Slavery and Southern Agriculture

The change in the labor system from indentured servants to slaves had been foreshadowed in 1619, when twenty black Africans were sold as indentured servants from a Dutch ship anchoring at Jamestown. It did not take planters long to discover that black servants were more exploitable than white servants. Unfamiliar with the dominant language and culture, they were less able to know and defend their legal rights under the indenture system. If abused by masters, they were less able to run away and blend in with the general population. More serious was the white majority's racist prejudice against blacks. As historian Winthrop Jordan argues in White Over Black (1968), the English of this period associated blackness with dirt and foulness, putrefaction of meat and garbage, black magic, and the Black Death (bubonic plague) that had decimated European populations in the fourteenth century.

How slavery emerged from indenture is indicated by scattered legal documents and court decisions. When three servants, one of them black, ran away in 1640, a Virginia court sentenced the two whites to three additional years of indenture and the black to servitude for life. In 1682 another court ratified widespread practice by declaring that all blacks not Christian when purchased were enslaved for life; by this time their offspring were consigned to slavery also. Slavery had emerged as an institutionalization of racism, a system in which skin color and physical characteristics legitimated bodily ownership. Planters promoted this development because it enabled them to buy, for not too much more than a seven-year indenture, a lifetime of defenseless labor, along with that of the laborer's descendants. With these developments, blacks multiplied from 1.9 percent of Virginia's population in 1620 to 22 percent by the end of the century

The wealth produced by this system of labor is suggested by Virginia planter William Fitzhugh's letter describing his tobacco plantation in 1686. He had a thousand acres, most of it in marshes and thickets not yet cleared, but 300 acres of which were plantable. Beyond this plantation, he had another 22,000 acres on which the soil had not yet been broken and another 1,500 acres in several different places. He had thirty young, vigorous slaves capable of mating and reproducing and therefore of adding to his capital. His thirteen-room plantation house was surrounded by dairies, stables, barns, and hen houses. He had a large orchard with apple and other fruit trees, which could be harvested to feed plantation workers, and a large vegetable garden, as well as cattle, hogs, horses, and sheep. He also had a grist mill for grinding corn and wheat for the plantation's grain supply. He had 250,000 pounds of tobacco on hand, and his plantation could be expected to produce 60,000 pounds per year.

The eighteenth century brought the opulence of this plantation system to a peak. By the time of his death in 1732, planter Robert "King" Carter (1663-1732) was the richest man in colonial Virginia and a member of the House of Burgesses. He owned 300,000 acres of land in numerous parcels along the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers and as far west as the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a middleman between traders and planters, he pos sessed seven hundred slaves, a twenty-five-fold increase over those held by Fitzhugh a few decades earlier. He had 2,000 head of cattle and swine and several hundred sheep scattered over dozens of holdings. Carter's barns also accommodated a hundred horses, used as draft animals, for overseeing his holdings, and for travel. His numerous offspring intermarried with others in the planter gentry, cementing the family's power and influence. Carter's grandson, Robert Carter III (1730-1804) maintained a townhouse in Williamsburg and a plantation at Nomini Hall on the Potomac River. The plantation annually consumed 27,000 pounds of pork, twenty beef cattle, 550 bushels each of wheat and corn, four hogsheads of rum, and 150 gallons of brandy. In the winter three pairs of oxen daily hauled enough wood to keep twenty-eight fires burning continuously in the main house and outbuildings. Carter had inherited 100 slaves from his grandfather, and by 1785, through their natural reproduction, he possessed 466 slaves.

The southern slave system suggested a dichotomy between mind and body, culture and nature. Historian Ronald Takaki, in Iron Cages (1979), argues that slavery exhibited a major contradiction between culture and nature, exemplified in William Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest" (1611). Caliban —a dark, deformed individual — lives on an island taken over by Prospero, who exiles Caliban and forces him to work. Caliban, whose mother is African, is portrayed as resembling the devil — he is dark and vile in nature, eliciting fears of violence. Such fears could be quelled, it is implied, by developing the intellect's control over the base nature of the body, the savage animal, and indeed nature itself. "America," argues Takaki, "became a larger theater for the The Tempest____Far from English civilization,

[colonists] had to remind themselves constantly what it meant to be civilized—Christian, rational, sexually controlled, and white."5 A dichotomy between civilization and the natural world thus began to emerge, in which the white civilization of England represented the highest level of the intellect and purity, while the African slave stood for the unruliness of nature and the body. Such cultural constructions lay at the root of a plantation system that exploited both slave and soil.

Southerners depended on slave bodies and slave knowledge for cultivation not only of tobacco, but also of rice, which became a mainstay of agriculture in tidewater South Carolina and Georgia in the eighteenth century. Varieties of rice from West Africa and Madagascar were introduced into South Carolina during the 1690s via the Chesapeake and the West Indies. Planters employed African cultivation methods, including clearing the land with fire, threshing with flails, and husking the grain with mortar and pestle.

Historian Daniel Littlefield states: "[B]efore Carolina was settled, Englishmen were aware that Africans possessed the technical knowledge to produce this crop and ... from the earliest period of successful rice production in South Carolina a relationship developed between this region and rice-growing regions in Africa."6

After early prohibitions against slavery were lifted in Georgia in 1751, rice planters from South Carolina and the West Indies moved into the tidewater low country. Georgia planters grew rice in swamps, employing methods that South Carolinians had learned from their slaves, including diking rivers to create impoundment ponds and building floodgates to regulate water flow. Planters also expanded into sugarcane, indigo, and sea island cotton production, creating several integrated landscapes of production. "As they were molded out of the low-country environment by planters and their slaves," writes environmental historian Mart Stewart, "plantations constituted agroecological systems that restructured biological processes for agricultural purposes____Those who created these systems had to manage them carefully to maintain the balance of energy inputs and outputs necessary for continued productivity."7

Southerners defended slavery on both biological grounds — that blacks showed more resistance to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever — and on environmental grounds — that they were more suited than whites to working in hot humid climates. Both arguments were problematic. Of the former, Silver points out the cost paid by southerners: "Although planters could use African biological defenses to good advantage and sometimes cited these characteristics as justification for using slave labor,... newly arriving blacks served as carriers for new strains [of disease]."8 And Mart Stewart, in "Let Us Begin with the Weather?" (1997) challenges arguments that "hitched together the cultivation of certain plants, the institution of slavery, and a climate [southerners] also deemed 'peculiar.'" He asserts instead that southerners invented a regional weather at odds with local weather observations in order to justify the use of slaves in fields and swamps. "Those farmers and planters who kept records... have left rich documentation of the extraordinary diversity of climates in the region." Stewart concludes that "the regional weather they made was more distinctive than the weather they got. Indeed, when Southerners used climate to legitimize a social order, they did not begin with the weather, but ended with it, and ended ... with an argument of such force and conviction that it long survived the storm of the Civil War."9

Despite their degradation as a race, African Americans maintained a cultural identity, making significant contributions to southern agriculture and hence to environmental history. They introduced important food crops into southern society. African foods were stowed on slave ships and grown in provision gardens. Slave traders, as well as slaves, introduced crops from other parts of the world. Yams were brought by slaves from Africa. Eggplant came from Africa to South America, from whence it was brought by Portuguese slave traders to the United States. Peanuts from South America were introduced into Virginia by African cooks who arrived onboard slave ships.

Slaves grew foods for consumption by their own families in dooryard gardens that, within the larger system of oppression, afforded some sense of self-worth and autonomy. Most slave owners allowed blacks to have garden patches outside their cabins, but slaves doubled their workloads to maintain them. By working on weekends or late at night after returning from the fields, they often produced a surplus to sell to their owners and to trade in town markets. Slave subsistence consisted of cornmeal and bacon, with garden foods being supplemented by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Crops included black-eyed peas, cabbages, yams, sweet potatoes, squash, and col-lards, augmented by barnyard chickens and fresh eggs, all grown and harvested by slave families. Gardens planted with such complementary crops often resulted in relatively higher yields per acre, and were less depleting of nutrients than fields of single crops grown alone. As such, slave subsistence was less destructive of the soil than was large-scale plantation agriculture.

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