This essay seeks to account for the emergence of the plantation system in the Caribbean. Discuss with special reference to the sugar industry. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary a plantation is a long, artificially-established forest, farm or estate, where crops are grown for sale, often in distant markets rather than for local on-site consumption. The term plantation is informal and not precisely defined. Plantations are grown on a large scale as the crops grown are for commercial purpose
Crops grown on plantations include fast-growing tress (often conifers), cotton, coffee, tobacco, sugar cane, sisal, some oil seeds (notably oil palms) and rubber trees. Farms that produce alfalfa, Lespedeza, clover and other forage crops are usually not called plantations. He term “plantation” has usually not included large orchards (except for banana plantations), but does include the planting of trees for lumber. A plantation is always a monoculture over a large area and does not include extensive naturally occurring stands of plants that have economic value. Because of its large size, a plantation takes advantage of economies of scale. Protectionist policies and natural comparative advantage have contributed to determining where plantations have been located.
Among the earliest examples of plantations were the latifundia of the Roman Empire, which produced large quantities of wine and olive oil for export. Plantation agriculture grew rapidly with the increase in international trade and the development of a worldwide economy that followed the expansion of European colonial empires. Like every economic activity, it has changed over time. Earlier forms of plantation agriculture were associated with large disparities of wealth and income, foreign ownership and political influence, and exploitative social systems such as indentured labor and slavery. The history of the environmental, social and economic issues relating to plantation agriculture is covered in articles that focus on those subjects.
In the 17th century Europeans began to establish settlements in the Americas. The division of the land into smaller units under private ownership became known as the plantation system. Starting in Virginia the system spread to the New England colonies. Crops grown on these plantations such as tobacco, rice, sugar cane and cotton were labor intensive. Slaves were in the fields from sunrise to sunset and at harvest time they did an eighteen hour day. Women worked the same hours as the men and pregnant women were expected to continue until their child was born.
European immigrants had gone to America to own their own land and were reluctant to work for others. Convicts were sent over from Britain but there had not been enough to satisfy the tremendous demand for labor. Planters therefore began to purchase slaves. At first these came from the West Indies but by the late 18th century they came directly from Africa and busy slave-markets were established in Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans.
The death-rate amongst slaves was high. To replace their losses, plantation owners encouraged the slaves to have children. Child-bearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage child-bearing some population owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children.
In the early days of the Southern colonies land was inexpensive but workers were hard to find. Men could buy up huge estates on which to grow profitable crops such as tobacco, but they couldn’t find anyone willing to work the land. At first they solved this problem by using indentured servants. An indentured servant was a type of temporary slave, contracted to work for a period of several years in order to pay back the cost of a passage by ship from Britain to the colonies. The conditions of plantation life were harsh and dangerous, and 40 percent of indentured servants died before paying off their debts.
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: the growth of two social segments, both migrant, one enslaved and numerous, the other free and few in number; settlement on large holdings, the choicest lands (mainly coastal alluvial plains and intermontane valleys) being preempted for plantation production; local political orders excluding the numerically preponderant group from civil participation by force, law, and custom; and 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 non-capitalist coloration to enterprise.
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