The Rise of Plantation Economies

By: Katharyn Satterwhite


When you hear of plantations, most minds probably drift to cotton, sugar, and tobacco fields in the southern United States during the time of slavery in our history. How did the idea of using plantations to create a mass cash crop come about? How did plantations come to the southern states and rise? It was not one simple idea but it started much earlier than the colonization of the United States and has been seen around the world. Slave plantation agriculture that developed on the Atlantic Islands and later in the United States, had their origins in the Eastern Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages (Klein & Vinon, Pg 8).


According to Curtin, plantations had six main characteristics. First, most of the productive labor was forced labor and most were slaves. Second, the population was not self-sustaining. Neither of the European staff or African workforce produced enough births over deaths. Third, agricultural enterprise was organized in a large-scale capitalist plantation. Fourth, the plantations also had certain features that can be called feudal. Fifth, plantations were created in order to supply a distant market with highly specialized products. Sixth, political control over the system lay on another continent and in another kind of society.
Plantations included cotton, coffee, tobacco, sugar cane, sisal, oil seeds, and other various fruits. Sugarcane production is very labor intensive and before the machinery was available, it was a good idea to have one worker per acre (Curtin). It was heavy and costly to haul unless it was processed and once it was processed it held a high value, which made it cheap to transport it by water and still hold its value.
Europe first got involved with plantations after it experienced sugar in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Crusades (Curtin). After the rise of Islam, the intercommunicating zone of the Indian Ocean came into a closer contact with the southern Mediterranean, the result being that new crops from the Asian tropics started growing in the Mediterranean basin. These crops included rice, coconuts, sorrel, sour oranges, lemons, and limes and most likely sugarcane, plantains, bananas, and mangoes (Curtin). These crops also after time, began to grow in Cyprus, Sicily, Spain, and Portugal.
Near 1640, some Dutch shippers came to the British and French Caribbean islands. In turn, they offered to show colonists how to plant the sugar cane and also offered to sell the equipment for sugar factories and sell slaves to increase the increase the number of workers. These shippers who were different from the Dutch who were establishing a sugar industry, intentions were to increase profits they would receive in trade (Curtin) . From there, they migrated from Brazil to French and British Antilles. By the year of 1637, 65% of the sugar consumed in England came from Barbados, by 1645, 40% of the island was sugar plants and by 1767 this number increased to 80% (Curtin).
Brazil played a vital role in plantations. It was a mix of influence from medieval Mediterranean and the Portuguese also brought techniques for planting cane and making sugar from Madeira (Curtin). What started as a place of not much economic growth, soon had major economic growth with the introduction of sugar. The fact that Brazil has large amount of flat land with good soil that is close to the shore, helped with crop success.

West Indies plantations began on Islands like Martinique and Barbados but due to the soil conditions and hills, it had a difficult time starting off (Klein & Vinson, Pg 54). With growth of population in the Caribbean, came in an increase in sugar plantations, the size of their plantations and the output for each plantation (Klein & Vinson, Pg 55). Along with the growth, and an increase in slave population, the acreage for plantations grew. An average sugar estate was 327 acres in 1670 and with half the plantations being under 99 acres. By 1724 the average plantation was 1,174 acres and half the owners had 499 acres or less. By the 18th century, Jamaica had many features of a prototypical Caribbean plantation (Klein & Vinson, Pg 56). Saint Domingue was slow to develop and took about eighty years to become bigger and more productive than Martinique and by the middle of the 18th century; it was obvious that the island was the dominant island from the rest.

The use of slaves on plantations really helped boost profits for the crops. Slaves rarely earned monetary or any other compensations (Bergad, Pg 132). Without having to pay for their labor, plantation owners are able to save a significant amount of money and in turn, making their crops even more valuable. It is only logical that cheap labor of slaves and the demand of slaves to satisfy cheap labor for plantations not only stimulated the economy of the plantations but also slave trading. With a demand for slaves, the cost for slaves rose. Luanda saw prices rise four times the regular prices, selling price in Brazil about doubled, Senegal prices rose very fast and Caribbean slightly doubled (Curtin) The demand and cost of slaves was a reflection of how well the plantations were doing.

Fast forward to the New World, the economic pattern, which was established in Virginia, formed the model for the next developing colonies (Terrill, Pg 33) and less than 20 years after establishing, tobacco shipments began leaving Jamestown for England. Tobacco ended up being the first colonial fortune and shortly later, Maryland then started growing tobacco as well. By the 18th century, colonies were growing rice and plantations were growing and flourishing. Tobacco was the main crop in Chesapeake but other crops contributed to the success as well such as grains, which became more and more important (Terrill, Pg 35). In the southern colonies rice dominated crops. During 1700 and 1750, it created a great amount of wealth in South Carolina. 1.5 million pounds were exported in 1710 and by 1730 just 20 years later, it increased to 20 million pounds and in another 20 years it raised more than two and a half times (Terrill, Pg 35). Rice was not the only successful crop. Indigo was another crop that became important for dye in the British textile industry. In 1748, around 140,000 pounds were being exported from Charleston and by 1775 more than a million pounds were exported (Terrill, Pg 35). Even though tobacco, rice and sugar were important, cotton took a higher profit. Cotton plantations ranged from North Carolina all the way to Texas. At the beginning of the century, 73,000 bales of cotton were produced, by 1820, 335,000 bales were produced and by 1860 there were 4.5 million bales produced (Terrill, Pg 200).

One way to gauge the economic success of plantation in the southern United States were the planter’s homes. They were often in rural park like areas and usually near a river. The homes were impressive mansions with kitchens, dairy houses, barns, stable, storehouses, gardens and 2 or 3 slave quarters (Terrill, Pg 41). The inside of these homes were also matched in exquisiteness of the outside with paneled and plastered walls, molded ceilings, marble fireplaces and beautiful stairways. In addition to land and ownership of black slaves, it was an obvious way to exhibit those who had prospered from plantation profits.

In sum, plantations have been an economic boom in many countries for hundreds of years. Sugar played a major role in the economic boom in the Americas where not only the planters profited but anyone involved in any aspect did as well. Plantations did not just add profit to planter's pockets but it stimulated the economy as a whole. It increased trades of goods, created slave trade and also promoted exploring and colonizing as well.

Works Cited

Bergad, L. (2007). The comparative histories of slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. Cambridge [etc.: Cambridge University Press.

Cooper, W., & Terrill, T. (2009). The American South: A history (4th ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Curtin, P. (1998). The rise and fall of the plantation complex: Essays in Atlantic history (2nd ed.). University of Cambridge.

Klein, H., & Vinson, B. (2007). African slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.