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LECTURE& DISCUSSION 5
Atlantic Slavery and the Tropical Plantation Complex:
The West and Africa, 1450-1800s
I. OVERVIEW: We know a lot about slavery, actually (see image of the OSCAR-winning
film, “12 Years a Slave”) and now we know why trans-Atlantic slavery was crucial to the
making of New World societies during and after the “disease-ridden” Columbian
Exchange. What we might know less about are the deeper origins and wider trajectories of
“plantation” slavery, the kind of “African slave trade” SLAVERY which dominated the
colonized New World.
The term “plantation complex” is most often used to describe the economic and
political order centering on slave plantations in the New World tropics
-The general history of the plantation complex actually spans over seven centuries from
the 1100s into the 1800s. In this sense, there were direct links between the 13th century world
system (centered on Asia and the Indian Ocean) and the modern global system (which was
increasingly centered on the Atlantic Ocean).
-In fact, the origins of the tropical Atlantic Plantation Complex can be traced to the
Eastern Mediterranean world at the time of the Crusades.
In the 1500s and 1600s, plantations spread westward from the Mediterranean into the N.
Atlantic off the NW coast of the African continent then to Brazil and the Caribbean
-By the time plantations appeared in Brazil and the Caribbean in the 1700s, they had been
transformed and became a very important part of a new global economy centered on the Atlantic
The importance of plantations began to slowly decline AFTER THE 1880s when
slavery was finally abolished in Brazil and Cuba. So the institution of the PLANTATION
had a long HISTORICAL TRAJECTORY in what becomes known as the modern world
At its peak in the 1700s, the plantation complex could be found from Southern
Brazil to the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States (very near our Fairfax campus).
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A final period of growth in the 1800s carried the plantation complex around the
world to Natal in S. Africa, Zanzibar off the E. African coast, coastal Peru, Queensland in
Australia and new “sugar islands” Fiji and Hawaii in the S. Pacific.
During its heyday in the 1700s, the plantation complex was much more than a strictly
economic order for the tropical Americas; it was also a historically specific social and
II. THERE WERE DISTINCTIVE TRAITS OF the TROPICAL ATLANTIC
1. FIRST, within the Tropical Atlantic plantation (SUGAR) complex, the majority of
productive work was the result of forced labor. In other words, most of the people in the
tropical Atlantic plantations were chattel slaves. With the institution of chattel slavery came
various forms of resistance which were met by various forms of often violent oppression.
Slavery, of course, was not a new reality. Slaveholding had existed in the Muslim
world and throughout Asia for centuries. But older forms of slaveholding society did not rely
so heavily upon slaves as an agricultural labor force. Instead, there were various forms of
slavery and slavery was often a marker of political dependence and loyalty.
In the Ottoman Empire, well-disciplined Janissary Corps were technically “slaves” of
the sultan. The Janissary Corps operated as a special unit of infantry serving as the ruler’s
personal bodyguard. Comprised of Christian boys taken from Balkan villages, the J Corps
trained with firearms and learned the teachings of Islam.
Jan boys might even rise in the Ottoman power structure. Indeed, Janissary Corps
eventually became high ministers of state—known as GRAND VIZIERS. The Janissary Corps,
then, were not chattel slaves—who were treated as mere commodities and property to be
used, disposed of, and sold like cattle or other beasts of burden.
2. SECOND, the POPULATION of the plantation complex was NOT SELF-SUSTAINING
Neither European managers nor African workers produced “an excess of births
Both European and African populations had to be sustained by a constant stream of
new immigrants—both forced and voluntary—from Europe and Africa. This negative rate
of population growth continued for 150-200 years in the American tropics.
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3. THIRD, Atlantic plantations were LARGE-SCALE CAPITALIST VENTURES.
They were geared towards specialized production of cash-crops (such as sugar, cotton, and
tobacco) for sale in distant world markets.
Here, I just want to note that these Atlantic plantations—which might have from 50 to
several hundred chattel slaves—were much larger than European farms of the time.
The owner of the land and capital equipment managed all stages of production in
person or through agents and overseers.
The plantation was VERTICALLY INTEGRATED—meaning that it brought together
the processes of production, processing and transport of sugar all in one geographic area.
This sort of centralization required huge investments of money and resources—
otherwise known as capital. The enormity of the enterprise led to a different organization of
laborers and resources all aimed at increasing the profits of the owner or shareholders who
put up all of the initial start-up investments.
On the plantation itself, a plantation owner’s agents or overseers gave orders for all
agricultural operations on a day-to-day and even an hour-to-hour basis.
Again, this signaled a SHARP DEPARTURE from patterns of work discipline and
management in European agriculture.
4. FOURTH, although these new plantations represented emergent forms of “capitalist”
agriculture, they also retained some leftover “feudal” elements as well.
The plantation owner controlled his work force not only during working hours, but
also in their everyday lives. In short, the plantation owner had complete legal jurisdiction
over his workers.
His agents and overseers acted informally as a local police force and justice system
They punished minor crimes and settled most disputes without going to legal authorities
outside of the plantation. This would be akin to a situation in which the boss for whom you work
owned you like a piece of property, could punish you at will and control all aspects of your
social life—where you live, whom you associate with, how you spend your weekends—without
reference to any outside authority. This is what chattel slavery was all about. A form of "social
death"—human beings treated like cattle with no regard for social ties of family and no
legal recognition as human beings w/ human rights.
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5. FIFTH, plantations were EXPORT-ORIENTED. Their whole purpose was to supply a
distant market with a highly specialized product
-Initially plantations specialized mainly in producing sugar, they then turned to
producing other lucrative cash-crops such as coffee, cotton, and tobacco.
Sometimes plantations would produce food crops to feed their own workers, but in
most cases virtually all of the plantation's produce was exported for sale, and food would
have to be brought in from outside.
This meant that the entire plantation society was wholly dependent upon longdistance trade to carry off the cash-crop and to bring in people and provisions.
More of the plantation complex’s total consumption and total production were carried by
long-distance traders than in any other part of the world economy between 1350 and 1450.
In other words, at this point in world history the American plantation economy was
much more export oriented than European or African economies.
6. SIXTH CHARACTERISTIC of the tropical Atlantic plantation complex was its position of
COLONIAL DEPENDENCY in relationship to Europe.
In other words, economic and political control over the plantation system was
exercised by Europeans who often resided on another distant continent and in another kind
Domination from a distance has occurred throughout history, but rarely was such
direct control exerted from so far away, across such vast stretches of ocean.
Furthermore, European political control was fragmented. At various times, Portugal,
Spain, Holland, England, France, Sweden, Denmark and Kurland (present-day Latvia) were all
active in either the slave trade or in running plantations themselves.
Each overseas part of the system in Africa or the Americas was tied to a metropole
in Europe—London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Paris, Madrid, or Seville, etc.
And all of these European metropolises were linked together in a system of
competitive and often warring states. Often wars and conflicts between European states
would spill over into conflicts and competition over overseas territories in the Americas.
Imperial control and colonization of the Americas, then, were seen from Europe as a
global game of empire. A good example of this is the Seven Years' War between Great Britain
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and France which took place between 1754-1763, though main action took place between 175663. In British North America, the Seven Years' War was known as "the French and Indian
The idea of colonial dependency also permeated social relations on the plantations
themselves. Divisions and distinctions between European masters and their colonial inferiors
might be replicated and maintained. Equally as often, however, these divisions also broke down
as masters and slaves lived in close proximity and interacted with each other in various ways.
[Mention Sally Hemmings story of Jefferson.]
III. Origins & SPREAD of the PLANTATION: THE SPREAD OF THIS PLANTATION
COMPLEX from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Tropical Atlantic.
A. Sugar as Commodity + Historical Catalyst
The historical origins and the diffusion of the plantation complex are inextricably
tied to SUGARCANE. How many of you have ever seen or eaten raw sugar cane?? What
is it like? [A lot like bamboo on the outside; deep purple bark; peel away the bark, suck the cane
juice out from a fibrous inside—much like texture of celery; rough on the teeth]
European contact with sugarcane began in the 1100s during the Crusades
It was during the Crusades that knowledge of sugarcane grown in the Levant spread—the
Levant refers to those lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, esp. presentday Syria, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestinian State.
This was an impressive discovery for Europeans, whose main source of sugar up
until then had been honey.
The first thing we should understand about processed sugar in the pre-modern world is
that it—like many of the spices we take for granted today—was a LUXURY ITEM associated
with long-distance trade.
NUTRITIONALLY speaking, sugar is very different from the most common forms
Traditional staples such as wheat and rice along with American crops such as maize,
potatoes, and manioc or cassava, normally supplied more than half the total nutritional
intake of people living in pre-industrial times.
Producing these staple crops took up a huge part of any society’s agricultural efforts.
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So, prior to the 1500s most people got most of their calories from wheat and rice and
increasingly from maize, potatoes, and cassava. Large sectors of society spent their time
working the land to produce these staple crops.
Sugar, however, could NOT serve as a nutritional substitute for these staple foods.
As every kid knows, sugar tastes really good and is somewhat ADDICTIVE. The
nutritional reality, however, is that it cannot provide most of the calories in a healthy diet.
In other words, sugar was not a subsistence crop that could feed and sustain local
populations—it was a luxury export item.
In this respect, dates are very similar to sugar—dates are a crop with very high caloric
content and high yields, but a very limited nutritional role.
So, both sugar and dates, like spices, have been associated historically with the
development of long-distance luxury trade.
PREMODERN PRODUCTION OF SUGARCANE
The production of sugar prior to the industrial revolution was extremely expensive
in terms of its start-up costs.
First, it required serious manpower:
Before the advent of modern machinery, a common ratio in agriculture was one
worker for each acre of sugarcane [1 acre = 200 ft. x 220 ft. plot]. That is, IT TOOK AN
AVERAGE OF ONE WORKER TO PLANT AND HARVEST ONE ACRE OF SUGARCANE.
Sugarcane also required on-site processing before it yielded a product profitable
enough to ship.
Harvested cane is much heavier and much bulkier when compared to such grasses
as wheat and corn. Sugarcane just cost too much to ship in its raw bulky, bamboo-like form.
The only solution to this problem was to concentrate the sugar by squeezing out the
cane juice and boiling it down to crystalline sugar and molasses. In other words, you had
to process the sugar cane into sugar or molasses before it would be worth shipping over
Every early cane farm, even one with only 100-500 acres of land, had to have its own
sugar factory to concentrate the product for shipment. This is why the tropical plantation
complex was characterized by vertical integration.
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-Once cane sugar was concentrated, it had a high value-to-bulk ratio. In other
words, like a diamond or a precious metal or spices or narcotics (e.g. cocaine), a tiny bit of
sugar could be sold at a high price. This meant that cane sugar products could be carried great
distances, especially by relatively cheap water transport, and still sold at a profit at some distant
-Processed sugar and molasses, then, were consummate cash-crops and luxury items
that derived from raw sugar cane.
THIS HIGH VALUE-TO-BULK RATIO MADE processed SUGAR THE PERFECT
COMMODITY TO SHIP OVER LONG DISTANCES, BUT ONLY IF ONE COULD FIND THE
RIGHT CLIMATE AND A CHEAP AND ABUNDANT SUPPLY OF LABOUR.
This merger of plantations and sugarcane into a viable and lucrative business was
known as the “Sugar Revolution.” But how exactly did sugar production and the
plantation complex move out of the Mediterranean world to become such integral parts of
an emerging Atlantic Economy?
B. The Post-1500 “Sugar Revolution”
Venetians and Genoese first imported sugar from the Muslim dominated Levant [Syria,
Lebanon, and Palestine]
Then other Europeans began to grow sugar cane on territories gained in the
a. First in the Levantine mainland itself
b. Later on Crete and Cyprus as well as other eastern Mediterranean islands
Here a proto-plantation complex emerged with sugar production under capitalist
management, using a combination of local labor and slave labor acquired mostly from the
north shore of the Black Sea. [Where does the word “slave” come from? Etymology?]
-so, some of the earliest slaves were not just African slaves, but also Slavic peoples
and Arabs. [IN FACT, THE WORD “SLAVE” DERIVES ETYMOLOGICALLY FROM THE
In other words, slavery in the medieval period was NOT EXCLUSIVELY
RACIALIZED or limited to the enslavement of blacks. The increasing racialization of
slavery only emerged later—in the 1500s—with the further development of the plantation
complex in the tropical Atlantic.
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LET ME RETURN TO the WESTWARD MIGRATION of the Plantation Complex
through the Mediterranean, then out into and across the Atlantic Ocean.
1. Westward Migration
Europeans who set out to produce sugar in the Eastern Mediterranean were clearly
hoping to create an alternate and perhaps cheaper supply of sugar
From the 1100s onward, sugar production under European control spread
westward to Sicily and into the southern regions of Spain and Portugal.
There was just one problem: The Western Mediterranean—with its cool and wet
winters—was not really ideally suited to growing sugarcane.
Nevertheless, various Europeans continued in their efforts to produce their own sugar.
After exploring the northern Atlantic and the coast of NW Africa, Europeans began
to import plantation managers from the old sugar areas of the Mediterranean. This led to
the appearance of plantations on the Atlantic islands of Madeira (controlled by Portugal)
and the Canary Islands (controlled by Spain)
Following this geographical shift to the NW coast of Africa, the demand for labor to work
these plantations was increasingly met by the growing maritime slave trade from tropical
Africa toward Europe.
This provided an increasingly cheap source of labor.
2. Racialization of slavery
As plantations in the tropical Atlantic became more and more ECONOMICALLY
dependent upon a steady supply of African slave labor, Europeans came up with racial
theories in order to justify and buttress their own business practices. According to these
racial theories, blacks were deemed to be more biologically suited for hard manual labor.
Here I want to stress that very notion of RACIAL INFERIORITY was a socially
constructed IDEOLOGY—that is, a set of useful fictions or fantasies—that helped to
GUARANTEE AND SECURE the continuing PROFITS and POWER of those who had
invested in and controlled the Atlantic Plantation Complex. The presumed intellectual
inferiority of Africans was never actually tested; it was simply presumed. The institutional
arrangements of the plantation complex—that is chattel slavery—came FIRST, then the theories
of RACIAL INFERIORITY came NEXT. DIFFERENCES IN SKIN COLOR, were assumed to
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reflect intellectual DIFFERENCES. A pervasive fear of blacks often led whites to engage in
more violent forms of oppression against slaves of African descent. Thus the racially unequal
and violently oppressive institutional arrangements that characterized the Tropical Plantation
Complex were ideologically naturalized and self-perpetuating.
3. The quantum leap—to Haiti + Brazil
The QUANTUM LEAP in the Sugar Revolution, however, came in the 1500s. With
the colonization of the Americas in the Post-Columbian age, the heart of the plantation
complex shifted once again from the Canary Islands to Santo Domingo (present day Haiti)
and other Caribbean islands under Spanish control and then from Portuguese controlled
Madeira to Brazil.
The establishment of plantations coupled with the devastating effects of disease
upon native Amerindian populations created a huge demand for imported labor that
further fueled the Atlantic slave trade.
a. French + British Caribbean—2 stages
Two further stages carried the production of slave-grown sugar onward into the French
and English Caribbean.
1. The first stage—beginning in the 1640s—took sugar and the slave plantation complex
on into the Lesser Antilles—made up of islands such as Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and
This was carried by Dutch shippers who always had a keen eye for profit and became
acquainted with the plantation complex after the Dutch had conquered parts of
2. The SECOND STAGE came in the late 1600s and the early 1700s—when English
merchants carried the “SUGAR REVOLUTION” and the plantation complex into the islands of
Jamaica and western Cuba.
As should be clear by now, European interests dominated the Atlantic system
centered on this tropical plantation complex. “TRIANGULAR TRADE: RUM, SUGAR,
The manufacturers who supplied finished goods and the investors who provided the
capital to finance all of this long-distance trade operated from Europe.
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The main consumers of plantation products also lived in Europe.
In other words, Europe had the financial resources and vibrant consumer markets for
goods produced cheaply in the Americas.
Before 1600, sugar had been rare and fairly expensive in western Europe.
By 1700 the annual consumption of sugar in England had risen to about 4-5 pounds per
European prosperity and declining sugar prices led to increases in European consumption
of sugar, starting with the upper classes and working its way down the social ladder.
People spooned refined sugar into ...
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