In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Plantations in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Crop/Commodity Histories
  • Colonial North America
  • The Antebellum US South
  • The Anglophone Caribbean
  • The Dutch and Danish Caribbean
  • The Francophone Caribbean
  • The Hispanic Caribbean
  • Brazil
  • West Africa
  • Plantations without Slaves
  • Comparative Studies

Atlantic History Plantations in the Atlantic World
Christer Petley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0165


In the 16th century, “the plantation” referred to an area of overseas settlement by English settlers, such as the plantation in Ulster or those in Massachusetts Bay or Virginia. During the 17th century, however, the word became synonymous with single units of agricultural production that raised crops for export. Such units were a central fixture of the Atlantic world by the 18th century. This article concentrates entirely on this second definition of plantations. Generally large scale relative to other farms and settlements around them, and highly specialized in the raising of one particular crop, New World plantations employed a substantial workforce to plant, tend, harvest, and—in many cases—process staple commodities for export, usually to European markets. The plantation was strongly connected to transatlantic flows of produce, capital, and labor. It was an institution that defined Atlantic commercial activity during the 18th century and remained a central pillar of the New World economy during the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, sugar, grown in the Atlantic crucible of the Caribbean, as well as tobacco in the Chesapeake, allowed new colonies to expand and thrive, as they shipped their desirable consumer staples to booming European markets, revolutionizing life on both sides of the ocean. Cotton was the mainstay of the economy of the US South, and a 19th-century sugar revolution propelled Cuba to a position of regional economic importance. Other significant plantation crops included coffee, rice, and (to lesser degrees) indigo and pimento (allspice). Some regions of the Atlantic world were so dependent on the plantation that they constituted what can be described as plantation societies, defined largely by plantation agriculture and plantation labor regimes. Communities in such societies were generally characterized by the existence of two distinctive sets of people: a wealthy elite class of plantation owners and a large, poor, and—in many cases—legally unfree population of plantation workers. The plantation depended heavily on forms of coerced labor, including indentured workers and—most significantly—enslaved workers. The experience of enslaved Africans in the Atlantic was intimately connected to the rise of the New World plantation complex. Indeed, the plantation complex rose and fell largely in tandem with slavery and the slave trade. Nevertheless, in some locales, the plantation proved a resilient institution, and some Atlantic plantation zones expanded during the 19th century and into the 20th. Everywhere the plantation existed, and particularly in those places where plantation agriculture was the mainstay of the local economy, the institution left lasting legacies, even once its economic significance declined. As such, the study of the plantation and its influence in the Atlantic world encompasses not just economic and business history, but also social, cultural, political, and intellectual history.

General Overviews

The best overview of the history of plantation agriculture in the Atlantic world is Curtin 1990. Blackburn 1997 and Eltis 2000 also provide accessible and synthetic accounts of the rise of the plantation complex, through the prism of the development of the Atlantic slave system. Schwartz 2004 provides detailed and specialized accounts of the rise of the most important plantation production in the region, sugar, including the development by Europeans of plantations in Atlantic islands such as Madeira and the Canaries. Bieber 2007 brings together a number of important essays on the development of the plantation, with particular emphasis on the social consequences. Burnard 2015 offers a detailed analysis of the plantation in early British America, with a particularly good account of the system at its height in the most significant plantation colony in 18th-century British America—Jamaica. Berlin and Morgan 1991 addresses an important element of plantation history: the independent economic production engaged in by enslaved people, providing an excellent introduction to studies of how enslaved people managed their lives in relation to the plantation complex. Although plantations existed throughout the Americas, and in West Africa, the Caribbean region was shaped more profoundly than others by the rise and fall of the plantation complex. Beckles and Shepherd 2000 contains several important works on the history of the plantation in the Caribbean. Finally, the history of the plantation is intimately connected to the history of food, particularly sugar, coffee, rice, and chocolate. Best and Levitt 2009, a volume of essays by two leading Caribbean economic theorists, provides an economic perspective that considers the long-term effects of the Atlantic plantation economy, with particular reference to theories about how the plantation served to make tropical economies dependent on those of Europe and North America.

  • Beckles, Hilary McD., and Verene A. Shepherd, eds. Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World. Oxford: James Currey, 2000.

    Expanded from a book that was first published in 1991, this is a huge collection of essays and articles. There are examples of work by some of the leading historians of the Caribbean and coverage of the whole region, including the English, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish West Indies.

  • Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

    This volume addresses the ways in which enslaved people produced and marketed various commodities, particularly food, usually on land provided to them by plantation owners. This element of plantation economies was often important for the sustenance of workers, as well as being central to African American societies and cultures.

  • Best, Lloyd, and Kari Polanyi Levitt. Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Caribbean Economic Development. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays, some dating from the 1970s, by Best and Levitt, two leading Caribbean economic theorists, considering the long history of the plantation complex in the Caribbean and its early-21st-century economic legacies.

  • Bieber, Judy. Plantation Societies in the Era of European Expansion. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    Part of a series about European impacts on world history. Contains reprints of important essays by leading scholars and covers a wide range of early modern plantation systems. It is an excellent introduction to the variety of work on different types of plantations in the period before 1800, emphasizing the significance of unfree labor and violent coercion to the development of plantation regimes.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997.

    A wide-ranging survey of research on the emergence of slavery, which also provides an account of the rise of the plantation. Emphasizes private enterprise and entrepreneurship in the emergence of the slave-plantation system and provides a very useful account of the rise of the plantation across the Americas, including in locations for which there are few comparable synoptic studies, such as the French Caribbean.

  • Burnard, Trevor. Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650–1820. American Beginnings, 1500–1900 23. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226286242.001.0001

    Offers a broad analysis of the rise of the plantation complex in British America, emphasizing the importance of sugar colonies in the Caribbean—especially Jamaica. Traces the rise of the planter class and construction of the plantation economy at the heart of the 18th-century empire and discusses the impact of the American Revolution on the plantation zones of the British Atlantic.

  • Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    A readable collection of essays by one of the best-known historians of the Atlantic slave-plantation complex. Covers the Old World origins of New World commercial agriculture and provides the best available overall introduction to the theme of the plantation in Atlantic history.

  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Helps illustrate that early modern Atlantic plantations relied heavily on the slave trade. Covers only the period before the beginning of the 18th century and takes issue with the Marxian analysis of such scholars as Walter Rodney and Eric Williams (examples of whose work are reproduced in Beckles and Shepherd 2000).

  • Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    A collection of specialized scholarly essays that provide a very useful account of the rise of sugar production in the Atlantic up to the emergence of large-scale plantation agriculture in the 17th century. Useful accounts of the ways in which sugar production moved from Europe to the Americas and the development of production in early modern Portuguese and Spanish colonies.

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