The Plantation

The Rise of a Brutal and New Economy

The Rise of Plantation Economies

The rise of plantation economies was due to a variety of factors. Never before had the world seen such amazing capabilities and output in terms of production. The plantation system quickly spread because of its efficiency and success. While it developed differently in some areas the overall cast of the gang system was prevalent from the start. Sugar is probably the most important crop to look at in terms of the development of the plantation slave system and the economy that followed. The whole idea of the plantation system and the cultural changes that followed it all started with the development and spread of sugar production by the Portuguese, which was spread further by the Dutch, creating a new way to build a society. The spread of the plantation system resulted in societies completely based around slavery

Sugar: How the Portuguese Started the Plantation System in the Americas

Before delving into the unique aspects of the plantation system and the economies that came from it, it is important to understand how and why this unique system developed in the Americas. Plantation slavery developed because of the Portuguese and their need to protect their interests in Brazil in the mid-16th century. Slavery was already prevalent in basically every European power and their colonies at this time, it was just not in the form of the plantation system. The plantation system developed by the Portuguese was simply in response to the threat of their land claims in Brazil being encroached upon by the British and the French. Portugal was initially only interested in exploiting the Asia and their but this quickly changed when it’s European rivals were willing to set up long-term establishments in Brazil. In order to support the viability of colonizing Brazil the Portuguese needed something that would result in more profits in the region. Portugal had previously been harvesting dyewood trees in Brazil but this was not enough to support colonization. The Portuguese turned to sugar, which they had a previous successful experience with in the Azores, Madeira, and Sao Tome. This may not have been possible for the Portuguese to do had they not basically been the leaders of the Atlantic slave trade at the time. Thus, they could cheaply acquire slaves for such tasks as sugar production.

Sugar production was one of the most expensive forms of crop production at this time. Thankfully for the Portuguese, they had wealthy merchant investors who made large profits from the East Indies trade to invest in the process, and to make sure proper equipment was set up. This is what spawned the first plantation system in the new world. Portugal was to be the first dominant European power using the plantation system and because of this they set themselves up as the first dominant European power to produce sugar. The plantation system caught on quick, and the realization of its efficiency and success prompted the need for many more slaves, as well as the inclination to control the slave trade by other European powers.

The Spread of the Plantation System

Now that we know how the plantation system started in the Americas, we can look at how it spread to the entire New World, since it obviously did not stay strictly confined to Brazil. Initially in the Americas, the Portuguese along with the Spanish were the dominant powers using slaves. This dominance changed however with the development of the plantation system and the emergence of the Dutch as a major power in the Americas. The Dutch developed the Dutch West India Company which evolved from their trade the Caribbean and Brazil dating to the 1590. The Dutch challenge to the Portuguese not only in Brazil and the Americas but for their slave trade in Africa. The Dutch and the Portuguese went back in forth for control of the sugar production in Brazil, however the Dutch were eventually overcome by the Portuguese with the support of the indigenous Brazilians. The Dutch, accepting their loses in Brazil looked to new horizons for colonization. Their attempts at colonization spread to areas like present day New York, Dutch Guiana, Barbados, and St. Kitts.

It was the islands like Barbados and St. Kitts which are important to the prevalence and spread of the plantation system in the Americas however. Plantation systems were not immediately used in all of these newly founded areas. Apparently slave labor was not even an important factor for these new colonies. The 1650s are what brought the changes and the spread of the plantation system to the Americas outside of Brazil. Eventually sugar production was introduced to these islands, replacing things like tobacco production. Initially plantation slavery was tied directly with sugar production and became what defined the Dutch, Portuguese, British, French, Cuban, and Brazilian slave systems in the Americas. While plantation slavery was not the only type of slave system present at this time, as was mentioned before slavery was a large and important institution before this development, the new system was becoming the new standard because of its efficiency.

Efficiency: The Key to Plantation Slavery

Now that we have seen how plantation slavery evolved around sugar production we can look at why it was used. This answer lies with the efficiency of the system. This strict plantation labor organization brought with it the most efficient production outputs ever known through the 18th century. Not only that, plantation slavery was probably the most efficient means of production before the industrial revolution. Slave labor using the plantation system did not discriminate between the sexes. In this way, women often times did the same types of labor as men including things like, planting and harvesting crops. The elderly were put to much easier tasks such as tending to livestock or guarding things, as well as training and caring for the children. Even the children were given simple labor tasks such as weeding until they were old enough to move into the field gangs.

While the efficiency can be seen with the previous examples, in that slaves worked at any age and there was no discrimination, another aspect of the efficiency of the plantation system was the gang system of labor. This system was much like it sounds, women and men were separated into groups that matched with similar age and physical characteristics. Harder tasks were given to the more physically able groups. There was also a high punishment/reward system in place, which relied heavily on the punishment, in order to keep the slaves in line. This punishment often included things like physical punishment, or material goods being taken away. The plantation system was also highly skilled in some areas. Because of this not all slaves worked the fields and crops, many were involved in transportation of goods and refinement. All of these means of efficiency accumulated into one of the highest rates of employment any society has ever seen, with roughly 80 percent of the slave population being gainfully employed. Such efficiency resulted in little fluctuation across both crop and borders in how things were organized under the plantation system. Sometimes gangs would be larger or smaller, the number of gangs would be different, and cultural differences would result in higher populations of males or females within gangs. However, the success and efficiency of the plantation system was noted by everyone, major change was not needed for a system that was not broke.

The Plantation Economy

Plantation slavery became an institution through the 19th century. Slaves became more or less valuable with the fluctuation of plantation based crops because of how interwoven the two were within the economies of the Americas. The rapid growth of the slave trade meant that societies were being developed specifically with the intent of using slaves to develop the area, places like Virginia. Because slaves were so intricately woven into new societies emerging, especially in the Americas, we can see how important they were. In early American societies, the slaves were the poorest part of the population. What this meant was that the slaves, being stripped of their rights, eventually became dependent on the plantation system themselves because they would never have the opportunity outside of the system to prosper. The institution kept them down and was prosperous because of it.

The slaves on plantations were also often given the resources to care and feed for themselves. This meant that relatively speaking, slave societies could sustain themselves to some extent. In some cases that evolved in the U.S. south, these plantations and slave societies could be almost completely self-sustaining. This sustainability was possibly because slaves were allowed to produce and put to market their own goods. This was an aspect of plantation slavery that only grew with time.

Plantation Economies: A New System for a New World

The plantation economy was a culmination of many things, at the forefront was greed. The efficiency that developed from the sugar plantations of the Americas was like nothing anyone had seen before and because of this is was adopted everywhere. The plantation system gave rise to societies based completely on crop production and slavery. These societies evolved over time and their economies had major fluxes dependent on economic and political changes at the time. These societies could even become decently self-sustainable. While we constantly contemplate the horrors of the plantation slave system, at the time, it changed the world economically.

Works Cited

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

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone; The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998. Print.

Eltis, David, Lewis, Frank, and Sokoloff Kennet. Slavery in the Development of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Klein, Herbert S, and Ben Vinson III. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Menard, Russel R. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. University of Virginia Press, 2014. Print.


The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. Accessed 2/3/2016. Web.