Cotton versus Tobacco: The Labor Contrast

2021-05-13 15:06:36
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This is a paper seeks to analyze the differences in the experiences of black slaves in the north as compared to their southern counterparts. The north mostly engaged in tobacco while the south engaged in cotton farming. Backgrounds to the slave market and labor and the legislations that institutionalized slavery, the level of contact between the slaves and their white owners, the difference in working conditions and the difference in population distribution and growth between the north and south are examined and illustrated.

In both the cotton producing southern states and their tobacco producing states, the first slaves arrived and were treated as indentured servants, that is, they were obligated to provide labor for a predetermined period after which their freedom would be granted. An allowance called the Freedom fee would be provided to help them integrated into the society. Since there was a very little supply of black slaves, there was little discrimination between white and black servants (Robert, 1962). However the elites feared the rise of black power and oversaw the passing of legislations that were to curtail their freedom. Virginia labor laws were an example that was followed by many of the states.

In the late seventeenth century, however, black servants outnumbered their white counterparts among the plantations. The primary slave supplier, The Royal African Company, lost its monopoly on the slave trade, leading to an unprecedented increase in black slaves in America (Robert, 1962). Eventually, the population of black people almost halved the total population of Virginia by 1950. The increasingly available of black slaves in America would lead to a variety of legislations passed to manage the labor situation (Stanley and Richard, 2003).

Initially, slaves provided labor as indentured servants who had indenture contract that stipulated the nature and duration the servants were to work for the holder of the contract. Indentured contracts were transferable which effectively changed the masters of the slaves. Following the increase in the availability of black servants, the definition of servants was replaced with black servants being known as slaves and white servants being known as servants. A series of legislative efforts in America and Britain also significantly reduced the number of whites available for indentured servitude (Stanley and Richard, 2003). Laws restricting the freedom of black people were passed thus institutionalizing slavery. The enactment of pro-slavery laws made black people properties of their masters and therefore under legal obligation to provide labor for life.

White people living in America had a negative view of African slaves and treated them as property. Black people were looked down upon and denied various fundamental rights as human beings (Robert, 1962). African laborers were not allowed into schools and could not partake in civil activities. Slaves who were deemed intellectually promising were killed in order to avoid uprisings and dissent among the slaves. Across the country, Africans were treated as secondary human beings.

Slaves were supervised in the farms to ensure that they effectively performed the assigned duties. Coercive methods such as caning and torture were used to induce fear and discourage dissent. Caning was widely accepted in both regions as the ideal mode of punishment. In both regions, executions were used to punish serious offences such as leading rebellions (Stanley and Richard, 2003).

On small farms, Africans would sometimes work side by side with their owners, and since tobacco farms were close in proximity to each other, slaves could contact their relatives with relative ease. In Chesapeake, most of the slaves were African born and lived in small plantations with less than twenty fellow slaves. In the south, however, the slaves rarely had contact with their owners or their sparse white counterparts. The number of slaves working on a typical farm in the south was greater than that of the north with eighty to a hundred workers per farm. The southern farmers used a duty assignment system or assigned supervisors to oversee the activities carried out on the farms. (Stanley L. Engermann, Richard Sutch 2003).

Minimal expenses were expended by farmers in both regions expended minimal resources to support the life of the slaves. On average American farmers would spend an average of thirty nine dollars to support an adult slave while the same slave would return eighty dollars in sales from farm produce. Clothing was typically issued once a year and housing of the slaves were cheaply constructed with poor sanitation. The poor perception of white farmers towards blacks contributed to the poor conditions slaves lived in at the time. (Robert, 1962)

The quality of life of slaves in the tobacco growing north was by far better in comparison to those in the southern cotton growing region. Laborers in Chesapeake were less vulnerable to diseases due to the nature of their fields. In the south, however, working in damp fields and swamps predisposed the workers to various diseases. Moreover, a significant number of workers in a field increased the prevalence of communicable diseases. Lack of initiative to improve health care in the south led to a lot of death of black slave laborers (Jim and Robert,1991).

Slaves were expensive to acquire and various companies specialized in shipping slaves from Africa. Slavery, being an institution in America recognized slaves as the property of their owners. The constitution did not provide for the rights of slaves and stated the obligation of the slaves to provide labor for their masters. Slaves were often sold between several owners in various markets across the country.

To reduce the costs incurred during slave acquisition, Virginia planters bought more women. Buying of more women slaves led to the cheap increase in slave labor by natural childbearing. In contrast, the demand for the high demand of slave labor in the south forced the farm owners to import more slaves from Africa. The decline in the importation of slaves from Africa occurred significantly earlier in the north, leading to the movement of slaves to the south and the freeing of others. However, in the South, the cotton booms led to the sustained demand for slaves even into the early nineteenth century (Jim and Robert, 1991).

The black slave population in the cotton-growing South was significantly higher than that of the tobacco growing north. Also, the ratio of whites to blacks was significantly lower in the south as compared to the north. The size of the cotton growing farms in the south required a large labor force as compared to the small tobacco growing farms in the north. The rising population of black laborers led to thriving black communities that were more prevalent in the cotton-growing south than in the north.

The task system in the south gave slaves the right to cultivate land as private fields. Though similar to the personal gardens in the north, the southern private fields were larger in acreage and the extents of farming the workers were allowed. Due to the large size of the cotton field and the little supervision, the slaves engaged in crop growing and animal husbandry. The small and supervised nature of the tobacco fields did not give the northern slaves the opportunity to practice personal agriculture at such a scale. (Jim and Robert, 1991)


Jim Pearson, John Robertson, (1991), Slavery in the 19th Century, Oregon Public broadcasting, Los Angeles California, California.

Robert Evans Jr. (1962), Economics of American Negro Slavery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts.

Stanley L. Engelrmann, Richard Sutch, (2003), Slavery for Historical Statistics of the United States, University of California Riverside, California.

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