What Was the Plantation System?

The plantation system was a system that divided land in the New World into smaller tracts known as plantations. The plantation system started in Virginia and spread to New England, with plantations growing labor-intensive crops like cotton, rice, sugar cane and tobacco, initially powered by convicts that were shipped to the Americas by the British and then later, by slaves bought by plantation owners in the slave trade.

The demand for labor was so intense that slave markets became popular. Slaves were first imported from the West Indies, but almost exclusively from Africa during the late 1700s. Slave ports were established in Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Because death rates among slaves were high, slave owners encouraged slaves to bear children. In fact, child bearing usually began around age 13, and by the age of 20, women slaves were expected to have borne as many as five children. Female slaves were often promised freedom if they would bear 15 children for the slaveholder.

The plantation system was modeled after the sugar plantations found in the eastern Mediterranean as early as the year 1100. These early plantations tapped into slavery as a source of ready and expendable labor that could be replaced and scaled up or down as needed.