The Rise of Plantation Economies

Tracing the Expansion of Plantations in the Americas

The Cause For the Growth of Plantation Economies

No one can deny that slavery was a horrendous practice, but it needs to be asked, how it became so massive and vital the Americas? Slaves were needed within the Americas to drive the local economies. It is true that many slaves would perish in this process, and to look back on history and not recognize their importance is a sign of ignorance. The plantations which sprung up in the colonies of the Americas would assist in slave torment, but drive the economies to a greater threshold. Plantation slavery and its development in the Americas can be explained through an analysis of agricultural growth, availability of cheap labor, and the necessity of economic progression within the regions.

The Growth of Agriculture

Did slavery create the capital that financed growth in the Americas? Did it it assist in the expansion of colonies? To these questions, it cannot be a simple yes or no. There needs to be reason behind them. Slavery was indispensable to European development of the New World. It is inconceivable that European colonists could have settled and developed North and South America and the Caribbean without slavery. Slavery did produce the major goods that the world needed during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These goods mainly consisted of coffee, cotton, rum, sugar, and tobacco.

In the British controlled North America, the south had cotton as a vastly important crop and huge profit producer. The Caribbean, controlled mostly by the Spanish and French with a little British thrown in, saw sugar as one of their most critical crop. Every one of these crops was very labor intensive and taxing among the individuals who worked on them. Also, the work was expensive for employers who needed the work to be done. This inevitably brought in slaves as a cheap, easy source of work and profit.

Slaves are easy to maintain and many plantation owners saw them as walking money. With the ownership of hundreds of slaves a plantation owner could work them all for free and see his profits skyrocket. The slaves were fed little, had very little rights, and were punished severely if they disobeyed the master. The overseers or masters would believe this brutality would keep the slaves in check and make them work harder and not try to escape, for fear of being caught.

The slaves worked tirelessly with seemingly never ending working hours and primitive machinery. By the masters enabling these working conditions and work ethics, the economies of the colonies within the Americas flourished. There were factories in places of non-agricultural work, but anywhere there was difficult, agricultural work, slaves would always be a necessity.

Availability of Cheap labor

At the beginning, for most colonies in the Americas, African slaves were not the norm. In places like the British North America, indentured servants were the norm. Also in places like the Caribbean, the indigenous population was put to work. In both cases however, slavery of the Africans was much more economic and steady. With indentured servants, they could work out of their servitude, and the native slaves ended up being susceptive to European diseases and died out usually. This helped introduce slavery and its benefits to the Americas.

The availability of slaves within the Americas was ridiculous. The slave trade coming from Africa was almost endless. There were always slaves being shipped to the Americas because the demand for them was so high, and usually ever increasing. The biggest benefit of buying one of these slaves from the traders was, slaves once purchased, were owned for their entire life. Also, any children of those slaves belonged to you as well. So by buying a male and female slave, with in 40 years there could be 10 more slaves added to the master’s ownership.

Plantations would see vast amounts of slaves being put to work on them. The work done on these plantations would have been very expensive for the owners to employ other people. They were not stupid however, and with the African slaves available they set their eyes upon free labor. The plantation owners usually would have numerous slaves be multi talented in that they were skilled in many facets. Not just as a farmer or laborer, but they would be craftsmen, carpenters, or even blacksmiths. With all the other functions slaves were forced to take part of, their agricultural aspect was their greatest contribution to the colonies of the Americas.

Slaves were also very cheap to maintain usually. The slaves were fed very little, they were sheltered very little, and they hardly had any time for themselves. Some slavers allowed their slaves to grow some of their own food and eat or sell it, but most had strict control over what their slave did. The slaves dressed plainly and hardly had luxury items like shoes. Some slave owners who saw their slaves as an investment might get them shoes in able to make their longevity increase, but most slaves had to acquire those items through their own means. Plantation owners would have hundreds of slaves, and with the low cost of keeping them, and the huge up turn they would have on the crops, the owners were usually very wealthy.

Economic Progression

As with all nation-states throughout the world, the colonies of the Americas needed an economy to drive it. This economy needed to be forever growing in order to keep up with their proprietors from Europe. This need for a good economy drove the colonies to try and take advantage of the resources and climate within their areas. As it would turn out, the weather and the land seemed suitable for numerous cash crops like tobacco and sugar. These crops need vast numbers of laborers in order to produce them, and this production was not cheap. In arrive the slaves.

As an economic driver, the slave was vital. Without such work being free, the areas that accommodated slavery would not have progressed like they had. In Brazil, after the indigenous slaves were deemed unfit and the African slaves were introduced, there was economic expansion. Individual businesses might have done well due to their slaves, but economics as a whole was influenced in ways other than just plantation working.

With slavery in the Americas, there were numerous jobs created which had to do with slaves. Jobs would include auctioneers, transportation workers, financing, and the appropriation of slaves. Profits made by people through slavery had influenced other projects such as railways, infrastructure, and even assisting in industrial revolutions. Global commodity circulation has even been tied to slavery as it may have assisted in helping it circulate better.

When concerning British North America, the growing demand for cotton from European and northern mills drove prices up and drew settlers west seeking new lands on which to grow the staple. Cotton rapidly became far and away the most valuable commercial crop. This influx of revenue and settlers helped the southern colonies thrive. The Caribbean saw great success in their crops as well and many people wanted to travel to strike it rich. They believed there was an ability in this "new world" to grow and become fruitful. However there really was only so much room in the Caribbean. This helped the expansion into the other parts of the Americas like Brazil and other South American colonies.

Plantation Economies and Their Expansion

The development of plantation economies in the Americas can be interpreted through research of an increase in agriculture, cheap labor opportunities, and the essential progress all economies need within the regions. Slavery as a whole was a dark and disturbing image of the history of the Americas. This is cannot be disputed, however, slavery was a necessity to getting the countries where they are today. Economically they were the hammer and without them, the Americas would be a drastically altered place.


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Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

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

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.

Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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Smith, John David. Black Slavery in the Americas: An Interdisciplinary Bibliography, 1865-1980. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982.