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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 Antigua 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.
Types Of Plantations
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 inter-dependence 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.
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.
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.
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, some-thing 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.
Rice Production On Jehossee Island
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, car-penters, 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 unequaltreatment— 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.
- Berlin, Ira. 1998. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- –, 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.
- Dusinberre, William. 1995. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. New York: Oxford 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.
- Littlefield, Daniel C. 1981. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- 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.
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