Tobacco and Rice Plantations

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Not all plantations were alike. In the eighteenth century, two very different systems of plantation agriculture developed in the southern colonies. In Virginia and Maryland, in the region bordering on Chesapeake Bay, and therefore known as "the Chesapeake," tobacco plantations flourished with slaves organized into gangs. In the lowcountry district of South Carolina and Georgia, slaves on rice plantations were put to work under a "task" system. The different crops and their distinctive patterns of labor organization gave rise to several other important distinctions as well. Tobacco was the first plantation crop in North America. English settlers in the Chesapeake region recognized tobacco's profitable potential in the early seventeenth century. They built their first plantations using the labor of British indentured servants rather than African slaves. But in the late 1600s the market for English servants dried up, and Virginia planters turned instead to slavery. By 1720 a full-scale plantation system was in place throughout the Chesapeake, grounded on the labor of slaves and oriented toward the production of tobacco. By the standards of Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations, however, Chesapeake tobacco plantations were modest in size. They reached their peak efficiency with perhaps twenty or thirty slaves, whereas sugar plantations were most efficient when they had at least fifty slaves. The rice plantations of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia more closely approximated the sugar plantations. It took at least thirty slaves to set up a rice plantation. Because rice crops needed constant irrigation, they could only be established in coastal lowlands. Yet because rice cultivation was not a particularly delicate process, it did not require intensive oversight from masters and overseers. Hence rice slaves worked on a "task" system by which each slave was

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