Where did your goods come from?

Varieties of Unfree Labor


Slavery has been an existence in the Americas since the 1500’s. Slavery began in the United States in 1619. What did it mean to be in slavery? For the Africans in the Americas from the 1500’s to the 1800’s, it meant a life of brutality, hard work, and no real personification of an existence. The types of unfree labor slaves were part of were vast. Tobacco farms, sugar plantations, domestic work, cotton plantations, mining, and capitalized labor are the focus labors of this paper. Where goods and materials come from is something most do not think about; however, if history is remembered, today’s success in the United States, and other Americas is based off an atrocious period of time in our world. A different perspective of how the world got to where it is today may ensue upon reading.

Tobacco Farms

Tobacco crops were one of the first crops cultivated by slaves. Cuba, St. Kitts, Barbados, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, the Latin American countries, all had a hand in tobacco farming. Tobacco farms is where the first slaves that arrived on U.S. soil were predominantly used. In fact it was the reason slaves were imported to the United States. Tobacco cultivation was taking off in the Chesapeake Bay, and the owners wanted to export the goods to Europe. Tobacco farming was difficult, and tedious. Often times the land need to be cleared before crops could even be planted. This took extensive time and hard labor. I suppose lumberjack and planter could be included in the list of unfree labor varieties. In the United States, men outnumbered women on the tobacco farms. This was part of the process in taking away in type of family bonds that would make a person feel like they were part of a community. On the farms slaves were patrolled by an overseer that would work them to exhaustion, and beat them if they faltered. Tobacco trading became one of the first exports to capitalize on the free labor from the slaves. Free labor meant low overhead, which in turn reaped a bigger profit. This was the beginning of a global economy. Tobacco was a successful crop for export in the Americas, which seemed to lead the way for sugar plantations.

Sugar Plantations

Sugar plantation work was extensive. It wasn’t just cutting down the sugar cane. Work on the sugar plantations ranged from weeding, to working in the sugar mills, which involved hand pressing the cane to extract the sugar. It was said that work on a sugar plantation was much more intense than work on any of the other types of plantations. The slaves were worked for up to 18 hours a day, constantly be overseen, and beaten if their work wasn’t perceived as being good enough. To add to the intensity to succeed, sugar plantations had already been established in other parts of the world, through slave work as well. The success of sugar mills in the Americas started in Havana, but spread to other countries quickly with the success and profits that were made. There was an extreme pressure to be successful. The more sugar, the more money. As sugar plantations succeeded, the need for slaves increased. When sugar production was new in Jamaica and Saint Domingue, the average plantation owed 100 slaves, that was with land around 200 acres. Plantation sizes exploded during the late 1700’s, and Saint Domingue accounted for half the amount of slaves in the Caribbean; which was about 1 million. The United States’ sugar plantations were vast mostly in the southern states. Slave populations in these areas was larger than the white population. One major difference in the U.S. was, there were specific plantations for slaves. The U.S. did have plantations that were worked by free people, that were paid for their work. However, the brutality on the slave run plantations was equally intense in all countries.


Domestic work may be what comes to most minds when the world slavery is mentioned. Domestic work was a vast area of unfree labor. Work ranged from house maid, to butler, to Artisans, to maybe the most recognizable, nannies. Because of the types of work that were required of domestic slaves, women far outnumbered the men. In Brazil, the domestic slave trade accounted for1 15% of the total slave population in the country. These slaves were in the urban areas, where they had access to city life, and as for treatment faired better than their counterparts in the rural areas. Still, women were used for prostitution, and sex workers for added. A common practice in most countries with the exception of the U.S., was to rent your slave out. Yet another avenue for monetary gain. Black women were allowed to raise white children, but they weren’t good enough to be paid and treated fairly. This notion is so inconceivable.


Cotton may be the most memorable good produced by slaves, this may be in part because the invention of the cotton gin allowed for mass success in this realm. The United States appears to be the most successful country with cotton. Barbados tried their hand at it, but they did not see much profit. However, Brazil should not be forgotten. When Brazil started producing cotton they were very successful, in fact, by the late 1700’s Brazil produced 30% of the British cotton export. It was the invention of the gin that propelled the United States into the mass producer of cotton, and by the early to mid 1800’s the United States held a monopoly with the cotton production and export. By 1860, the U.S. produced 60% of the cotton supply. The success of cotton plantations is due to the soil the South had to offer, but, even more so, to the slave work behind it. Like other plantations, slaves were worked to exhaustion, they were put in areas where there strength and speed could be used to the maximum , and they were constantly worried about being separated from family. Living in a constant state of fear is not an existence one should have.


The 17th century in Brazil brought a rise to mining. Greed was the force behind exploiting all materials and goods as possible, from both a country and slaves. Gold and diamonds were the main minerals that were mined in Brazil. Mining was an involved craft. Panning, washing, hydraulic works, smelting, and gold smithing were areas the slaves acquired skills. The latter two were frowned upon by the Crown because they felt it gave slaves the opportunity to steal gold and separate to a free sector. The mining boom in Brazil was one time in history that the amount of free slaves outnumbered the amount of unfree.

In the United States the Gold Rush evolved differently. The people of California did not want unfree labor in the state, and there was legislation stating that California was a slave free state. This however; was not legislation that was upheld, and power and money undercut what California had set out to be, a slavery free state. Slaves were used to siphon as much profit as possible. Some may argue that the slaveholding experience was different in California than in the South; but, using someone for your personal gain is wrong in all regards, and that is ultimately what unfolded in California.

Capitalized Labor

I chose to include capitalized labor because it is all encompassing. Capitalized labor simply means that the owner of the slave had access to all the labors of the slaves at little cost. The only cost the owner incurred was the cost necessary to keep the slave alive. Essentially the slave was an investment for the owner. Slaves were their property. All the areas I listed above, and many more were all forms of capitalized labor.


It may seem like some of the labor was of the same type, and yes that is partially correct. A lot of the same types of work went on at the tobacco farms, the sugar plantations, and the cotton plantation; however it is imperative to remember that all of this work was unfree labor. Slaves were forced to work at these places, and that is the focus. Unfree labor is defined as, when people are employed against their will by the threat of violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves or to members of their families. Those types of measures is exactly what happened during the slavery period. Men, women, and children were threatened on pretty much a daily basis. They were used for financial gain, and power. Every job the slaves were involved in benefited the country and people the slaves were working for; however, they saw very little of that return. So, if you think about where these countries are today, they are all successful. The reason they were successful is because of the slave labor that established them finically centuries ago. If slaves wouldn’t have been around to harvest the cotton, would it have been so successful? Probably not, because the workers that tended to the plantations would have been paid, and they wouldn’t have worked as many hours, or produced as many goods. It’s humbling to stop and really think about why we are such a successful nation, and the framework involved in getting here.


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