The Peculiar Institution Begins

The Rise of the Plantation Economies

Beginning of the Plantation Economies

In the years following the discovery of the New World to their west, the European powers were in a great struggle to control the vast territory, resources, and wealth that this new frontier offered to them. Ships brought colonists, whom set up civilization in the new world and seek wealth in the Americas commodities for the European market. Sugar, tobacco and cotton all brought with them the possibilities of wealth through a seemingly endless demand for them, and then the African slaves arrived. Planters would use the slaves to till their massive crops, using harsh and inhumane practices to gain their wealth and prominence in society. Such was the rise of the plantation economy. Plantation economies in the Americas came to power because of the demand for the cash crops the regions could produce, and became an excuse for the brutal treatment of African slaves.

The Cash Crops of the Americas

The rise of the agriculture in the Americas was sparked by the great interest and desire in European markets. According to Ira Berlin in her book Many Thousands Gone, sugar had a long history of being a hot commodity in market. She writes, “After centuries of experimenting, they devised a new way to grow, process, and market this great fount of sweetness, and thought the plantation remained identified with sugar, its techniques and organization were eventually extended to other commodities, such as tobacco, coffee, rice, hemp, and cotton” (Berlin, 96). Having already having a desire for these raw materials gave the American plantation economies a strong entrance to produce these crops in even higher levels. As H.W. Brands states in his book American Stories, “The warmer climate and good soils of the lower tier of the southern states made it possible to raise crops more suited than tobacco or cereals to plantation agriculture and slave labor” (Brands, 261). This was not to say that tobacco had taken hold as a major product of the Americas as well. Brands also writes, “Tobacco, the original plantation crop of the colonial period, remained the principal slave-cultivated commodity of the upper tier of southern states” (Brands, 260). In the United States, cotton became a massive, economy-driving crop sustaining the American South. According to Brands, “Between 1792 and 1817, the South’s output of cotton rose from about 13,000 bales to 461,000; by 1840, it was 1.35 million. In 1860, output peaked at a colossal 4.8 million bales. (Each bale weighed 480 pounds.) Most of the cotton was exported to the booming British textile industry” (Brands, 263).

Introducing Slave Labor to the Agricultural Economy

With the rise of the profitable agricultural economies across the Americas, colonies began to import slaves to tend to the land. Brazil was one of the earliest to introduce slaves from Africa to build its sugar economy. According to David Brion Davis in his book Inhuman Bondage, “It was largely because of the expanding international market for sugar, molasses, syrup, and rum that regions south of what became the United States imported some 95 percent of the African slaves brought to the New World” (Davis, 103). Obviously having such a commitment to slaves and resources to produce the amount of raw material that they intended showed the colonies’ ambitions and need for cheap labor. In itself, the market for slave labor became a hot commodity for colonists and agricultural industries alike. According to Brands, “Economic historians have concluded that the that the most important crop the tobacco kingdom produced was not the ‘stinking weed’ but the human beings cultivated from the auction block. The most profitable business for slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and the Carolinas was selling ‘surplus slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South, where staple crop production was more profitable” (Brands, 260).

Treatment of Slaves on the Plantations

Slaves used to cultivate the crops of the plantation economy suffered brutal and inhumane treatment at the hands of their masters. This treatment was widespread throughout the Americas for the sake of yielding as much sellable crop as possible. As Davis shows about the Caribbean and Brazil,

“Even the cultivation, weeding and cutting of sugar cane resembled ‘factories in the field’ as drivers wielding whips sought to maximize the annual work of carefully organized and regimented gangs of slaves. Since slave labor represented an investment in a special kind of property, owners were economically motivated to maximize the productivity of workers who could not simply be fired or have their wages lost” (Davis, 104).

Slaves on the plantations were being worked for incredibly strenuous hours a day for long growing season so that planters could produce the most amount of crop possible. Many slaves suffered from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition because of the harsh conditions. Slaves did what they could to stay out of the critical eye of their masters. As David Libby explains in his book Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835, “This subculture exposed itself rarely; its manifestations were hidden in the ways that the slaves worked and interacted with their masters and overseers. At the same time, both weighing time involved such anxious moments, the slaves looked for ways to protect themselves from the overseer’s wrath” (Libby, 62).


Because slaves were seen as nothing more than property or lower livestock, their masters would do what they wished with them, and faced no punishment for their abuse of their slaves. In an effort to produce more and more crop, masters pushed their slaves to the brink of death and stripped them of their humanity. It would be the treatment of slaves on these plantations that would raise the issue of slavery and its future for many nations, colonizers and colonists alike. The effect of this institution would lead to rebellion, war, and freedom for many African Slaves across the Americas.

Works Cited

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Brands, H.W. American Stories: Stories of the United States. Comp. T.H. Breen, R. Hal Williams, and Ariela J. Gross. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Education, n.d. Print.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Libby, David J. Slavery and Frontier Mississippi: 1720 - 1835. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Picture Captions:

"Slavery Image Search." Slavery Image Search. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015. <>.