Here’s an excerpt from Philip D. Curtin’s excellent book The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex which situates the Deep South in the context of the Greater Caribbean plantation complex and the South Atlantic System of trade between Western Europe and its New World colonies:
“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.”
The book covers:
- The Caribbean origins of race-based plantation slavery and the racialist culture of the Deep South.
- The Deep South as the northern periphery of the “Golden Circle” or “Greater Caribbean” and the South Atlantic System. The South was a hybrid of a “true colony” and a “plantation zone.”
- The destruction of the South Atlantic System in the early 19th century by metropolitan Whites in Britain and the United States committed to industrial capitalism, evangelical Christianity and the Enlightenment ideology of rebranding slavery as free-market capitalism.
Previously, we saw that David Brion Davis had already said in his book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World 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 17th century, Virginia was still a class-based society modeled on the country gentry of the English West Country that used White indentured servants to grow tobacco. A century later, 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-18th 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 of plantation slavery, but the former became a settler society whereas the latter became a sojourner society – why?
- 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. The slaves weren’t driven as hard on the rice plantations.
- It is because South Carolina doesn’t have a tropical climate and did not specialize in sugar monoculture, which created ideal conditions for the mosquitoes brought from Africa that carried yellow fever and malaria to flourish and decimate the White population. The American South has a sub-tropical climate and was infested by malaria and yellow fever until the early 20th century, but the environmental conditions weren’t nearly as bad here for Europeans.
“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 sugar barons of the West Indies, although our planters were moving in that direction and our culture was becoming more aristocratic at the height of the Cotton Kingdom in the 1850s.
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 Southern planters, especially those who specialized in tobacco, were little more than jumped up farmers on the periphery of the plantation civilization of the Greater Caribbean.
The Old South was arguably the broadest aristocracy that has ever existed in European history – a race-based mix of democracy and aristocracy in which one race labored as servants for the benefit of another, not just for a small class of elite planters which is the familiar 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 units like American cotton plantations in the Old South. Interestingly enough, something like 1 out of every 5 former slaves did in the South in the aftermath of abolition because they were set “free” and had utterly no idea of how to survive in the “free-market” economy. No one had any money and so they died on the side of the road.
“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. Technically, chattel slavery was only abolished there in 1886 and 1873 respectively, but in reality American investors were poised to create the American Sugar Kingdom in the Spanish Caribbean after the Spanish American War. There were new “free-labor” substitutes found for slavery.
The Old South’s love of neo-classical architecture in its public buildings and plantations, as well as its choice of classical place names like “Athens, GA,” reflects the fact that it was a Slave Society that openly admired and was modeled upon Greco-Roman civilization. Southern elites were raised on the classics and went into careers in the military, law and politics. We saw ourselves as a race of orators. When we spoke about “liberty,” we meant liberty in the sense of classical republican political theory.
As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the case of the Deep South, the apple was Barbados and the acorn was South Carolina and Virginia.