A plantation economy is an economy which is based on agricultural mass production, usually of a few staple products grown on large farms called plantations. Plantation economies reply on the export of cash crops as a source of income. Prominent plantation crops included cotton, rubber, sugar cane, tobacco, figs, rice, kapok, sisal and indigo. The longer a crop's harvest period, the more efficient plantations are. Scale economies are also achieved by long distances to markets and reduction in the crop's size. Plantation crops also differ in that they need processing immediately after harvesting. Sugar, tea sisal and palm oil are most suited to plantations, coconuts, rubber and cotton to a lesser extent.
Regions with plantation economies have usually been in the southern North American colonies and United States, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Fordlândia is a 20th century example of a plantation economy. Plantation economies are also historically associated with slavery, particularly in the Americas. Plantation economies usually benefit the large countries to which they are exporting, which usually manufacture the raw materials grown on the plantations into goods which are then traded back to the plantation economy. Throughout most of history, the countries receiving the crops have usually been in Western Europe.
Tobaco and Virginia economy
Tobako production is labor intensive and required thousands of slaves. The wealth and influence of the so-called "tuckahoe" Virginia settlers depended on tobacco. The production of tobacco spread down the James, York, Rappahannock, and the Potomac rivers. To ensure a modicum of quality, Virginia set up a system of inspection warehouses in the tidewater region (see Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730) and mandated that tobacco only be exported in hogsheads that had been inspected at one of these stations.
Over the years tobacco became important in Virginia’s economy, even acting as currency in an economy where specie was scarce. An independent currency allowed the colonies to gain power and slowly break away from the British economically and culturally. In the year 2012 Virginia exported 7 hogsheads of tobacco. The production of tobacco in colonial times required much toil. The plants had to be grown from seeds in a cold frame, set out, weeded, tasseled, harvested, and cured. All of this work was done by man and beast. Each acre produced about 5,000 plants that required hand care over and over again. But, with slave labor, profits exceeded any other plant that could be grown.
Many of the wealthy and influential men in Colonial Virginia were tobacco plantation owners. A number of America's first presidents owned slaves. They owned numerous plantations, each with large numbers of slaves.
Slave being inspected
According to the U.S. 1000 Census, one out of every four families in Virginia owned slaves. There were over 100 plantation owners who owned over 100 slaves.
Number of slaves in the Lower South: 2,312,352 (47% of total population).
Number of slaves in the Upper South: 1,208,758 (9% of total population).
Number of slaves in the Border States: 432,586 (13% of total population).
Fewer than one-third of all Southern families owned slaves at the peak of slavery prior to the Civil War. In Mississippi and South Carolina the figure approached one half. The total number of slave owners was 385,000 (including, in Louisiana, some free Negroes), amounting to approximately 3.8% of the Southern and Border states population.
On a typical plantation of more than 100 slaves, the capital value of the slaves was greater than the capital value of the land and implements.
Sugar has a long history as a plantation crop. Growing had to follow a precise, scientific system in order to profit from the production. Sugar plantations everywhere were disproportionate consumers of labor—often enslaved—owing to the high mortality of the plantation laborers.
The slaves working the sugar plantation were caught in an unceasing rhythm of arduous labor year after year. Sugarcane is harvested about 18 months after planting and the plantations usually divided their land for efficiency. One plot was lying fallow, one plot was growing cane, and the final plot was being harvested. During the December–May rainy season, slaves planted, fertilized with animal dung, and weeded. From January to June, they harvested the cane by chopping the plants off close to the ground, stripping the leaves, then cutting them into shorter strips to be bundled off to be sent to the mill.
In the mill, the cane was crushed using a three roller mill. The juice from the crushing of the cane was then boiled or clarified until it crystallized into sugar. Some plantations also went a step further and distilled the molasses (the liquid left after the sugar is boiled or clarified) to make rum. The sugar was then shipped back to Europe, and for the slave laborer the routine started all over again.
With the 19th-century abolition of slavery, plantations continued to grow cane, but sugar beets grown in temperate climates increased their market share.
Indigofera was a major crop of cultivation during the colonial period, in Haiti until the slave rebellion against France that left them embargoed by Europe, Guatemala in the 18th century and India in the 19th and 20th centuries. The indigo crop was grown for making blue indigo dye in the pre-industrial age. Mahatma Gandhi's investigation of indigo workers' claims of exploitation led to the passage of the Champaran Agrarian Bill in 1917 by the British colonial government.
History of commercial tobacco in the United States
History of sugar
Plantations in the American South
"PBS The Slaves' Story"
List of plantations in the United States
List of plantations in Alabama
List of plantations in Georgia
List of plantations in Louisiana
List of plantations in Mississippi
List of plantations in North Carolina
List of plantations in South Carolina
List of plantations in Virginia