Chapter 6. Intercolonial Rivalries, Imperial Ambitions, and the Conquest

6.5 The Plantation Colonies

Plantation economies arose first in the West Indies. These produced enormous quantities of products that were essentially new to Europe. Sugar, for example, competed more with honey than with other sources of cane, so there was no displacement of an indigenous European sugar industry to worry about. Likewise the production of tobacco on island colonies added something new to the European marketplace; there were no existing producers of tobacco in Europe who might, for example, block imports of the colonial product. In the 17th century the business model of plantation farming was transported to the mainland of North America and took root from the Carolinas north to Maryland.

Of the colonies associated with the plantation economy, none matters more to the history of Canada than Virginia. First colonized early in the 17th century, it grew rapidly and was aggressively expansive. What emerged was an economy based on private land ownership that resembled in some measure the aristocratic norms of England. Large landholdings conferred power and respectability on owners, all of whom depended on armies of unpaid labour in order to plant, maintain, harvest, and ship their products.

Tobacco was the main crop of the colony from the early 17th century. Initially this labour-intensive plant was managed by indentured servants: English workers and then Africans were recruited for fixed terms as indentured servants.  While this indentured servitude was an option for many people — both whites and Africans — in many colonies (including Vancouver Island in the 19th century), in the West Indies and the mainland plantation colonies, it sometimes was a death sentence. Working conditions were poor, and most workers did not adjust well to the climate and the environment.  Chattel slavery and African prisoners soon became synonymous, and ubiquitous in the plantation colonies. Aboriginal people were enslaved as well, though most were exported (mainly from North Carolina) to the West Indies to reduce the likelihood of them running away. It has been estimated by one American historian that the number of Aboriginal individuals enslaved between 1670 and 1715 was approximately 24,000 to 50,000.[1]

Growing tobacco required large tracts of land that favoured river transportation over roads. The plantation economy therefore snaked its way deep into the colony’s hinterland and, as the tobacco crop ate into the soil fertility, the leading landowners looked for new territories into which they could expand. Virginia was the first of the plantation colonies to turn its attention to New France as it sought to punch a hole in the Appalachian barrier to settlement in the West, but that did not happen until the mid-18th century.

Remarkably, perhaps, for a colony built on a foundation of inequality, Virginia was the first to experiment successfully with a kind of democratic representative government. The House of Burgesses was established in the 1620s as a legislative body that both advised and, in some measure, directed the governor. In practical terms it became a colony run by the largest and wealthiest planters; offers of free land were taken up by English emigrants but they had to have sufficient capital to make a go of it. These factors — the high costs of plantation farming, the implications of having to purchase and manage a workforce made up of African slaves, and the enormous profits that could be made from tobacco farming — sustained a gentry-style regime with strong common interests and anxieties.

Key Points

  • Plantation colonies were typically organized around large estates rather than small holdings in order to better exploit slave labour.
  • Colonies like Virginia combined manorial wealth with innovative traditions of democratic government.
  • The land hunger that was hardwired into plantation economies led to 18th century pressures to cross the Appalachian Mountains into territories claimed by New France and its Aboriginal allies.

  1. Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670-1717 (Princeton: Yale University Press, 2002), 298–301.


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6.5 The Plantation Colonies Copyright © 2015 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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