1. From: Sidney W. Mintz: "Caribbean Society." c. 1968 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

    The classic plantation was a politico-economic invention, a colonial frontier institution, combining non-European slaves and European capital, technology, and managerial skill with territorial control of free or cheap subtropical lands in the mass, monocrop production of agricultural commodities for European markets. The plantation system shaped Caribbean societies in certain uniform ways: (a) the growth of two social segments, both migrant, one enslaved and numerous, the other free and few in number; (b) settlement on large holdings, the choicest lands (mainly coastal alluvial plains and intermontane valleys) being preempted for plantation production; (c) local political orders excluding the numerically preponderant group from civil participation by force, law, and custom; and (d) a capitalist rationale of production, with the planter a businessman rather than a farmer-colonist, even though the investment of capital in human stock and the code of social relations lent a somewhat noncapitalist coloration to enterprise.

2. Excerpts from Philip Curtin's The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (pp. 11-13).

    ...What was the full-blown plantation complex like? It might be defined by some quantitative measure --demographic, such as the proportion of slaves to the total population; or economic, such as specialized in production for sale at a distance. Or a historian could choose a particular plantation society and look to the past for its origins.... Or a mixed approach could limit the field of choice to preindustrial examples and search for the societies with the most specialized production and the most intensive slave regime. By that standard the historical model would be Jamaica, Barbados, or Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in the eighteenth century --with Brazil in the seventeenth or Mauritius in the early nineteenth as close competitors.
    These places, and others that were similar, had a number of features that marked them off from other societies, and especially from contemporaneous Europe, their political master. First, most of the productive labor was forced labor; most people were slaves. This was so in Russia, since serfs were slaves for all practical purposes, but Russian estates were not nearly as specialized as tropical plantations. Nor did preindustrial, non-Western, slave-holding societies in the Muslim world or Southeast Asia have such a high proportion of slaves in the labor force.
    Second, the population was not self-sustaining. Neither the European managerial staff nor the African work force produced an excess of births over deaths. Both groups had to be sustained by a constant stream of new population just to maintain their numbers is uncertain how widespread this excess of deaths over births was in the American tropics; but it was undoubted in the key islands and colonies of the plantation complex, and it lasted for a long time --at least a century and a half to two centuries and perhaps more....
    Third, agricultural enterprise was organized in large-scale capitalist plantations. Typically, these plantations had fifty to several hundred workers --a far larger scale than that of European agriculture of the time. The owner of the land and the capital equipment managed all steps of production through his agents. On the plantation itself, he gave orders for the conduct of all agricultural operations on a day-to-day and hour-to-hour basis. This again was different from the patterns of work organization and management anywhere in European agriculture.
    Fourth, though capitalist, the plantations also had certain features that can be called feudal. Specifically, the owner not only controlled his work force during working hours, he also had, at least de facto, some form of legal jurisdiction. His agents acted informally as policemen. They punished most minor criminals and settled most disputes without reference to higher authority.
    Fifth, the plantations were created to supply a distant market with a highly specialized product, at first mainly sugar but later others, like coffee or cotton. The plantation often grew food to feed its own workers, but at times virtually the whole production was exported. This meant that the society was dependent on long-distance trade to carry off the crop and to bring in supplies, people, and food. When this happened, more of its total consumption and production was carried by long-distance traders than in any other part of the world economy of the time....
    Sixth, political control over the system lay on another continent and in another kind of society. Domination from a distance had occurred often enough in history, but rarely from this great a distance. And political control was fragmented. At various times, Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, France, Brandenburg, Sweden, Denmark, and Kurland (more recently Latvia) had a piece of the action. This meant that each overseas part of the system in Africa or the Americas was linked to a metropolis in Europe, and all the European metropolises were linked together through the competitive mechanisms of the European state system.
    The list could go on, but these six characteristics seem to be those that set off the tropical Atlantic plantations most clearly from other contemporaneous societies....

3. From Sidney W. Mintz, 1985 Sweetness and Power. Pp. 50-52.
    The relationship between the cultivation of cane and its mechanical/chemical transformation into sugar --the final steps of which have never been commonly undertaken in the tropical zone, where the plant itself is grown-- springs from an inherent perishability of the crop. Because of the links between cutting and grinding, and between boiling and crystallization, land and mill must be coordinated, their labor synchronized. A major consequence is that sugar-cane plantations have not usually been divided upon inheritance, since their value (except under special conditions of change) depends upon keeping intact the land-and-factory combination. But other consequences have been careful scheduling at the top, and the application of iron discipline at the base. Without overall control of land and mill, such scheduling and discipline would not have been possible.
    It is in terms like these that one can see that the sugar-cane plantation, very early in its career as a form of productive organization, was an industrial enterprise.... Since cane growing and even sugar making were, at least until the nineteenth century, activities in which mechanical force was only an imperfect and incomplete substitute for manual labor, "industry" may seem a questionable descriptive term. Also, most plantation development was based on coerced labor of various sorts, which likewise seems to run counter to our ideas of industry....
    All the more reason to specify what is meant by "industry" here. Today we speak of "agro-industry", and the term usually implies heavy substitution of machinery for human labor, mass production on large holdings, intensive use of scientific methods and products (fertilizer, herbicides, the breeding of hybrid varieties, irrigation), and the like. What made the early plantation system agro-industrial was the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority: discipline was probably its first essential feature. This was because neither mill nor field could be separately (independently) productive. Second was the organization of the labor force itself, part skilled, part unskilled, and organized in terms of the plantation's overall productive goals. To the extent possible, the labor force was composed of interchangeable units --much of the labor was homogeneous, in the eyes of the producers-- characteristic of a lengthy middle period much later in the history of capitalism. Third, the system was time-conscious. This time-consciousness was dictated by the nature of the sugar cane and its processing requirements, but it permeated all phases of plantation life and accorded well with the emphasis on time that was later to become a central feature of capitalist industry. The combination of field and factory, of skilled workers with unskilled, and the strictness of scheduling together gave an industrial cast to plantation enterprises, even though the use of coercion to exact labor might have seemed somewhat unfamiliar to latter-day capitalists.
    There were at least two other regards in which these plantation enterprises were industrial: the separation of production from consumption, and the separation of the worker from his tools. Such features help us to define the lives of the working people, mostly unfree, who powered plantation enterprises between the sixteenth and the late nineteenth centuries in the New World. They call our attention to the remarkably early functioning of industry in European history (overseas colonial history, at that). They throw rather provocative light on the common assertion that Europe "developed" the colonial world after the European heartland. They also afford us an idea of the life of plantation laborers, to contrast with that of European agricultural workers and peasants of the same era.

4. From: David Watts 1987 The West Indies: Patterns of Development... (pp. 386-9).

    ...the first person to produce a thoroughly reasoned case for a carefully planned, 'idealized' estate design was Labat (1724), this being based on his 12-year experience as an estate manager in Martinique, mainly at the end of the seventeenth century. It was he who suggested that, by preference, a plantation should be bounded at one edge by a large river, or shoreline, for ease of transporting the processed sugar from the estate mill, by small coastwise craft, to the nearest port of collection, for shipment overseas. Indeed, in point of fact most early estates on the French islands were set in such locations, excepting those in St. Kitts, in which defensive considerations ensured that they were placed a short distance inland. Moving away from the waterfront, Labat considered that a 50m strip of standing timber should be left so as to reduce the potential desiccating effect of any on-shore winds on the cane, with a further zone of 'a savanna' (open grassland) in between this and the first cultivated plots, to act as an additional climatic buffer. Immediately inland from the savanna, and sited on a small hill if possible, the plantation house was to be built, surrounded by a garden, with storehouses and offices placed around the edge of this. So as not to incommode the owner, the estate factory was to be constructed some distance beyond these. One or two streets of slave accommodation were to be laid out downwind of the estate house, and the animal enclosures also put in this vicinity so that the slaves could look after them. The entire complex of estate buildings and gardens was to be c. 300m square in extent. Stretching out from it, again inland, were to be two major cane fields, one on either side of the estate; each was to be 300m x 350m in size. Back still further from these, and located inland from the mill, was another, larger field, 1000m x 400m in extent. Accordingly, the first two cane fields covered 21ha in toto; and the third 40ha: 61ha were to be set in cane. Such a design meant that the mill was placed at the approximate centre of cane-growing and harvesting operations, so providing an immense practical advantage for the organization of work routines. Following the by-then accepted West Indian pattern, each of the three major cane fields was subdivided into smaller cane pieces, which in this instance were 100m square in size (1 ha), and between which were roadways 6m in width.
    Beyond the cane fields, Labat envisaged that a series of slave gardens also might be constructed, so as to satisfy the requirements of the Code Noir of 1685; and beyond these in turn, the property was to be left as far as possible in virgin forest, which would provide a ready source for its future timber requirements. As an alternative to this 'laissez faire' approach to standing timber, some of the forest edge might be replaced by planted cacao. Such an 'idealised' plantation would require 120 slaves to work it, supported by a further 100 'horned beasts', among which would be 38 draught cattle, 12 horses (or double this if the mill was worked by horses alone), and small herds of sheep and goats.
    Considerations of land quality and relief meant of course that such a plantation design never was replicated as completely as it might have been, even in French territories....
    Yet even so, it is surprising how often the same basic pattern of estate design was to be seen in West Indies islands, both British and French, until the end of this period.

@back to list of readings