Here’s an excerpt from Philip Curtin’s excellent book The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex which develops many of the themes we have highlighted here on OD:
(1) The Caribbean origins of race-based plantation slavery and the racialist culture of the Deep South.
(2) The Deep South as the northern periphery of the “Golden Circle” or the “South Atlantic System.”
(3) The destruction of the South Atlantic System in the early nineteenth century by metropolitan Whites committed to industrial capitalism, evangelical Christianity, and Enlightenment ideology.
“Some of the more ethnocentric versions of American history imply that the American South was the heart of the plantation sector in the New World. That was not the case. The mainland colonies bought a few slaves in the seventeenth century, who were usually assimilated to the status of indentured servants. It was only from the early eighteenth century on that slave plantations became characteristic of the American South, after the Sugar Revolution had already moved to the Greater Antilles. When plantation slavery did come, it copied from the British West Indies, just as the Lesser Antilles had earlier copied Brazil.”
Remember, David Brion Davis has already said that South Carolina was the only one of the original 13 American colonies that had been consciously founded as a slave society on the Barbadian model.
In the early seventeenth century, Virginia was a class-based society modeled on the English country gentry that used White indentured servants to grow tobacco. Georgia was founded as a utopian colony for the English poor and slavery was originally banned there.
The South Carolina model of race-based plantation slavery spread to the Georgia lowcountry in the mid-eighteenth century where rice was grown along the coastal estuaries.
“Even then, the American South was not fully part of the plantation complex. In the typical sugar islands, 75 to 95 percent of the population were slaves, and many of the free people were either mulatto or black. In the American South, generally, most people were not slaves at all, but colonists of European descent. Even where, as in South Carolina, a majority of the working class were slaves, they worked along a Euro-American working class that was free.”
South Carolina and Jamaica were both built on the Barbadian model, but the former became a settler society whereas the latter became a sojourner society – why?
First, it was because Jamaica was a sugar colony whereas South Carolina was a rice and indigo colony – like Louisiana, South Carolina was mainly a supply colony for the sugar colonies in the West Indies, a source of food and raw materials, so slavery was not as intensive there as it was in the Caribbean.
Second, it is because South Carolina doesn’t have a tropical climate and did not specialize in sugar monoculture, which created ideal conditions for the mosquitos that carried yellow fever and malaria to flourish and decimate the White population.
“The American South also differed from the heart of the plantation complex in work organization and plantation size. The typical Caribbean sugar plantation had at least 50 slaves – more often 200 or even 300. In the United States, even in the 1850s, when slavery reached its fullest development, fewer than half of the slaves belonged to planters who owned 30 or more.”
This is a major difference.
In the Old South, the planter class never operated on the scale or amassed the wealth of the West Indian sugar barons, although they were moving in that direction (becoming more aristocratic) at the height of the Cotton Kingdom.
Slavery in the Old South had become a middle class institution. The typical slaveowner was a man with a small family of slaves, not a planter or an elite planter who owned hundreds of slaves, as was the case in the West Indies.
The Old South was the broadest aristocracy that ever existed in the history of the world – a race-based aristocracy, in which one race labored for the benefit of another, not just for a small class of elite planters which is the stereotype.
“Gang labor, where dozens of men and women worked side by side under disciplinary surveillance, was most typical of sugar cultivation. The more diversified plantations of the American South grew specialized crops like cotton and tobacco, but they also grew food for themselves and for the rest of society. Raising pigs, cattle, and chickens, as well as field crops, created too great a variety of tasks for continuous supervision.”
During the American Revolution, tens of thousands of slaves starved to death in the British West Indies. The sugar plantations there weren’t self sufficient like American cotton plantations in the Old South.
“But in the broader perspective of the plantation complex, the plantation regime of the American South was a curiously atypical and late-flowering institution that reached its peak between the 1820s and the 1850s, when many plantation societies in the Caribbean were already in dissolution.”
Cuba and Puerto Rico were also late bloomers in the larger story of plantation slavery.