The Intensification of Slave Labor

To counter periodic gluts in the markets for colonial crops or take advantage of higher prices brought on by disruptions in other trading networks, American planters found it necessary to discover new ways to significantly expand production. They did this by looking for new technology or practices (as in tidal rice culture or the use of plows in raising corn), or by adding a second cash crop or other income-generating activities like, in George Washington's case, fishing or distilling grain into whiskey. But any strategy for expanding output increased a slave's workload.

Common solutions adopted in the first half of the eighteenth century were raising more livestock whose manure could be spread on worn fields to maintain outputs of tobacco (but this only worked for types of tobacco that depended more on volume than on taste for its value) and sugar, further processing of the crop before export, raising its value over the less processed product commonly shipped from newer areas, and adding secondary crops that increased self-sufficiency or could be sold in local or regional markets. In Barbados, for example, sugar planters changed from exporting raw muscadavo sugar to whiter, more-refined, more labor-intensive clayed sugar. They also began raising more cattle and routinely setting slaves to manuring cane fields, adding a further work requirement that became one of the most arduous tasks field workers had to perform.

In Virginia, sweet-scented tobacco planters had their workers stem tobacco leaves, which added value since the leaves then needed less processing in English shops to be made ready for consumers and meant that the tobacco could be pressed more tightly into a hogshead, lowering the potential damage during the transatlantic voyage. Throughout much of the Chesapeake, tidewater planters also raised surplus corn for market. Increased outputs were achieved by training slaves to use plows in preparing ground for planting corn and later for weeding it. This technological change got around two bottlenecks. One was in the spring when hoeing imposed limits on the numbers of hills workers could prepare in time for planting tobacco and corn, and the other occurred in mid-summer when both crops required extensive weeding. As a consequence, slaves spent more time in off-season ground preparation and making fences to protect larger fields. In addition, night work was required for tasks such as stripping tobacco and husking and shelling corn, tasks that could be done by firelight.

South Carolina planters substituted dikes to facilitate tidal irrigation for fresh water swamp irrigation for rice, overcoming the dual problems of flooding and drought. A steady supply of water drowned weeds, reducing the time slaves spent pulling them. Decreased weeding, however, was more than offset by increased plowing under of rice stubble after harvest and by the addition of hated "mud work", constructing and maintaining embankments and ditches in winter. Hand processing of the increased volume of rice also taxed slaves to the limit in the post-harvest season. Until effective water-powered rice mills were developed in the 1770s, beating rice in a mortar and pestle to remove hulls from the grain became so arduous that stints of pounding at the mortar were imposed both morning and evening, and extended late into the night during the winter.

Browse Content By Theme