Slave Plantations

Slave Plantations were established in the Americas. In North America these tended to produce crops such as cotton or tobacco. In the Caribbean and South America, crops such as Sugar were more common. Plantations made use of slaves bought as a result of the Transatlantic trade. The size of slave plantations varied, as did the number of workers and the conditions in which the slaves lived and worked. Some were treated brutally and punished harshly for even minor indiscretions, others were housed and fed well. The growth of plantations both during British rule and after American Independence saw the slave population grow rapidly.

Slave Plantation. These grew crops such as sugar or cotton. They formed a large part of the Slave economy and triangular trade.

Slave Plantations in British Colonies

West Indies

British colonies in the West Indies followed the existing pattern of Slave Plantations. These had proven to be successful for the Spanish and Portuguese both in the Canary Islands and then in the Americas. As British colonisation spread into the West Indies, the Plantation model was used to harvest Sugar cheaply. It meant that the Slave Economy could function with a high profit margin. There was a large market for sugar in Britain and Europe so the crop was a sound investment. Using the Plantation model streamlined production for the owners. An efficient system based on slave labour working the plantations was likely to return large profits.


In America the same pattern was used on Cotton and Tobacco Plantations. In the Southern States these were often very large plantations. Fields could be worked by gangs of slaves with production levels high enough to ensure a steady profit. Much of the Tobacco that was produced by the Slave Plantations was shipped to Glasgow, the centre of British Tobacco Industry. Cotton was shipped to Liverpool for distribution to mills in places such as Manchester. This led to the rise in importance of British Slave Ports.

A later development saw Plantations in the Carolinas producing Rice. The number of slaves working these plantations suggests that this also was profitable.

By 1600 some 200000 Slaves were working on British owned plantations in the West Indies. By 1650 this had increased to 800000. Productivity seems to have increased in proportion to the number of slaves in the economy. (Source here)

Variations in Plantation Methods

But the plantation has a much broader importance than simply the history of sugar: it was the organisational tool that enabled European settlers to develop key areas of the tropical and semi-tropical Americas. And it did this primarily by providing colonial settlers with the crucial means of dragooning and organising unfree labour to raise a host of tropical and semi-tropical crops.

This quote, from illustrates that the Slave Plantation method was simply a model that could be tweaked to suit the needs of location and crop. Like a factory, it had different components that performed tasks to yield the highest results. In the case of a Plantation, many of the machines were simply replaced by Slaves. It was not just Slaves on Plantations though. There are variations on the way that the model was implemented. In general terms the West Indian Sugar Plantations were predominantly worked by Slaves. The Cotton and Tobacco Plantations however saw a mixture of Slaves alongside free labourers.

Jobs on a Plantation

It is easy to imagine that the Slaves were set to work sowing seeds, harvesting crops and undertaking the physical hard laborious tasks involved in the growth and sending to market of Sugar, Cotton or Tobacco. Of course, many slaves did these tasks. These are just part of the work involved on a plantation. On Sugar plantations there was refining of Sugar, which is factory based. There are administrative tasks, moving tasks, repair jobs, transportation roles. All of these roles could be undertaken by Slaves. The Plantation would likely have homes for owners or managers that were maintained. These led to domestic roles being given to Slaves, as maids, Butlers, Cleaners etc.

What were conditions on Slave Plantations like?

What was life on Slave Plantations like?
Abridgement of the Minutes of Evidence taken before a Committee considering the Slave Trade, 1789

A Plantation Owners Home

A description of the Great Hall at a Plantation owners mansion, written by J Shaw. Cited here.

“The great hall… and every thing in it is superbly fine; the roof lofty, and ornamented in a high degree. It is between fifty and sixty feet long, has eight windows and three doors all glazed; it is finished in Mahogany very well wrought, and the panels finished in with mirrors. This you would believe would render the heat unsupportable, which its situation however prevents, as it stands pretty high up Mount Misery, which yields a cool and delightful shade to the back part of the house, while the front has the sea, shipping, town and a great part of the Island in prospect, and the constant sea-breeze renders it most agreeable. The drawing room and bed-chambers are entirely fitted up and furnished in the English taste, …this is esteemed the finest house on any of the Islands”

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano, describes Life on the plantations in his autobiography:

I have seen a slave beaten till some of his bones were broken, for only letting a pot boil over. I have seen slaves put into scales and weighed, and then sold from three pence to nine pence a pound.

The interesting life of Olaudah Equiano 1789

James Ramsay

James Ramsay spoke as an abolitionist. He worked as a ships doctor and for 14 years on Plantations. He became deeply opposed to Slavery and was vehemently attacked for making his views public:

I lived on St Christopher in the West Indies for 14 years. As a clergyman I preached to the slaves, taught them the bible in their homes and made enemies of the sugar plantation owners. I saw for myself what conditions were like on the plantations. I often saw weary slaves still carrying cane to the mill by moonlight.

Mary Prince

There are many accounts of slaves on Plantations being mistreated. These contributed to the abolitionist campaign.

“I have often wondered how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies they forget God and all feelings of shame, I think, since they can see and do such things. They tie up people like hogs –moor them up like cattle, and they lick them, so as hogs, or cattle, or horses never were flogged.”

Mary Prince, 1831

Plantations after Slavery

The abolition of the trade in Slaves in 1807 and subsequent banning of Slavery altogether within the British Empire in 1833 had implications for the Plantations. Slaves were no longer property, they were freed and would now need to be employed in the same way that free labourers were. For Plantation owners this led to a dilemma over increased costs and attitudes from former slaves. To maintain profits the Plantations looked to the cheapest form of labour. This resulted in an influx of Indentured Asian labour into the West Indies in particular. Technically free, these labourers were tied to plantations until they had paid off the value of their transport. It was similar in design to the indenture schemes used to entice early British settlers in the northern colonies.

Further Reading on the British Empire

Making of the United Kingdom

Making of the United Kingdom unit homepage – Glorious Revolution – The British in Ireland, 1688-1691 – Settlement of Ireland – Jacobite Opposition – Glencoe Massacre – Darien Scheme – Act of Union – Migration to the Americas

Economic Consequences of Empire

Economic Consequences of Empire – Unit homepage – Royal African Company – Triangular Trade – Lifting of the RAC monopoly – Plantations – The Slave Economy – Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America – Slave Resistance – East India Company – Expansion of trade in East India – Bank of England – South Sea Bubble Bursts

How did the Empire affect working lives and consumer habits in Britain?

Empire and consumerism – Involvement of the British population in the slave trade and the ‘slave ports’ – Emergence of consumerism

How did the Empire affect British politics and changing ideas?

Politics and changing ideas – Coffee houses and developing political activism – growth of ideas of a racial hierarchy and the impact on settled minority communities

Common questions about the British Empire

Questions about the British Empire – When did the British Empire start? – When did the British Empire end? – What countries were in the British Empire? – Why did Britain want an empire? – What was life like in the British Empire? – Was the British Empire a force for good or bad? – What is Is perfidious Albion? – How was the British Empire controlled?

Love Learning?

Subscribe to our Free Newsletter, Complete with Exclusive History Content