History of trade, plantations, colonialism and colonization in the 13 Colonies
Plantations: The forced labor of slaves to harvest cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco crops
What were plantations? Definition of Plantations: Plantations can be defined as large farms in the colonies that used the enforced labor of slaves to harvest cotton, rice, sugar, tobacco and other farm produce for trade and export. Crops were planted on a large scale with usually just one major plant species growing. Typical plantations ranged from 500 to 1,000 acres and each acre produced about 5,000 plants. For specific facts refer to Information about the Slave Plantations.
Plantations in the Colonial South
The agriculture system of plantations was implemented in the Southern Colonies during Colonial Times. The five Southern Colonies who introduced the system of plantations were composed of the Maryland Colony, Virginia Colony, North Carolina Colony, South Carolina Colony and the Georgia Colony. The reason that plantations sprang up in the South was due to the geography and climate of the Southern colonies areas.
- The geography of the Southern Colonies featured fertile soil, hilly coastal plains, forests, long rivers and swamp areas
- Climate: Mild winters and hot, humid summers made it possible to grow crops throughout the year and was ideally suited for plantations
- The Southern Colonies concentrated on developing plantations that eventually grew cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar cane and indigo (a purple dye)
Plantations - Cash Crops
Tobacco, rice, cotton, sugar cane and indigo were valuable plants and grown as cash crops. Cash crops (as opposed to subsistence crops) were specialized crops that were grown by planters to be sold for profits and not used for personal use on the plantations. Planters had no trouble transporting their crops because of the many waterways in the Southern colonies that made it made it easy for ocean going ships to tie up at plantation docks.
Plantations Economy - Slaves
A slave plantation economy was based on agricultural mass production requiring a large labor force. Southern Plantations were labor intensive and required thousands of slaves. The longer a crop's harvest period, the more efficient the plantations were. There was no machinery and only oxen and horses for power. Vast areas of land had to be cleared for planting and crops had to be sewn and harvested by hand. Cheap labor was essential for the slave plantations to become profitable. Slaves, both men and women, worked all year round undertaking back breaking work for up to eighteen hours per day. The women were compelled to do as much as the men The use of slaves kept the costs down on the plantations. After the initial outlay required to purchase a slave, little expenditure was required and with the successive generations of slaves born on the slave plantations their masters gained new employees at no cost. The plantation slaves lived in basic, crude wooden cabins consisting of one or two rooms, often with a dirt floor, in the slave quarters.
Slave Trade starting in Africa
Southern Plantations Economy - Types of Plantations in the Colonial South
Different crops were grown on the plantations but the crops most suited to the South were:
- Tobacco Plantations (established in the 1600's)
- Rice Plantations (established in the 1700's)
- Indigo Plantations (established in the 1700's)
- Cotton Plantations (established in the 1800's)
- Sugar Plantations (established in the 1800's)
The tobacco plantations were the first to emerge. Tobacco was the most important cash crop but the volatility of tobacco prices encouraged the planters to diversify and different types of slave plantations were established. Slave plantations included the rice plantations, cotton plantations and indigo plantations. The following chart provides facts and stats about exports in the 1770's showing the annual average values for the Top 10 commodity exports in the Southern Colonies - also refer to Colonial Times. These figures put into perspective the importance of the slave plantations in the Southern colonies.
Staves and Headings
Cotton is not included in the above chart because cotton was not grown on Southern plantations until 1793 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which made the production of cotton more profitable. Cane sugar was first imported to the 13 colonies from British West Indies. However, after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, slave plantation owners also began growing sugar cane in addition to indigo on their plantations. Refer to Trade in the Colonies for additional information about each of the colonies. The articles on Triangular Trade, Colonialism and Mercantilism are also highly relevant to the subject of plantations.
Population Growth of Europeans and Africans
The population of the 13 colonies (European and African) increased dramatically in a relatively short number of years as can be seen by the following population chart. The number of slaves in the colonial period increased from 10,000 in the 1600's to 400,000 in the 1700's.
The Hierarchy on the Plantations
The hierarchy of the plantations was on three levels. The Plantation owner (the planter), the Overseer and the slaves. The owners of the plantations were usually rich, refined gentlemen from England. The owners of the plantations relied heavily on overseers to run their plantations. Overseers were men hired by the owners to manage and direct the work of slaves. The owners lived in colonial mansions, the overseers in small houses and the slave lived in very basic wooden cabins in the slave quarters.
Tobacco was the first plantation crop raised by the Southern colonies. The tobacco industry produced tobacco which was originally used for pipes and snuff. The first Southern plantations were worked by Indentured servants the massive sizes of the plantations needed more and more labor. Work on the tobacco plantations required slaves. The process of growing tobacco required all year attention. Seeds were first grown in flats and then the seedlings were planted by laborious hoeing in the fields. Tobacco was harvested in the late summer and then had to be dried “cured” in a tobacco house for six weeks. The tobacco leaves were then stripped from the stems and packed into hogsheads (round, wooden casks or barrels) used to hold tobacco for shipment. Tobacco became the biggest of all the trade exports during the Colonial period and tobacco plantations were highly profitable.
African slaves working on a Southern tobacco plantation in 1670 during Colonial Times
Rice was a particularly difficult crop to cultivate but the owners of the slave plantations in the Southern colonies mastered its culture by following the example of rice cultivation in Africa with information provided by their African slaves. The English and European colonists during the Colonial period had no practical experience of rice crops and the production of rice required its workers on the rice plantations to possess knowledge of the land and how to cultivate. The slaves provided sufficient labor force to produce the demanding crop on the rice plantations. In Delaware alone swampland covered over 30,000 acres. The swampland first had to be cleared. The construction of rice fields to create the rice plantations was an arduous task.
- Dirt walls, called 'banks', had to be constructed to keep salt water out
- Ditches and gates had to be built to move fresh water in
- 50 acres of rice fields sometimes required 5,000 feet of ditches
Sowing the rice seedlings was generally undertaken by female slaves on the rice plantations who trampled the seeds into the swampy soil with their bare feet. The rice fields were flooded at certain times of the year, and then drained back out. The slaves had to act as scarecrows to keep the birds away from the rice crops. The rice was flailed then harvested and then the rice was removed from the hulls in a winnowing basket. The rice was then polished before being packed into barrels and shipped for export. By the 1690's and rice became the mainstay of the colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. The cultivation of highly lucrative rice quickly spread to all of the slave plantations in the Southern colonies and rice became one of the top ten trade exports to England during the Colonial period of American history.
A rice plantation in Carolina
Indigo was the highly prized source of blue dye. Indigo was a non-edible plant that was grown on the slave plantations in the Colonial period. Indigo was not grown on colonial plantations until an enterprising woman called Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722–1793) developed the indigo plants as an additional cash crop for the Southern slave plantations. During the 1720s the French government had supplied the French colonists and settlers in Louisiana with indigo plant seeds. The indigo crop was successfully cultivated in Louisiana, and factories were built for the manufacture of dye.
Slaves working on an Indigo Plantation
When the indigo plants were in bloom, they were cut and put in large tubs to soak. There they fermented until it was time to drain the liquid and complete the process. Different blue shaded dyes were obtained from the leaves of the indigo plant from ranging from bright blue to violet and purple. A variant of the indigo plant is native to South Carolina and Georgia. The English encouraged the American colonists to produce indigo as it was highly dependent on Spain and France for this dye, so the indigo plantations flourished. The cultivation and processing of the indigo dye produced one-third the total value of the exports from the Southern slave plantations before the Revolutionary War.
Cotton plants prosper in dry, hot sunny climates and rich soils. A cotton plant formed bolls containing seeds with many long hairy fibers. The cotton fibers need to be separated from the seeds. This process was so time consuming, and therefore expensive, that cotton was not grown until 1793 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The cotton gin was a machine that separated the cotton fibers from the seed ten times faster that the slaves could do by hand. The cotton industry and the number of cotton plantations boomed in the Southern colonies with the introduction of the cotton gin. Growing cotton as a crop required intensive labor - the existing slave plantations of the south increased the number of slaves to undertake the hard, back breaking work. Cotton plants had to be tended, weeds had to be chopped out. Picking took a few months during which time the cotton was put through the cotton gins, then pressed and finally baled before being shipped for market and export. Large-scale cultivation of cotton using slave labor was extremely profitable for the owners of the cotton plantations in the Colonial period of American history.
Cane sugar was first imported to the 13 Southern colonies from the West Indies. However, after the US purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the plantation owners followed the French lead and also began growing sugar cane on their plantations. The first years of sugar cane harvesting in Louisiana produced 300,000 tons of sugar per year so it was a profitable crop for the slave plantations of the southern colonies. Sugarcane is a tropical, grass that forms shoots at the base producing multiple stems. Sugarcane usually grows three to four meters high and is about five centimetres in diameter. The sugar cane stems grow into cane stalk from which the sugar is extracted. Another product of sugar cane is molasses were was used to produce rum - a major trade export of the Northern colonies.
Slaves cutting Sugar Cane
Cane sugar was grown on the sugar plantations. Sugar is best grown on relatively flat, fertile land. The early sugar plantations had an extensive use of slaves because sugar was considered as a cash crop exhibiting economies of scale in its cultivation. Sugar was most efficiently grown on the existing large slave plantations of the South. The construction of sugar cane fields to create the sugar plantations was an arduous task.
Rows of furrows about 1ft wide were dug to plant the sugar canes
Seeds were planted by hand at one-yard intervals
Before canes are harvested the sugar fields were burnt to remove leaves and weeds
During sugar harvesting the cane was cut at the lower stem, leaving the rest to produce more crops
Sugar cane crops could be cut and produced up to 4 times without having to be replanted
The slaves on the sugar plantations, including men, women, and children, had to endure the backbreaking work of planting rows upon rows of sugar cane seeds. Slaves in the sugar plantations were expected to plant between 5,000 - 8,000 seeds in order to produce one acre of sugar.
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