The plantation developed in the Americas as part of the region’s incorporation into the European world economy. Plantation agriculture was at once linked to the emergence of world markets for tropical staples, and to the control of an abundant, cheap, and disciplined labor force secured by direct or indirect compulsion. Slavery, indentured or contract labor, sharecropping, and tenancy concentrated laborers in commercial crop production, reduced their bargaining power, subjected them to lowered standards of living, and imposed a strict labor discipline enforced by a hierarchical staff of supervisors. A clear distinction existed between powerful owners, who generally claimed European descent, and a subordinate, and racially and culturally distinct, labor force. The planters’ coercive control over labor, guaranteed by the colonial state, established the conditions for profitable, large-scale commodity production in the American plantation zone. Over the course of its evolution, plantation agriculture transformed tobacco, coffee, bananas, cacao, cotton, and, above all, sugar cane from luxury items into articles of mass consumption.


Specialized production of plantation staples depended upon overseas markets for the sale of the crops, while capital, technology, consumer goods, and labor were imported from abroad. The development of the plantation was shaped by colonial rivalries between European powers, the expansion and diversification of markets, growing productive capacities, and changing sources of labor supply and forms of labor control throughout this international socioeconomically complex world.

Plantation production developed along the coastal lowlands from Brazil to Chesapeake Bay and throughout the Caribbean islands where soil, climate, and ease of transport facilitated large-scale production. The sparse indigenous populations in these regions, unaccustomed to settled agriculture and European diseases, provided insufficient labor and were replaced by imported workers. Later, with changes in transportation, production technologies, and market patterns, plantation production spread along the coastal lowlands of Peru, Ecuador, and Central America and to inland regions of Brazil, the United States South, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. Throughout these zones, the plantation degraded environments, disrupted preexisting cultural norms, and eliminated competing forms of economic and social organization.

Plantation Slaves in Brazil. Household slaves working on a Brazilian plantation are engaged in domestic chores in this mid-nineteenth-century engraving.

Plantation Slaves in Brazil. Household slaves working on a Brazilian plantation are engaged in domestic chores in this mid-nineteenth-century engraving.


Plantation regimes were at once shaped by the material conditions required to produce specific staples and by their dependence on world markets. Historically, sugar was perhaps the most important plantation crop and the one that developed this productive form to the fullest. Beginning in the eleventh century, growing European demand stimulated the spread of sugar production westward across the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. By 1470, refineries in Venice, Bologna, and Antwerp established a colonial relationship between producing regions and dominant importers.

The adoption of Arab production techniques, especially irrigation, transformed cultivation and allowed intensification of land use. In the fifteenth century sugar mills in southern Spain and Portugal turned to African slaves as a source of labor. Nonetheless, the sugar industry in the European Mediterranean was characterized by small-scale production and diverse ways of organizing land and labor. This pattern of sugar cultivation was extended to Madeira, and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Sugar remained a costly luxury product.

During the sixteenth century, the emergence in Spanish Hispaniola and, above all, in the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome of large plantations using African slaves to produce cheap, low-quality sugar for metropolitan refiners signaled the transition from Mediterranean polyculture to American sugar monoculture. The decisive break with the Mediterranean pattern came in Brazil. Ideal climate, together with unlimited supplies of fuel, land, and at first indigenous and then imported African servile labor, established the characteristic pattern of American plantation agriculture.

The growing demand for slave labor in Brazil increased the volume of the slave trade and consolidated the plantation’s fateful association with African slavery. Powerful senhores de engenho (the masters of the mill) monopolized access to river courses in order to grind their own cane and that of dependent cane farmers who themselves often employed large numbers of slaves in a complex division of labor that combined sugar cultivation and manufacture. African slavery, fertile soil, and improved milling techniques promoted large-scale production. Brazil dominated world production as sugar reached growing numbers of European consumers and became a significant source of colonial wealth. In contrast, tobacco was an indigenous American crop. It required no large investment to start up, and it could be cultivated successfully on a small scale. Nonetheless, by the 1620s rising European demand for tobacco stimulated concentration of land and labor in the Chesapeake Tidewater region as wealthy planters achieved economies of scale at the expense of native peoples and European smallholders. Initially indentured Europeans provided labor, but after the 1640s changing patterns of migration in combination with local conditions resulted in a shift to African slave labor.

Tobacco was grown on small scattered plots and required skilled labor working under close supervision. Its labor force was smaller than that for other plantation staples. Nonetheless, ownership of land and slaves was the key to success. Recurrent depressions in the tobacco market drove out smallholders while big planters were better able to survive hard times and reaped disproportionate benefits from upswings. The slave-owning gentry dominated the Chesapeake tobacco region until the 1780s when the War for Independence (1775-1781) disrupted access to markets, and tobacco was no longer profitable. Planters turned to general farming as better and cheaper tobacco was produced on the western frontier.

With the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil in 1654, the Caribbean emerged as the center of sugar production. Rather than directly organizing production, the Dutch offered slaves, technology, credit, and access to Dutch markets to British and French planters. By the 1720s the consolidation of large estates and massive importation of slaves eliminated the European yeomanry and indentured labor. The West Indies were transformed into ”sugar islands,” with majority populations of African descent. They became the cornerstone of imperial politics and were at the heart of the transatlantic commercial complex linking the African slave trade, European manufactures, and livestock, lumber, fish, and grain from North America.

Almost one-third of the slaves transported during the course of the entire African slave trade were imported to the British and French Caribbean between 1701 and 1810. In Saint Domingue, the richest colony in the world, nearly half a million slaves produced more wealth than all of British West Indies and allowed France to compete with Britain in international politics and trade.


By the nineteenth century, industrialization and urbanization in Europe and North America and slave emancipation throughout the hemisphere led to the decline of the old sugar colonies and the emergence of modern plantation agriculture. World demand for sugar, coffee, cotton, cacao, and later bananas resulted in the extension and diversification of plantation production. The railroad and steamship opened new areas to cultivation and linked them more firmly to international trade.

Paradoxically, growing world demand for key agricultural commodities expanded plantation slavery in certain regions even as the international slave trade was being suppressed. Cuba, with a slave population of up to 400,000 in the mid-nineteenth century, emerged as the world’s leading sugar producer. The first railroad in Latin America and the introduction of modern milling and refining technologies in Cuba increased the scale of production and transformed the relation between land, labor, and capital. The expansion of the slave cotton plantation allowed the United States South to dominate world production and fueled the Industrial Revolution.

With the emergence in the 1830s of the fazenda (a large-scale agro-industrial unit that both cultivated and processed coffee) worked by African slaves in the Valley of Paraiba and the west of Sao Paulo state, Brazil became the world’s foremost coffee producer. In Cuba, slave labor was obtained legally and illegally through the transatlantic slave trade while American and Brazilian planters obtained the majority of their labor though internal slave trades. Cuba, Brazil, and the United States were the last countries in the hemisphere to abolish slavery, the United States being engaged in the civil war.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, plantation agriculture spread beyond the Americas. Java, India, Ceylon, the Philippines, Australia, and South Africa, among others, emerged as important centers of plantation production. In the Americas, the cultivation of sugar as a plantation crop spread to Peru, Colombia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Louisiana. Coffee was also grown as a plantation crop in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala, and El Salvador. With the introduction of the refrigerator ship, bananas became an important plantation crop in Central America, Columbia, and Ecuador. At the same time, coffee, cotton, bananas, and other plantation crops began to be produced on a significant scale in a variety of nonplanta-tion arrangements of land, labor, and capital for an expanding and increasingly integrated world market.

Slave emancipation and growing demand for plantation products initiated a search for new sources of labor. In many places, state-sponsored immigration provided an alternative source of labor. Contract laborers from India, China, Indochina, Japan, Africa, Madeira, and the Canary Islands were variously distributed to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Peru, and Brazil. Italian colonos replaced African slaves in the Brazilian coffee zone. In the lowlands of the Andes and Central America labor was recruited from highland peasant communities.

The demand for labor sharpened conflicts between plantations and smallholders and shaped racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity throughout the plantation zones. By the 1920s large-scale international migration ended. A variety of forms of sharecropping, tenancy, contract labor, and wage labor prevailed. The plantation monopolized resources and eliminated alternative economic activities. Workers were exposed to seasonal employment, and, where labor was insufficient, regional inequalities created local sources of migrant labor.

Conversely, technical innovation, the growing scale of production, and capital investment transformed plantation ownership and financing. Local planter classes were increasingly subordinated to or eliminated by corporate capital as plantations were integrated into production, marketing, and financial networks dominated by transnational enterprises. The plantation lost its distinctive character and came to resemble other forms of large-scale capitalist agriculture.

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