labor rather than enslaved Africans. During the seventeenth century approximately 60 per cent of the British emigration was bound for the Caribbean.
The mortality rate was huge among the European population in all of the British-controlled islands. The initial rise in the white population and the subsequent, equally dramatic decline occurred in tandem with the growth and collapse of tobacco cultivation. In many aspects, what happened on the English Caribbean islands also happened in the French Antilles. The decline in the white population was in both cases was related to the abandonment of tobacco as a major crop, by the shift to cheaper African slave labor, and by the consolidation of landholdings.
In Brazil, tobacco cultivation was concentrated in Bahia, in the northeast of the country. The production cycle in Brazil was shorter than it was in the Chesapeake. In addition, the Bahia fields did not entail a long-fallow system, since fallowing there was combined with a routine application of animal manure. In both regions, however, the economies of scale in tobacco cultivation were limited. The expansion of production depended primarily upon a proportionate increase in inputs. In Brazil, by the seventeenth century, most of the labor force was made up African slaves, in part because Brazil was not settled with indentured servants and in part because the Bahian region developed an important sugar industry supported by a slave system in the late sixteenth century. Furthermore, much of the Bahian tobacco was used to buy slaves on the West African shores rather than to satisfy a European market.
See Also Labor.
▌ CARLOS FRANCO LIBERATO
Fairholt, F. W. Tobacco: Its History and Associations. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859. Reprint, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968.
Goodman, Jordan. Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence. London: Routledge, 1994.
Narid, Jean Baptiste. O fumo brasileiro no periodo colonial. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1996.
Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947.
Robert, Joseph C. The Story of Tobacco in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
The term plantation originally referred to a colony or new settlement with a planned system of planting. Plantation in American culture gradually evolved to refer to an extensive agricultural enterprise based on slave labor. It would have been similar to a very large, often self-suffcient, farm.
The first plantations appeared in Virginia in the seventeenth century. Settlers began growing tobacco in the rich coastal plains where ocean tides swept up the rivers. Quickly, they realized bigger profits were possible by cultivating tobacco on a large scale. White indentured servants first provided the labor but soon gave way to black slavery. The great tobacco plantations became the hallmark of colonies in Virginia, Maryland, and the Upper South colony of North Carolina. By the 1720s, plantations appeared in South Carolina and Georgia. George Washington (1732–1799), Patrick Henry (1736–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and James Madison (1751–1836) were among the planters.
The greatest expansion of the plantation system occurred between 1790 and 1860. It was spurred by a more efficient textile industry in New England and Britain's increased the demand for cotton. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin enabled cotton to be cleaned and readied for market at a rapid pace. Cotton became so valuable that large areas of the "New South," including western Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, were planted. By 1830 cotton accounted for half of all U.S. exports. Although small family farms worked by the owners grew most of the cotton, the great cotton plantation became the ideal of Southern society. The richest 10 percent of planters owned almost 65 percent of the farm wealth and dominated Southern political and social life as well. A planter was defined by the number of slaves owned rather than by acres owned. Only three percent of planters owned more than 20 slaves, but over 100 slaves worked the grandest plantations.
Typical Southern plantations were self sufficient communities with a mansion for the owner and his family, stables, kitchen, blacksmith shop, extensive gardens, and slave quarters. They encompassed thousands of acres of fertile land with access to waterways for shipping.
While most planters managed the plantation themselves, some hired overseers to help direct the slave workforce. Planters' wives were generally second in command supervising the entire household operation.
Slaves worked dawn to dusk in the fields. The more slaves a planter had the more productive his plantation. Emancipation of slaves at the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861–1865) brought the plantation era to a close.
See also: Cotton Gin, King Cotton
J. A. Cannon
The traditional form of plantation was associated with slave labour. The socio-economic system that resulted was, in many cases, regarded as synonymous with the organization of colonies because of the investment of foreign capital and transfer of wealth from periphery to core. Historical changes have led to a variety of modern forms of plantation, ranging from those based in labour-intensive cultivation (often making widespread use of migrant or other unskilled unfree labourers), to more capital-intensive agro-industrial enterprises. In general, plantation agriculture is regarded as being exploitative of labour, land, and developing nations.
plan·ta·tion / planˈtāshən/ • n. an estate on which crops such as coffee, sugar, and tobacco are cultivated by resident labor. ∎ an area in which trees have been planted, esp. for commercial purposes. ∎ hist. a colony.