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.
...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
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 ...it 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....
...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
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.