Curtin coined the term “South Atlantic System” but now prefers to use the term “the plantation complex” to describe the world of the plantation as it evolved over five centuries across three continents.
We have already told much of this story:
(1) The earliest sugar plantations in Europe were in the Arab-controlled areas of southern Iberia and Sicily during the Middle Ages.
(2) Europeans encountered sugar plantations in the Levant during the Crusades. After their expulsion from Palestine, the Venetians created sugar plantations in Cyprus and Crete. After the reconquest of Iberia and Sicily, the Portuguese, Spanish, and Normans took over the sugar plantations in those areas.
(3) In Europe, a combination of free laborers and slaves (often Slavs from around the Black Sea) had been used to work on the plantations. The European plantations in Cyprus and Crete were also more of an international venture that was financed by merchants from across the continent.
(4) In its first major leap into the Atlantic, the “plantation complex” jumped from the Mediterranean to Maderia, the Canary Islands, and São Tomé off the coast of Africa which were better suited to the growth of sugarcane.
(5) In Maderia and São Tomé, there was a gradual transition from using European free laborers and slaves to using Berbers and negroes as slaves on the sugar plantations. These two islands dominated the plantation complex in the early sixteenth century (1500 to 1550) and were the template for the transition to New World slavery.
(6) In the late sixteenth century (1550 to 1600), the plantation complex jumped from Maderia and São Tomé to northeastern Brazil, specifically to Pernambuco and Bahia where Sephardic Jews seem to have played a major role in getting it off the ground and where it took on all the familiar characteristics of New World slavery.
(7) During this period, Portugal and Spain were united under a single crown in the Iberian Union. Spain was the superpower of its day, the leader of the Counter-Reformation in Europe, and was embroiled in religious wars with England, France, and Holland. The Spanish Armada was sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1588.
(8) The Northern European powers later signed treaties with Spain (France in 1598, England in 1604, and Holland in 1609) that there would be peace in Europe, but “no peace beyond the line” where European international law wouldn’t apply and where anarchy would be allowed to prevail.
“Beyond the line” referred to a north-south line in the mid-Atlantic that intersected an east-west line along the Tropic of Cancer. The Americas, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa were “beyond the line” until the 1690s when Spain finally ceded its claim to much of the New World to its Northern European rivals.
(9) So what happened that was so important while the Americas were “beyond the line”?
For starters, the British (or should I say, the English) moved into Virginia (1607), Bermuda (1612), Massachusetts (1620), St. Kitts (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat and Antigua (1630s), and Jamaica (1655).
The French moved into Québec (1608), Saint-Christophe (1624), Guadeloupe (1634), Martinique (1636), Saint-Domingue (1659), French Guiana (1660s), and Louisiana (1682).
At the time, the English (or British) and French saw themselves as challenging Spanish power in the New World. Most of their settlements were far away from the heart of Spanish power in Mexico and Peru and were seen as strategic staging grounds for undermining the Spanish Empire.
(10) The Dutch played a critical role in the spread of “the plantation complex” north into the Caribbean in the early seventeenth century.
Like the English and French, the Dutch took their own bite out of the New World pie: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (1630s), New Netherland (1614), Sint-Maarten (1648), Sint Eustatius (1636), Cape Colony in South Africa (1652), and most importantly, the brief Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil from 1630 to 1654.
(11) At this time (roughly from 1600 to 1640), the plantation complex was confined to its foothold in Portuguese Brazil, where Sephardic Jews seem to have been very active, as they definitely were before in São Tomé, but the Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil from 1630 to 1654 resulted in the dissemination of “sugar and slavery” to the Dutch, English, and French West Indies.
In 1640, Portugal revolted against Spanish rule. For most of the previous forty years, Portugal had been at war with Holland, and during the course of shaking off Spanish domination was able to focus its own energies on the reconquest of Dutch Brazil.
This resulted in a miniature Shoa in Brazil where many of the Portuguese “New Christians” had reverted to the open practice of Judaism under Dutch protection. Even before the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco, these Sephardic Jews hightailed it to the English, Dutch, and French West Indies, and many of them would later wind up in New Amsterdam and South Carolina which allowed toleration of Jews under John Locke’s constitution.
(12) The arrival of the Jews in the Caribbean (namely, in English Barbados, French Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dutch Curaçao and St. Eustatius, and later Dutch Suriname after 1667) coincided with the spread of the plantation complex north into the Caribbean.
No one disputes the fact that these Dutch and Portuguese Jews played a critical role in bringing the plantation complex to Barbados in the early 1640s. From 1640 to 1660, Barbados became the first Caribbean island to go through the “Sugar Revolution,” and it became the model New World “slave society” that was copied in the British Leeward Islands and Jamaica as well as in French Guadeloupe and Martinique in the late seventeenth century.
(13) From the 1670s and 1680s forward, the plantation complex spread from Barbados across the Caribbean from the Lesser Antilles to Jamaica and Saint-Domingue in the Greater Antilles. After 1670, it spread to the North American mainland in South Carolina which was spawned by colonists from Barbados.
It is less well known that thousands of less successful Barbadians also moved to the Chesapeake in Virginia in the late seventeenth century and brought their culture with them which also became a slave society after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.
(14) The eighteenth century from 1700 to the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776 was the Golden Age of the plantation complex which had blossomed from its New World foothold in northeastern Brazil, shifted its center of gravity to Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, and spread as far north as the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States.
(15) In the early nineteenth century (following the destruction of Saint-Domingue), the plantation complex reached its apogee as it spread into Spanish Cuba, the Cotton Kingdom in the American South from 1820 to 1860, and in the Coffee Kingdom in São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Central Brazil.
In the preface, Philip D. Curtin describes the full range of the plantation complex as it existed in the New World:
“With the passage of time, the heart of the complex moved westward by way of the Atlantic islands, Brazil, and the Caribbean. It ultimately stretched from Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil to the Mason-Dixon line, and it had outliers, even at its eighteenth century prime, on the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mauritius. Later on it spread even more widely to Peru, Hawaii, Queensland, Fiji, Zanzibar, and Natal – among other places – but this worldwide dispersion during the nineteenth century took place just as the complex began to be dismantled – first, with the ending of the slave trade from Africa, then with the widespread emancipation of slaves throughout the tropical world under European control.”
The most useful contribution of this book is the way in which Curtin defines the plantation complex, clarifies the role of the American South within the world of slavery, and sets the overall system within the wider context of world history.
In describing the settlement of the New World, Curtin distinguishes between “trading post empire” zones (this pattern was more typical of the East Indies than the West Indies), “true empire” zones (Mexico and Peru where a European minority ruled over the Amerindian indigenous minority), “transfrontier zones” (stateless societies like the vaqueros in Mexico, the metis in Canada, the trekboers in South Africa, the buccaneers in the Caribbean, the guachos in the Rio de la Plata), “true colony” zones (places like the United States where European settlers replaced the natives), and “plantation zones” (where the natives died off and Europeans imported slaves as a workforce).
Barbados, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Guadeloupe and Martinique were all originally intended to be “true colonies.” In time, Mexico and Peru became “plural societies” as a European settler minority thrived alongside the rebounding Amerindian population. In the Caribbean, the “transfrontier zone” created by the buccaneers as well as the “true colonies” were overwhelmed by the plantation complex. The American South was an unusual hybrid between the “true colony” zone and the “plantation zone.”
In the overall scheme of New World slavery, the American South, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were peripheral to the plantation complex which was centered on the Caribbean, or the “Golden Circle” as Southerners sometimes described the plantation complex in that region. In Dixie, a big “planter” was someone who owned about 40 slaves on a cotton farm with an average size of about 200 or 300 acres, and the slaves there spent only about 33 percent of their time doing anything related to cotton.
Curtin describes the plantation complex in terms of six conditions: (1) most people were slaves or forced laborers, (2) the population was not self sustaining, (3) agricultural enterprise was organized in large scale capitalist plantations, (4) the plantations had a feudal element in that masters exercised functions normally provided by government, (5) the plantations were created to provide a distant market with a specialized product, and (6) political control rested in another continent and in another kind of society.
In the American South, the majority of the population were White free laborers, and slaves were the minority in most states. The White population and the black population was not only self-sustaining, but grew faster than the White population in Europe. While there were plantations in the South, these plantations were relatively small, most of the slaves were not owned by planters, and the planter class was nowhere near as rich or as dominant in the total scheme of agriculture as sugar planters in the Caribbean. Finally, the plantations in the South were controlled by republican planters and farmers in their own sovereign and independent state legislatures rather than in a European metropole.
If one were to make an ethnocentric comparison between Virginia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire, then Virginia and South Carolina would appear to be “slave societies,” or societies based on slavery, as opposed to “slaveholding societies” like the northern United States before the abolition of slavery.
Alternatively, if one were to compare South Carolina and Mississippi to Barbados and Saint-Domingue, then South Carolina and Mississippi (to say nothing of Missouri, Kentucky, or Tennessee) wouldn’t qualify as true “slave societies” at all. Brazil and Cuba are similarly intermediaries between a full blown slave society like Saint-Domingue and a “true colony” like Ohio.
Curtin does a great job of setting the plantation complex within a wider international context. It was interesting to learn about the complex web of economic exchanges that defined the system: bullion came from Mexico, Peru, and Minas Gerais in Brazil, some of this would go through a complex series of channels (misleadingly called the “triangular trade”) and would wind up in India where European traders sold Indian textiles to Africans in exchange for a range of products that varied from slaves in Congo and Angola, gum in Senegal, to gold from the Gold Coast.
In the long nineteenth century (1770 to 1890), we have already seen how the plantation complex came under sustained attack from the abolitionists, who were motivated by evangelical Christianity and Enlightenment liberal republicanism. They ultimately succeeded in destroying the plantation complex in the long “Democratic Revolution” which lasted from the American Revolution in 1776 through the triumph of the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Glorious Revolution in 1868.
After the destruction of the New World plantation complex by negrophile abolitionists, slavery was gradually reinvented as “free labor” using Asian coolies from China and India, who were used as the labor force in the next phase of the plantation complex in Cuba, Trinidad, and the Guianas in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Fiji, and Java in the Pacific, and Mauritius, Natal, and Reunión around the Indian Ocean.
In the early twentieth century, the plantation complex went global and spread throughout the tropics in the Banana Republics in Central America, the American Sugar Kingdom in the Caribbean, in places like the rubber plantations in Liberia in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Great story. Who knew that the abolitionists succeeded in bringing liberty, equality, and poverty to the blacks in New World, economic collapse, political chaos, and colonialism to the blacks in West Africa, and finally quasi-slavery misleadingly labeled “free labor” to the darkies in India and China?