Plantations in the Atlantic World

Christer Petley

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Plantations in the Atlantic World

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  • History of the Americas
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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.

Article.  10190 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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