Landscapes of slavery: New book gives visual history of 19th-century plantations

Binghamton University

All too often, we consider slavery as a relic of some distant age, one that relied on sweat and muscle 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’s missing is that all slave systems are producing particular crops in particular conditions and what those crops and physical conditions are have everything to do with the conditions of slave life and labor,” said Binghamton University Professor Emeritus of Sociology Dale Tomich.

Tomich is the co-author of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of the Plantation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World, with University of Havana History Professor Reinaldo Funes Monzote; Carlos Venegas Fornias, a researcher at Centro de Investigaciones Juan Marinello in Havana; and University of São Paulo History Professor 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 Materials published in 2020 or 2021.

The book brings together more than 80 images from the working plantation landscape, including paintings, drawings, lithographs, photographs, maps and other documents created over a hundred-year span during the era of enslavement in the Americas.

Too often, people regard such visual materials as either aesthetic objects or illustrations to accompany texts, rather than historical documents in their own right, according to Tomich. These images document 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. Analyzing these images gives insight into the relationship between land organization and crop production, including the differences between crop types, the methods used for planting, harvesting and processing, slave organization and work conditions, and the physical environment.

The plantation zones of the Lower Mississippi Valley, western Cuba and Brazil’s Paraíba Valley were created as part of the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of the world economy as a whole. They are located in zones that were sparsely settled before the boom in their respective crops.

The plantation system thus had carte blanche to organize nature and slave labor as it wished 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 didn’t face a massive consumer demand fueled by industrialization, Tomich pointed out.

Cuba, for example, became the world’s leading sugar producer in 1829 and doubled its production every decade until around 1870. Around the same time, the consumption of sugar increased in both Europe and the United States, with the latter the chief market for Cuban sugar and Brazilian coffee. A Cuban sugar plantation during this period could have 300 to 500 slaves, divided between field hands and those who worked in some of the largest factories in the world, some of which were completely mechanized.

Not coincidentally, during the same period the transportation of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean increased to its highest level in history – although these slaves were headed only to Cuba and Brazil. At the same time, an internal slave trade brought more than a million enslaved workers from Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky to the burgeoning plantations in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

“There was a massive movement of enslaved people to supply the labor to produce these crops in brand-new spaces, creating these massive zones of sugar and coffee and cotton production,” Tomich said.

The economy of time and space

Cotton production in the U.S., sugar production in Cuba and coffee production in Brazil each had a specific organization of time and space. The size and disposition of fields, the amount of material that each produced and the distance it had to be carried for processing had to be precisely measured and calculated, planned from the beginning to the end of the crop cycle to maximize output. These calculations determined the organization of the working landscape, Tomich explained.

Surveys, maps and drawings were the instruments of planter power: They were tools that enabled planters to organize the landscape and 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 enslaved person working the row and the amount of time involved. Slaves who fell behind their quota were disciplined with punishments such as whipping. Planters even used a type of corporate manual, which gave instructions as to the management of slaves and land for maximum profit.

Slaves’ living conditions mirrored the demands of the cash crop. Cotton plantations, for example, were smaller than sugar or coffee plantations; fewer slaves were needed and they lived in shack-like houses in family units. On sugar and coffee plantations, however, slaves lived in massive barracks that could accommodate hundreds of people. Whatever their form, the slave quarters stood in stark contrast to elegant mansions built by the planter elite to display their wealth and power, said Tomich.

This economy of space and time is most evident on the Cuban sugar plantations, which combined both agricultural and manufacturing operations. While all crops rely on specific seasonal cycles, sugar production is particularly time-intensive; once the cane ripens, it must be harvested and processed within 36 hours, boiled and then reduced to its familiar crystalline form.

Every aspect of the sugar plantation was organized with a strict time schedule in mind, from the pattern of fields equidistant from the central processing plant, to the circle of roads where standardized carts carried the cut cane to the centrally located factory, to the organization of space within the giant mechanized factories. This entire process was represented on minutely detailed plantation maps that allowed planters to plan the entire crop cycle before the crop was even planted.

Systematic measurement, calculation, record-keeping and planning resulted in increasing standardization of the landscape, of production processes and of the product. Consequently, slaves were tasked with more than just working hard; they had to comply with a strict industrial time and space discipline that regulated their activity in very specific ways to maximize production and make the most efficient use of resources.

Ultimately, this rationalized plantation system not only exhausted and discarded the human beings it enslaved, but the land itself. In Brazil, the once-lush coffee plantations are a virtual moonscape today, suitable only for cattle-raising. The former cotton plantations in Mississippi also endured erosion and soil exhaustion, although many former plantation sites in the rich alluvial soil of Louisiana are still under cultivation for cotton and soybeans. Cuba’s sugar zone remains a vast deforested area devoted to monocrop agriculture.

“The landscape is the place where the control of nature and the control of slave labor come together,” Tomich said.

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