Anthropology Plantations
Sarah Besky
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0282


Plantations are landscapes of empire and extraction, governed by networks of colonial consumption and production, as well as capitalist logics of growth. They are a material instantiation of European colonial practices of accumulation and dispossession. Far from the product of a bygone era, the plantation is thriving in the early twenty-first century. It persists as a system of material production, undergirding a global market that incorporates former colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in uneven ways. Significantly, plantations have been, and continue to be, means of producing particular crops: sugar, cotton, tea, coffee, bananas, rubber, and oil palm. These are commodity crops that are grown to meet consumer demand both far away, in former imperial metropolises, as well as in sites closer to the plantations themselves. Plantations thrive in a global market in which power tilts to large-scale producers who can turn out low-cost products, which are in turn produced by workers who have been dispossessed of their ancestral land and livelihoods, often as part of or even as a precondition for plantation formation. While the moniker “plantation” has been extended to many large-scale, monocropped, and industrial formations in anthropological literature in recent years, it is important to attend to the specifics of what made the plantation a peculiar social and ecological form in the past, and the continuities (and discontinuities) in what distinguishes the plantation from other forms of agricultural production in the present. Land, labor, dispossession, slavery, indenture, bondage, control: these are key concepts in the study of plantations. It is also important to attend to geographical and historical specificity in the study of the plantation’s formation, persistence, and afterlives. In some locations, the plantation is a living and even expanding socio-ecological form; in others, its immaterial legacy shapes social and political life, particularly in sites where plantation production was afforded only by the enslavement and later indenture of millions of people. Multispecies ethnography attends to how plantations foreclose people’s capacity to develop affective ties to place and nonhuman beings (as well as nonhuman actors to do so as well). Scholars of the slave plantation agriculture and its legacies highlight the spaces of food cultivation as such affective spaces, showing how forms of resistance and fugitivity emerge from within the plantation system itself. The plantation—for different reasons, and for different ends—shapes the future. This review is oriented primarily to work within sociocultural anthropology. As such, it does not do justice to the richness of historical or archaeological research on plantations, which will also certainly be of interest to anthropologists and allied scholars studying plantations.


Within anthropology, there is a rich tradition of plantation studies. Key theoretical texts include the influential monograph Rodney 1972, rooted in research and activism in Guyana and West Africa, and the articulation of “racial capitalism” in Robinson 1983, which is grounded in long durée analyses of slavery and indenture. These foundational plantation studies emerged in tandem with anthropological investigations into peasant life and labor, as well as into the legacies of transatlantic slavery. Ethnographies of life and labor on plantations in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America, such as Hurston 2018 and Mintz 1960, illustrated the everyday contours of structural inequality with narrative storytelling. Approaches to the plantation in the works discussed in later sections of this article show a continued return among anthropologists to such person-centered renderings of the relationships between land, labor, and capital. In other studies, the plantation was considered in regional comparative perspective (as opposed to a more global comparative perspective), such as the discussion in Daniel, et al. 1992 of plantations in colonial Asia. A key goal of this political economic line of inquiry within anthropology is to highlight how the plantation, as an economy of scale, laid the groundwork for the global food system as we know it in the early twenty-first century, as described in Mintz 2011. Studies of the plantation in anthropology also provided a key methodological and empirical grounding for the subdiscipline of historical anthropology. Studies such as Stoler 1985 and Trouillot 1995 offer theoretical and analytical tools for studying colonialism, dispossession, and the potential for resistance from an anthropological lens. A cross-pollination of anthropology with history affords unique insights into the legacies of plantation formation and the parallel process of involuntary intercontinental enslavement and resettlement. The plantation’s long reach extends not just into the contemporary food system but into the creative and everyday affective lives of the descendants of plantation laborers, as illustrated in Woods 1998 and McKittrick 2013.

  • Daniel, E. Valentine, Henry Bernstein, and Tom Brass, eds. 1992. Plantations, proletarians, and peasants in colonial Asia. London: Frank Cass.

    The essays in this volume have become key texts in scholarly discussions of colonial labor regimes, particularly indenture, in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Essays on Mauritius, Fiji, and colonial Malaya, major sites of Indian indentured labor (and in the cases of Malaya, Chinese labor as well), are put into conversation with work on indenture within India, particularly the tea plantations of Assam.

  • Hurston, Zora Neale. 2018. Barracoon: The story of the last “Black cargo.” Edited by Deborah G. Plant. New York: Amistad.

    Published posthumously but originally written in the late 1920s, this book is an oral historical account of Cujo Lewis (Oluale Kossola), one of the last African slaves to come to the United States before the Civil War. It traces his life from a village in Africa to his capture at nineteen years old and transportation to Alabama in the final years of the Civil War. It tells the story of freed slaves in the US South during Reconstruction.

  • McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. Plantation futures. Small Axe 17.3: 1–15.

    DOI: 10.1215/07990537-2378892

    This essay centers the slave plantation in theory of anti-Black violence, linking its socio-spatial organization to that of contemporary cities. McKittrick focuses on time and temporality, noting that both repeated forms of repression and signs of endurance thread plantation pasts to imagined futures in Black life. Drawing on Black radical thought that rejects simple dichotomies between structure and agency, McKittrick argues that the future of the plantation remains open to decolonial reimagination.

  • Mintz, Sidney. 1960. Worker in the cane: A Puerto Rican life history. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Based on research conducted in the late 1940s and early 1950s, this ethnography represented a departure from dominant modes of representation in anthropology at the time. First, Mintz took the Puerto Rican sugar plantation, born of Spanish and US colonial projects, as his object of analysis. Second, he narrated a political economy of sugar through the life story of one individual, buttressing a macro-level analysis with fine-grained detail and intimate narrative.

  • Mintz, Sidney. 2011. Plantations and the rise of a world food economy: Some preliminary ideas. In Special issue: Rethinking the plantation: Histories, anthropologies, and archaeologies. Edited by Dale Tomich, Flávio dos Santos Gomes, and Olivia Gomes da Cunha. Review 34.1–2: 3–14.

    This article crystalizes Mintz’s long career of thinking and writing on the plantation as a crucible for racialized inequality and a global food system that hinges on a particular set of prime mover crops. Mintz reviews dominant ways of approaching the plantation as an institution in the social sciences. The special issue emerged from a 2009 conference in Rio de Janeiro organized by the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University.

  • Robinson, Cedric. 1983. Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. London: Zed Books.

    Robinson outlines a theory of “racial capitalism,” by which value and labor power are extracted differentially depending on race. The expansion of capitalism hinged on growing inequality based on this differential extraction, which brought forth the large-scale enslavement of Black and Brown people. The plantation was a key mechanism for this. Robison situates transatlantic slavery and the plantation genealogically in a long durée of domestic servitude, and the enslavement of women, in European contexts.

  • Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture.

    Rodney’s is a key text in the political economy of slavery and the reach of plantation systems across time and space. The “development” of Africa was always already thwarted by the massive loss of labor and human life due to the European slave trade. The capitalist exploitation of Africa did not stop at slavery; instead, the extraction of human life laid the groundwork for the subsequent (and ongoing) exploitation of natural resources across the continent.

  • Stoler, Ann Laura. 1985. Capitalism and confrontation in Sumatra’s Plantation Belt, 1870–1979. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Stoler describes the repression and control of plantation workers in eastern Sumatra from the 1870s to the 1920s. Such control was mediated along gendered and ethnic lines. Repression, however, did not render plantation workers into passive subjects. Instead, historical events themselves were engendered through resistance and struggle. This book models an anthropological approach to history that can account for contingency in the lived experiences of plantation workers.

  • Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press.

    While the plantation is a figure in this text, the primary foci are the Haitian Revolution (the first slave revolution) and the revolutionary hero Colonel Sans Souci, who was “silenced” in subsequent depictions of Haiti. This text outlines not only the process of that silencing but also offers tools for un-silencing narratives that run counter to dominant modes of European thought, particularly about the Caribbean and agricultural production.

  • Woods, Clyde. 1998. Development arrested: The blues and plantation power in the Mississippi Delta. New York: Verso.

    The Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of the blues, but it was also a concentrated space of plantations. Woods describes the blues as produced at an intersection of Black cultural life and creativity and the materiality and exploitation of plantation production. The blues was a means of a “Third Reconstruction,” a cultural medium for narrating plantation histories and charting Black futures in the US South.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.