The Plantation System
This article describes the plantation system in America as an instrument of British colonialism characterized by social and political inequality. It links the agricultural prosperity of the South with the domination by wealthy aristocrats and the exploitation of slave labor.
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Sugar Cane Plantation
Illustration of slaves cutting sugar cane on a southern plantation.
Photograph from the North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo
The plantation system developed in the American South as the British colonists arrived in Virginia and divided the land into large areas suitable for farming. Because the economy of the South depended on the cultivation of crops, the need for agricultural labor led to the establishment of slavery. It also created a society sharply divided along class lines. For this reason, the contrast between the rich and the poor was greater in the South than it was in the North. In the colonies south of the Mason Dixon line, a few wealthy, white landowners owned the bulk of the land, while the majority of the population was made up of poor farmers, indentured servants, and slaves.
The plantation system came to dominate the culture of the South, and it was rife with inequity from the time it was established. In 1606, King James I formed the Virginia Company of London to establish colonies in America, but when the British arrived, they faced a harsh and foreboding wilderness, and their lives became little more than a struggle for survival. So, to make settling the land more attractive, the Virginia Company offered any adult man with the means to travel to America 50 acres of land. At the encouragement of the Company, many of the settlers banded together and created large settlements, called hundreds, as they were intended to support one hundred individuals, usually men who led a household. These settlements were much like the colonies themselves. The wealthy aristocrats who owned them established their own rules and practices. The settlements required a large number of laborers to sustain them, and thus laborers were imported from Africa. African slaves began arriving in Virginia in 1619.
The term “plantation” arose as the southern settlements, originally linked with colonial expansion, came to revolve around the production of agriculture. Though wealthy aristocrats ruled the plantations, the laborers powered the system. The climate of the South was ideally suited to the cultivation of cash crops, and King James had every intention of profiting from the plantations. Tobacco and cotton proved to be exceptionally profitable. Because these crops required large areas of land, the plantations grew in size, and in turn, more slaves were required to work on the plantations. This sharpened class divisions, as a small number of people owned larger and larger plantations. Thus, the wealthy landowners got wealthier, and the use of slave labor increased.
Douglas V. Armstrong is an anthropologist from New York whose studies on plantation slavery have been focused on the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, as well as in the slave states, the shift from small-scale farming to industrial agriculture transformed the culture of these societies, as their economic prosperity depended on the plantation. Until the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, over 12 million Africans were transported to the New World, and over 90 percent of them went to the Caribbean and South America, many to work on sugar plantations. Throughout the New World, the plantation served as an institution in itself, characterized by social and political inequality, racial conflict, and domination by the planter class.