Sugar plantations, worked by men and women in various conditions of servitude, had existed in the Mediterranean and off the coast of West Africa for some time before the English began to colonize the Americas. The earliest English experiences with plantation agriculture in the New World occurred in the Caribbean and in Virginia. Virginia, begun in 1607 as a trading venture, had failed miserably on that score.
In the decades that followed, Virginia’s farmers had recognized the profitability of tobacco, which was coming into vogue in England in the first half of the seventeenth century. One should not take this fact to mean that a planter class appeared in Virginia overnight. Rather, as the seventeenth century progressed, the English gentry began to rely more heavily on slave labor and eventually placed themselves at the head of a racial caste system, with a large African labor force at the bottom. Drawing on examples from Ireland, the Mediterranean, and Portuguese and Spanish New World colonies, the English established plantations on Barbados as well, though these focused on sugar production.
Sugar, which was becoming increasingly popular in England, made Barbadian planters some of the richest men in the Americas. The first planters on Barbados intended to reproduce English institutions, including English common law, as faithfully as possible. By the second half of the seventeenth century, however, they had created a way of life totally centered on sugar production and its attendant African slavery. The planter class in Barbados, which in some ways was a model for later settlements, was relatively small in size, but what it lacked in numbers it made up in cohesion and power. Land was increasingly concentrated in their hands, and less well-off white farmers were slowly squeezed out of the islands.
The “planter class,” Anglo-American landholders and slave owners, were the social and economic elite of the Southern colonies and the Caribbean during the colonial and antebellum periods. (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, Connecticut/Bridgeman Art Library) Within a matter of decades, the planters of Barbados, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands had come to completely dominate Caribbean society, exceeding the role of the gentry in England. The English Caribbean planters gained a reputation for violence, excess, and moral profligacy. In fact, many planters on the islands managed their estates from abroad as absentees.
Late in the seventeenth century, a third planter class emerged in South Carolina’s low country. The existence of a planter class hinged on the development of a single profitable staple crop. In the case of South Carolina, this crop was rice. South Carolina was a sort of middle ground between the planting classes of Virginia and Barbados. South Carolinian planters were richer than Virginia planters but their wealth paled in comparison to that of the West Indian elite.
American planters also positioned themselves at the head of a large, restive labor force, but the slave-to-master ratio was never as high in the South as it was in the Caribbean. And, unlike some planters in the islands, absenteeism was rare in colonial South Carolina rice plantations. Rice plantations were more profitable and less healthy than Chesapeake tobacco plantations, but less profitable and healthier than Caribbean sugar plantations.