Tobacco advertisement from the 18th century
Tobacco cultivation and exports formed an essential component of the American colonial economy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tobacco plantations were distinct from other cash crops in terms of agricultural demands, trade, slave labor, and plantation culture. Many influential American revolutionaries, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, owned tobacco plantations, and were financially devastated by debt to British tobacco merchants shortly before the American Revolution.
John Rolfe, a colonist from Jamestown, was the first colonist to grow tobacco in America. He arrived in Virginia with tobacco seeds procured on an earlier voyage to Trinidad, and in 1612 he harvested his inaugural crop for sale on the European market. Rolfe’s tobacco operation was an instant boon for American exports.
Chesapeake Consignment System
As the English increasingly used tobacco products, tobacco in the American colonies became significant economic force, especially in the tidewater region surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Vast plantations were built along the rivers of Virginia, and social/economic systems developed to grow and distribute this cash crop. In 1713, the General Assembly (under the leadership of Governor Alexander Spotswood) passed a Tobacco Act requiring the inspection of all tobacco intended for export or for use as legal tender. In 1730, the Virginia House of Burgesses standardized and improved quality of tobacco exported by establishing the Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730, which required inspectors to grade tobacco at 40 specified locations. Some elements of this system included the importation and employment of slaves to grow crops. Planters filled large hogsheads with tobacco and convied them to inspection warehouses.
The tobacco economy in the colonies was embedded in a cycle of leaf demand, slave labor demand, and global commerce that gave rise to the Chesapeake Consignment System and Tobacco Lords. American tobacco farmers would sell their crop on consignment to merchants in London, which required them to take out loans for farm expenses from London guarantors in exchange for tobacco delivery and sale. Further contracts were negotiated with wholesalers in Charleston or New Orleans to ship the tobacco to London merchants. The loan was then repaid with profits from their sales.
American planters responded to increased European demand by expanding the size and output of their plantations. The number of man-hours needed to sustain larger operations increased, which forced planters to acquire and accommodate additional slave labor. Furthermore, they had to secure larger initial loans from London, which increased pressure to produce a profitable crop and made them more financially vulnerable to natural disasters.
Slave labor on tobacco plantationsSlaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia
Slave boom in the 1700s
The slave population in the Chesapeake increased significantly during the 18th century due to demand for cheap tobacco labor and a dwindling influx of indentured servants willing to migrate from England. In this century, it is estimated that the Chesapeake African slave population increased from 100, 000 to 1 million – a majority of the enslaved workforce and about 40% of the total population. Slaves were not imported to the Chesapeake after 1775, but slave populations continued to increase through 1790 because most were forced by their masters to produce large numbers of offspring.
Before the slave boom, Chesapeake tobacco plantations were characterized by a “culture of assimilation”, where white planters worked alongside their black slaves and racial boundaries were less distinct. As slaveholding increased, intense racial contrasts emerged and all-black labor units supervised by white planters came to replace mixed-race units. Unwritten race-based sumptuary laws, which would later become Jim Crow laws, became common social fixtures in Northern and Southern colonies.
For the many farmers who seized opportunity in the profitable tobacco enterprise, financial and personal anxiety mounted amidst stiff competition and falling prices. Some historians believe that these anxieties were redirected onto subordinates in the field, which exacerbated already strained racial relations. Planters pushed slaves to their physical limits to ensure a superior crop. Slaves, meanwhile, realized that the quality of a crop depended on their effort and began “foot dragging”, or collectively slowing their pace in protest of the planters' extreme demands. Farmers racialized foot dragging, portraying it as an inherent personality trait of slaves. William Strickland, a wealthy colonial tobacco planter, remarked:“Nothing can be conceived more inert than a slave; his unwilling labour is discovered in every step he takes; he moves not if he can avoid it; if the eyes of the overseer be off him, he sleeps…all is listless inactivity; all motion is evidently compulsory.”
Tensions between slaves and planters occasionally escalated enough to bring work in the field to a standstill. When this occurred, masters often punished insubordinate slaves with physical violence such as lashings and whippings until they resumed their tasks.