The Plantation System

The Plantation System

This article describes the plantation system in the United States and the Caribbean as a tool of British colonialism that contributed to social and political inequality. It makes a connection between the economic prosperity of the South and the exploitation of enslaved people.


5 - 8


Social Studies, U.S. History


Sugar Cane Plantation

Illustration of slaves cutting sugar cane on a southern plantation in the 1800s.

Photograph from the North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo
Illustration of slaves cutting sugar cane on a southern plantation in the 1800s.

The term plantation arose as settlements in the southern United States, originally linked with colonial expansion, came to revolve around the production of agriculture. The word plantation first appeared in English in the 15th century. Originally, the word “plantation” was a verb that meant “to plant.” However, what came to be known as plantations became the center of large-scale enslaved labor operations in the Western Hemisphere. Historians Peter H. Wood and Edward Baptist advocate for calling these places “labor camps” or “slave labor camps” rather than “plantations,” in order to avoid hiding the truth of what really happened in these agricultural operations using forced labor.

The plantation system developed in the American South as British colonists arrived in what became known as Virginia and divided the land into large areas suitable for farming. The land on which these plantations were established was stolen from Indigenous nations through canceled, disregarded, and deceitful treaties, or outright violence. Read these Resource Library articles to learn more: Southeast Native American Groups, Native Americans in Colonial America, The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans, The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, and Native American Removal from the Southeast.

The plantation system came to dominate the culture of the South, and it was rife with inequity from the time it was established. In 1606, King James I formed the Virginia Company of London to establish colonies in North America, but when the British arrived, they faced a harsh and foreboding wilderness, and their lives became little more than a struggle for survival. So, to make settling the land more attractive, the Virginia Company offered any adult man with the means to travel to America 50 acres of land. At the encouragement of the Company, many of the settlers banded together and created large settlements, called hundreds, as they were intended to support 100 individuals, usually men who led a household.

The hundreds were run as private plantations intent on making a profit from the cultivation of crops, which the economy of the South depended on. The plantation system was an early capitalist venture. Unlike small subsistence farms, plantations were created to grow cash crops for sale on the market. Tobacco and cotton proved to be exceptionally profitable.

Cheap labor was used to cut production costs and maximize profits. Initially, the land was worked by indentured servants, who were mostly from England (and sometimes from Africa), and enslaved African and (less often) Indigenous people. Indentured servants were contracted to work four- to seven-year terms without pay for passage to the colony, room, and board. After completing the term, they were often given land, clothes, and provisions.

The plantation system created a society sharply divided along class lines. In the colonies south of Pennsylvania and east of the Delaware River, a few wealthy, white landowners owned the bulk of the land, while the majority of the population was made up of poor farmers, indentured servants, and the enslaved.

Plantation labor shifted away from indentured servitude and more toward slavery by the late 1600s, in part because obtaining indentured servants became more difficult as more economic opportunities became available to them. Wealthy landowners also made purchasing land more difficult for former indentured servants. This sharpened class divisions, as a small number of people owned larger and larger plantations. Wealthy landowners got wealthier, and the use of slave labor increased. This led to uprisings and skirmishes with impoverished Black and white people joining forces against the wealthy.

In response, customs changed and laws were passed to elevate the status of poor white people above all Black people. This new class acted as a buffer to protect the wealthy, and Black people in the British American colonies were further oppressed. Thus, people of African descent were forced into a permanent underclass.

Despite this brutal history, plantations are not always seen as the violent places they were. For some, the word plantation suggests an idyllic past. This is seen at some of the United States plantations themselves, with some tours and tourists focusing on the wealth and lives of the enslavers while ignoring those they enslaved, and plantations continuing to be rented out as venues for weddings and parties. However, nationwide reckoning with the legacy of slavery has caused a cultural shift, spurring some plantation tours to present a more accurate view of the horrors that took place at these sites.

The romanticized notions of plantation life largely stem from an ideology called the Lost Cause which became popular shortly after the United States Civil War. The Confederates seceded from the United States to maintain the system of slavery. After losing the war, many Confederates and Confederate sympathizers promoted an ideology that falsely altered the reason for succession. This ideology was named the Lost Cause after an 1866 book by Edward A. Pollard, a newspaper editor from Virginia who supported the Confederacy.

According to Caroline Janney, professor of History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia, the Lost Cause ideology puts the Confederates in a favorable light. She says the Lost Cause claims: 1) Confederates were patriots fighting to protect their constitutionally granted states’ rights; 2) Confederates were not fighting to protect slavery; 3) Slavery was a benevolent institution in which Black people were treated well; 4) Enslaved Black people were faithful to their enslavers and happy to be held in bondage; and 5) Confederate General Robert E. Lee and, to a lesser extent, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were godlike figures. None of these claims are true. The Lost Cause perpetuates harmful and false narratives.

Besides Pollard’s book, other works have carried the Lost Cause lie, including the 1864 painting, the “Burial of Latané” by William Washington, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel and play The Clansman, and Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. The last two became popular movies; The Clansman became The Birth of a Nation. Lost Cause propaganda was also continued by former Confederate General Jubal Early as well as various organizations of upper- and middle-class white Southern women—the Ladies Memorial Associations, the United Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The United States wasn’t the only participant in the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the plantation served as an institution in itself, characterized by social and political inequality, racial conflict, and domination by plantation owners, known as the planter class. In the Caribbean, as well as in the slave states, the shift from small-scale farming to industrial agriculture transformed the culture of these societies, as their economic prosperity depended on the plantation. Until the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, over 12 million Africans were transported to the “New World,” and over 90 percent of them were sent to the Caribbean and South America to work on sugar plantations.

Though the transatlantic slave trade tragically erased much of its victims’ history, not all traces of enslaved peoples’ lives are lost. National Geographic Explorer Tara Roberts, alongside Black scuba divers, archeologists, and historians, collaborate with the descendants of Africans trafficked to the United States through the transatlantic slave trade to uncover hidden histories. Carter Clinton is another National Geographic Explorer researching how African Americans, both enslaved and free, lived and died during the transatlantic slave trade. Clinton’s research combines archeology, history, and genetics to investigate the experiences of people buried at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan.

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National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

April 25, 2024

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