Plantation Slavery Economics

Was it worth it? And at what cost?

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The Beginning

Slavery was not a new practice. Since the beginning of time, there are examples of slavery, however, Plantation Slavery would become one of human kind's biggest atrocities, all in the name of profit and wealth. The building blocks of America are based on this business model. The monetary figures are easily attained through historical documents, what is not easily available, sadly, are the personal accounts of those involved.

Plantation Slavery in the U.S. has its roots on the coast of Africa, with Portuguese and Spanish expansion into the New World. Sugar Cane quickly became one of the most demanded agricultural products in European society. The voyages of Columbus brought new areas to cultivate sugar cane, and with the Native populations of these newly found areas highly susceptible to European disease, along with their inexperience in agricultural methods, all of Europe's attention was turned to the African to provide the labor needed to make these ventures profitable. (Davis, 43-47)

As expansion into the New World became a destination for many Europeans, whether it be for religious freedom, a dream of social mobility, or just for the sheer adventure, the Native populations suffered. Alongside the overwhelming Native suffering, the European Christian attitudes and belief were reinterpreted to show that the African was not human, or bore the mark of Cain, only leading to further humiliation. As more agricultural products and mining explorations filled the coffers of many European banks, the general populace also began to see a opportunity in which they could change their status in society.

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This painting of sugar cane fields, done in 1718, gives us a an early example of slaves. Still not dressed in European style, the totality of enculturation is not yet developed.

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This map made in 1680 shows the development of the New World.

Plantations Come to the United States.

Howard Zinn writes in his book A Peoples History of the United States; 1492 to Present "African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave."(Zinn, 28-29)

The shipment of Africans and the trade of humans as property simultaneously rose with the increase in demand of the New World products. The much written about "Middle Passage" was not just another mode of business, but also a way for the white slave masters to ensure the slaves would be submissive.

The middle passage started on the coast of Africa, where prisoners of war were exchanged for European goods. As the popularity of these goods and the demand for such grew, the African cultural ideology of how and when to take slaves changed. The changes in ideologies allowed for Africans to be taken for no other reason than to provide slaves for the growing market. This new shift in African values led to European racist behaviors and views to firmly take hold.

Treated less than human, forced from their families and loaded into ships where conditions were unimaginably horrible, the survivors of this journey would have been elated for any condition other than the bowels of these vessels, even if it meant facing the crack of the whip, and being sentenced to a lifetime of labor. The image following this paragraph shows the design of one of these ships, the drawing now brings light to how low humans treated other humans.

As the plantations in the U.S. started to diversify their agricultural products, the demand for labor to grow these commodities also grew. Cotton, tobacco, sugar-based products, all exploded in European markets.

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These images represent the middle passages, and the most profitable way for the "cargo" to be shipped. Unbelievable that the physical and emotional hardships that these slaves endured were so ignored by society at large.

"Peculiar Institution"

As slave trade became synonymous with plantation slavery, the economics of each shifted. "Free labor" became not so free. Slave values increased, and with the explosion of plantations, supply overcame demand for plantation products. As these product demands levelled out, the importation of slaves from Africa to America also slowed.

Slaves existence at this time is something to be considered, Stanley Engerman tries to capture the existing attitudes towards slaves in his book Slavery, Emancipation, & Freedom. He explains the slave as being an "outsider", although the slave was an essential part of slaveholding societies, especially the Plantation South, they never were accepted as fully operating members of that society. He writes "Slavery has been quite frequently, but not always, reserved to individuals who are believed to be, outsiders, not members of a given society. To be regarded as an outsider does not necessarily mean that a person would become a slave, but rather he or she could be treated differently from insiders, in being allowed to suffer punishments different from those meted out to members of the insider society. After all, outsiders cannot only be enslaved, but can be excluded, discriminated against, segregated, geographically isolated, imprisoned, assimilated, allowed self-determination, or killed, among other forms of treatment." (Engerman, 20-21)

This mindset, coupled with a dramatic shift in European markets, leads to the "Peculiar Institution" of Southern Plantation Slavery. Although the term has been proven to be incorrect, that slavery was indeed a worldwide phenomenon, not just relegated to the Plantation South, there is one aspect that is peculiar. Engerman explains this "There is one aspect in which slavery in the United States has been unique for a slave society, indeed completely different from the behavior of most other nations, free or slave, at the time- the demographic experience. Starting in the eighteenth century and up to the end of slavery (and probably also after freedom, at least until 1880), the slave population grew at an unusually rapid rate, about as high as that for U.S. whites." (Engerman, 33)

How did this happen? Why did this happen? This is an area of high debate. Some scholars contend that it was the material substance for slaves being better in America, others argue that it could have been that social structure changed from plantation to plantation, and yet could it be that the Plantation Economics simply began to fill their own demand for labor through excessive breeding and selling of the slaves? The combination of all these factors more than likely had a part to play in this demographic shift.

All in all, another "peculiar" aspect that comes from Plantation Slavery and the increase in slave numbers allowed for the growth of African-American culture to rise out of the blending of various and numerous African cultures. By the mid eighteenth century, the same time the slave populations began to rise dramatically, slaves became a society within a society. They had been made to think they were "outsiders" and for some, this allowed some type of respite from their everyday lives. Songs, dance and various other forms of African culture were active parts of a slaves life. (Of which, many still affect our modern culture today). The slave was not nearly as unintelligent, submissive, or complacent as most masters would have liked to believe. the following images show how life on plantations still had some remnants of African culture that had endured even after hundreds of years of servitude.

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Image 5 Life, Child Care, Schools&theRecord=9&recordCount=12

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Both of these images show a bit of the cultural traditions that African-Americans participated in while still being enslaved.

Values and Conclusion

There are but few written examples that give us insight as to persons involved in the slave trade. We have the amounts paid, the profit margins, even the expense reports, but it seems there is little as to the people directly involved in the business. We can only imagine the full horror of the slaves themselves, but the traders themselves seem to have left little written record.

One exception to this, is the book A Slavers Log Book, Or 20 Years' Residence In Africa, a reproduction of Captain Theophilus Conneau's diary written about his experience as a slave trader in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds. Although believed to be admonished a bit, this book reveals some of the practices used by slavers during the time. The one element I noticed while reading his accounts is the treating of Africans as if they were ghosts. By that I mean even though there was daily conversations, even some hinting of friendships, the manner in which he speaks of the African is the same if speaking of a dead person's spirit. They are there, they exist, but not in the tangible manner in which white men or other Europeans do. They seem to live on the fringe of being alive, on the fringe of human consideration.

Orlando Patterson writes about this in his interpretation of the balance of power in slaveholding societies. His thought is that the slave becomes "socially dead", even though they are alive they have no rights that come with being a participant in certain societies. He writes "If the slave no longer belonged to a community, if he had no social existence outside his master, then what was he? The initial response in all slaveholding societies was to define the slave as a socially dead person."(Patterson,39)

We look at this social death, and one has to wonder if it did not begin with those first travelers in the middle passage. Conneau writes of the slaves being released from the ships to the plantations, "On the arrival of slaves in a plantation, they are well fed with fresh provisions and abundance of fruit, which greatly astonishes the African who in his joy forgets his country, friends and relations. But his wonder rests not there. The new clothes, the red cap, and the blanket (a civilized superfluity not yet accustomed to) dumbs him with surprise, and in his amazement he puts on his clothes on the wrong side out, or the hind part before."(Conneau, 88) I think this example of the overwhelming experience of finally being set free from these voyages set the mental state that effects slaves up until emancipation, if not beyond.

Sadly, of the estimated 10-12.5 million Africans that were dislocated from their ancestral homes and families, we have relatively few accounts. We know that many would not succumb to the treatment, and tried to overthrow their masters. We have accounts of suicides, when the strength of many did not exist, and the strength of an individual was proven by their own willingness to die rather than be treated the way they were. There are accounts of slave revolts on plantations. we even have some individuals that created such an impact their names will live on forever, outweighing any profit that was made from their and their respective family's sale or judgement as property.

One account we do have is from Booker T. Washington, and the following passage he wrote includes another monumental figure Fredrick Douglass. Both had been former slaves, and both will be regarded as enigmatic figures forever. In his memoirs Up From Slavery, Washington writes "...At one time Mr. Douglass was travelling in the state of Pennsylvania, and was forced, on the account of his colour, to ride in the baggage car, in spite of the fact he had paid the same price that the other passengers had paid. When some of the white passengers went into the baggage car to console Mr. Douglass, and one of them said to him: "I am sorry Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner," Mr. Douglass straightened himself on the box upon which he was sitting and replied "They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is with me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it on me." (Washington,100.)

In conclusion, the costs, profits, and all other mathematical elements of Plantation Economics are readily available. The most important element of Plantation Economics, the human one, can never be measured. Whether it be the change in culture that elevated racism and still runs rampant, or the overall disastrous effect plantation demand had on an entire populace, the true cost of Plantation Slavery can never be measured in only dollars and cents. The true cost lies in the lives of those who lived through it, and its continuing impact hundreds of years after its absolution.

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Image 7 A Photo of Booker T. Washington, circa 1903. One of the leaders of African-American culture and former slave.

Image 8 Frederick Douglass abolitionist and former slave.

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Works Cited

Conneau, Theophilus. A Slavers Log Book, Or, 20 Years' Residence In Africa. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall Inc. 1976. Print.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage; The Rise And Fall Of Slavery In The New World. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2006. Print.

Engerman, Stanley L. Slavery, Emancipation, And Freedom; Comparative Perspectives. Baton Rouge, Louisiana University Press. 2007. Print.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery And Social Dearth; A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. 1982. Print.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. Cave Junction, Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine. 2002. Print.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States, 1492- Present. New York, Harper Collins. 1980, 1995. Print.