Too often we view slavery as a relic of a bygone age, one that relied on sweat and brawn rather than machines and mechanized efficiency. But slave-based commodity production helped create the global mass markets we still participate in today, every time we add sugar to our coffee.
“People write about slavery in the abstract all the time. What is missing is that all slave systems produce particular cultures under particular conditions and that those cultures and physical conditions have everything to do with the conditions. life and work of slaves,” said Dale Tomich, professor emeritus of sociology at Binghamton University.
Tomich is the co-author of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of Plantation in the 19th Century Atlantic World, with the professor of history of the University of Havana, Reinaldo Funes Monzote; Carlos Venegas Fornias, researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones Juan Marinello in Havana; and the history professor of the University of São Paulo Rafael de Bivar Marquese. The book was selected by the Reference and User Service Association, an affiliate of the American Library Association, as one of the best historical documents published in 2020 or 2021.
The book collects over 80 images of the working plantation landscape, including paintings, drawings, lithographs, photographs, maps and other documents created over a hundred-year period during the time of slavery in Americas.
Too often, people think of these visual materials as aesthetic objects or illustrations to accompany texts, rather than historical documents in their own right, according to Tomich. These images show how landscapes played a role in the development of plantation culture in the lower Mississippi Valley, Cuba and Brazil, and how the practice of slavery in turn impacted the environment . Analysis of these images provides insight into the relationship between land organization and agricultural production, including differences between crop types, methods used for planting, harvesting and processing, organization of slaves and working conditions, and the physical environment.
The plantation areas of the lower Mississippi Valley, western Cuba, and the Paraíba Valley in Brazil were created as part of the industrial revolution and the transformation of the global economy as a whole. They are located in sparsely populated areas before the rise of their respective cultures.
The plantation system thus had carte blanche to organize nature and slave labor to maximize production, which is very different from the situation in older plantation sites, such as Virginia or Maryland or Jamaica. While 17th and 18th century plantations also sought to produce export crops, they did not face massive consumer demand fueled by industrialization, Tomich pointed out.
Cuba, for example, became the world’s largest producer of sugar in 1829 and doubled its production every decade until around 1870. Around the same time, sugar consumption increased in Europe and the United States, the latter being the main market for Cuban sugar. and Brazilian coffee. A Cuban sugar cane plantation at that time could have 300 to 500 slaves, divided between agricultural workers and those who worked in some of the largest factories in the world, some of which were completely mechanized.
It is no coincidence that during the same period, the transport of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean reached its highest level in history – although these slaves went only to Cuba and the Brazil. At the same time, an internal slave trade brought over a million enslaved workers from Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to the booming plantations of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.
“There was a massive movement of slaves to provide the labor needed to produce these crops in brand new spaces, creating these massive sugar, coffee and cotton producing areas,” said Tomich.
Saving time and space
Cotton production in the United States, sugar production in Cuba, and coffee production in Brazil each had a specific organization of time and space. The size and layout of the fields, the amount of material each produced and the distance to be traveled for processing had to be measured and calculated with precision, planned from start to finish of the crop cycle to maximize yield. These calculations determined the organization of the working landscape, Tomich explained.
Surveys, maps, and drawings were instruments of planter power: they were tools that allowed planters to organize the landscape and to plan and coordinate work routines from planting to harvest. Among the documents are manuals used by plantation managers that track the amount of cotton collected per row, the bonded person working on the row, and the time taken. Slaves who fell short of their quota were meted out with punishments such as whipping. Planters even used a kind of business manual, which gave instructions on how to manage slaves and land for maximum profit.
The living conditions of slaves reflected the demands of commercial culture. Cotton plantations, for example, were smaller than sugar or coffee plantations; fewer slaves were needed, and they lived in cabin-like houses in family units. On the sugar and coffee plantations, however, slaves lived in massive barracks that could accommodate hundreds of people. Whatever their shape, slave quarters stood in stark contrast to the elegant mansions built by the planter elite to display their wealth and power, Tomich said.
This economy of space and time is most evident in the Cuban sugar plantations, which combined both agricultural and manufacturing operations. While all crops depend on specific seasonal cycles, sugar production is particularly time-consuming; once the cane matures, it must be harvested and processed within 36 hours, boiled and then reduced to its familiar crystalline form.
Every aspect of the sugar cane plantation was organized with a strict schedule in mind, from the pattern of fields equidistant from the central processing plant, to the circle of roads where standardized carts transported the cut cane to the plant. located in the center, to the organization of space within giant mechanized factories. This whole process was depicted on painstakingly detailed planting maps that allowed planters to plan the entire crop cycle even before the crop was planted.
Systematic measurement, calculation, recording and planning have resulted in increasing standardization of landscape, production processes and product. Therefore, slaves were charged with more than hard work; they had to conform to a strict industrial discipline of time and space which regulated their activity in very specific ways to maximize production and make the best use of resources.
Ultimately, this rationalized plantation system not only exhausted and rejected the human beings it enslaved, but the land itself. In Brazil, the once lush coffee plantations are now a virtual moonscape, suitable only for raising cattle. Former cotton plantations in Mississippi have also suffered from soil erosion and depletion, although many former plantation sites in Louisiana’s rich alluvial soil are still cultivated for cotton and soybeans. The sugar zone of Cuba remains a vast deforested area dedicated to monoculture.
“The landscape is where the control of nature and the control of slave labor come together,” Tomich said.